On a mild winter evening in January, I paused to take in the scenery of the picturesque Lake Avondale. The night was calm and quiet and I kind of let the stillness set in. I thought of the recipient of the evening’s ticket proceeds, Ryan Hidinger, a beloved chef fighting a devastating diagnosis. Before I reveled in the food and fellowship that 100 Mile dinners always bring, I wanted to consciously dwell and hope. I saw another person standing on the porch and wondered if they too were caught up in emotion.
The hosts of The Avondale Community Club greeted me with such southern charm and the band Tonestar was already harmonizing in the foyer. Arianne Fielder’s welcome drink, Musk-u-dine-local, was in my hand- sorghum infused Muscadine wine from Chateau Elan with rosemary, soda, and pickled blueberries from Phickles Pickles out of Athens. Just a few seconds in the door, I encountered people I had met at another 100 Mile dinner. Loved this
The tables were set . Tiny vases of flowers and pretty menus awaited diners. I chose a seat at random and wondered who would be next to me when I returned.
|Forced meat stuffed trotter with sausage and bacon pate. I would have been happy sampling here all night.|
Rusty Bowers really is a "meat magician.'
The set up for the Southern Smorgasbord was pretty perfect- a stone patio surrounded by pines, next to the glimmering lake. I am not just throwing our adjectives here. The lake was sparkling in the moonlight. It was cool enough to feel like “Winter on the Lake,” but mild enough to not need a jacket. Very nice for mingling and sampling. So many things to nibble on. There was even a selection of Nick Melvin's homemade pickles. His pickled carrots are the best pickles I have ever had. I didn't have any this evening. I just remember from the last time I tasted them. That good. Wish I had taken photos and had descriptions of all of the offerings. One spoon was topped with crispy chicken skin. One was a play on a reuben. They were going fast.
A fellow diner said “If I could eat salad like this, I would eat it every day.”
People began wandering inside and taking their seats. This is always the fun part, getting to know your table mates. “So what brings you to a dinner like this?’ and “Have you been to a 100 Mile Dinner before?” My seat mates were enchanting. We only stopped talking to listen to the chefs and mixologists describe their offerings. I wanted to put them in my pocket and take them with me.
Rusty Bowers of Pine Street Market and Nick Melvin of Garden District welcomed us with excitement and joy and Nick spoke about how the dinners are to showcase seasonal, local food and “in a way, educate people that this is the way it should be done.” He quickly brought the tone down to purpose. Nick spoke eloquently and purely from his heart about his dear friend (and a friend to many in house), Ryan. We were dining to celebrate eating locally and appreciating our food’s sources but also to uplift Ryan.
The first course arrives along with a colorful cocktail. Daniel Chance of Campagnolo introduced Duck Two Ways: “roll mop” pickled duck breast and duck sausage accompanied by an herb salad, truffle honey mustard, and bacon marmalade. I used different herbs from the salad with each bite of the sausage which had pine nuts, juniper, pepper, and fennel included. I especially loved it with celery leaves. The Darby Farms duck breast was brined, seared, and pickled similar to a pickled herring preparation. It was insanely good.
Pairing so perfectly with the juniper in the sausage was our cocktail from Arianne Fielder of Seven Lamps: 13th Colony gin, Sweetwater IPA reduction, Savannah Bee Company Tupelo honey, ruby red grapefruit soda, and blackberries.
Jason Kemp of The Family Dog described our next sip, a 2009 Voignier from Tiger Mountain Vineyards as having “a little bit of funk.” I completely agreed. I also tasted a minerality I could only believe comes from the granite outcrops of the north Georgia Mountains. Voigniers are great food wines, especially with root vegetables .
Enter Rusty and Nick’s Celeriac Buttermilk Soup. The Blue Ridge trout were cured 24 hours then cold smoked and flaked into a celery leaf salad. Also in the luscious bowl of celery root soup were smoked trout roe in mustard oil. This dish could go on my last meal wish list. The flavor combinations and textures were powerful and really played off one another. I want this to be on a menu somewhere.
Our third course presented by the effervescent Terry Koval of Wrecking Bar Brew Pub was beautiful Scotch ale braised beef cheeks with root veggies and parsnip puree. I heard so many diners say “what’s a cheek? Where is it from?” A cheek is well, a cheek; or more specifically, the fine grained facial muscle of a cow. The cheeks were super tender ( no small feat when you think of how strong a cow’s facial muscles must be from chewing all day) with a hint of the braising liquid flavor. I loved knowing the cheeks were from Moonshine Meats in Athens, a farm that uses this statement: Moonshine Meats is just meat the way it should be: raised on pasture by producers who have a deep sense of humility, humanity and awe for both animal and land. I loved the baby carrots, turnips, and rutabagas- soft but not too soft, and left in their natural state as opposed to cubed. I could have eaten a bowl of the parsnip puree.
The dish paired so nicely with the Colin’s Wee Heavy Scotch Ale from Wrecking Bar and Brewery. The beer, named for Bob the brewmaster’s son, Colin, is a malty, rich, warming with chocolate undertones ale that was aged in bourbon barrels. It’s a masterpiece and such a wonderful brew for a cold winter’s night. Bob Sandage, founder of Wrecking Bar, was even in the house.
The final dish of the evening came with an introduction from delightful Layne Lee of Sweet N Sinful Bakery. She said it had always been a mission of hers to get her equally delightful sister to try squash. Who would have thought to put butternut squash in a cobbler? Sweet, light and warm, the cobbler sat on top of sage ice cream. I watched her sister eat it and watched Layne beam.
Jason Kemp ended our night with the perfect nightcap: Ivy Mountain apple brandy with warm Mercier Orchards apple cider and allspice dram. So good. It could only have been better if were were outside next to a campfire.
The band came from the foyer to wish happy birthday to a guest, play, and sing amongst us. It was a really fun moment. They encouraged us to dance. I was sad the night had to end. I was satiated but wanted the conversation to continue. My table mates were interesting, fun, and thrilled for this sort of dining experience. Each course we tasted together brought forth lively conversations, anecdotes, and funny stories. We laughed. We even shed tears over a shared experience.
We tasted the seasons and the local offerings of Gum Creek Farms in Roopville, Flat Creek Lodge in Swainsboro, BesMaid Garden in Decatur, Serenbe Farms in Chattahoochee Hills, and Moonshine Meats in Athens. We didn't start a revolution or change the world but we ate a delicious five course meal sourced from 100 miles and further discussed a better worldview on sourcing food. We didn't just eat, we conscientiously placed value on our foodstuffs and how they arrived at our table. For this conversation, I am grateful to The 100 Mile Dinner and the chefs and farmers who provided a forum.I left with hugs for my new friends and for the chefs and servers who put on such a great night. My anticipation for the next 100 Mile Dinner in March along with Nick’s restaurant, Garden District, is already beginning. I walked gently into the night. Seeing the lake and moon again made me take pause and send good thoughts out to Ryan.
For Team Hidi info, click here.