On a recent, gorgeous summer evening, I was fortunate enough to experience an incredible dinner party as part of the Wild Kitchen Summer Dinner Series sponsored by REI and Brightest Young Things. The dinner series consists of a number of pop-up dinner parties held throughout the summer in collaboration with local DC chefs to benefit an environmental charity serving our area. Many have already heard that REI is about to open a flagship store here in DC at the historic Uline Arena. It sounds like it’s going to be an amazing place with a cafe, courtyard for musical performances and giant fire pit. They plan to continue to host events like this one. REI recognized the link between people who love great food and who care about the environment and decided to bring them all together as part of their national United Outside campaign. Every single cent of the proceeds goes to the charity of the night. The charity for our dinner was The Chesapeake Conservancy which was exciting since the Chesapeake Bay is near and dear to my heart. As a child, my grandfather had a boat and we spent many weekends exploring the Chesapeake. And I also went to college on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and spent my summers working in Ocean City, MD. So, I was super interested to learn about the work of the Conservancy and all they are doing to protect the Bay and to give people access to this amazing natural resource that is so fundamental to our entire region.
One of the reasons I chose this particular dinner is because the chef for the evening was from Whaley’s, the newest member of SE DC’s Yards Park restaurant scene. Whaley’s has been getting a lot of buzz for its spectacular seafood so I knew there was potential for an amazing food experience here. When we arrived at Wunder Garten, a fun and quirky German style beer garden in NoMa within sight of the Uline Arena and where REI has their community space, we were greeted with a delicious IPA donated by Atlas Works and two long, adorably decorated picnic tables. Since the number of tickets sold for each dinner was limited, we were a small group of about 30 people just sharing a family style meal. First, we heard from REI and learned more about the United Outside Campaign and their plans for the new DC store. Then we met folks from the Chesapeake Conservancy and learned about the great work that they are doing and the improving health of the Bay. And then it was time to dig in.
Of course there were oysters. Delicious oysters. Briny and garlicky and amazing Oysters Rockefeller on a bed of rock salt. Everything was served family style and the presentation was just spectacular. The second course was such an unexpected and delicious treat – soft shell crabs with a salad of roasted red pepper and charred corn. The orange of the pepper puree, the red of the actual roasted peppers, bright purple onions and yellow corn topped with the soft shell crabs made for a stunningly beautiful plate. As we learned from our Chesapeake Conservancy friends, the window of time when soft shell crabs can be harvested is very narrow, so we lucked out. I admit that I have only ever tried soft shell crabs fried in a sandwich, but these were grilled which enhanced rather than masked the delicate flavor of the rich meat.
And then for another showstopper – Whole Roasted Sea Bass. Delicate and delicious fish with a light rustic herb sauce and fresh tomatoes. It was a work of art but that didn’t stop us from digging in. As we enjoyed the fish and chatted with our dinner mates, the sun began to set and candles were lit casting a magical glow over the garden. By candlelight, we enjoyed the final course of the evening, grilled peaches with marscapone cheese and honey. A perfectly light and seasonal dessert after such an extraordinary meal.
Every single dinner in the Wild Kitchen series has sold out. And it’s no wonder. This was that rare evening of really special food and drink, great conversation with like-minded folks and philanthropy. It was an evening that I will not soon forget and one that has set the bar high for the perfect summertime dinner party.