You know what I love? (Aside from great food, I mean.) Lots of things, actually. But one of the things I love is learning new words, especially when those words relate to food.
Here in Sacramento, there is a wonderful restaurant called Grange, where - according to the restaurant's website - the food is derived from "market-driven bounties selected from farms throughout the golden state" and the menu is "simple, seasonal, and soulful." (And, I might add, excellent.) I have always enjoyed the food at Grange, and I've always liked the name, as well. But until recently, I never knew its meaning.
Let's back up a bit. A couple months ago, I received a message on Twitter from Ashlee Gadd - PR Manager for The Citizen Hotel in which Grange is located - asking if I would be interested in coming to a media preview of the restaurant's "Follow the Chef" lunch. I had read about the annual lunch series more than a year earlier, and had even tried to reserve a spot last summer, but at that time, the only day I could go had already sold out. So, after mulling it over for about a milli-second, I happily accepted Ashlee's invitation.
Shortly after arriving at Grange, the other guests and I were greeted by Chef Michael Tuohy and his Sous Chef Brad Cecchi, who would be our cooks and farmer's market guides for the day. Michael chatted amicably with the group about the Wednesday Farmer's Market, telling us how its location directly across the street was a motivating factor in his decision to head up the Grange kitchen. He described his desire to establish a restaurant that would be a gathering place for farmers, similar to the Grange Halls that were established in the Sacramento valley in the 1800's.
Grange \ˈgrānj\ n 1: GRANARY, BARN 2: a farmhouse with outbuildings 3: a fraternal association originally made up of farmers also : the association itself
Chef Michael envisioned an "urban grange" of sorts. Hence, the restaurant's name. Pretty cool, huh?
Each of the guests received a reusable, cloth bag with the restaurant's logo, and we headed across the street to check out the farmers' offerings. Michael and Brad know most - if not all - of the vendors, which makes for a very personal farmer's market experience. Because the heat of our typical Sacramento summers had not yet hit, some of the market's regulars were absent, including the "fantastic" Patrick's Garden and the "stone fruit specialists," Beale's. Luckily, we were just in time to catch some of the best of spring's bounty, including Murcott oranges from Abe-El Farms...
Gorgeous strawberries from Martin at Capay Organic...
plump asparagus from Jiminez Farms...
and juicy, organic cherries (which were being offered at the same price as the non-organic variety a few stalls over). Cherry season is pretty much over now, but there is always next spring! In the meantime, summer's other fruits -- peaches, pluots and apricots -- are reason enough to visit the Wednesday farmer's market. The colorful organic vegetables will put a smile on your face, as well.
One of the aspects of the market tour that I found most enjoyable was talking with the farmers, all of whom exhibited humble pride in what they had produced.
We met Julie from Del Real Date Farm, which produces dates so astonishingly tender and sweet, Chef Michael likened the taste to "the best caramel you've ever had." That description is spot-on.
Then there was Bob from Skylake Ranch, a family-owned business near Chico, California that started making pomegranate products in 2009. Skylake Ranch's jams, juices and syrups pack a powerful pomegranate punch! I wanted to take home one of each, but restrained myself to one bottle of the pomegranate syrup, which is wonderful on pancakes and waffles, over vanilla ice cream, or whisked into a vinaigrette and drizzled on a green salad.
Sebastian Bariani offered tastes of his family's always excellent, locally-produced, organic olive oils. A bit later, we would get another chance to enjoy Bariani Olive Oil in one of our lunch dishes. Speaking of lunch...
Almost too quickly, our market tour ended and it was time to return to Grange. Our chefs had been gathering goodies throughout the tour, and I was excited to see what they were going to cook for our three-course lunch.
Shaved Asparagus & Fava Bean Salad
with snow peas, Bariani Olive Oil, Bellwether Farms "Pepato" Sheep Milk cheese, lemon and mint
Pan-Roasted Baja Scallop
with Spring vegetable risotto
Roasted Strawberry-Rhubarb Tart
with freshly whipped cream
Glass of Wine ~or~ Strawberry-Rhubarb Soda
Everything was simple, fresh, and reflective of the season's best produce. I loved that, and the fact that Chef Michael made an effort to accomodate my hesitant request for a low-dairy meal. He and I share a similar lactose affliction intolerance, so he understood that although most dairy is off-limits, I can eat unpasteurized dairy products (like raw cow milk) and some alternative milk products (such as pasteurized cheeses made from sheep or goat milks).
The first course salad was great as-is, since it was topped with Pepato -- a raw, semi-soft sheep milk cheese with whole peppercorns. Delicious.
In lieu of the main dish (risotto), the Chef substituted pasta for me. Although the scallop was tender and perfectly cooked, and the spring peas so sweet, I must admit I was coveting that risotto!
What can I say? When it comes to risotto, I simply can't resist. But honestly? I was feeling a little under the weather that day -- three kids not sleeping well for a week will do that to you -- so the light, dairy-free pasta was a welcome option.
The pace of lunch was relaxed, in a good way, with one of the chefs coming out to our table with each course to describe the dish in detail. Their passion for cooking fresh, local food was clear. As Chef Brad chatted with us between courses, it was a pleasure to hear him wax poetic about the restaurant's house-made charcuterie.
My friendly, gregarious tablemates also added to the enjoyment of the meal.
By the time the lovely dessert came out, sans whipped cream, my recent lack of sleep had caught up with me. As much as I wanted to dive into that tart, it just wasn't going to happen. Our waiter boxed it up for me, and I enjoyed it later that evening. The buttery crust was still crisp, and made a nice counter-point to the jammy, roasted strawberries and rhubarb. A great finish to a great lunch, even hours later.
Follow the Chef
Details are below, but first, a disclaimer. Grange provided me the tour and lunch free of charge. However, I would gladly have paid for the event. Grange asked nothing in return for the invitation, and no one from the restaurant has ever pressured me to write about my experience, nor even inquired as to whether I intended to do so. I had a great time, and I think others would, too, so I wanted to share it with my readers. Plus, if these kinds of events continue to thrive, I believe people will learn more about the food they eat and the people who grow it... and will tend to support more local farmers as a result. At least, I hope so. The opinions in this post are my own. Just keeping it real, folks.
What: guided tour through the farmer's market at Cesar Chavez park (10th & J), followed by a three-course lunch with wine at Grange's chef's table. $39 per person.
When: every Wednesday, May-October, from 11:00am-1:30pm. Reservations strongly suggested, as the lunches tend to be quite popular.
Where: Grange Restaurant & Bar, located adjacent to the Citizen Hotel at 926 J Street in Sacramento, California.
Why: an opportunity to get up-close and personal with some of the area's local farmers. A professional chef to point out the best of the market's offerings. A seat at the chef's table, right next to the kitchen, in a chic, airy restaurant. A chance to see the chef transform the day's picks into a mouth-watering lunch, just for you. Well, actually, you and up to 14 others.
What else: wear comfortable shoes so you can enjoy the walking portion of the tour. Also, bring extra cash for all the market goodies you'll undoubtedly want to pick up, since many of the farmers do not take credit cards.
UPDATE: Shortly after I attended this event, Executive Chef Michael Tuohy left Grange to pursue a new culinary adventure as Executive Chef of the Dean & DeLuca store in the Napa Valley. We will miss him, but we wish him all the best. For now, Grange's Executive Sous Chef Brad Cecchi is heading up the kitchen and the Follow the Chef events. Congratulations, Brad!
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