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March 31, 2010

Pane Bianco

Soppressata with Aged Provolone and Roasted Peppers Dominic Armato

And now, a Phoenix post that will be completely useless to Phoenicians. Bear with me. I'm still getting up to speed. And I'll make it up to you on Friday. Mmmmmmmaybe Monday.

In any case, one of the Phoenix standards I hit pretty early on in our tenure here was Pane Bianco. Pizzeria Bianco clearly needs to happen at some point (despite a number of downhill alerts that have been floating around), but since it seems that it's about as easy to land an audience with a Chris Bianco pizza as it is to land an audience with the Pope or the Easter Bunny (or both), it'll have to wait for an evening when I have six hours to devote to the process. Pane Bianco, on the other hand, is a quick and easy stop and rather highly regarded 'round these parts. Which is why those who live in Phoenix can tune out. I'm just joining the choir, here.

The Front DoorDominic Armato

It's a stripped-down establishment, open only for a few hours around lunchtime, five days a week. They have a spartan industrial chic thing happening in front of the counter, even if things look a little chaotic behind. And the menu's tiny. Three regular sandwiches, two of which are also repackaged as salads, one market special and a foccaccia of the day. You place your order, wait a few minutes, and walk out the door. Orders are exclusively to-go, and the few picnic tables out front are usually busy... in the wintertime, at least. But thus far, every sandwich we've had has come home with us. Every time we've gone. Which has already been quite a few times.

Housemade Mozzarella, Tomato, BasilDominic Armato

The sandwiches are freaking great, and their success is due to three things. First, the bread, which is freshly baked in the wood-fired oven behind the counter. Positioned somewhere between ciabatta and pizza dough, it has great flavor and a great chew on top, but is still thin and supple enough that it's not a challenge to consume. Second, they're of the minimal school. No overworked messes with 37 different ingredients, here. And third, the ingredient sourcing is fantastic. I'm not one to play the "oh, sandwiches are so much better in Europe blah blah blah" card. Sometimes those 37 ingredients can work great together. But there's no denying that these are sandwiches with old-world sensibilities. Simple, fresh and ingredient-focused, where the bread is as important as what's inside of it.

Tomato, Onion and Raschera FoccacciaDominic Armato

My least favorite of the three regular sandwiches, the soppressata with aged provolone and roasted peppers, is still a pretty freaking good sandwich. Delicious meat, great cheese, sweet roasted peppers with perhaps a little hit of vinegar. Moving on up the ladder is a killer caprese on bread, a tender and milky house-made mozzarella with fresh basil, tomatoes that are way too good for the dead of winter (though I understand the growing season out here is a little wonky), and killer olive oil. The one I keep coming back to is the tuna with red onion, Gaeta olives, lemon and arugula. A little acid, a little oil... good tuna doesn't need much more than that. And the market sandwiches have been similarly delicious. But the stealth star of the menu, straight across every trip I've made there, has been the focaccia of the day, sitting in a small pile right on the front counter. My kid, predictably devoted to pizza, has been the recipient of this particular morsel every time. And every time I've hovered over him, waiting for the "All done!" so I can pounce. Moist and flavorful bread, doused with olive oil and topped with more stellar ingredients, and the bargain of the menu at $3 a slice.

I certainly don't mean to give the impression that somehow Pane Bianco has it right while those sandwich shops more focused on recipes somehow have it wrong. There's room for everybody's contributions to the sandwich pantheon, here. And I also don't mean to make it sound as though these are jaw-dropping works of genius. They're just great sandwiches. And simple ones at that. But that's what makes them so refreshing. Their deliciousness is as much a function of what Bianco doesn't do as it is a function of what he does do. But he's doing (and not doing) the right things, and Pane Bianco is already part of our regular rotation.

Pane Bianco
4404 N Central Avenue
Phoenix, AZ 85012
Tue - Sat11:00 AM - 3:00 PM

March 26, 2010


Nogales Hot Dogs Dominic Armato

So I live in Phoenix now. It's a little odd, though you'd think we'd be getting used to moving around at this point. Perhaps it's just that the landscape is so different out here. In Baltimore, the houses were skinny, but it was an old, dense city and I could relate to that. In Boston, it felt like I never left home. Our neighborhood was a spitting image of where I grew up. But out here every street is a six lane highway and the city sometimes feels like an endless strip mall surrounded by the stunningly serene desert. It's culture shock, to be sure. So I think some introductions are in order. Previous places I've lived, I'd like you to meet a little piece of Phoenix. And Phoenix, I'd like you to meet a little piece of my hometown.

