Dinner parties have always seemed to me the height of civilization– a celebration of all the arts of field and table. So I was thrilled to snag the last two available reservations for Rafns’ first Supper Club dinner of the season, which took place on August 12 — a four-course meal featuring fresh summer vegetables from Salem’s own Osprey Farms. At a dinner party, one hopes for good company, scintillating conversation, and delicious food and wine. The evening did not disappoint.
We were welcomed at the door by our hostess, Rochelle Rafn, who runs the business end of things as well as overseeing the dining room: a soothing space of plain white walls, white flowers and candles, industrial metal chairs and mercury glass. For Supper Club dinners, guests are seated family-style at long wooden tables, and every table displays a card outlining the kitchen’s tenets of good cookery: organic in practice, free-range, local, humane. Rafns’ uses olive oil and butter, the card told me, and makes their own broth. They eschew MSG, GMOs, trans-fats and Teflon. I found it comforting to have the standards spelled out in black and white; the table card has the added benefit of eliminating those tedious questions about sourcing and selection dear to foodies, but annoying to most everyone else.
My dining companion and I ordered a bottle of Iris Vineyards Oregon pinot noir, and introduced ourselves to our tablemates. If you are unaccustomed to sharing a table with total strangers, you might feel a bit awkward at first, but one of the delights of any dinner party is meeting new people and discovering what things you have in common. There were many. The evening’s farmers, Jesse Weller and Chloe Hanson, were seated at our table, along with the chief coffee-roaster from Archive Coffee and Bar , a Salem elementary school teacher, a couple who supply farm and garden necessities to local growers, and a gentleman who had built the stage extension for the Enlightened Theatrics production of Hair, which I had just seen. Conversation and wine flowed.
The dinner began with summer vegetable soup –an in-house broth rich with beets and red onion, simultaneously evoking both French Onion soup and borscht. The next course – a simple salad— was a morning-fresh mix of lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers, dressed with creamy basil vinaigrette; I found myself surreptitiously licking it up with my fingers after the plate was empty. The main course was an intensely flavorful free-range chicken breast, that had been brined, then gently poached and sautéed for color, mounded with onions and peppers and served over orzo pasta. My dinner partner has gone gluten-free, and the folks at Rafns’ were happy to accommodate her with a risotto instead of the pasta, given advance notice. They also switched out her dessert, but I was so absorbed in my sweet, spicy, carrot cake rich with cream cheese frosting, that I missed what she was served and had to check later– gluten-free and vegan coconut almond cake with a side of coconut cream. In my subsequent interview with the couple, Chef Nate Rafn talked about the difficulties involved in accommodating the growing number of different modern dietary restrictions mandatory in running a successful restaurant. Rochelle is highly allergic to a number of common food items, so providing choices for their customers is something that they take seriously.
Nate and Rochelle have been providing Salem with delectable locally-sourced meals for some time now, beginning with dinners hosted at their own home and now at the restaurant on Court Street. Both Salem natives, the rafns believe in simple food, well-cooked; the camaraderie of the table, and the evolving food community in Salem, based in the abundance of local, fresh, mindfully-raised meat and vegetables.
Rafns’ will be hosting a series of these Supper Parties, the next being held on August 22, featuring Scenic Valley Farm wines. Subsequent dates are yet to be chosen, but they plan to host at least one special dinner a month. Prospective meals will highlight Cattail Creek lamb, EZ Orchards apples and cider, and Hendrick’s Farm produce, to name a few. Dates will be announced on their website http://www.rafns.com/, where you can also sign up for their newsletter, for advanced notice. I certainly intend to. Rafns’ is open Tues-Sat for lunch and dinner.