Napa Valley Calling, part 3, The Food!

Oct 15th, 2008

It was our first night, before the others arrived, and we had arranged to stay with friends who moved from Seattle Tacoma area to Calistoga two years ago. The four of us walked from their house to Brannan’s restaurant in downtown Calistoga. The dining room was air-conditioned against the day, and we were guided to a window seat. By the time our appetizers arrived, the floor to ceiling accordion hinged windows pushed open creating an almost sidewalk café and before we knew it we were dining al fresco in the evening valley breeze. We grazed the appetizer menu with calamari fritto-misto, Ahi tuna tempura roll, Chipolte corn chowder, and potato-herb gnocchi with ratatouille. Our entrees included a beautifully grilled pork chop with seared pork belly and greens, a chili pepper crusted chicken with red quinoa with figs, Diver scallops with yellow corn risotto and a sautéed halibut with capers and an herb vinaigrette. Our wine choice: Summers Cellars Charbono—a relatively unknown grape variety being produced in limited qualities in California. It seems to love the hot regions where the swing between day/night temperatures are greatest, thus allowing for enough acid retention during ripening.

All dinners there after were eaten in our rented cottage with each couple taking a turn. It was done more for the fun and companionship than for a serious culinary effort, but despite our intention, all meals were better than most! Marty who I have written about before prepared his chicken piccata, a lemony favorite, and had enough that Alice made up lemon chicken and vegetable pasta with it next night. Alice has very creative culinary knack for putting flavors together. She and I are often compared for being a little out there when we pair flavors, but the difference is she does it from whatever she finds in the refrigerator, a skill I do not possess. And despite my admiration for it, I don’t see myself cultivating the leftover skill.

Of the lunches we ate out, one memorable stop was at the new Napa Style location in Yountville where we tried the Panzanella salad that looked like it was made from canned tomatoes but tasted like fresh. Anyway, this establishment is owned by Food network star, Michael Chiarello, Lenore’s often quoted favorite show. We have a picture of Lenore as Michael in person passed us in the shop. You can read it all on in her face.

The big night we were waiting for was not a night after all. We had bid on the date and time, but the French Laundry could only deliver a Sunday afternoon on that weekend. Lunch at this world-famous North American eatery was as it turns out the same experience as dinner, just done in daylight. With our positive expectations in full force we woke up Sunday morning and dressed a little better than the previous days. We were glad it was cooler that morning, better for the women wearing panty hose and jackets for the men.

Arriving about twenty minutes early gave us time to collect ourselves and take a few pictures in the courtyard. Some of us used the restroom adjacent to the garden where our first impressions were forming: very understated, clean and friendly.

Our hostess offered to take a group picture before escorting us to a table upstairs in one of many small dining rooms. Ours consisted of five tables with crisply starched white linens that seated 18 guests in total. Our table for six was the only round one in the room. Some parties were already seated. A starched white napkin carefully creased in the laundry’s signature fold marked each place setting. An ordinary clothespin sporting the restaurants name and phone number served as a napkin ring. Our headwaiter said his name and welcomed us, as he gathered the pins after we placed napkins on our laps. I thought he was taking them up before we slipped them for souvenirs into our pockets, but he carefully placed them around the small fresh herb bouquet in the center of the table, telling us to feel free to take them with us, as they are our business cards, he said. (And we did). It wasn’t until after we left the restaurant that someone mention that no background music was playing. None of us missed it, and the dining room was quite, though completely full, our party might as well have been alone.

The menu consisted of two full nine-course prix fix options with some courses within each requiring us to choose. All of us wanted to get the first menu sporting several courses with meat and fish, so Lenore volunteered to order the vegetarian menu. Our team of waiters (4 altogether) remembered our choices with seemingly little effort. Before the first course we were given a very small ‘bite” to begin the experience. This full flavored morsel called a gougere is a like a cheese puff, crunch with buttery center that melted away in the mouth. In addition we received a tiny portion of a Gravlox of Scottish salmon with caviar in a petite savory-sesame cone. Lenore’s version was a sweet potato caviar (diced very small) in the same cone vessel. These offerings were designed to tease our palates, and tease they did.

First courses arrived with anticipated flare. The service plates themselves seemed to be designed for the particular item served. Square with a round depression in the center or maybe off center slightly to make more impact. In all our table experienced 18 courses plus a few more since we ordered at least one of every choice available. The entire menu is worth description, for now I will describe only those that were my favorites.

Cauliflower “Panna Cotta” – a concentrate puree of fresh cauliflower bound slightly with cream and gelatin to help hold its shape on the plate. An oyster glaze or reduced liquor to be more accurate was drizzled around and white sturgeon caviar, with its briny nature brought out the earthiness of the entire dish.

Moulard Duck “Foie Gras Au Torchon” – breaking my PC rule to avoid foie gras, I sampled what was the best I have ever had. Creamy, buttery and yet distinct, the duck liver must have been passed through sieve after sieve to create a completely perfect mouth feel. The brioche, yeasty and toasted far enough to provide carmelization, kept my interest by complimenting each bite. Paired with a green apple relish and crisp radish, the flavor contrasts worked to fill in any gap my palette required to make each bite whole.

