2018-03-01 / Features

Fabulous Feast Finds

Carolyne Meehan

Some of the best dining experiences in our region don’t take place in restaurants during regular hours. While some of the most talented chefs in the area are opening their tables just a few nights a month, other creative food events are happening in barns, homes of community members, festivals and church kitchens. The “pop-up” trend borne in big cities has inspired local chefs and food talent to think outside the box and create novelty food experiences on their own terms. Imagine enjoying dinner prepared by an all-star chef in a vineyard with food sourced from a neighboring farm. Or picture enjoying a colorful plate of authentic wood-smoked barbecue and pickled vegetables while bopping along to a local band. From inspiring locations to hands-on dining experiences, all kinds of fun food happenings abound in our region — you just need to know where to look.

Miss RubEric and Claudia SarnowEric and Claudia Sarnowy’s Supper Club at The Hummingbird Room
After opening the Hummingbird Room in 1993 and operating a high-class fine dining establishment for many years, owners Claudia and Eric Sarnow decided to try something new. “You can make a beautiful menu for a short period of time, but it is impossible to catch lightning in a bottle and have perfect ingredients over a long period of time,” says Claudia of their decision to create Miss Ruby’s Supper Club. This four- to nine-course fine dining experience happens just once or twice a month, designed to star foods the culinary couple have obtained and processed themselves. Claudia loves to can and bake and design the décor for each supper, and Eric is a master of charcuterie who has years of cooking in France in his repertoire. “Doing things this way gives us great control over the quality of our product,” says Claudia. “We can grow French radishes in our garden for a specific dish if we want to.”

Chef Eric’s house-cured smoked salmon with sustainable caviar, vodka creme fraiche and potato waffles.Chef Eric’s house-cured smoked salmon with sustainable caviar, vodka creme fraiche and potato waffles.

The restaurant is located on an idyllic 3 acres of land with a barn, willow trees and beautiful new deck. Beyond the supper club, The Hummingbird Room hosts open houses in the barn where people can purchase homemade breads, smoked salmon, preserves, caramel sauce and other goodies. Chef Eric mans the grill so people can eat while they shop. “People love our products, but what they really love is to be able to talk to us about our food,” Claudia says. The Sarnows also offer seasonal cooking classes and “Gourmet to Go” for special holiday meals. For people looking for a great culinary experience, they are now booking private parties and weddings.

Chocolate pot de creme with Claudia’s sea salt caramel.Chocolate pot de creme with Claudia’s sea salt caramel.

To get in the know, join the mailing list through their website. Miss Ruby sends details and menus of upcoming suppers and other special events. Reservations are taken on a first come, first served basis and be warned — they fill fast.

Erin McCrackenErin McCrackenBremen Town Ballroom and EcoVents BBQ
Bremen Town Ballroom and EcoVents owners Erin and Josh McCracken are leading the way in defining what barbecue means in our region with the introduction of their new food baby, LeRoy. Josh and his friend built LeRoy, an 11-foot-long, 4-foot-wide portable smoker made with an old oil tank and a wood stove salvaged from the local junk yard. “It’s all about featuring the meat,” Erin says. They salt and pepper the briskets sourced locally from Rising Spring Meat Company and allow them to smoke the “right way” with smoke passing evenly above the meat from a fire stoked with oak chopped with help from their young sons.

“Barbecue engages all the senses,” says Josh. Beyond the enticing scent of wood smoke, the barbecue fixings line is packed with color. Plates are completed with homemade pickled veggies, salads, sides, sauces and freshly baked rolls. This barbecue is not just for meat lovers. Even vegetarian foods can benefit from the depth and richness of smoky flavors. Olives, garlic, cheeses, tofu, vegetables and nuts have all benefited from time spent with LeRoy.

Josh McCracken, and "LeRoy"Josh McCracken, and "LeRoy"

LeRoy will be making appearances at events like Pennsylvania Organic FarmFest and Crickfest and is available for private parties (Erin and Josh believe barbecue weddings are the next big thing). Come out for barbecue and bargains at the Bremen Town Ballroom on April 7 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for a BBQ Flea and Swap in a cozy and elegant space. Follow Bremen Town Ballroom and Ecovents on Facebook to stay in the loop.

