California Cuisine

napa-bouchon-cardAs RJ and I toured Northern California, we often saw restaurants described as “California cuisine”.  For us New England folk, that means avocados.  A Californian sandwich in Boston could translate to any number of possible combinations but must include avocado and maybe sprouts but no red meat.  A California sushi roll has crabstick and avocado and sometimes cucumber.  Guess what lies in a fan atop a Californian salad?  Yup. The Haas.

Though I didn’t think that every dish we ate in California would be avocado-based,  my non-green-eating husband thought cuisine in California was suspect as best.  I knew, however, that Napa would not disappoint.  As you saw in my last post, I eased him into it with Calistoga barbecue.  Then I hit him with the fine dining.  Our first stop was Redd, which came highly recommended.  I started with hamachi sashimi which was melt-in-your-mouth tender, with touch of a great gingery sauce.  The fish sat on a rice, edamame, and seaweed salad mixture – tasted good but I could have done without the rice which seemed unnecessary.  Our other starter was the gnocchi pancetta carbonara with poached egg which was out of this world – creamy, rich and decadent beyond compare!  Neighbors had the tasting menu which looked so good – perfect portion sizes and a great variety.

Duck at Redd

Our dinners were the NY steak and the duck breast.  I was blown away by the duck breast – perfectly cooked, with a wonderful vegetable accompaniment (chard and wild mushrooms, I think), over gizzard polenta.  A couple bites of the steak were a bit chewy, but the fantastic sauce was redeeming and the fingerling potatoes were a treat.  What really made the meal for us, however, was the wine pairings.  Jason, the sommelier, was phenomenal.  He hooked us up with wines from the by-the-glass list for each dish — certainly the way to go, given our diverse choices.  I was really impressed with the Foxglove chardonnay with the gnocchi and the great Whetstone pinot that came with the duck.  Highly recommended!!

Steak at Redd

Blue Cheese ChipsThe next day we stopped in at the Rutherford Grill for lunch.  The fish sandwich was good, but we were both unhealthily infatuated with the Pont Reyes Blue Cheese covered potato chips.  Unadulterated sinful goodness.  When we had finished the chips there was still a good amount of the luxurious cheese left on the bottom of the bowl.  As RJ and I were poised above the dish, both contemplating sticking our fingers in to swipe up the excess, our kind server came by and offered us more of the homemade potato chips.  Accepted!

Bouchon-appsThough we had planned on going to Market restaurant in St. Helena that Sunday night, followed by fried chicken night at Ad Hoc, RJ convinced me that we did not have time on Monday to stop for dinner before proceeding to Tahoe.  As I am mildly obsessed with the man, I was not about to leave Napa without having eaten at one of Thomas Keller‘s restaurants.  Thus, we tramped over to Bouchon and demanded a reservation.  Not really – but close!  Thankfully, they had a last minute cancellation and we were in.  The meal was spectacular.  We began with bread served with a choice of butter or warm white bean puree.  They also gave us some citrus-marinated olives to tide us over.  I had the oysters, which ranged from piquant and briny to lucious and creamy.

Bouchon Roast ChickenFor dinner, we ordered the pinnacle of bistro foods: a perfectly-cooked steak frites with maitre d’hotel butter for RJ and a roast chicken half au jus for me.  I have never eaten chicken so good before in my life – sorry Gordon!  I could have taken swigs of that jus out of a juice glass it was so delicious.  It was resting on a pea and bacon mixture that perfectly summed up the character of the dish – rustic, flavorful and familiar.  If I could have fit another ounce in my stomach, I would have had the profiteroles with chocolate sauce, but ’twas not to be.  Even RJ was astounded when he saw a man stand up from a table behind me, walk to the kitchen, and return with a second basket of fries – who could eat that many?!?  I turned to look and whom should I see but THOMAS KELLER!  Wearing a jean shirt and carrying fries to his table, the Man himself was eating right behind me.  I nearly kissed him but for the chicken-greasy mug I wore!  Total satisfaction at Bouchon.Bouchon Steak Frites

I cannot close this post without a mention of our San Francisco eats as well.  We had our biggest splurge meal at Gary Danko – one of the most difficult reservations to obtain in SF, at least that’s what they tell me.  RJ and I both ate four courses — for me: Dungeoness crab salad, branzini, bison filet and cheese.  For RJ: rock shrimp and lobster risotto, porcini-dusted scallops with pea puree, filet mignon and a trio of creme brulees of considerable size (coffee, chocolate, vanilla bean).  Great wine, port and scotch were imbibed by all…  We also dined at Zuni Cafe — I had heard so many raves about the signature chicken that I simply had to partake!  I am sorry to say that I was disappointed.  The dish did not hold a candle to either Boston’s Hammersley’s Bistro or Napa’s Bouchon, plus we had to wait over an hour for it to arrive (stated on the menu, but really — is that necessary?).  The meat was cooked perfectly, but the skin wasn’t all that crispy and we didn’t think there was any stand-out flavor to the chicken except perhaps salt.  That being said, RJ’s cheese risotto was amazing and kept us satisfied for about 45 minutes of the chicken wait.

All in all, we left the state loving California Cuisine, whatever that is!

Day One on a Napa Vacation

Schramsberg cavesI have a great excuse to explain my recent absence from posting — RJ and I have been on our (belated) honeymoon – a whirlwind tour of California, including Napa, Tahoe, and San Francisco.