Hot Dog CondimentsDominic Armato

Sonoran hot dogs first hit my radar about a year ago, and they stuck in my mind because of the pure insanity of the whole concept. They're more closely associated with Tucson, but well-represented in Phoenix. Essentially, the good ol' American tube steak drifted south of the border, hung out in Sonora for an awfully long time, and came back a changed foodstuff. There are a lot of variables from place to place, but the basic elements are this: a hot dog wrapped in bacon, placed on a bun with a generous smear of mayonnaise, pinto beans, raw and/or grilled onions and chopped tomatoes. As a baseline, that's pretty much standard. But then you get into the common options, which often include avocado, mushrooms, cheddar or cotija cheese, any number of salsas or hot sauces, and even ketchup or mustard. The only thing more shocking than the list of ingredients was the fact that the first few things I heard about them were completely positive. A local lowbrow foodstuff with that much zaniness going on and the potential for actual deliciousness? Very high on the list upon our arrival in the desert.

Sonoran Hot DogDominic Armato

As luck would have it, we don't live too far from one of Phoenix's most beloved Sonoran hot dog purveyors. By day, the southwest corner of Indian School and 20th Street is a mattress store which, from the looks of it, isn't anyplace I want to buy anything I plan to sleep on. But at night, the parking lot turns into an outdoor hot dog stand. The folks who operate Nogales Hot Dogs drive in, a van loaded with equipment and pulling a grill trailer. They erect two 10x10' canopies, pull out five folding tables and twentysomething folding chairs, set up a table filled with condiments on ice, deck out the rest with ketchup, mustard, hot sauces and napkin dispensers, plug in a small flatscreen TV, and wait for the booze crowd to roll in. It's a hoot. And while it may not look like much in the yellow light of the streetlamp, here's the thing: the hot dogs are great.

Maybe not culinary masterpiece great, but I have to say, after Chicago-style, this is now my second-favorite way to eat a hot dog. Their base is the obligatory dog and bacon, with mayonnaise, pinto beans, raw onions and chopped tomato. From their condiment table, I added some mushrooms, pureed avocado, cotija cheese and a pickled jalapeno. The first time I went, I found it odd but compelling. The second time, I kind of dug it. By the third time, I was hooked. It just works. And while I find some of the offerings like ketchup and mustard distracting, there's no denying that most of these ingredients apparently have a natural affinity for a hot dog. For less than five bucks, you can grab a dog and a cold Jarritos and soak in a little late-night desert warmth while the partygoers at the next table soak up some booze and the occasional car whizzes by. I have yet to determine whether Nogales Hot Dogs serves an average or exceptional product, but even if the dog wasn't oddly compelling, the surreal scene is.

Al's on Taylor - The OriginalDominic Armato

Equally surreal, if for very different reasons, is the Al's #1 Italian Beef franchise that opened in Scottsdale about a week ago. Phoenix, much to my surprise, is no stranger to the Italian beef. The first week I was here, I found three different places that served it, and I wasn't even looking. It's so widely represented, in fact, that I may have to resurrect an old, favorite series of posts and have a little Beef-Off West. But numerous though they may be, it doesn't appear that Phoenix has gotten anything on the level of Al's, one of Chicago's most venerated Italian Beef institutions. Well, the original is venerated, anyway. The 20 or so Chicagoland franchises are highly variable and generally frowned upon by local food nerds. But the Scottsdale location is the very first to open outside of the city and its immediate environs, and it's tough not to get excited about that. Back to the surreal: Al's in Scottsdale looks about as authentic as a Disney attraction. Sure, every decrepit old Chicago beef stand was fresh and clean at one point in time, but they weren't all trying so hard to identify with Chicago. They didn't have to. They were there. And since most of those places were well-established long before the advent of the modern franchise restaurant, they didn't feel the need to plaster their logo over every available surface. And I'm pretty sure they don't weigh their sandwiches out on digital scales before serving them, either. But as usual, taste trumps all.