Liz Hoffner and Quintin WicksLiz Hoffner and Quintin WicksWinemaker Dinners and Farm Tours with Revival Kitchen
If you didn’t make it to Revival Kitchen before they closed their doors on Feb. 17, have no fear. Restaurant owners Chef Quintin Wicks and Liz Hoffner are taking some time off, getting married, then “getting boots to the ground,” as Hoffner puts it, and starting work on their new spot to open six doors down from their former location on Main Street in Reedsville. They plan to open for private parties in time for winter 2018 holidays. Hoffner and Wicks are embracing the opportunity to tweak their concept, keeping the focus on an intimate culinary experience with tasting menus to feature the best of what their neighboring organic farmer, Moses Hostetler, is growing.

Before fully settling into their new place, this culinary team will be taking their talent on the road, giving tours and serving food at the source. Starting this summer, Revival Kitchen will offer Winemaker Dinners once a month at Brookmere Winery. Dinners prepared with summer’s bounty will be tastefully paired with wine by the winemaker himself and served among vineyards and in the barn.

Grilled rosemary marinated lamb t-bone chops with local winter vegetables and chimichurri and lamb jusGrilled rosemary marinated lamb t-bone chops with local winter vegetables and chimichurri and lamb jus

On the last Saturday of each month starting in June, Hoffner and Wicks will host Farm Tours with opportunities to walk the fields with the farmers who grow the food served in their restaurant and to learn from experts on health and organic growing.  Tourgoers can expect to share a meal and sample foods on site. To stay in the loop on upcoming dates and events, join the Revival Kitchen mailing list through their website.

Taste Buds Kitchen Cooking Classes
When friends Susan McWhirter and Lucy Alvarez began looking into cooking classes for their 11-year-old daughters, they were unable to find anything offered in our area on a consistent basis. A little searching led them to discover Taste Buds Kitchen in New York City. Impressed with the quality of the product and the business model, McWhirter and Alvarez decided to join forces and bring what they call a “kid’s kitchen by day and BYO adult kitchen by night” to State College.

Susan McWhirter and Lucy AlvarezSusan McWhirter and Lucy Alvarez

“The reception has been overwhelming. Classes are already filling up,” says McWhirter. TBK offers public and private events for children and adults. Their repertoire of 250 tested, tried and true recipes ranges from sprinkle cupcakes to steak house favorites — even international offerings like sushi and dumplings. Participants first watch a culinary host demonstrate cooking techniques and food preparation. Then they work in small groups to execute the recipes themselves. “It is very hands on and engaging,” says Alvarez of this food experience intended to bring people together around cooking.

At the end of the workshops, participants take time to savor their creations, pack up leftovers and bring home recipes to try again in their own homes.

Chef Mark JohnsonChef Mark JohnsonMJ Custom Craft Cooking at Big Spring Spirits
On Sunday nights at Big Spring Spirits in Bellefonte, Chef Mark Johnson serves up a five-course tasting menu with an optional spirit pairing. The dishes deliver complex flavors and surprising ingredients, with a nice balance of bright and punchy lighter courses and rich and hearty mains.

Johnson’s creations are inspired by the seasons, the farmers markets and sometimes even his own garden. He featured a winter pickle and black garlic ricotta tartine on his menu last month prepared with sunchokes he grew himself. And if you have questions about something you ate (like maybe you’re unfamiliar with sunchokes) you can ask. Working in an open kitchen, this chef is available for questions and will greet you personally at your table.

Johnson plates a marinated shitake salad.Johnson plates a marinated shitake salad.

Roasted pork belly with local heirloom bean and baby kale ragout and gingered carrot, radish and apple saladRoasted pork belly with local heirloom bean and baby kale ragout and gingered carrot, radish and apple salad

It is a treat to be able to sit down, relax and have beautiful dishes appear in front of you in this adventurous and intimate dining experience. The only decision you need to make is whether to opt for the thoughtfully crafted cocktail pairings or to choose your own spirits. The drinks match the dishes with their surprising combinations of flavors, with fresh herbs and fruits quite often making delicate or powerful appearances in each concoction. Space is limited and reservations are requested a week in advance. The menu changes from week to week and dietary restrictions are happily accommodated. Dinners are $60 a person and include a seasonal cocktail.

