Perhaps the original “pop-up” dinner experience, Outstanding in the Field was founded by Jim Denevan in 1999 as an alternative culinary adventure. Rather than bringing people to the restaurant, Outstanding in the Field brings the restaurant to the people, and in doing turns some of the most beautiful landscapes across the country into dining rooms.
Denevan’s vision is to “connect diners to the origins of their food while celebrating the hardworking hands that feed us: farmers, chefs, fisherpeople, cheesemakers, vintners, brewers and many more.” Each event showcases a chef from a local establishment, wines from nearby wineries and fresh produce from neighborhood farms.
I was gifted the opportunity to enjoy an Outstanding in the Field dinner this summer at the Secret Sea Cove just outside of Santa Cruz, CA.
Not really knowing what to expect, friends and I headed down to Santa Cruz for our culinary adventure. A small A-frame size on the side of the road let us know we had reached our destination and we were promptly greeted by the kindest parking attendant we’d ever encountered. While he could have just waved us into the parking area, Austin stopped and hung out by the car, asking us about our drive down. Was there a lot of traffic? Did we make any stops along the way? I only mention this, because one, I remember his name – which is sadly rare for me – and two, it helped set the tone for the evening that we were guests that were going to be well-taken care of.
So, as you may expect, Outstanding in the Fields dinners are outside and may require walking through different terrains, so dress appropriately. Santa Cruz in summer can be chilly, so I wore jeans and a light jacket. Sneakers were perfect for walking across the sand. I would recommend a blanket for this setting as well.
Our evening started with a wine and hors d’oeuvres reception featuring little gem caesar lettuce cups and focaccia topped with salty pork paired with a Pinot Gris from I. Brand & Family Winery. The reception is about an hour-long, so don’t worry if you’re running a little late and don’t arrive on time. There will be plenty of food and time to enjoy it.
Following the reception, our hosts for the evening gathered us around to introduce the various purveyors who contributed to the evening, including Han Haveman from H&H Fresh Fish and Brad Briske from Home, before we headed down to the beach for dinner.
Outstanding in the Field dinners are served family-style and last about 4 1/2 hours. Because of the duration, they are adult-only events. Ours was a five-course event exquisitely executed and thoughtfully paired with local wines.
We started with salmon tartare on fennel pollen crackers, then moved to a watermelon and mustard greens salad. My favorite was the halibut and potato-filled agnolotti with rock crab and clams tossed in an early girl tomato sauce. With the freshest flavors you can imagine, the dish was a little like cioppino meets ravioli. Our main course was fresh cod with Brentwood corn.
In keeping with the seafood theme, dessert was sea urchin panna cotta. The panna cotta itself was excellent, but I’m not a fan of adding fish to dessert. Some ingredients, in my opinion, are best left un-comingled.
With everyone sitting at the same table, guests have the opportunity to meet new friends and get know fellow food enthusiasts in a relaxed atmosphere to share what Deneven calls the most fundamental and universal human conversation: a meal.
If you go: To make reservations for an Outstanding in the Field dinner, visit their website to get on the mailing list. Dinners sell out quickly once reservations open. Keep in mind when choosing your dinner that locations dictate the menu. If you’re a vegetarian, you may not want to attend a dinner at a grass-fed farm. If you don’t like fish, you probably won’t enjoy the coastal dinners. Dress according to the location and bring layers and sunglasses.
Our hosts left us wanting for nothing. Even the porta-potties were four-star.
Following dinner, we enjoyed sitting by a campfire, enjoying a cozy (and blustery) night on the beach.