For those Phoenecians (or others) who may not be familiar with the institution, the Italian Beef is, in this author's humble opinion, the most noble of Chicago's greasy foodstuffs. The Chicago-style hot dog, deep dish pizza, a Maxwell Street Polish... sure, they all have their charms, but none are as artful or as divine -- when they're on -- as the Italian Beef. Big chunks of beef are seasoned with garlic, oregano and often other spices you'd associate with a stereotypical Italian-American palette of flavors, and roasted. The beef is then cooled, sliced extremely thin on a deli slicer, and reheated in a tub of similarly seasoned hot beef jus before it's gently tossed in a big pile on a long roll with the optional sautéed or roasted sweet bell peppers, and/or a hot pepper relish called giardiniera (Chicagoans, you'd be surprised how foreign that word is in a lot of places). And if you know what you're doing, you let them dunk the entire thing in the juice, bread and all, before giving it to you. The giardiniera is often where a beef stand will put its individual stamp on a sandwich, and in some pockets of the city it's not unheard of to add a little provolone cheese (even if I consider it sacrilegious), but that's pretty much the beast.

Al's Italian BeefDominic Armato

"Big deal," the non-Chicagoan says, "Isn't that just a French Dip?" Poor, ignorant souls. As the great Cecil Adams recently wrote, "Sure, and that yellow-orange crap that comes in the spray cans is cheese, too." The French dip is a brutish concoction, usually composed of clumsy, thick slices hewn from plain boiled or roasted beef, shoved into bread and dipped into something overly salty and made with bouillon. Don't let its messy appearance fool you. The Italian Beef is a sophisticated and finicky creature at heart, extremely difficult to prepare well and always a tiny mistake away from turning into a tasteless mess. Even the best beef stands in Chicago sometimes have consistency issues. But flirting with disaster is the only way to achieve true greatness. Unlike the Philly cheesesteak, buried in dairy, the Italian Beef is one of the purest expressions of beefy goodness in existence, every part of the sandwich designed to enhance the meat's essence. Put simply, to have an exceptional Italian Beef sandwich is to know beef. So is the Scottsdale outpost of Al's up to the task?

I gotta say, it ain't bad. Maybe not up to the standards of the flagship, but this is a beef sandwich I'd be proud to share with a first-timer. On my first trip, I had a great sandwich -- moist and tender beef that had achieved slightly gummy fusion with the interior of the roll (this is a good thing), in-house bread that doesn't quite replicate the Chicago bakeries that supply most of the hometown beef stands but does a stand-up job, giardiniera that mostly mimics Al's signature, if atypical, mix of shredded celery and fennel in a red hot oil, succulent juice that thoroughly saturated the sandwich... all of the pieces were there. It won't stop you from missing the favorites back home, but it's a fine sandwich that stands in admirably. A subsequent trip well after the lunch rush (2:30 or so) exposed a common beef stand weakness. The dry beef on that trip, paradoxically, was most likely the result of it sitting in the hot juice for too long, since the crowd had dissipated and the beef wasn't being turned over as quickly (see "finicky creature", above). A little too long in the hot jus bath and the spell is broken. As such, I'd highly recommend sticking to the peak lunch hour, even if it means a bit of a wait. But if you do, you'll be happy with the results. Just please, please, please, order it dipped or wet. A dry Italian Beef sandwich is a very sad thing.

And so, with the introductions out of the way, I already have something of a Phoenix backlog to start plowing through. More to come.

Nogales Hot Dogs
1945 E. Indian School Road
Phoenix, AZ 85016
Sun - Thu6:00 PMish - 12:00 AMish
Fri - Sat6:00 PMish - 2:00 AMish
Al's #1 Italian Beef
14740 N. Northsight Blvd.
Scottsdale, AZ 85260

March 22, 2010


Salt and Pepper Dominic Armato

Time to get this show on the road.

With Napa done, there's a trip to San Francisco I've been holding off on writing up until the cat was out of the bag. But you know, we've been in Phoenix for nearly three months, now. Time to start acting like it. Frisco can wait.

Food-wise, I'm still getting settled in. Combing through some neighborhood joints, checking out ethnic markets, getting to know some local food nerds... starting to make Phoenix home. And last weekend, the opportunity for an evening out presented itself, so we figured we'd check out one of the area's culinary stars.

He's now getting national exposure on Food Network, but Beau MacMillan has been a big name around these parts for a while now, having spent the last decade heading up the kitchen over at Sanctuary resort. Much has been made of the revamping of their flagship restaurant, Elements, and it reopened early this year with a brand spanking new kitchen and a revised menu to boot. Nestled into the north face of Camelback Mountain, it's always had a spectacular view, and while I can't speak to its previous vibe, the look these days is the kind of Ariona chic I've already come to expect from local restaurants -- modern, dim, and highly, highly image-conscious. I walked in not knowing the slightest thing about MacMillan's style, and intentionally so. Why form any preconceived notions when I can just go and see for myself? All I knew was that the fellow was awfully popular around these parts and that the early buzz about the reopening was rather positive.

