The Third Annual Forest-to-Mansion Dinner took place this past Sunday, May 7th at Allerton Park ($95 per person). Hosted by Allerton Park, and spearheaded by Ann Swanson, the event featured a five-course menu with each course prepared by a different C-U chef — Alisa DeMarco, Drew Starkey, Ann Swanson, Adam Shallenberger, Mark Hartstein — all of who are amazingly talented. Each dish included an ingredient foraged from the Allerton wilds, including morel mushrooms, ramps, sassafrass, wild ginger, stinging nettles, red bud flowers, and Japanese knotweed.


photo by Jessica Hammie

The meal was a charming and beautiful journey through springtime. Flavors were light and bright and earthy; each dish was thoughtfully conceived and prepared. The succession of dishes took me on a culinary adventure through locally available edible flora, with an emphasis on fresh flavors intended to awaken a dead, winter palate. Each dish was generously portioned, and I think it’s more than fair to say that everyone left with a full, satisfied belly. The room of one hundred-plus people seemed quite pleased, further evidenced by the clean plates whisked away by the catering staff after each course.

photo by Jessica Hammie

As an event, this was certainly one of the best I’ve been to. The beautiful grounds and Allerton mansion offered formalness to the affair, but the early afternoon time (bar opened at 3 p.m., and dinner was at 4 p.m.) and perfect weather allowed for some causal and well lit mingling among attendees. Two very long tables with open seating facilitated conversation among diners, and conversate we did. The long rectangular room, with its incredibly high ceilings, did little more than amplify all of the sounds to create a cacophony of talking and laughing, silverware scraping plates and plates being stacked. It was difficult to have a conversation with the folks in your immediate vicinity, and nearly impossible to hear emcee Nate Beccue from where I was seated. There weren’t any menus on the table, and because it was difficult to hear Beccue’s descriptions, so we pulled up the menu on our smartphones, as it was posted on the event’s Facebook page.

The event was well organized and executed. Dinner started on time, and each course was expedited with precision and in a timely fashion. It’s no small feat to get that many dishes to the table while the food is still hot, and that much did not go unnoticed, at least by me and the people sitting at my table.

photo by Rebecca Wells

At the end of the event the chefs were introduced and were gracious enough to take a few questions. It was a really nice way to close out the evening, if not only for curious diners, but hopefully too for the chefs who efforts to put together delicious dishes did not go unnoticed. A round or two or three of applause was the least the crowd could offer as a means of appreciation.

photo by Rebecca Wells

I attended the event with Food Writer Rebecca Wells, and our thoughts are noted below.— Jessica Hammie, Food & Drink Editor

The intimacy and delicate natural beauty of this meal experience was like no other. It was such an honor to be sitting in Robert Allerton’s beloved mansion, savoring the flavors of the vast Allerton Park forest. The dishes were scrumptious works of edible art and the service was friendly and warm. I look forward to the next highly anticipated forest-to-mansion dinner. — Rebecca Wells

photo by Jessica Hammie

Whipped Salmon Rillette, Allerton Wild Ginger & Morel Mushroom Relish, Toast| Alisa DeMarco, formerly Prairie Fruits Farm

photo by Jessica Hammie

The whipped salmon was light and fluffy, and spread easily on the perfectly toasted (that is, not over-toasted) toast. The thing I couldn’t stop eating was the morel mushroom relish, which was acidic and lemony and bright. A day later I’m still thinking about that relish, and would gladly welcome jars of it. (Seriously. I will pay.) The textures of the relish, salmon, and toast were ideally paired. The combinations of flavors were really wonderful; each bite felt like what spring tastes like, and this was an upbeat, delicious way to start off the meal. (JH)

The whipped salmon rillette was silky smooth and airy. The taste was fresh, and it had a tang of cool sour cream and fresh lemon juice. I caught glimpses of beautiful green flecks of fresh chives woven through out as I spread the mixture onto my toast. The salmon rillette matched perfectly with the bright acidity of the spicy wild ginger and morel mushroom relish. (RW)

