Paul, Emily and I piled into the grey truck right around 6:30PM. That’s when dinner was scheduled to start, but seeing that our destination was a literal two-minute car ride away, we still managed to pull into the parking lot on time. The bed and breakfast down the street, named Fresh & Wyld, hosts a dinner every Friday night for anyone who wants to make a reservation (guests and outsiders alike). The inn is appropriately named too, since all of the food served there is either from their own garden or from surrounding local producers. And as we turned the corner into the dirt parking lot next to the quaint periwinkle house, I spied the rows of veggies sprouting from their dirt mounds in that very garden. It was like seeing a preview for a movie; which one of you guys is going to take on the starring role on my plate tonight?
The inn looks just like a residential home, tucked away in a collection of trees with a fantastic view of the surrounding mountains. If I were an outsider visiting Paonia, this would definitely be the place to stay. Not only did the exterior exude a homey feeling, it continued on once we entered the door. “Well hello, come on in!” Dava, the head chef and owner, greeted us from her station in the kitchen. “So many great people we’re feeding tonight!” she continued to say as she took a testing spoonful of the night’s soup. You walk in and see a majority of the kitchen area over a half wall; something you’d often find at a friend’s house and what you’d never find in a restaurant. Instantly we felt more like guests than customers. Our waitress proceeded to tell us where we were sitting – ‘the big table in the second room’. We walked our way through three connecting dining rooms that were filled with different sized tables where your party sits elbow to elbow with everyone else there. The whole ambiance makes a such comfortable and friendly setting that getting to know the other people at your table comes with ease, since you almost instantly feel like a big family catching up while sitting down to a meal. The social aspect alone could be reason enough to come and enjoy the Friday night get-togethers, but the food of course makes the whole experience over-the-top.
That night was actually my second time attending a Fresh & Wyld Friday night dinner. The first time just Elane and I went to see what the whole experience was like, and we had such a nice time that we knew we had to go back. In fact, we looked at what dessert was that first night – a peach crisp made with peaches from a competing orchard – and thought, why can’t our fruit be the star of the show too? So the night Paul, Emily and I arrived, we came not only as eager guests but also as proud contributors. That night the menu read that dessert consisted of our very own Excelsior Orchard pears. How could we be a part of the menu and not show up to see how our pears were to be dolled up and received? Once the word got out of our connection, we became mini-celebrities of the table “Oh wow, you work there? Picked with your own hands, that’s phenomenal!” We sat a little taller with every confirmation.
But that was dessert, and first, there was dinner. Actually, first there was soup. The waitresses brought out trays of an assortment of different sized, shaped, and colored bowls – an assortment you’d probably find in your own kitchen cabinet – full of Dava’s supposed most popular soup: a Creamy Pumpkin and Sage Soup with Garlicky croutons. After my first bite I knew how it had gained its popularity. The sage really supported the pumpkin flavor of the soup, keeping everything very simple and earthy. I was very relieved, though not surprised, that it wasn’t doused with cream as some vegetable soups can be since the pure vegetable flavor is so often lacking. These ingredients were of course were fresher than fresh, so no cream was necessary to cover up lack of flavor. The consistency also made it such an enjoyable soup, not too thick, not too thin. It even had pumpkin seeds on top as well as the croutons. How interesting! All three of us were having small cases of deja vu since I made a soup very similar to this the night before (::See the ‘A Taste of Home’ post::) . We didn’t mind a repeat.
Our bowls were taken away and we sat waiting for dinner to be prepared. I was able to discuss a few different wines with Robert and Sally, a couple we had met the last time Elane and I were at dinner. It was great to see them again! They had previously lived in San Francisco and Robert had worked in the wine business. He was very eager to have me taste his 2001 chardonnay. He explained to me that its not as fruity as typical California chardonnays are, and that this bottle was a fun experiment for him since he kept it unopened for a bit longer than usual, leading it to have a nuttier undertone. It was great tasting this in comparison to the house Jack Rabbit chardonnay from Hotchkiss, the town over. It was much more acidic, that was for sure, with no lingering nuttiness that his own bottle had acquired. Our discussion of all of these variances led us up to the arrival of our dinner plates.
There are always two options on the menu, a meat and a vegetarian plate, and Emily and I got one of each so we could try them both. I had ended up with the chicken plate, and boy was I excited to dive in. It was roasted chicken with sourdough jalapeño stuffing, with a side of roasted butternut squash and steamed brussel sprouts. I didn’t know where to begin! The chicken was satisfyingly moist and you could tell it was roasted with my favorite chicken pairings – thyme, garlic, and lemon. They add such flavor to the meat that is subtle enough not to overpower but has enough presence to enhance that desired chicken flavor.
