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Jun 16, 2009 04:12 PM

Oustanding in the Field: "Admirable concept. Amazing locations. Mostly good food. Okay wines. Tiny portions."

I truly love the concept of Outstanding in the Field (OITF). And as a true California foodie, I totally buy into the concept of getting close to the ingredients and producers, and really embracing the farm experience. In that respect, OITF is a singular and well intentioned endeavor.

And the locations! Wow. Truly unreal. I attended a dinner at a farm in Marin one year followed by a glorious beach south of Halfmoon bay last weekend. No doubt OITF’s knack for site selection is truly incredible.

And for the record – before I get into the, err . . . “constructive” feedback – let me be clear I highly recommend that any foodie who is interested in the “locavore” experience give this a try. Overall, it is a positive and impressive experience. But be warned, it’s not without its troubles (many of which are intertwined with the $200+ price tag per person).

Food: Both times, the food was hit and miss. About half the dishes were legitimately delicious. And half were merely good. And – to be honest – given the family style approach (which I typically like), you’re frequently left with truly miniscule portions of farm-style food. And to be fair, while the chefs and ingredients are top-notch, they are cooking in a ramshackle kitchen and doing their best to cook for 125 people. So I recognize that’s not easy. But there really is no excuse for getting a mere couple small spoonfuls of food in each course of a 5 course farm-style meal. Another post said it perfectly with the line: "the feeling was of scarcity, not abundance." Both times our group walked away a little underwhelmed.

Wine: Again hit and miss. For the price, you really do want superb wines. And both years I’ve really liked the winemakers and admired their craftsmanship. But here’s the catch: the dinner is catered by a single wine maker with each course paired to a wine. So some of the wines are quite good while others are merely okay. It not an insult, because – lets be honest - very few small local wineries are able to produce excellent wines across that many varietals. So, for the price, I left wanting something a little more special.

Service/Leadership: Most importantly: the servers work their buts off. In a typical restaurant, they’d earn a fortune and be worth every penny. The producers, farmers and wine markers are all impressive and I appreciated the opportunity to interact with them. The chefs/cooks vary between engaging and incredibly cocky. And Jim Denevan – the founder and clear captain of the ship – vacillates between admirable foodie cowboy and mechanical aloof quasi-celebrity (the former usually being saved the more attractive girls at the event).

Am I glad I went? Absolutely. Would I do it again? Eh, probably not. Do I recommend it to friends? Yes, but with the caveats outlined above.

Go for the location and the interaction with the producers and ingredients. You won’t be sorry. But be prepared for a very good (not amazing) meal, and try asking for an extra portion or two. And, luckily, since you make reservations months in advance, it’s a bit easier to forget the rather steep price.

And for the love of god, DON’T try to compare it to Gary Danko, French Laundry, Cyrus or any other 5 star restaurants around the country. Given the price, a lot of people try to make the comparison, but we’re talking apples and oranges. The sooner you can come to grips with that difference, the better your experience will be.

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  1. I couldn't concur more strongly!

    A tip: if you do go, DON'T bring your own plates. They have extra to use. If you bring your own, you'll end up waiting around at the end to hunt around for your washed plates in the dark. And do bring a flashlight. And do be aggressive when they put the plates of food down, or you'll definitely end up hungry. And don't expect to have the best culinary experience of your life. It may be one of the most memorable, but it won't be the most satisfying.

    1. I see no reason to cut them slack for not making enough food. That's just incompetent planning. Any chef who signs on for an event like that should either have the necessary catering expertise or sign up someone who does to help.

      1. I agree with Robert above, and from another point of view I think I'd be crazy to pay $200+ for "truly miniscule portions" of food.

        1. Wow. I've been intrigued by these dinners for years, thinking they represented the farmer's "bounty" and ample portions.

          The Emperor isn't wearing any clothes. Thanks for the lowdown, Tam...

          1. Nice report. However, I agree with others. For that amount of money, no one should have to settle. Either they need to drop the price or up the quality of the meal.

            Outstanding in the Field
            Santa Cruz, CA, Santa Cruz, CA

            1 Reply
            1. re: rworange

              Agreed! I don't know if it's at all comparable, but the quarterly harvest lunch events in the Kermit Lynch parking lot in Berkeley feed a lot more people than 125, and offer quite decent portions at reasonable prices. The cooking and serving (you do wait in line to get your food) are efficient every time I've gone. You pick the wine you want at the food station or buy a bottle from the store. All very civilized and fun.