Sunset manifests something slightly whimsical in Pemberton. Paragliders spin like florescent leaves from unseen platforms in the clouds; silhouetted livestock take on an ethereal glow; and verdant fields of produce grow quiet with plenty under the steep face Mount Currie. Furthermore, on select evenings throughout the summer a long table draped in white linens can be found tucked between rows of orchids, sweet peas and Brown-Eyed Susans, welcoming food lovers to the Araxi Longtable Dinner at North Arm Farm.
Created to highlight the symbiotic relationship between Whistler's award-winning Araxi restaurant and Pemberton mayor Jordan Sturdy's organic North Arm Farm, the Longtable dinners are best described as a melding of primordial sensibilities and simple, elegant cuisine.
"I think there is a connection when you're sitting right amidst the food that you're eating," said Araxi executive chef James Walt, who will be inducted into the 2011 BC Restaurant Hall of Fame this October. "People have a really good time - it doesn't get much better than eating outside in this setting, that so that's definitely a big thing for our guests."
Last Saturday's Longtable dinner - the second (and second to last) of the summer - kicked off with a reception and voluntary farm tour by Sturdy. To whet appetites in the warm rays of the high August evening, diners sipped on fresh berry cocktails of Pemberton Distillery (Schramm) vodka and a Trefethen Dry Riesling from Napa served with canapés of sweet corn and basil soup, Yarrow Meadow duck liver parfait and Tofino crab wrapped sushi-style in egg crepe.
Ushered towards one long, immaculate table set for over 100, guests were invited to choose their own seating, shaking hands with new dining companions before settling in for Walt's menu. Before the dinner Araxi restaurant director Neil Henderson clarified a few dining rules for the evening - namely that for simplicity's sake the same cutlery, dish and glassware would be used throughout the meal, and guests were welcome to toss unfinished wines (carefully) over their shoulder into the grass if they were ready for the next vintage. Ample baskets of rustic brown bread were scattered along the table to mop up excess juices between servings and in all, a comfortable level of unpretentious dining etiquette was expected - a fitting characterization for an outdoor event.
Working within the parameters of the season's produce, which in summer can mean weekly changes in crops, Walt and his team commenced with a mild North Arm beet salad - a colourful platter layered with thick slices of buffalo mozzarella, beet chips and spiced nuts served with 2010 Foxtrot Chardonnay from the Okanagan (chosen by Araxi wine director, Samantha Rahn). Followed by another cold salad - this one a wild B.C. tuna Nicoise - we were able to experience North Arm Farm butter potatoes, beans and tomatoes accompanied by a 2008 Foxtrot Erickson Vineyard pinot noir.
"The biggest part of menu planning is what's ready and available on the farm and what I can use, so I find out what products are available then start building the menu from there," said Walt of his approach to the Longtable dinners. "Then it's all a matter of time frames and of course some of the restrictions of cooking outside, which is why we start with two cold dishes -it's very different from being inside the restaurant for sure."
The evening's main dish - served on large platters just as the sun lights the peaks of Mt. Currie and casts the table in a welcome bath of evening shadows and firelight from surrounding torches -included generous slices of Heritage Angus natural beef, crisp slow cooked beef cheek fritters and rosemary roasted fillet, accompanied by North Arm onions, Swiss chard, a jus and a 2007 Trefethen cabernet sauvignon from Napa.
"I'm hooked, absolutely hooked," said Araxi owner Jack Evrensel, who dined amongst the guests.
Dessert arrived triumphant, as it should - fresh cherries and chocolate dipped ice cream bars, poached donut peaches and nectarines with pistachio cake served with a 2004 Pillitteri cabernet sauvignon ice wine from Niagara, Ontario.
Stirred by the decadence of the spread, merry-goers at the far end decided to start a wave, throwing their arms up in succession along the length of the table with hoots and hollers that echoed across the neighbouring fields. Forget formalities - if there's a way to truly celebrate a great meal (and the talent behind it) that can never be done inside, it's a stadium wave conducted with new friends at twilight in farmer's field somewhere in the Pemberton Valley.