by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer
nancy@vcreporter.com

“Dinner at the …” Dinner Series
Locations vary
$135
Totally Local VC
www.totallylocalvc.com   

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Diners take their seats among trees more than 50 years old for Dinner at the Avocado Orchard.

Have you ever had a gourmet meal in a pumpkin patch? Or beneath the leaves of olive trees? How about in a lemon orchard after a scenic train ride? These extreme versions of dining en plein-air are an unforgettable way to enjoy a leisurely, expertly prepared dinner, and they’re made possible by Kat Merrick and her organization Totally Local VC. 

The “Dinner at the . . .” series, which Merrick began in 2010, is a farm-to-fork experience that puts the county’s agricultural riches in the spotlight. Local chefs, farmers, vintners and other food industry professionals come together to create a culinary adventure featuring the best of locally sourced edibles in a beautiful and unique setting. These dinners aren’t just a chance to taste some world-class food and drink; they’re also a way to support the community: Proceeds benefit local charities, such as this year’s beneficiaries, the Steve Toby Scholarship Fund for Ventura County High School Students and the Totally Local VC Agricultural Education Program.

I had the pleasure of enjoying Dinner at the Avocado Orchard in June, and it was truly a one-of-a-kind experience. The location, Santa Paula’s Cummings Ranch, is a lovely piece of property owned by a family now in its fifth generation of avocado farming. Guests mingled in the shade of the trees and listened to live music while sipping wine, beer and liquor (courtesy of Labyrinth Winery, Surf Brewery and Channel Islands Distillery, respectively) and nibbling passed appetizers: a pesto crostini with burrata cheese and strawberries, and avocado “fries” with homemade barbecue sauce. Both were delicious, and the fried avocados were a nice way to highlight the Cummings Ranch’s specialty.

We dined in a grove of trees over 50 years old, where tables were arranged end-to-end beneath twinkling lights. Guests chatted over wine and Bobalu almonds, tearing off chunks of homemade ciabatta from whole loaves set unceremoniously in the middle of each table. Rustic? Perhaps. But perfect for invoking a down-home, unpretentious spirit. Dinner consisted of five courses, prepared by Chef Jason Collins of Plated Events and served family-style from large platters — a fantastic way to encourage interaction between guests. Before long the orchard was filled with the sound of conversation and laughter.

Our meal started with a daikon radish and radicchio salad garnished with salmon roe — fresh and zingy but maybe a little too sharp for a starting course. Much better was the seabass, which was cooked to buttery perfection and served on a to-die-for risotto made with fresh peas and fennel. Course 3 featured spit-roasted chicken glazed with lemon and habanero marmalade and roasted vegetables. It was so scrumptious, our table asked for seconds — which may have been a mistake considering what came next. The final entree was a pork belly (advertised as a stew, but nothing of the sort) served with beluga lentils and julienned veggies. This was a flawless finale: sweet, savory, rich and meaty, with earthy lentils that made a perfect contrast to the luscious pork belly. In a meal filled with five-star-worthy courses, this dish was a standout. The evening concluded with a creamy berry tart (courtesy of Santa Paula’s Rabalais) and a hot cup of Beacon coffee. 

“Dinner at the . . .” has a damn fine formula: exceptionally prepared food, well-curated beverages, a convivial atmosphere and the opportunity to dine in a location most of us simply could not otherwise access. It’s no surprise that these dinners, even at a hefty price point (most are over $100 a head) almost always sell out. My one complaint might be the rather lengthy wait between courses, leading to a long, drawn-out meal and a late night. But if you’ve got a genial group at your table and can get into the relaxed pace, it’s a joy to let go of expectations and simply immerse yourself in the experience. 

And what you’re experiencing is the best that Ventura County has to offer. Chefs, growers, winemakers, beer brewers, even musicians (did I mention the live entertainment?) — they all come together in one place to showcase all the things that make our corner of the world special. It’s totally local . . . and totally delicious.