Sunday, October 28, 2007

No Cal 07: the rest

Food was one of the driving forces for choosing Northern California as the destination for my milestone-birthday vacation. Chez Panisse and The French Laundry, whose reputations are deserved, offered incredible multi-course meals we’ll not soon forget. Equally memorable, though, were other restaurants and eateries where we took meals.

On our way up to Napa, we stopped at the Ferry Building Marketplace to get picnic fixings. Hambone wanted to get some dry sausage at Mastrelli’s Delicatessen, but when we saw the sandwich board, we could not resist ordering a few to go. At Mastrelli’s, whether you’re ordering a sandwich from the menu or selecting your own fillings, you first choose your own bread—using tongs to lift the large buns out of the acrylic bin, which lets you look before you leap. I opted for the North Beach sandwich with layers of salty prosciutto, provolone, and sweet roasted red peppers, while Hambone’s sandwich packed in fresh mozz, pesto, and roasted red peppers.

We both have a weakness for Italian deli sandwiches, and these did not disappoint.

Hambone and I also stood in line for at least a half hour to order burgers at Taylor’s Refresher, a St. Helena institution and an inspired place to fill your belly between vineyard tastings.
Now owned by the Gott brothers, this walk-up drive-in has an extensive burger-fry-shake menu, but also offers chicken sandwiches, a rare-seared ahi burger, and a monster Cobb salad, to name a few non-beef items. The burgers were solidly good and the sweet potato fries were stupendous. Really, I'm still thinking about the sweet potato fries.

Besides, milkshakes and sodas, the beverage menu offers beer and wine, including the 2004 Karl Lawrence cab half-bottle that we paid twice as much for the night before at the French Laundry. Price aside, I'm amused by this fact: in Napa can you find the same bottle of wine at a roadside burger joint as at the very finest restaurant.

Rounding out our meals, we ditched our reservations at Zuni Café and Piperade (yes, I double-booked) to eat sushi at an incredibly hip Japanese restaurant that had a technobeat, Ozumo. We sat at the sushi bar and were served an amuse—a first for us at a sushi bar—of tuna “salad” on cucumber wafers. To start, we ordered hanabi (slices of hamachi and avocado with a warm ginger-jalapeno ponzu sauce). We ate the following nigiri—maguro, mushi ebi (tiger prawn), hamachi (as always), sake, kampachi (amber jack, this is the same fish I had at The French Laundry where it was called kahala), and kaki (kumamoto oyster). We had rolls—yokozuna (grilled unagi, crab, tobiko, avocado and asparagus), spicy scallop (scallop, kaiware, cucumber). All the fish was wonderfully fresh and the slick ambience was quite a change of pace from upscale-rural Napa.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

French Laundry

After celebrating Hambone’s 40th birthday, by lying on a beach in Costa Rica eighteen months ago, I started give serious thought to how I might like to spend my 40th. Lots of destinations came to mind, but each seemed rather extravagant. At some point, Hambone suggested visiting Northern California and eating at the French Laundry. Didn’t take much to convince me that dining at one of the country’s best restaurants would be a fitting celebration for a milestone birthday.

In August I began the process of securing a reservation, which you can read about here.

Fast forward to October 5. Hambone and I drove up to Napa Valley from San Francisco in our rental Sebring convertible, stopping occasionally to follow a whim. Eventually we found our hotel in Calistoga and had a little time to walk around town, read/nap, and dress for dinner. Then, we made our way back to Yountville for our 5:30 dinner reservation at the French Laundry.

Housed in a stand-alone building with a beautiful courtyard garden, the restaurant has two dining rooms. We were the first diners to arrive and were seated immediately in the downstairs dining room, which had six or seven tables in the main area. The room, crowned by a heavy-beamed ceiling, was painfully quiet and empty—though we knew it wouldn’t be that way for long. That six-top in the middle of the room? It was soon occupied by a loud group of diners.

Our server walked us through the evening’s menu and explained the couple of courses that had options, thus choices to be made. We ordered a glass of champagne to accompany the treats coming from the kitchen: warm gougeres (pastry filled with gruyere “sauce”) and the salmon “ice cream cone” (a French Laundry trademark, it's a wafer rolled into a cone, which is then filled with crème fraiche and topped with salmon tartare). The salmon cone was amazing, but I could easily have eaten many more gougeres.

