Dining With Denise Neil

Elegant farm dinner feels like Napa Valley – but it’s Valley Center

Attending one of Elderslie Farm’s farm-to-table dinners will make you feel like you’re in a magazine, the subject of a story that shows Kansas in its best, most romantic light.

You’ll drive out of town, but not too far, and turn onto a gravel drive. You’ll walk toward the old farmhouse just as the summer light turns evening golden, with goats braying in a pen to your right and blackberries blooming in a bramble straight ahead.

You’ll be greeted by George Elder, your host for the evening, who’s wearing a suit vest and a tie and pointing you toward a patio decorated with farm-picked wildflowers. There, you’ll get a glass of white wine so cold, it’s fogging up the glass in the evening warmth, and you’ll sample appetizers made with goat cheese from the neighbor’s farm.

All of that before you’ve been summonsed inside to dinner with an old-fashioned toast that includes poetic language about the land and the harvest. All of that before you’ve been seated at a formally set table in a dining room glowing with candlelight and served a dinner of elegant dishes made of vegetables and herbs fresh from the ground.

It’s like you’re on vacation, dining at a quaint California winery. But you’re in Valley Center, not Napa Valley.

By now, most Wichita food fans know about the Bramble Cafe, the outdoor seasonal restaurant that Elder, and his wife, Katharine, opened on the patio of his parents’ farmhouse in the summer of 2012.

In its early days, the cafe was open three mornings a week, serving veggie-spiked frittatas and blackberry scones to people finishing up you-pick trips at the farm’s blackberry bramble. It developed a small but loyal following, and Katharine added evening farm-to-table dinners.

Soon, the farm grew so popular that the blackberry cafe was standing room only, and the dinners were selling out as soon as they were posted. So last year, the couple, who lives about half a mile from the farm with their two small children, were able to launch a major expansion.

The patio was expanded and grew from 80 seats to 140. And George’s parents, Philip and Becky Elder, agreed to turn over most of the first floor of their house to the cafe. The kitchen was ripped out and turned into an industrial, restaurant-style kitchen, and the family living room and great room were transformed into dining areas and fitted with wooden tables handmade by George. (His parents now occupy an apartment with a kitchenette and a patio set up in another part of the farmhouse.)

“It’s been the most tremendous blessing,” Katharine said. “They’ve been completely supportive and helpful. It’s a very unusual and bold move, but they see the same vision and dream for the farm and are more than happy to help.”

Not only was the couple able to expand the blackberry cafe, now open six days a week, but Katharine also was able to expand her dinner series. Now, instead of serving in May and in October, she’s serving May through October, taking a break only in August.

Katharine changes the dinner menu monthly, and June’s menu, beautifully printed on quality stock paper and presented at each place setting, featured two appetizers: goat cheese spread on toast and topped with raw honey and edible flowers, plus feta and herbs baked in puffed pastry.

The dinner menu featured a turnip puree with green oil and croutons; herbed gnudi with snap peas, prosciutto and burrata; a salad of baby lettuce with roasted beets, feta, nuts, seeds and sprouts; and a main course made with Yoder pork tenderloin served with seared spring onions, farro, broccoli pesto and preserved lemon. Dessert was walnut shortbread with olive oil ice cream, granola and blackberries.

That menu will remain through June, though Katharine says she’ll mix it up with produce that’s appearing as you read this: beans, cucumbers, fennel and more.

Diners are seated in one of three areas: the original indoor dining room, which is where the early dinners were served to groups no larger than 30; the back dining room, which features views of the farm, soaring ceilings and a stone fireplace; or a smaller, cozier dining area that’s decorated with painted portraits of Elder ancestors and has only two tables.

Each table is formally set with Emily Post-approved settings, white china, stemware and wildflowers. And the meal is accented throughout with elegant touches, like rustic bread served with salted butter that’s garnished with edible flowers.

The dinners, served by an army of efficient waiters from Wichita eateries who have been recruited to moonlight, are $70 a person and include three wine samplings per person. It’s not an inexpensive date, but it’s an out-of-the-ordinary evening that will make you fall in love with Kansas and all that its ground produces during the summer.

“I’ve been thrilled with the feedback,” Katharine said. “People have found a lot of enjoyment from the atmosphere and the staff. I think there’s just a moment of respite to be found at Elderslie, from the pace of the dinners to the settings to just really honest ingredients. That’s worth continuing to strive for.”

Denise Neil: 316-268-6327, @deniseneil

Elderslie Farm

Where: 3501 E. 101st St. North in Valley Center, about 20 miles north of Wichita

Dinners: Served starting at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays through July. They’ll start again in September and run through October. They feature multiple courses and three wine pairings.

Price: $70 a person

Reservations: http://berry.eldersliefarm.com/farm-to-table

Bramble Cafe: This outdoor breakfast place serves savory tarts and quiches made with seasonal veggies, muffins, carrot cake bread, yogurt granola and berries and a rotating list of scones, muffins, shortbreads and biscotti and is open 7-11 a.m. Mondays-Fridays and 7 a.m.- noon Saturdays. Its last day for the season will be Aug. 5.

You-pick blackberries: Picking is expected to start in about a week. The you-pick price is $14 a 2.2-quart pail on Mondays and Tuesdays, $15 on Wednesdays and Thursdays and $16 on Fridays and Saturdays. Pre-picked berries are $9 a quart or $32 for 4 quarts. People will be able to make you-pick reservations soon at http://berry.eldersliefarm.com/berries.

The farm also offers tours on nonberry-picking days that cost $2 for adults and $1 for children. They’re generally available before the picking season starts and after it ends in late July. Visitors also can see the farm’s goat mamas and babies.

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