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March 10, 2010

Napa Valley - Day I

Vineyard Dominic Armato

With apologies for my continued absence, I've decided to spend much of our vacation vacationing. Which isn't to say that I don't enjoy writing the blog. I love it. But it's nice to get back to a snazzy hotel room at the end of day spent in a beautiful valley and say, you know what, I don't *have* to write about this tonight. So I didn't. And we spent a shocking portion of the previous week eating well, and then sleeping.

By way of explanation, we finally managed to get ourselves back to the Napa Valley for a real vacation this past week. Aside from a quick jaunt for dinner early last year, my ladylove and I hadn't been to Napa since our wedding four years ago. And our only trip before that was a surgical strike for planning. And during our actual wedding trip, we were a little preoccupied. Which is all a lengthy way of saying that we'd never really gotten a chance to hang around and actually check out the place until just last week.

EpiDominic Armato

In some ways, the drive from the local airports is kind of a pain, and in other ways, hopping in a rental car and cruising the highway for a couple of hours as the scenery slowly shifts from urban to suburban to stunningly gorgeous is the perfect way to decompress. But after a morning flight and no breakfast, man does not cruise from one end of the valley to the other without stopping to refuel. So on our way to Calistoga, we opted to make a pit stop at Bouchon. As I mentioned around this time last year, Bouchon isn't a life-altering experience. But that said, Keller gives really good bistro and it seemed the ideal way to kick off a few days of good eating and drinking. I've written about Bouchon before, and won't rehash the entire experience, but if there's one thing that merits a repeat mention, it's the stunning bread, for which I finally managed to snap a decent photo. We devoured two of these monsters within ten minutes of sitting down, and left such an embarrassing pile of crusty carnage behind that I thought the busboy would abandon the table crumber in favor of a snow shovel. The epi is nothing fancy -- just a traditional French baguette in the shape of a stalk of wheat -- but this is some seriously good bread.

Smoked Sturgeon SaladDominic Armato

My ladylove, intentionally or otherwise, ordered the same pâté de campagne and croque madame that delighted her the last time around, and with good reason. But I opted to branch out a bit, starting with a special that caught my eye, both on the menu and on the table next to us. A dollop of creamy sturgeon salad was topped with a thick slice of the same delicately smoked, firmly textured fish, and plated with an artful array of roasted beets, citrus segments, and a potent citrus aioli. It was more of a tease than a salad, the entirety of the sturgeon on the left no larger than a typical piece of nigiri sushi. But it was so delicate, so nicely balanced, smoked with such restraint, and to perfectly and unexpectedly paired with its sweet and citrusy accompaniments that I'd sooner have a few spoonfuls of this than a plateful of something made with less care.

BouillabaisseDominic Armato

My main provided the opportunity to right a long-standing wrong, that being that I've never had a bowl of bouillabaisse. It's one of those dishes that I've wanted to try so badly for so long that I've been afraid to let my first taste be anything other than a shining example of the genre. Of course, there are those who will argue that the particular mix of fresh, local seafood means that true bouillabaisse doesn't exist outside of the French Riviera. Having not sampled the dish in its natural environment, I suppose I'm not in a position to say, but that's always struck me as a rather extreme position. It seems to me that any good chef ought to be able to capture the stew's spirit with a a thoughtful selection of the seafood available to him. What, precisely, constitutes "authentic" bouillabaisse isn't a subject about which I'm going to pretend to be an authority, but a common theme is that a purist demands his broth and fish served separately, rather than combined in a stew as is rather common. In this sense, Keller kind of bridges the gap, serving the broth and seafood together, but only by pouring a small amount of intensely flavorful soup into the bottom of a bowl that contains a stunning array of beautifully presented seafood. They inhabit the same vessel, but the connection between the two is so tenuous that they might as well be sitting on opposite ends of the table. I'm unsure whether I consider this a good or a bad thing. Both the broth and the seafood were fabulous, but I almost felt as though I were eating two different dishes. I enjoyed it. A lot. I'm just unsure -- traditional or no -- whether I would have preferred a more unified dish. Clearly, I need to eat more bouillabaisse.