I wish I had a picture of each course because everything was plated and presented with the utmost care. Many plates were spectacularly artful.

We were also offered beautiful breads (multigrain batard, miniature baguettes and ciabatta, dense raisin and walnut). Two pots of handmade butter were placed on the table, one of which was salted, the other not. The unsalted butter was made by a family that only produces butter for the French Laundry. Can you imagine being that specialized?

At the end of the evening, Hambone and I had eaten one of the best and certainly most memorable restaurant meals ever, as well as the most expensive. Was it worth $240 a person? Possibly. It's really hard to put a price on an experience like this. We did get nine exquisite courses plus many extra goodies and impeccable service.

The wine list was daunting. We are used to seeing the same bottles all over town, but here in Napa, many on the list don't get distributed outside of California. Needless to say, but I will, I thought the mark-up was excessive. The list boasts a healthy selection of half bottles, which allowed us to have a white for the first fish portion of the meal, and a red for the meatier portion.

We wanted to drink locally as much as possible—not a difficult task—and were treated to some small producers we’re not likely to find at home: a Robert Hoff chardonnay from Carneros and a Karl Lawrence 2004 cabernet sauvignon ($7
0, yes for a half bottle). Both wines were pleasantly complex and well suited to our meal.

Even though Thomas Keller isn’t in the kitchen, his influence is undeniable. We’re going to keep an eye on Chef Cory Lee. Here are details from the nine-course meal:

“Oysters and Pearls”
“Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Beau Soleil Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar
A clever and “classic” Keller concoction. The oysters were trimmed so only the ball of the heart was served.

Salad of Hawaiian Hearts of Peach Palm*
Compressed Cucumbers, Perilla and Umeboshi “Coulis”
Hearts of palm (here, according to our server, from a "smaller, squatter" palm tree) were cut into small squares and cylinders. These somewhat architectural shapes were juxtaposed against a quenelle of hearts of palm that had been gently pureed. Compressed cucumbers were peeled into ribbons, which were then draped on the plate.

Sauteed Fillet of Pacific Kahala
Tokyo Turnips, Bartlett Pear, Watercress and Whole Grain Mustard Emulsion
Fish and turnips—a highly unusual, but very delicious combination. Kahala is a firm white "reef" fish, usually tossed back by fishermen.

Hambone opted for the “Tartare” of Atlantic Bluefin Tuna with Baby Romaine Lettuce, “Cornichons,” Eggs Mimosa, Crispy Potatoes, and Bottarga Vinaigrette, which was outstanding, especially the eggs mimosa.

Sweet Butter-Poached Maine Lobster “Mitts”
Cauliflower, Pomegranates, Toasted Almonds, Sunchoke “Puree” and Truffle-Lobster Sauce
Evidence that each course was becoming more complex and unique. The lobster was impeccably cooked and presented as three very tender medallions. The cauliflower was a scattering of teeny floret portions. The tangy pop of pomegranate and the salty crunch of almond was an unexpected combination and played nicely with the lobster. Seriously, is lobster ever not good?

Liberty Pekin Duck Breast “Confit a la Minute”
Brussels Sprouts, Cranberries and Chestnut Sauce
Best. Duck. Ever. Every single bite of duck breast was tender and richly gamy. Each Brussels sprout was deconstructed, the "leaves" sauted. The cranberries were tart and sweet, as they should be. And, the chestnut sauce was wonderfully earthy. All these incredible fall flavors made me remember the venison and chestnuts I ate, ten-plus years ago, at the Pan Am Building's Sky Club.

Elysian Fields Farm “Selle d’Agneau Rotie Entiere”**
Bluefoot Mushrooms, Golden Corn, Fennel Bulb and “Sauce au Piment d’Espelette”
I love lamb and this was very good. The mushrooms were meaty, the corn was impeccable, the baby fennel bulb slightly anisey—all touched briefly by the spicy, rustic sauce (again, transporting me, this time to the Basque Country of France, where these Espelette peppers are hung to dry on whitewashed buildings).