I'm not sure why I was surprised to discover that the menu is so heavily Asian-influenced. It isn't as though I had any reason to believe it wasn't. It's just that I can't remember the last time I've seen a menu with such a full-on Asian fusion vibe. Fusion's a dirty word these days, but I'm a full supporter... provided it's done skillfully.

Albacore TartareDominic Armato

We got off to kind of a ho-hum start, selecting the albacore tartare off the raw menu to share. A hockey puck-sized ring mold of albacore -- fairly large dice -- sat atop an equal portion of shredded cucumber. A smear of "sesame hummus" was off to the side, along with splash of white soy that I believe had been punched up with something acidic, and garnishes were abundant... a half a cherry tomato, a small lump of avocado, a pile of onion sprouts and a fried lotus root chip. It certainly sounded like a combination that would have worked. We wouldn't have ordered it otherwise. But it somehow didn't come together. I think the issue was one of balance. The cucumber was, I believe, completely unseasoned, and the sesame hummus was very much a simple, base flavor without sweetness or acid. All of which meant that the only bright flavor in the entire dish was the miniscule splash of white soy. That got you through two, maybe three bites, and then it lost all cohesion. Admittedly, it's better than getting a tartare that's swimming in an overbearing sauce -- a far more common problem -- but without a bright contrast, the other components didn't bring anything out of the fish, and it quickly devolved into a pile of rather plain-tasting albacore, which, let's be honest, isn't the most distinctive-tasting raw fish in the sea. This past summer, a dish I had at L2O made me forget why I'd stopped ordering tuna tartare. This one reminded me.

Sweet & Sour Braised BaconDominic Armato

My starter had exactly the opposite problem. Three thick slices of braised pork belly (identified as bacon, but if there was any smoke there I wasn't getting it) were piled up with wilted watercress, mushrooms and a small helping of pearl pasta, and the entire plate was dressed with an exceptionally sweet Chinese mustard sauce that was further smacked by some manner of sweet and sour drizzle. There were good points here, but they got lost as the dish completely drowned in its sauce. Texturally speaking, I loved how the pearl pasta worked against the pork. And the meat was handled very well. It was tender, delicious and it absolutely honored the fat. Problem was, the only way I could tell was by pulling some off to the side and mopping up whatever sauce I could before tasting it on its own. I thought it a shame, really, to take a nice piece of pork belly like that and completely obliterate it with such a powerul sauce. Use half the amount and it still might've been twice as much as there should be. Just a bad call, in my opinion.

Hot & Cold Butter LettuceDominic Armato

My ladylove went with a salad for her first, selecting the hot & cold butter lettuce. It wasn't bad as much as it was kind of puzzling. It was a little overdressed for my tastes, and featured bleu cheese, whole cloves of roasted garlic, fried onions and slices of Chinese sausage. What I couldn't get past was the Chinese sausage. I love Chinese sausage, but I couldn't figure out what it was doing here other than attempting to maintain the menu's Asian theme. You think salad, bleu cheese and sweet dressing, you think bacon. Which isn't to say that that's what should have been there. I only point out that that's what you might typically expect, because while I'm no clairvoyant, it seemed as though the sausage was supposed to be a creative Asian substitute. Except it didn't work. It wasn't a problem so much as it was superfluous. Salty and smoky bacon with a sweet dressing is a round contrast of flavors. Sweet Chinese sausage with a sweet dressing is one note. Without having access to MacMillan's brain, it just seemed like a choice meant more to look good on the menu than to actually taste good.

Short Rib RavioliDominic Armato

My ladylove's entree, of which I only had a couple of fleeting tastes, was the strongest of the evening, but even this one didn't sit quite right with me. Short rib ravioli are plated with sugar cured shallots, tomato jam and horseradish hollandaise. First off, it's another sweet bomb. That said, this was some pretty tasty sweet. The hollandaise, the tomatoes, the sweet shallots -- this was an aggressive and delicious combination of flavors. But once again, the dish was all sauce. The pasta might as well have not been there, and there was a gaping hole where the short rib should have been. The deep, meaty flavor that should have served as the base of the dish wasn't there. What I got was delicious. It just felt like the foundation of the dish was missing.