Bouchon BakeryDominic Armato

I've no doubt that desserts would have been lovely, but grabbing something elsewhere and enjoying out sweets with a view of the hills seemed like a much, much better idea. So we popped into Bouchon Bakery, immediately next door, where an array of breads and pastries are available for carry-out. So I started my dessert with... um... a sandwich (lunch had followed an 18-hour fast, and was *tiny*!). Half a sandwich, anyway. And I'm glad I did, because it ended up being one of my favorite bites of the trip. The "Cuban" isn't like any Cuban I've had before, but it's shockingly good. Cheese, pickles, mustard and I believe a bit of horseradish top a sandwich comprised of some of the most divine pork I've had between two pieces of bread. This was a "Cuban" as only a French chef could make, with pork that was absolutely riddled with fat, meltingly tender and succulent even in its chilled state. Seriously, a killer sandwich. And I didn't even get it toasted. Oh, and I had an éclair. And it was great. But back to that sandwich:

"Cuban" Sandwich Dominic Armato

Ooooooooo. At any rate, after a laid-back afternoon, a little nap and a relaxing evening, we opted to stick close to home for dinner. The Lakehouse is the restaurant at Calistoga Ranch and, somewhat oddly, is only open to those staying there. It's a weird sort of exclusivity with no real consequence since, as we discovered, it's tasty but not all that.

Crispy SweetbreadsDominic Armato

If nothing else, the limited access ensures that it's quiet at this time of year, and we had the entire restaurant -- massive wooden beams, huge stone hearth, decrepit farm implements and all -- almost to ourselves. It's an exceptionally laid-back but classy location, overlooking a "lake" where the frogs are bordering on cacophonous at times. Says ritzy vacation to me. In any case, it's a four course prix fixe menu, with three selections for each (though you're encouraged to mix and match should you so desire). Though I didn't taste it, my ladylove started with hamachi and salmon sashimi, beautifully plated, with Persian cucumber, pomegranate, endive, greens and tangerine oil. Though she seemed underwhelmed by the sashimi, I think she could've taken down an acre's worth of Persian cucumbers. For me? Crispy sweetbreads on parsnip puree with a salad that featured matchstick pink lady apples and a lonesome little dollop of red pepper relish on the far end of the plate. I think it was Stephanie Izard who famously compared fried sweetbreads to chicken nuggets, and though not universally so, the comparison seemed apt here. Even if these little nuggets weren't an exemplary treatment of the thymus gland, the fact that they were breaded and fried made them reasonably enjoyable by default, and the apple and sweet relish provided a nice counterpoint.

Bass with Asparagus, Black Eyed Peas and Guanciale Bronzino with Saffron FumetDominic Armato

Our second courses were where The Lakehouse did some rather nice work, putting out two fish dishes that I'd love to eat again anytime. Mine was crisply seared bronzino, with mussels, clams, slivers of peppers, beans and a saffron fumet. And even if the saffron didn't come through for me -- a more assertive broth would have made me much happier -- this was still nicely executed and a thoroughly enjoyable dish. My ladylove's, however, was spot on, a sizable striped bass fillet, topped with greens, shaved white asparagus and lemon, and sitting on a mix of haricot verts, black eyed peas and diced guanciale. It was a really delightful mix that came across as hearty but not heavy, and did a great service to the fish. And I'm not just saying that because there were chunks of cured pork fat involved. Above all, these were two dishes that featured lovely pieces of fis with a perfect crust.

Duck Confit with Knödel and GrapesDominic Armato

For a third course, we were both feeling the duck confit, and while I can't call it disappointing, it also wasn't anything to get excited about. Sitting atop a pool of very mild jus with grapes, braised lettuce and crisply seared knödel, it was entirely duck-forward with very little distraction. Almost too little. But my main issue was with the crispness of the confit, which just struck me as odd, somehow. I wish I'd been paying closer attention, but I felt like it just didn't get a good sear for some reason or other. Like the sweetbreads, hey, it's duck confit. It was undeniably ducky and there's nothing not to like about that. But I'm not rushing back to order it again, either. Some nondescript sorbet followed for me and a dessert for my ladylove that I don't recall. I find it difficult to complain that we could get a rather nice meal in such a great setting just steps from our room. But I can't say we'd be in a hurry to return were it not for the fact that we could practically roll out the door right to a table.

Having been abused with such gargantuan portions (we were informed that, it being a slow night and figuring the food was on hand, the kitchen figured they might as well send it out), we waddled out, quite sated, and went back to our room to crash and prepare for the main event on the evening of Day II.

Napa - Day I   |   Napa - Day II   |   The French Laundry   |   Napa - Day III   |   Napa - Day IV

6534 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599
Mon - Sun11:30 AM - 12:30 AM
Bouchon Bakery
6528 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599
Mon - Sun7:00 AM - 7:00 PM
The Lakehouse
580 Lommel Road
Calistoga, CA 94515
Mon - Sun7:00 AM - 10:00 PM


So glad you enjoyed your vacation, Dom but awfully nice to have you back :-)

Welcome back, now get to work!!!

Top Chef Masters starts April 17!!!!


Looks like 16 new chefs plus 6 from last year.

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