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Photograph by Stephen Laufer

Mount Everett: The fall harvest tastes as good as it looks at Everett Family Farms.

Organic Orgy

Local chefs, farmers and winemakers get it on

By Selene Latigo

Here we are in the middle of delicious seasonal ambivalence. Summer is fading away, taking its final bow and leaving us with bursting vines and sunshine, while fall is stepping out into center stage, singing of her harvest bounty. We are left to bask in the heat and beauty of an Indian summer, soaking up the rays that did not shine during our regular "summer" months. The light, now, is different, so is the air, even the sounds are different; a minute shift in the cycles of the universe has drawn us into the warm and glowing hug of Mother Nature. On a recent Thursday night, Theo's restaurant in Soquel paired up with Everett Family Farm to put on a harvest dinner, capturing this wondrous seasonal moment perfectly throughout a languid three-hour feast.

The Culinary Alliance of Santa Cruz County (www.culinarysantacruz.com) and the Community Alliance With Family Farmers ( www.caff.org ) are two local organizations dedicated to the promotion of local, sustainable food systems. Chefs, winemakers, bakers, farmers and artisans create a network of members, all focusing on ways to spread this community and environmentally oriented philosophy by utilizing each other's skills, products and ideas. Fortunately for us, part of this local food promotion entails a lot of fantastic restaurant and farm events where we can literally taste the efforts of our unique and abundant culinary community. This marks the second annual CASCC/CAFF Harvest Dinner Series, in which a chef, a farmer and often a winemaker team up to create an innovative seasonal menu available to the public for one special evening at various participating restaurants or farms. After a sampling of last year's events, Dave and I were both eager to attend at least one dinner this year. Upon hearing of the Theo's (3101 N. Main St., Soquel) and Everett Family Farm (2111 Old San Jose Road, Soquel) match-up for the reasonable ticket price of $40 per person for six courses, I immediately made a reservation.

We approached the cottage on Main Street that is Theo's as the sun was setting, and took in the spacious backyard garden atmosphere before entering. After greeting an enthusiastic Jasmine and Kirsten, the two spotlighted farmers of the evening, we were seated at a tucked-away table for two and presented with the special menu. Our server, who also happened to be in charge of the award-winning wine program, came over to welcome us and to offer glasses of the staff favorite, Varchon & Clerk, Privilage ($9). The champagne was crisp with apple, lime and mineral qualities, which sparked a luxurious mood as we anticipated the first course.

A small plate of house-baked sourdough was presented, along with a few pats of softened sweet butter. The bread had the perfect salt-to-sour ratio and was tender and chewy with a golden burnt-caramel bubbly crust. I knew immediately that we would need more as three out of the four slices had disappeared by the time our appetizers arrived.

Both of us received a plate holding three colorful items: A short skewer was alternately threaded with sweet and musky green and orange melon chunks, and a peppery purple or green basil leaf, with a ribbon of paper-thin prosciutto at the end. A small crisp crostini spread with delicate house-made chèvre was topped with buttery smooth roasted peppers and a sprinkling of green onion. And, one-half of a moist fig was stuffed with house-made blue cheese and microgreens, drizzled with dark balsamic vinegar. This selection was my favorite, with a sensual texture and layered flavors.

After a well-timed pause and a few cleansing sips of champagne came our Petite Trio du Jardiniere. Another well-crafted threesome arrived on the plate, just as visually stunning and full of summer as the last. A tiny espresso cup was filled with warm and creamy corn bisque and topped with a drizzle of truffle oil, capturing the sweet essence of corn completely. To the right towered the colorfully contrasting yellow and red heirloom tomato and watermelon Napoleon with more of the impressive blue cheese and a small scoop of Worcestershire-flavored tomato sorbet. The third was a generous helping of rich and eggy aioli with a subtle hint of walnut and three earthy roasted red beet wedges.

The restaurant was filling up with people and conversation as the floor staff buzzed from table to table, never missing a beat. Our salads arrived next, composed of fresh whole baby speckled romaine and red oak leaf lettuce, little strawberries and toasted candied almond slivers with a silky magenta strawberry vinaigrette spooned around the inside edge of the plate. We did not receive any of the chèvre mentioned on the menu's description of this salad, but found it to be refreshingly tangy and sweet.

By this point, we had lost all track of time and were submerged in the flow of our dining experience. The Delicata squash and spot prawn "tamale" began the meal's transition into a more autumn-influenced realm. Two robust and seasoned prawns sat in a sweet and fall-spiced sauce with a dollop of crème fraiche and were perched next to a winter squash-filled banana leaf, wrapped up and infusing the filling with an herbal tea-like flavor. Small piles of simply roasted corn and smoky pepper and cilantro salsa finished the dish. To me, this course was the imagined cuisine of a coastal New Mexico.

A surprise scoop of bright ruby grapefruit Campari sorbet came out as a palate cleanser before the main course, full of quenching bittersweet citrus flavor. Our server poured us two glasses of the 2001 house-choice syrah, another staff pick, which we found similar to a cabernet franc, not as spicy like typical syrah, but rich with black currant and coffee flavors. His recommendation paired excellently with what came next.

The Berkshire black pig was roasted with a hint of cocoa bean and sat atop sautéed chard, pickled onions and pan-fried and perfectly smooth pumpkin gnocchi in an apple cider jus. More essence of autumn came out in the spices and strength of this complex and hearty final dish. After this much food you would think that we would have to be rolled out the door, but due to the expert pace, timing and portion size, we were more than comfortable and ready for dessert. The light and pillowy Tahitian vanilla bean soufflé acted as a sponge for the syrupy and seductive port sauce, studded with strawberries and blueberries for a fresh and tart textural contrast. Along with the check came a little gift for each of us; two supple and bright strawberries coated with dark, glistening bittersweet chocolate. This was the ultimate way to end our fabulous meal.

We finally leaned back from the table, awash in contentment and feeling fortunate to have been able to participate in this fresh, local representation of seasonal poignancy. This meal was truly a journey through the months, guiding us from summer into fall with one creative and beautiful dish to the next. Walking out, we said goodbye to everyone at the farm table, who were looking quite satisfied as well, after being rightfully wined and dined at such a wonderful event. Chef Nicci Trip and every one of the staff members at Theo's gracefully transformed the corn, melon, tomatoes, berries, beets, lettuce and squash that Everett Family Farm adeptly grew and offered into an inspired and memorable meal.

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From the October 12-19, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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