Wild Allerton Ramp Gnocchi with Smoked Lamb Shoulder and Fried Morels | Drew Starkey, chef and owner, bacaro

photo by Jessica Hammie

The pillowy wild ramp gnocchi had a lovely golden brown sear on the outside, and tasted rich and creamy on the inside. The morels were seasoned beautifully, and fried to a perfect crunchy texture. The mouthwatering caramel brown color Starkey achieved on the exterior of the mushroom was a triumph. Lamb was the final component of the dish and I saved it for last for a reason. It was my first time trying lamb, and to be honest I was a little nervous, but determined to try it. When I bit into the first tender piece of meat I was expecting a gamey off putting flavor, but to my pleasant surprise the lamb was succulent and mild in flavor. The vibrant green peas added a pleasant sweetness and pop of texture. (RW)

Pistachio and Allerton Stinging Nettle Flatbreads with Pickled Allerton Ramps, Prairie Fruits Farms Goat Cheese topped with a Truffled Fennel, Radish and Blood Orange Salad | Ann Swanson, Director of Operations, Hendrick House Farms

photo by Jessica Hammie

I loved this dish. I loved this dish so much that I am rethinking my general skepticism of flatbreads. Ann Swanson, Director of Operations at Hendrick House Farms, put together a lot of ingredients perfectly. The flatbread was light and crispy, and was an appropriate vehicle for all of the ingredients on top. The stinging nettle and pistachio pesto was creamy and earthy, like a solid ground from which all sorts of green things grow. The goat cheese from Prairie Fruits Farm is always heavenly, and the creaminess matched that of the pesto while complementing the earthiness with tang. The salad and the pickled ramps offered enough leaf and crunch and some more vegetal earthiness to the creamy cheese and pesto, and the blood orange pieces were bright, sweet, acidic additions to this hefty and delicious dish. I could eat this dish every single day. Can that be arranged? (JH)

Sugar Grove Family Farm Berkshire Grilled Pork Belly & Sassafrass Root Braised Pork Butt Foraged Morels and Ludwig Cheddar Grits, Dehydrated Wild Ginger, Stinging Nettle Stems, Sassafras Reduction, Pickled Red Bud Flowers | Adam Shallenberger, chef and owner, Fired! Food Truck 

photo by Jessica Hammie

It was finally time for the dish I’d been looking forward to all night, The Sugar Grove Family Farm Grilled Pork Belly and Sassafras Root Braised Pork Butt. The dish also included the gorgeous fresh morels, dehydrated wild ginger, stinging nettle stems and pickled red bud flowers. It was all served over creamy Ludwig cheddar grits. The meat was flavorful and cooked to a deliciously tender consistency. The components all worked together in harmony, and it was stunning to look at all dressed up with purple chive blossoms and slivers of bright lemon peel. This was definitely one of my favorite dishes of the night. (RW)

Wild Allerton Japanese Knotweed Mousse, Rhubarb-Sassafras Jam, Butter Mochi Cake and Caramelized Skyr | Mark “Shades” Hartstein, chef and co-owner, Watson's

photo by Rebecca Wells

There was something poetic about eating a delicate mousse made with Japanese knotweed, a plant so invasive and terrible it has been described as ferocious and has allegedly driven someone to commit murder. Hartstein’s unique hand/palate are no secret: his past ramen and smørrebrød projects point to his interest in dishes that seem simple, but require particular care and consideration. This dessert was no different. It was a carefully crafted play of textures and flavors, presented in a spruce-washed glass. Garnished with pocky, puffed rice, and matcha, the greenish knotweed mousse was light and airy, and arguably more earthy and savory than any dessert you’ve had in the US. The rhubarb-sassafras jam was sweet and gooey and delicious — I hope it makes an appearance on the Watson’s menu, because it would be amazing with some biscuits. The caramelized skyr (a thick, Icelandic yogurt) was tangy and rich and creamy, and was a nice contrast to the light mousse. The mochi cake pieces were chewy and delicious, another fun contrast to the creamy elements of the dessert. (JH)

For more information about the Forest to Mansion Dinner series, visit Allerton Park's website, or check out the event page on Facebook

Top photo by Jessica Hammie.