“Brin D’Amour”
Grilled Baby Artichokes, Tomato Jam and Arugula

Jacobsen’s Farm Apple Sorbet
Andante Dairy Cultured Cream and Ginger Foam
I so seldom see apple sorbet. Its sweetness was tempered by tangy cream and spicy foam, a nice play of textures.

Candied Cashew Nut Tart
Salted Cashew Ice Cream and Concord Grape Jam
The tart was very good, and I loved the salty-sweet ice cream, but I didn’t love the concord grape jam. In all, a clever take on pb&j.

Hambone had “Delice au Chocolat et a la Menthe” with Amedei Chuao Chocolate-Mint “Parfait” and Mint “Gastrique”. Something about this was crispy in a way to which I could easily be addicted. Pleasantly not too minty.

~miniature crème brulee and miniature raspberry trifle
~white china dish set on the table, lid removed to uncover macadamia nuts with toffee shell, dipped in chocolate and dusted with cocoa (one of the most amazing things I’ve ever put in my mouth)
~chocolate box with five types, each hand-dipped and some dusted with gold leaf
~container with three compartments: 1) mango gelees, 2) calissons, 3) one other delight I cannot remember
~shortbread cookies and Valrhona chocolate bars with shards of brittle, each packaged in cellophane to take away

*Moulard Duck “Foie Gras En Terrine” ($30.00 supplement)
**Grilled Sirloin of Japanese “Wagyu” ($100.00 supplement)

Wouldn't it be lovely to make this an annual event? Care to join us?

Monday, October 15, 2007

weekend report

From top to bottom:

tossed salad
red romaine lettuce with pear, blue cheese, toasted walnuts, and a champagne vinaigrette

butternut squash risotto with sage
This super-easy recipe from Everyday Food has you saute chunks of butternut squash in butter from the start, where you would typically saute onion or shallots. Stirring in the stock is a tad bit challenging with the squash jostling the rice for attention, but eventually the squash chunks reduce in size, thus contributing to risotto’s inevitable sauciness.

braised pheasant with polenta
My childhood was marked by the South Dakota pheasant opener (October 20 this year), which my parents approached with all the ceremony others reserve for Christmas and the Fourth of July. Pheasants define the fall so it only seems fitting to start clearing the freezer for more! While visiting my mother-in-law this past August, I found a copy of John Ash’s American Game Cooking among her wonderful cookbook collection. The pheasant recipes were especially appealing to me so she graciously allowed me to borrow the book. The rustic-Italian braised pheasant with polenta is adapted from a Lidia Bastianich recipe. I shredded the pheasant, which is the easiest method I’ve found for removing the lean meat from this tendon-laden bird. Hambone plated by piling the pheasant on a mound of creamy polenta. The pan sauce was strained and enriched with butter, then spooned over the plate, napping pan-sauted brussels sprouts along the way. Since food does not mix in the four separate chambers of our children’s stomachs, and since their alien race does not digest any sauce other than cheese sauce, Hambone did a “four squares” presentation for Alpha and Beta.

Claudia Springs, a Mendocino County winery, makes one of our favorite pinot noirs. Their ’03 zinfandel was exceptional, and I look forward to replenishing our supply.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

No Cal '07: Chez Panisse

It has long been a dream to eat at this seminal restaurant, and sharing a meal with my handsome husband on a special birthday was ideal. A lot has been written about Chez Panisse and its owner, Alice Waters, and there isn’t anything meaningful I can contribute to that body. However, I want to say that I think Waters is brilliant. I applaud her advocacy for organic, locally grown, and sustainable food and for supporting the family farmer. But I am most awe-struck with this singular fact—her restaurant has thrived and remained relevant for thirty-six years.

Here is an account of my birthday dinner:
Finding the restaurant wasn’t easy. I’m not completely incompetent as a copilot, but I do have lousy night vision. The building is located on a bustling commercial street, and there is no obvious sign identifying the place. Even though I knew this, we still drove by restaurant a number of times before we parked and walked a few blocks.