We started our wine tour with Champagne, a la francaise…  A beautiful drive up a winding path took us to Schramsberg Vineyard, where we met Marshall, our guide.  The tour was short and sweet – we saw the caves with thousands of bottles, stacked 30 racks deep, 50 bottles high, and hundreds of bottles long. The atmosphere was musty and dank – partially because they are caves cut deep into the Napa bedrock, and partially because they recently had a spill of over 700 bottles occur due to rotting wooden racks.  So sad to waste such delicious stuff!  We went deep into the caves and saw the techniques of riddling (the hand-turning of the bottle-fermenting champagne which gradually works the spent yeast up into the neck of the bottle.  We ended up in a dark cavern with

Roman arched walls (hand-chiseled by Chinese workers with pick-axes in the 19th century), complete with lit candelabra and 16 champagne flutes. We tasted the blanc de blancs (bought 2 bottles), the rose brut, and the lower-carbonation P. Schram and Reserve. The last two are reverses of each other – the first 80% chardonnay grapes, the latter 80% pinot noir. Pinot Meunier does not seem to be as popular here. Our favorites were the Blanc de Blancs which had a light, crisp feel – perfect for a summer evening, and the Reserve (unfortunately the Reserve cost $100 a bottle and we couldn’t justify it). The fact that we even considered it scares me, as we pass a $110 Dom Perignon at Costco regularly and scoff. We are definitely in vacation mode!  old-faithfulActually, everything we tasted here was very good, and we were astonished to know that this vineyard we’d never heard of before was the second vineyard ever established in Napa, and the first to start making champenois-method sparkling wine here.

I convinced RJ to pass through the “Old Faithful” geyser hot springs in Calistoga – something he wasn’t thrilled about and only agreed to after I agreed to forgo the petrified forest. I paid our $7 entry fees (thanks to the online coupon) and we walked down a wooden boardwalk, past some baby goats which, in my opinion, were worth the price of admission. After about 3 minutes, we saw the spring start to steam up, and eventually a large spray of water shot into the air. RJ immediately reacted: “Really??! That was it?!? $7!?!?”  Video of the Old Faithful spray available on request…

It was interestinBusters BBQg as a natural phenomenon (to me) but doesn’t look more impressive than the fountains in Las Vegas or even some here in Napa…. After that, I redeemed myself by taking RJ to some good ol’ fashioned BBQ at Buster’s, a place I read about on Trip Advisor. We ordered the famous Tri-Tip sandwich with baked beans on the side, and the ½ rack of ribs with coleslaw on the side. The ribs were rather blah… pretty standard and certainly not the baby back version that RJ prefers. The tri-tip, on the other hand, was phenomenal. A slow-cooked cut of steak, sliced and smothered in BBQ sauce, on a sandwich of toasted garlic bread (with a beer for RJ). MMM! I am absolved of all previous (tourist) sins. We aimed to go to Sterling vineyards next and ride the gondola, but the line (not too long, but the first we’ve seen) deterred RJ and he directed me to look at a picture of the view rather than to take the actual trip.  Fine by me, as I’m not wild about the wine there.

Darioush - The Persian PalaceWe continued on, following the recommendation of our guide, Marshall from Schramsberg, to the Silverado trail. Though I have no complaints about the St. Helena Highway, the Silverado Trail was certainly a treat. It was curvy and fun, weaving through fields and hillsides covered with acres of vines and blankets of mustard flowers. We went back through the towns we’d seen on our way in – St. Helena, Oakville, Yountville – and ended up in the Stag’s Leap district. We went first to the “Persian Palace” – Dariouche – and were mildly disappointed with the spiciness of everything from the Chardonnay to the Cabernet Franc to the Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines weren’t bad, but were not – in our opinion – worthy of the high ratings in Wine Spectator. On our trip back north, we stopped at Chimney Rock for two tastings – a current release flight for me, and a Cabernet tasting for RJ. I was incredibly impressed by the ragusciBordeaux-style white served first, and again by the Cabernet 2004. RJ thought the 2003 Cabernet was one of the best Cabs he’d ever tasted – so much so that he neglected to share!! We agreed to come back later to taste the “Reserve” flight and maybe buy some wines. Mike is on the lookout for us! I think that that was our last sober experience of good judgment, for as we tasted at our next stop – Regusci – we were much less prudent! I don’t, however, doubt our tastebuds, for this was the best wine I’ve had in a long while. The Chardonnay was phenomenal, followed by great merlot, transcendent zinfandel, and a blend red that we could not stop raving about: the Patriarch. While our favorite was the 100% Cabernet, our good pal Jonesy recommended that we wait for the 2006 vintage to shell out on that one. We ended up purchasing a bottle of the Zin and one of the Patriarch, and they comp-ed our tasting fees. Love it!!

Best judgment aside, we decided to stop just one more time – at the second recommendation from Marshall – Robert Sinskey winery. We came into a busy tasting room about 10 minutes before closing and made friends with the pourer and a guy a the bar from San Diego. They served us tiny hors d’oeuvres that matched the wines (delicious) and allowed RJ and myself to share a flight. While I talked to Mr. San Diego about California ports, RJ bought up 2 bottles of the Cabernet! At Day One’s End, our tally included: 2 bottles of champagne from Schramsberg, 2 bottles of Sinskey Cab, 1 bottle of Zin from Regusci, 1 bottle of Patriarch from Regusci.

We eventually did stop back at Chimney Rock for the third tasting they offered – the best Cabs on the menu – and we were very impressed!  I feel like I could spend weeks here, not to mention millions of dollars, and never get bored. The scenery is out-of-this-world beautiful, the weather has been extraordinary, and the wine has made the two of us happy as honeymooners!  Next post: Napa cuisine!

Vineyard Shot