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SF Chefs Dinner Party Project #5: Modern American Picnic

7x7 is proud to sponsor SF Chefs, the annual, hotly-anticipated food/wine/spirits bonanza that is the quintessential San Francisco culinary experience. The event occurs July 30th through August 5th, and offers guests exclusive access to the city's most innovative and lauded industry professionals and personalities.

An excellent preview of SF Chefs, the Dinner Party Project is a unique series of dining events inspired and curated by local chefs who have developed deep friendships and connections in an intense industry. "Whether they meet at the market each week, work in the kitchen side-by-side or just love getting together for late-night adventures, San Francisco chefs share a special bond. Throughout June and July, these friends will collaborate for one night only, sharing with diners a glimpse into their friendships, cooking styles and culinary dreams."

Want tickets to a dinner? Click here.

Each dinner commences with a specialty aperitif using Campari, the project's presenting sponsor. A portion of the proceeds from each dinner benefits the Center for Urban Education and Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA).

Want secret recipes and entertaining tips from these fabulous chefs? Get them here.

Compared to the star-studded Dinner Party Project events at Epic Roasthouse and One Market, the July 6 dinner, held at Baker & Banker, was a more intimate affair-- perfectly in keeping with its theme, "Modern American Picnic." Nick Balla and Cortney Burns of Bar Tartine joined forces with the home team of Lori Baker and Jeff Banker for an epic feast (14 dishes!) that playfully riffed on the kind of food one might ordinarily consume on a park blanket. (The classic rock playing over the speakers and the tables covered in gingham cloths were part of the fun.) 

Baker and Banker (who are married) became friends with Balla while he was cooking Japanese fare at O Izakaya and Nombe, but he and Burns have moved in a more Eastern European direction at Bar Tartine, which was reflected in the menu. The seven appetizers alternated between dishes that reflected Balla and Burns' Hungarian influences (including a divine cured king salmon with salmon mousse and fennel on Tartine's specially-made rye bread), and those that boasted Jeff Banker's new-American touch, like tender grilled shrimp with preserved-lemon guacamole. My table was open to the dueling cuisines, though, snapping up Balla's smoked beef tongue and potato salad with horseradish cream just as quickly as they did Banker's creamy deviled eggs with garlicky ramps and crisp fried shallots.

The main event in the entree course was Banker's perfectly crisp Old Bay fried chicken, a dish that Baker told us took her husband three days to perfect. The rich chicken was accompanied by plenty of bright, crisp summer vegetables, including grilled bites of summer squash with soft cherry tomatoes and mint, and a cumin and chipotle coleslaw. Burns' pickles were also a highlight, from the pickled cucumber and watermelon rind that kicked off the meal to the combination of pickled and fresh green beans in a barley salad with buttermilk dressing. My table was especially keen on the delicious sweet corn croquettes with huitlacoche mayonnaise (even after I broke the news to them about what, exactly, huitlacoche is). We finished off the evening with miniature blueberry pie sundaes, topped with vanilla ice cream and crisp pastry squares, and a fantastic cornmeal and kefir pound cake, accented by sour cream and apricot jam. 

Though the organizers originally promised local craft beer pairings, Baker & Banker's lack of a draft system meant they could only serve one brew from a picnic keg-- a bit of a bummer, especially considering Bar Tartine's excellent craft beer program and brewery collaborations. Luckily, the beer of the night, a refreshing NapaSmith pilsner, provided a fresh, sessionable counterpoint to the wide variety of food, as did the Campari signature aperitif, a Picnic Limeade made with Lillet blanc, fresh lime juice, sugar, a touch of Campari, and soda. 

The event drew a diverse crowd of all ages, and I was lucky enough to dine with Taylor and Brandon, best friends who work at YouTube, and Mark and Gaylen, a couple who live near Baker & Banker and are regulars at the restaurant. Though we'd been seated together at random, by the end of the dinner, we'd all become friends-- the hallmark of any good picnic. We even divvied up the copious leftovers for our lunches the next day. 

The next afternoon, I had e-mails in my inbox from the entire group. "The fried chicken I had for lunch today was still crispy!" Gaylen informed us. I checked the clock and made a beeline to the refrigerator, where I discovered she was right. My leftovers may have originated in one of the city's swankiest spots, but as I happily tore into a drumstick, I realized that picnicking is really a state of mind-- and if you're trying to get there, outstanding fried chicken won't hurt one bit. 

Lori Baker revealed her recipe for Apricot Pie with Almond Streusel here!