We ate in the main-floor restaurant where a four-course prix fixe meal is served nightly (there is also an upstairs café featuring an a la carte menu). A confluence of elements—walls clad in dark-wood paneling, brass wall sconces and ceiling lamps with Arts-and-Crafts styling, hand-tinted woodcuts of fruits and vegetables, and intimate seating arrangements—all make for an elegant and comfortable dining room.

The kitchen sent out a bowl of olives with fresh thyme. For some reason, Chez Panisse olives taste better than almost any other olives I ever eaten. We nibbled on these and sipped champagne (Pierre Peters, the house pour), toasting the best birthday ever (so far).
That evening’s menu was a farewell to summer and previewed the wonderful fall produce trickling into California markets:

slow-roasted king salmon with green beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, and fennel
This composed salad boasted exquisite, large flakes of salmon, adorned by perfectly sweet and tiny cherry tomatoes, tender-crisp baby fennel, cucumber ribbons, and slender green beans.

chanterelle mushroom soup
No one loves mushrooms more than Hambone does. Yet we found this course a little lacking. For starters, the enormous, odd-shaped bowls in which the pureed mushroom soup was served were less than optimal. Then, the soup was missing something that may have been as simple as salt. We did like the meaty whole mushrooms around which the soup had been ladled and would happily have eaten more.

spit-roasted loin of Laughing Stock Farm pork with fig chutney, sweet corn, and fried onion rings
I’m sure you know that identifying the source of Chez Panisse’s food was started and made practice by Jeremiah Towers. Now everyone does it, even food bloggers, many of whom label the provenance of their greenmarket finds. I love pork loin, especially when someone else is cooking it. The spit left a tiny hole, which was encrusted with rosemary, and the loin was moist and beautifully porky. On the side, lightly battered onion rings and a fresh fig chutney and sweet corn, which was my favorite item of the entire meal. I could have eaten four courses of the corn. This course neatly bridged the seasons. Since it's important to know where our food comes from, here's more on Laughing Stock Farm.

apple and quince galette with burnt honey ice cream
The burnt-honey ice cream was moderately addictive. Once I figure out how to approximate the caramelized honey, I’ll be making this ice cream at home as often as I can. My dessert was presented with discreet fanfare—a candle and happy-birthday wishes from the kitchen.

wine: Joseph Swan Vineyards ’02, zinfandel
We managed to stretch out a bottle through the entire meal. The wine can be characterized with big berry flavors and a mellow, long finish.

Following dessert and a pot of French-press coffee, a small plate arrived with more gifts from the kitchen: tangy candied orange peel and chocolates with pistachio cream centers, dusted with gold leaf. I'm still thinking about the orange peel and wondering how fussy it is to make as I wouldn't mind having a stash.
In all, the meal was simply amazing.

We experienced local, seasonal, and fresh—and we were not disappointed.

Friday, October 12, 2007

back from Cali

Wow, what I wouldn’t give to be back on vacation. Hambone and Spice have been home now for five days, but our heads, hearts, and stomachs are still in Northern California. The week has been a blur of deadlines, faces, and other obligations. I’m just getting caught up on mail, email, phone calls, and blog reading, so soon the food highlights from a long, wonderful weekend will follow.

Until then, Dara Moskowitz recapitulates the ever-changing restaurant scene in St. Paul—and previews a new, top-secret restaurant in Minneapolis, featuring Steve Brown!

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

California here we come

T minus 50 hours until Hambone and Spice are seated at the French Laundry for a very special birthday meal. Spice couldn’t think of a more fitting celebration for a milestone birthday. She’s also thinking about flying without a net—no camera, no notebook—just five senses to imprint a memory.

The French Laundry isn’t the only exceptional restaurant we’ll visit while in the Bay Area. Tomorrow night we’re dining at the Chez Panisse restaurant. Either Zuni Cafe, which is on my 2007 food resolution list, or Piperade for Basque on Saturday night—we have reservations at both and will see what mood strikes us. And, for our final meal: dim sum at Yank Sing, which comes highly recommended by bloggers and the Chronicle.