Next was the stuffing. While I was eating it, it confirmed my belief that stuffings made with sourdough bread are just that much more tasty – that sour flavor element just makes it that much more delicious and unique. Included were also mushrooms, walnuts, and even a sprinkling of goat cheese over the top. I must say, though, it was teetering on the edge of ‘too many players on the field’, if you will. If you say jalapeño stuffing, you should get just that, with a heat coming at you followed by some great jalapeño flavor. I had one or two bites that followed this expectation, but otherwise it was a more ordinary stuffing doused in the pan juices of the chicken. I was at no point to complain since it was still delicious, but perhaps could be either reevaluated for its construction or for its title.
Then I finally arrived at my favorite part of the meal: the veggie sides. I ate my roasted squash with a smile. It was definitely roasted with rosemary, another excellent herb-partner to winter squash, along with a bite of garlic. The sweetness of the squash really stood out as well, and I suspected she added a bit of honey to highlight that aspect of the vegetable. I then took one bite of the brussel sprouts and raised my fork in the air. Ding ding ding! We have a winner ladies and gentlemen. They were steamed perfectly; just enough to turn these little bundles of tight leaves bright green and a bit soft but still crunchy. It’s such a tragedy when vegetables are overcooked. They even take on the look of defeat from their grey-green color and lack of any natural crisp they once had. These sprouts were far from it, and I was so glad to see them cooked in a way to highlight their prime natural taste. The lemon aioli that she had spooned over them also supported their freshness, as citrus always does.
Emily’s dish was identical, except the chicken was swapped out for a cheese tart with caramelized red onions. It tasted just like a quiche, which I obviously supported, certainly made with very fresh eggs. The crust was also wonderfully homemade and you could tell by both the finger molded crust to the true buttery crunch it had. With either plate you could not lose.
And last but not least, we had dessert. The Big Show! Our pears came out peeled and halved and certainly baked or poached due to its cut-with-the-side-of-a-fork texture. The cored cavity was filled with a luxurious dark chocolate sauce, and it all was placed on a caramel custard that had similar flavors to a Spanish flan. We ate with curious and contemplative faces. We were so used to munching on these fall gems straight from the tree or from the cooler that we had to process this new transformation with all of these other added elements.
We sat and evaluated. I was the first to speak up: I thought the dark chocolate really brought out the sweetness of the pear and alternatively this sweetness highlighted the bitterness of the chocolate: a successful contrast of flavor sensations that heightens the dish instead of smothering it. The custard had a nice caramel/salty taste, but not the best texture (the graininess was too much of a reminder that it is based from eggs). Paul and Emily agreed. We had to admit we missed the traditional fall spices – cinnamon, nutmeg, clove…- that so often go with pears in, say, a crisp, pie, or with poached pears since they support, instead of overpower, the delicate floral taste of a pear.
But we knew deep down we were hard critics. You can’t expect much else from people who know the product so well, people who know it is so delicious that it could be served on a plate untouched as a dish in itself, and see this flavor masked by so many other things. We gave some major creativity points, though, as we had never seen pears served as such, particularly with these ingredients. In the end, our plates were certainly clean, and our pride grew with all of the other clean plates on the table joining ours too.
With our full bellies and satisfied smiles, we said our goodbyes to the others at the table and headed for the front door. I spotted Dava just outside the kitchen and got her attention to tell her thank you so much for the wonderful dinner. As she thanked us back for the pears, I swiftly pulled out a jar from my jacket pocket. “As a matter of fact,” I said casually, “I have here a new product we’ve been working on with these very pears.” I showed her the 12 oz. jar of the Lemon-Ginger Pear Jam we had created and jarred a few days beforehand. “Ohh yum!” She responded. “This looks delicious.” I proceeded to tell her all about the other products we had been making too, since she always has a basket of value-added products from other local farms in the area on the entrance table right inside the front door. “So you mean I could sell this too?” she asked. “Of course!” I said. “At the very least have it on your breakfast toast with a little butter, you won’t be disappointed.”
If you were in my family you would call this a little bit of a ‘Spag’ move, in honor of our Grampa, since he was always interested in hooking people up with ‘the best of the best’, as if it were an ‘inside-track only’ item in demand. As kids this meant getting twinkies handed to us from under the table, or doing shots of creamers in diner booths when Mom and Dad weren't looking. You’ve gotta add some excitement to the food you eat and make, right? Dava graciously received the coveted jam and said she would get back to us with her thoughts.
As we stepped back onto the dirt driveway and walked to the car, I thought about how another Friday night dinner at the Inn did not disappoint. It was a great night of sharing food, stories, and the enjoyment of them both. For me, even beyond the meal, it was seeing and being a part of such a healthy and successful network of regional food sources that impressed me the most. And off we went back up the hill on our two-minute car ride home.