Sunday's Best

Oct 15, 2012 at 12am
A few months ago my friend was describing an amazing five-course meal she had in the Mission. Just as I was about to write down the restaurant’s Valencia Street address, she informed me that it wasn’t another trendy hot spot but rather an old-fashioned gathering in someone’s backyard. That someone is Risa Lichtman, and she’s been holding these monthly five-course farm-centered supperings in her backyard on Alabama Street since 2010. Because I always take the advice of good friends over Yelp any day, I find myself ringing Risa’s doorbell in the Mission one glorious Sunday afternoon in August, about to partake in one of her supperings.
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As soon as I enter the house, Risa leads me into the kitchen, which is warm and filled with gorgeous brunettes dressed like sartorial mashups of 2012 and 1974, singing along to Thao and Mirah as they cook. Glorious wheels of blackberry tarts line the kitchen table. Trays of thick seeded bread are being painted lovingly with olive oil. Everything is rustic and easy. The hippie sensibility immediately propels me into the nostalgic kitchen of my youth, when my mother was always standing at a stove with flour-printed hands on the back pockets of her jeans.

While the women in this kitchen are hip and easy on the eyes, this hive of sous chefs and front-of-the-house servers (Mara Dubey, Dana Sinar, Kate McSherry, and Ashley Warner) are all business as they help Risa bring about tonight’s suppering.

Risa looks out her kitchen window onto her backyard. “I would look out over my backyard and have this vision of a long, communal table where everyone sat together – friends and strangers alike – and shared in a delicious meal that showcased farm fresh, seasonal ingredients.”

Outside, that vision is coming to life; guests begin to arrive as the sun’s light wanes, and we have the good fortune of San Francisco blessing us with the miracle that is a warm night in summer. The communal table Risa dreamed of is a reality – studded with mismatched napkins, water in whiskey bottles, and floral arrangements of dahlias and wild foraged anise, courtesy of Eleanor Gerber-Siff from Wallflower Floral Design. Little printed menus are being held down by natural ephemera – pebbles and dried seed pods, a nod to Risa’s down-to-earth sensibilities. A hummingbird pauses to sniff at the lime tree. A stack of blankets is set aside for guests in case it gets cold. Mara’s hard at work tearing a paper bag, shredding dry wood, and starting the fire that will ensure the warmth continues even after the sun goes down.

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One of the first guests to arrive is Luisa Alberto, a bright-eyed woman of the juice bar pop-up Sow. Mara springs up from the fireside admiring her bag, cooing, “Oh my god! Is that a Barnacle bag? I have the same bag!” They high-five in solidarity over their handmade bags, and it’s just one of many connections to come. As guests trickle in, I soon realize that many of them have met before at one of Risa’s supperings.

A peaches-and-cream punch is passed around, an alluring concoction of rum, peach juice, white wine, and egg whites, which helps to set the convivial mood.

Up in the kitchen the girls are busy frying squash blossoms. Ashley’s cut a bunch of padron peppers without gloves and now her hands are on fire. Risa dispatches her culinary knowledge, “Put milk on your hands!” The kitchen is filled with these kinds of small gestures of intimacy, and outside in the backyard these gestures are prevalent among the guests as well. One woman picks a flower that’s fallen from a tree out of another woman’s hair.

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The suppering begins. Risa bounds out of the house, cascading down the back stairs; she jumps up onto a wooden bench like a little lion and thanks the group for coming. Risa is the kind of woman who reminds you that we come from the Earth. She sports a glowing tan that seems to come entirely from the hearth within, and her tank top, jeans, and loose ponytail reflects her approach to life – one of simple, natural beauty. The food that begins to pour out from the second-floor kitchen is equally as stunning; impressive not only in its execution but also in its creativity and commitment to seasonal sustainability.

She introduces each course, informing guests about the inspiration and sourcing of all the ingredients. The first offering is sablefish from Fort Bragg, caught hook and line, served with grilled watermelon, lime cream, fried chickpeas, and ancho cress. This summer palate-opener is followed by a chilled cucumber soup made with varietal cukes, Costata Romanesco squash (from County Line Harvest in Marin), Greek yogurt, fried squash blossoms, and borage flowers.

The third course is a tomato salad that makes everyone weak in the knees. Each summer I get weepy over tomatoes (that’s how soft California has made me), but this salad is the best I’ve ever had, and that’s saying something serious. The long table of guests goes quiet as we try to figure out why this seemingly simple salad is so divine. The heirloom tomatoes (from Tomatero Farm and Happy Boy Farms) rest upon the very crush-worthy Josey Baker seeded bread. The puree of Early Girl tomatoes, a recipe Risa learned from her time abroad in Israel, and the creamy house-made ricotta are offset by a lively padron and Beaver Dam pepper relish (the diners don’t know how Ashley’s hands burned for this!). There’s a collective sadness when we finish our plates, which is quickly alleviated by the mouth-watering next course.

A grilled, sage-rubbed heritage-breed chicken (from Dinner Bell Farm) with creamed corn, beans, and baby succotash makes an outstanding summer main. Risa often sources her meat from Bi-Rite. “They are always amazing to me. Chili, the butcher there, turned me on to these heritage chickens.” 

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After our chicken, none of us think it’s possible to eat dessert – we’re all so satiated. Risa surprises us by making everyone switch seats in what she calls the “switcheroo,” a great way to meet a new set of guests. It’s then that I meet Alon Salant and his wife Kathryn, the good people from Good Eggs. It turns out they’ve been coming to these dinners since the very beginning. “We met Risa through a garage sale. She was buying plates, and we’ve been fans ever since. She was one of the first people we promoted on Good Eggs.”

The lovefest continues with dessert – a tart made from entirely foraged blackberries, topped with an almond crumble and tarragon-vanilla ice cream. The berries were foraged from Tilden Park and Bernal Hill. Imagining Risa and her friends gathering these berries along a hillside informs each bite of my tart with a satisfying wholesomeness.

Risa always tries to have something in her suppers that she forages herself to supplement what she buys at multiple markets. “I have the menu set ahead of time but will always make last minute changes based on what I'm seeing in the days leading up to the dinner. I like to spread my shopping throughout different vendors, rather than buying all my stuff from one reliable farm.” Risa also showcases other types of local makers. One of her supperings featured the pottery of Jeffrey Ryan May; diners were able to purchase the tableware after the meal.

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As we eat, I eavesdrop on the guests. There’s a couple telling jokes while another pair talks about their plans to make an herb garden in a wheelbarrow. I realize what separates Risa’s supperings from other supper clubs is that this isn’t just a gathering based on stellar food – it’s about community. There are so many places in San Francisco where you can have a great, unbelievable, mind-blowing meal, but it’s rare to dine and leave having gained an entire new set of friends. From mingling over the cocktail to being introduced to new farmers to meeting new people at the dinner table, Risa’s supperings are unequivocally about human connection.

It’s pitch dark now, and the last of the guests are leaving, wistful about the night having ended but excited about the new friends and connections they’ve made. Now it’s just Risa and her ladies sitting around drinking the leftover punch, putting their feet up, grateful to have come together yet another time. Risa thanks them for pulling off another successful suppering and one of the girls puts her arm around another. You know that fire that Mara so lovingly built? It’s still going and I have a feeling that it’s never going to go out.

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If you’d like to keep up with Risa's supperings join her Facebook page, or join her listerv by emailing foodsbyrisa@gmail.com. You can purchase suppering tickets or join her soup group on Good Eggs. The next Sunday Suppering will actually be a Saturday Brunching on November 10, 2012 at Soul Food Farm. Find more info here

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