Mignardise: [The posted menu] was irresistibly ambitious, full of things you never see, like local chèvre dusted with zahtar (a Middle Eastern spice blend based on sumac), house-made chorizo, and—be still my beating heart—a ragout of Wisconsin rabbit. Dara Moskowitz is wowed by the Napa Valley Grille in the MOA, where I have had my share of subpar meals during my job-with-an-expense-account days. Read her review, and tell me you’ve had a change of heart too. This gives me something to look forward to upon my return home.

Monday, October 01, 2007

october on my mind

For the record, October is my favorite month of the year. I love the crisp weather that allows me to wear lightweight sweaters. Lining Summit Avenue and River Road, trees ablaze in red, orange, and yellow offer a breathtaking sight. I can revel simultaneously in warm, sun-dappled afternoons or in cold rainy days. I love curling up on the chaise lounge in the screened porch or on the couch in the den, getting lost in a thick, narrative-rich novel.

But, my favorite part of fall is the change in the menu. By this point in the year, I cannot face another bratwurst. Meals that required little or no cooking hold no appeal. I’m hard-pressed to find yet another marinade or rub to enliven the chicken breasts, pork tenderloins, or flank steaks we like to throw on the grill. I long to turn on the oven, allowing complex aromas to waft out of the kitchen and the residual heat to warm our home’s core.

The first two weeks of fall are usually quite warm here, and I try to eek out another summery meal on the grill. We savor the last time we eat an ear of corn, a ripe red tomato, garden-fresh green beans or zucchini or pungent melons. When the squashes and local apples make an appearance we proclaim we’re not ready.

Then October arrives and we give ourselves over to that which we can no longer deny. It’s time to turn on the oven, spend Sundays tinkering in the kitchen, and linger over hearty meals. Hambone and I are anticipating many favorite meals and food items—chili, soups, osso buco, risotto (butternut squash, wild mushrooms), lasagna, polenta or pasta topped by thick sauces, goulash and beef stroganoff with luscious egg noodles, pheasant and other game, quick breads (banana, pumpkin), crisps (pear, apple), just to name a few. And, we’re looking forward to trying our hand at some new dishes—I’m looking at you cassoulet.

Braising and roasting and baking, oh my.

We toast the a new month with this chicken pot pie, which I love for its old-school flavors, including sherry in the cream sauce.

Chicken Pot Pie with Corn and Bacon

The Best Recipe (editors of Cooks Illustrated)

1 recipe pie dough or biscuit topping

1-1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts

2 cups homemade chicken broth
6 strips bacon, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch strips

1 medium onion, chopped fine

3 medium carrots, peeled and cut crosswise 1/4-inch thick
2 small celery stalks, cut crosswise 1/4-inch thick

Salt and ground black pepper
4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 cup flour

1-1/2 cups milk

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

3 tablespoons dry sherry

3/4 cup frozen corn kernels, thawed

3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley leaves

1. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Put chicken and broth in small Dutch oven over medium heat. Cover, bring to simmer; simmer until chicken is just done, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer meat to large bowl, reserving broth in measuring cup.

2. Cook bacon in now-empty pan, over medium heat, until fat is rendered and bacon is crisp, about 6 minutes. Remove bacon from pan with slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Increase heat to medium-high. To the bacon fat, add onion, carrots, and celery; sauté until just tender, about 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. While vegetables are sautéing, shred meat into bite-sized pieces. Transfer cooked vegetables and drained bacon to bowl with chicken. Set aside.

3. Heat butter over medium heat in again-empty skillet. When foaming subsides, add flour; cook about 1 minute. Whisk in chicken broth, milk, any accumulated chicken juices, and thyme. Bring to simmer, then continue to simmer until sauce fully thickens, about 1 minute. Season to taste with salt and pepper; stir in sherry.*

4. Pour sauce over chicken mixture; stir to combine. Stir in peas and parsley. Adjust seasonings. Pour mixture into 13 x 9-inch pan or shallow baking dish. Top with desired pastry dough; bake until pastry is golden brown and filling is bubbly, 30 minutes for large pies. Serve hot.

Note: *The recipe suggests we might cover the filling and refrigerate it overnight at this point, which we did. We also reheated the filling, as the recipe said to do, before we topped with the pastry and baked. The filling was pretty soupy and I would refrain from heating twice if you go this route. Half an hour in the oven should be plenty long to heat through.