Bulgur Wheat Salad – simple and elegant! Pickled pearl onion petals, soy beans, baby tomatoes slightly dried to raisin stage, red radish, garden blossoms and slivers of avocado rounded out this beautiful vegan salad.

“Fricassee” of Hand Rolled Russet Potato “Gnocchi” – anyone who has attempted gnocchi knows that the secret lies in not overworking the dough and knowing when enough flour is enough. These dumplings were slightly firm on the outside but quickly broke under the tooth revealing the creamy potato beneath. Foam of sweet corn, lovage and golden chanterelles created the finishing texture, which satisfied completely.

Sweet Butter-Poached Maine Lobster “Mitts” – a little disappointing that not all products were local, however as with all the dishes the execution allowed for forgiveness. Poaching in butter requires the butter to remain emulsified with perfect temperature control throughout the cooking. The food, in this case, lobster, gently cooks while maintaining juiciness and no fat is absorbed. Not as easy as it sounds and there’s a special piece of equipment used in kitchens that do this often. The lobster was served with a Tourne of turnips in light cream, white pomegranate seeds, Sicilian pistachios and cilantro micro greens. The seeds provided a slightly sour component, the turnips, slightly bitter and cilantro – tang; a perfect compliment of flavors for me.

“Boudin Blanc De Poularde” – a sausage of chicken fortified with cream and apple wood smoked bacon. Fingerling potatoes crispy fried in duck fat garnished the top along with local farm fresh figs and a summer truffle coulis. This was not your mother’s breakfast sausage and potatoes!

Grilled Pave of Kuroge Beef From Shiga – Of the various qualities of beef in the world, ‘wagyu’ is one of the most famous and widely known. Ohmi Wagyu is created from Kuroge Wagyu, a breed of Japanese black hair cattle born and raised in the Shiga near Kyoto. Our waiter brought the raw beef to the table so we could witness the extreme marbling of this beef. It requires quick high heat cooking to provide an almost short rib like texture with steak firmness. This option was a supplement to the price-fixed menu, and each couple ordered it so everyone had some. The beef was paired with Akita Komachi rice, grilled hen of the wood mushrooms, sugar snap peas (served in their pods), and a sauce of light soy and ginger.

Dessert for Lenore was my favorite – banana tempura with peanut butter mousse dusted with brut cocoa, two forms of ganache, one creamy and one dried using new age science that crumbled like cocoa puffs.

And just when we thought we were finished, a tired silver vessel was bought with house made candies, followed by a platter of chocolates, each as different as the last and with the instruction – take as many as you like.

After coffee we awaited with trepidation for the check…I won’t disclose the price but suffice to say the little to-go gift packages of homemade shortbread cookies and specially designed chocolates helped ease the pain. Without a doubt, our group agreed that this was the best food experience we had ever had.

As we began to collect ourselves for the journey back to Calistoga, I asked our waiter if it would it be possible to see the kitchen? As with everything this day, our waiter’s attentive response was “yes.” In the kitchen there were at least twenty-five cooks. Since the shifts were passing, there may have been some overlap of day and night crew. The lab atmosphere of the kitchen was humming with orders from different chefs quietly commanding their departments. We saw the lobster poacher in action along with equipment for cooking sous vide style.

There was a wide screen monitor in the center of the kitchen with a live video feed from Per Se, Thomas Keller’s restaurant in NYC. On top of the monitor, a small camera moved slowly from side to side providing a return feed of the Laundry’s kitchen, allowing Keller to view both kitchens at any time from his laptop.

And as one would expect the kitchen was immaculately clean, with every size shiny copper and stainless steel pot/pan lining the walls like culinary soldiers awaiting duty. The cooks paid no attention to our group so clearly our request to see the kitchen was not unique, but for me, the experience was truly special from start to finish and will provide culinary inspiration for many menus to come.

Today’s recipe:

NAPA STYLE PANZANELLA SALAD (EVOO version)
2 lb. ripe local tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
½ red onion, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
EVOO, as needed
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 TBS each chopped fresh basil, tarragon, parsley
Sea salt TT
Several grinds of coriander seed & black pepper
3-4 cups croutons, see recipe
4 cups mixed greens, including at least 1 cup arugula
Fresh parmesan cheese
Method:
Blend tomatoes with onion, garlic, and moisten with EVOO and lemon juice (about 2:1). Add fresh herbs and seasonings. Adjust. Toss over croutons and serve atop a blend of mixed greens or arugula and garnish with fresh shaved Parmesan cheese. Serve immediately (4-6)

Croutons: Heat about 3-4 TBS of EVOO in saute pan; toss with day-old ½”bread cubes and coat well. Place onto baking sheet. Sprinkle on 2-3 TBS grated parmesan cheese and bake 350°F for 15 minutes until light brown and crisp outside and still soft inside. Cool then store in air tight container until needed.