Jennifer Swistock and Rebecca LarsenJennifer Swistock and Rebecca LarsenCommunity Bite Outreach Dinners
Jennifer Swistock and Rebecca Larsen understand that “a healthy community is a strong community.” These friends with extensive backgrounds in the restaurant and nutrition worlds formed the nonprofit Community Bite to host quarterly dinners, free to anyone in need of a healthy and delicious meal.

Beyond bringing in a talented chef to help plan and prepare an “approachable” dinner that can be recreated at home, Larsen and Swistock recruit experts from health and wellness fields to be part of the dinner conversations. The aim is to bring people together around food and get them talking about all things health-related, everything from eating well on a budget to the benefits of yoga and kombucha.

“Our mission is not only to provide a great meal, but also to provide information on how people can prepare good food for themselves and their families.”

At their winter dinner, Community Bite served close to 250 guests who enjoyed a meal featuring mini-meatloaves and sweet potatoes. Among other all-stars in the food community, Chef Mark Johnson was there to talk to people about pickling and preserving, and Moody Culture Kombucha provided free samples of their good-for-your-gut fermented tea.

The next Community Outreach Dinner will be held March 19 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. in the cozy and casual basement of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church. Chef Craig Hamilton from The Village at Penn State will be lending his talents, and the educational focus of the evening will be on nutrient-rich foods and healthy fats. Community Bite works to get the word out through relationships with Hearts For Homeless, Bridge of Hope, Youth Services Borough, YMCA and the State College Food Bank. As Larsen says, “It is a meal for everyone.” Follow @CommunityBite.

Chef Wing Wushanley prepares a 10-course meal with pork, shrimp, tofu, beef, lots of vegetables and unique spice combinations.Chef Wing Wushanley prepares a 10-course meal with pork, shrimp, tofu, beef, lots of vegetables and unique spice combinations.Twilight Dinners to Benefit The Centre County Women’s Resource Center
Ron and Sue Smith have been hosting a “Shanghai Feast” in their home for the last 23 years. They open the dining room in their 100-year-old Lemont home to 10-14 diners for $100 per plate, all of which goes to benefit the Centre County Women’s Resource Center. As part of this Twilight Dinner experience, Chef Wing Wushanley prepares a 10-course meal with pork, shrimp, tofu, beef, lots of vegetables and unique spice combinations. Sue prepares the desserts. “We have many guests who come back year to year. It is always a lovely evening.” Part of the experience of participating in these fundraising dinners is knowing that 100 percent of the ticket cost is going to help community members in need.

Throughout the months of March, April, May and June, usually about 12 or so Twilight Dinners take place around town, some offered in private homes and others in restaurant and bar locations.

April MyersApril MyersEnchant Your Kitchen Catering and Videography
Culinary artist April Myers and videographer Dave Metty are the dynamic duo behind “Enchant Your Kitchen” — bringing personalized food experiences to your home. “We create food and film while you relax and enjoy your family friends,” Myers says of the concept. The team will work with you to design and deliver everything from silly kid birthday parties to fancy cocktail parties. Myers is a whiz with flavor combinations for cuisine and cocktails. Early in her career she was known as “the Thai peanut noodle lady” feeding the masses at Phish and Grateful Dead shows. Her delicious prepared spreads and pates are sought after today. Metty has spent most of the last 30 years with a camera in his hands. From work with Nickelodeon to the X-Games, his passion is filming in real time. “I love to be the fly on the wall with the camera, capturing real moments,” Metty says of his film style. Beyond working the photo booth or getting fancy with a GoPro, Metty is also crafty in the kitchen. Part of the fun of this hands-on culinary team is watching the two prepare food and work together.

It’s a project to entertain and give your guests a memorable experience, and many times as the host, you miss out on the special moments. The video component to Enchant Your Kitchen’s services gives guests and the hosts the chance to see the whole picture of the experience through video and can be streamed during the party enjoyed later. Myers sums it all up: “We bring the party. We feed you. We film you. We clean up.” •SCM

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