This Secret Takeout Dinner Makes Social-Distanced Dining More Fun
Adventure Dinner in Windsor, Vermont, brings together diners in an unconventional way.
The seconds ticked by on a hot July day before my phone finally buzzed. A text with the secret location for curbside pickup: Windsor, VT. “We’ll be waiting in the Path of Life garden,” it read. “Enter the hemlock maze and a map to our location is hidden in the center!” The adventure dinner was on.
Once I walked through the maze, I found Sas Stewart, the bubbly owner-slash-hostess in a matching dress and mask surrounded by orchids, mason jars of cocktails, and a row of brown paper bags neatly marked, ready for pickup.
In the before times, this meeting place would have been the start of a secret, sold-out in-person dinner with 100 other people held once a month. During COVID-19, it’s become a choose-your-own adventure, with secret curbside pickup locations, staggered arrival times, and a private Zoom link. “From the time you sign up to when you’re finished with the meal, we’ve thought completely about the experience,” says Stewart. “This year made me realize that the most important things that we do aren't necessarily the food or drink, but providing these opportunities to gather and tell stories.”
The theme? Honoring the would-be start of the Tokyo Olympics. “There’s all these events we aren’t getting to celebrate because of COVID, so I wanted to make it a way to recreate it in our own community,” Stewart says. “I thought about how to do that surprise, that specialness, when we can’t do the ‘gather’ part in person.”
The theme, along with seasonality, drives the menu. In a three-course homage to Japanese cuisine with local ingredients, we sampled daikon radishes with goat cheese and bean paste, quick pickled summer vegetables, cold soba noodles with jammy fermented eggs, and sticky mochi cakes smothered in coffee-chocolate sauce and sesame seeds.
“The question of texture is one thing I love to play with,” Chef Lauren Gammon says. “I’m looking for fresh, summery things. [For the first course], I took these daikon radishes my friend gave me from his farm and shaved them very thin, adding goat cheese and fermented black bean paste inside to make a little crunchy ravioli.”
Practicality is another element that requires creativity. “With takeout, you have to think about food in a completely different way,” says Gammon, who packaged up each portion of the meal into separate containers with specific instructions for storage. “It needs to be something that’s going to stand the test of time, so I wanted to incorporate smaller bites and stronger flavors.”
Each course comes paired with themed cocktails crafted by Stewart. “I guide the drinks to pair with those flavors,” she says. “In a cocktail pairing, you can look at the menu and pull it into the drink in a complementary way or a contrasting way. [For the dessert course], I used a cherry flavor as a complement and infused the bourbon with tahini, which then goes in the drink, which matches the mochi cake.”
Every course has one other special pairing: an Olympic-themed haiku. “I am one of the chefs that enjoys coming out of the kitchen and checking in with people about their meal,” says Gammon. “With masks and takeout, I really felt my soul was being squished into tiny white boxes, s
o the haikus made it more fun.”
In the 95-degree heat, my family decorated our own table and met a section of the dinner party via Zoom. There we conversed with couples dialing in from Burlington, White River Junction, and more — all looking for a little bit of adventure in quarantine.
“These are people I would have never met before,” says Julia Mench, a regular adventure dinner attendee. “It’s always a random grouping of people who are from all over the place, and it’s so interesting.”
For Stewart, that’s the best part. “People at dinners have found jobs, interns, friends, book clubs,” she laughs. “What’s really cool is that no matter who you are, you all bought a ticket to an event without having seen the location or the menu, so it’s a special type of person who attends.”
Stewart’s other themed dinners have celebrated everything from the State Fair to Beyonce’s “Lemonade.” “It’s always something that’s a surprise,” Mench says. “Even with a Zoom experience, it was just a blast. I loved that we could recreate this joyful experience in our home.”