Dining outdoors in the summer always comes with pitfalls: It's practically inevitable that bugs will land on the fruit, the sun will roast some diners and leave others in the cold, and the grass under the picnic blanket will dip and roll like an ocean in storm, making it impossible to find a comfortable seat.
Still, it's easy to put all of those things aside with the distraction of a performance from the actors and actresses of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, not to mention the tastes that come out of its Cafe Shakespeare kitchen. On Aug. 10, an ISF performance of Mamma Mia!, tickets for seats on the hillside and a Cafe Shakespeare picnic basket for two allowed for exactly that.
If you're looking for an extravagant date night dinner and aren't an ace in the kitchen yourself, a Cafe Shakespeare picnic basket is a no-brainer. Yes, it costs a pretty penny—$42.95 before tip or drinks—but it's loaded with enough food for three hungry souls, or four modestly peckish ones. Plus, pre-ordering online through the ISF website takes just a few clicks.
At the pickup counter Aug. 10, it was a surprise to find that the bistro-style "basket" was actually a black paper bag. Humble appearances aside, its contents were enough to fill a menu: Grilled citrus chicken, roasted garlic hummus, crostini, spring mix salad with French mustard vinaigrette, house-pickled vegetables, pasta salad, mixed olives, clusters of red and green grapes, a sliced baguette, two fudgy brownies and after-dinner mint chocolates. An army of plastic containers filled the bag to the brim, with everything portioned out for two.
The product of a'Tavola Gourmet Marketplace owner and past Boise Co-op Deli Manager Lisa Peterson, Cafe Shakespeare is not your typical theater-side concession stand. In addition to picnic baskets and "theater platters" heavy on cheese, olives and charcuterie, it pours beer, wine, coffee and lemonade. As the mercury hovered at around 103 degrees, a strawberry lemonade ($5.50 for a 32-ounce cup) was a must. It was ultra-sweet, filled with chunks of fresh strawberries, and disappeared quickly as the food was laid out.
Diving into the containers one by one, it was soon clear that although the citrus-spiked chicken (served cold) was meant to be the meal's main event, it fell short of the side dishes. The pesto pasta salad was a standout, studded with peas and shards of Parmesan. Another group favorite was the pickled vegetable dish, which included whole cloves of garlic (a theme, as there were more nestled on top of the hummus) and pricey vegetables like asparagus alongside the usual onions and cauliflower. The pickling liquid was all tang and spice, making the vegetables almost refreshing, if difficult to eat without sloshing on the blanket. Of course, it's impossible to go wrong with chilled grapes or baguette slices, and when it came time for dessert at intermission, the brownies were a lush, indulgent finish to the meal.
While the food wasn't exactly to the level of fine-dining—a feat that would be impressive, considering it's meant to be eaten with plastic cutlery—it was certainly beyond what any but a veteran home cook would be likely to whip up and carry in (something ISF happily allows). One suggestion to Cafe Shakespeare that may take its baskets up a notch: Offer them for pickup in actual wicker, with the request that the baskets be returned by the end of the night, a move that would spark both romance and whimsy.