Step Up Ventura is a very new organization, founded just last year to support and serve homeless children. The goal is to provide therapeutic child care and preschool to homeless children up to age 5, in order to promote family stability and school success. A recent fundraising dinner held at the Wyndham Garden Ventura Pierpont Inn raised funds for Step Up’s ambitious efforts — and proved to be a tasty and entertaining way to spend a Friday evening.
The dinner (provided by Austen’s, the Pierpont’s onsite restaurant) featured an interactive murder mystery courtesy of L.A.-based The Dinner Detective — a nice choice for the spooky season. Things got off to a lively start with a festive cocktail reception. Dozens of guests chatted amicably, sipped drinks and wandered over to the photo booth for silly poses with wigs, hats, mustaches and other props. Then it was off to dinner . . . and a murder.
Fresh rolls, still warm, were served right away with soft whipped butter — and our first clue, which guests used to help solve the mystery. The case at hand: a terrible movie, the death of its lead actress, her unstable fan-club president and a suspicious film crew member, who, incidentally, also ended up dead. Foul play didn’t put this hungry crowd off its meal: We noshed as we compared notes with our dining companions, asking leading questions and exchanging suspicious glances. After all, we were told from the get-go that everyone in the room had the potential to be “a cold-blooded killer.”
Course No. 1: salad and a bank account statement as our next clue. With mixed leafy greens and shredded carrots on top, it wasn’t an elaborate affair, but it was a decent size and very fresh. No complaints. It notably came with a generous side of ham, by way of two comedic actors posing as FBI agents running the investigation — or, you know, emceeing the event.
While the G-men chewed up the scenery, we dug into our next course. Guests were given a choice of chicken, beef or vegetarian entree options. My carnivorous dining companion went for the beef, which turned out to be a decent-sized steak, cooked medium and served with a very flavorful jus. On the side came grilled asparagus, whole carrots and creamy mashed potatoes, making for a basic meat-and-potatoes kind of meal . . . but decent nonetheless.
I went for the vegetarian option: mushroom ravioli. The chef didn’t skimp on the fungus: the large pasta pillows were fat with fresh, sautéed wild mushrooms and herbs, and the cream sauce on top also had chunks of creminis and portabellas. It was pretty rich, and maybe a little less sauce would have been desirable, but it had a good, earthy flavor and proved to be an excellent choice for a cool autumn evening. It was very filling, too.
By now happily full and into a second glass of wine, I can’t say I added much to the murder investigation. There were other clues and lots of audience participation, and actors planted among the guests to add drama and laughter. I was content to sip my wine and converse with the many nice people seated at our table (none of whom, it turned out, did the deed).
Dinner concluded with coffee and dessert, a rich chocolate mousse that was worth finding a little room for. This was also our chance to put all the pieces together and figure out whodunit. I’ve actually forgotten who the killer ultimately was (one of the actors, of course) but the memory of tasty, if relatively simple food remains.
As a vehicle for entertainment, the murder mystery concept was a mixed bag. The acting is deliberately over-the-top, the jokes are canned (if you’re lucky), pacing was a little off and a loud conference room may not be the ideal venue for actually hearing what’s going on. On the plus side, looking at clues and comparing notes made for a great conversation starter, and a nice group of attendees can make up for a lot. It’s supposed to be campy fun, so why not go with it?
The big surprise of the night was how good the food was: well-prepared and plenty of it (with decent service to boot). For an atypical night on the town, we could have done much worse. And in support of a good cause? No mystery there — well worth the price of admission.