Many Spiced NiragiDominic Armato

I'm having a frustrating time trying to express why my entree didn't work for me, but it didn't. The many spiced niragi came seared and sliced with a bed of forbidden rice, lobster ceviche, avocado puree, slivered mango, cilantro and what I believe was a white soy reduction. The problem here was one of cohesion, and I think I know why. The mango was mango. The rice was rice. The avocado, while it looked to have something blended in there, played like a plain avocado puree. And I don't know what about the lobster made it a lobster ceviche. I can't imagine how I missed the acid, if it was there, but it tasted like steamed lobster meat to me. So take all of these things, and line them up side-by-side on a long plate next to the fish. Not much compelling about that, right? Okay, now stack those elements on top of each other. Is it really any better? When you have a plate with a number of elements, a common cooking mantra is that even if they're meant to go together, they should all taste great individually. Failing that, while it looked lovely, the niragi came across more as a collection of ingredients than a cohesive dish. For reasons that I just can't put my finger on, they didn't tie together, and the result was unsatisfying.

I read back, and this looks brutal. I don't really intend it to be so. Nothing we ate was bad. But at the same time, every single dish had problems. Of the five I tasted, there wasn't a single one where I could just sit back and say, hey, that's a good dish. And what surprised me was that the problems didn't appear to be mistakes, but rather they seemed to be the result of poor choices. Or at least ones I didn't agree with. I was really disappointed. I'd heard good things and was very much looking forward to our dinner. And it sure sounds like I'm the one in the minority, here. Maybe I'm totally off in left field on this one. But I walked away disappointed by Elements.

5700 East McDonald Drive
Paradise Valley, AZ 85253
Mon - Thu11:30 AM - 2:00 PM6:00 PM - 9:30 PM
Fri - Sat11:30 AM - 2:00 PM6:00 PM - 10:00 PM
Sun7:00 AM - 2:00 PM6:00 PM - 9:30 PM

March 19, 2010

Napa Valley - Day IV

The Avenger Dominic Armato

Napa Valley's a big place. You're going to be doing some driving. Our chariot? A Dodge Avenger. Which is now officially my favorite rental car of all time, simply because it made "To The Avenger!" an entirely appropriate thing to say whenever it was time to leave. It pained me to return that car. Well, maybe a little bit. (Okay, not so much.)

The Avenger figured prominently into our final day, a slow migration south to Oakland International airport, hitting as much tastiness as we could along the way, which, sadly, wasn't much. We... uh... slept in. And just like that, the Fatted Calf would have to wait until next time (tactical error). But lunch is non-optional, and Mustards Grill seemed like a good place for a pit stop.

Caesar SaladDominic Armato

That's the vibe they're going for, anyway, tongue firmly planted in cheek. Mustards is a roadside grill -- an "American Grill" -- and it features the casual cuisine of Cindy Pawlcyn, a local warhorse who's suddenly a little more widely known because of her appearance on Top Chef Masters (she's the one who thought it would be a good idea to make menudo while up against Bayless in the first round). I knew of her before TCM, knew she had her fingers in a number of successful San Francisco eateries, but I didn't know much of her style nor had I had a chance to try any of her restaurants. These days, she runs three joints up in the Napa Valley, of which Mustards is the unofficial flagship. It has a reputation as the kind of place the locals go to eat, though the fact that it has that reputation suggests to me that they probably don't. At least not anymore. But all speculation about the dining habits of the Napa locals aside (feel free to jump in, anybody who actually knows what they're talking about), it's known as a good place to feed yourself when you get tired of fussy presentations and tasting portions, and day four is typically when you start to feel like you could use a big chunk of something, so that's what I got.

Octopus, Salami and Apple SaladDominic Armato

My ladylove started with a straight-up Caesar salad, which I would have jumped on too had it not been for the special I couldn't resist. Full leaves of crisp romaine, chunky croutons, slivered cheese, creamy dressing -- it's not the pinnacle of the form, but it hit the spot. Meanwhile, I went with an octopus salad which was plated with salami, apples and greens. The dish was one of an assortment of "Greek" specials, bright with lemon and oregano, and frankly I thought it was a nice combination. Only problem was that it had the least octopus of any octopus salad I'd ever encountered. Which isn't to say it wasn't good. It was. It just seemed kind of like offering a grilled cheese sandwich and serving a reuben. It was a nice dish, it just left me wanting for octopus.

Ravioli with Chanterelles and KaleDominic Armato

My ladylove followed with ricotta ravioli with chanterelles and kale, and the pasta wasn't bad but the sauce, while tasty, was oddly thin. It was more like ravioli sitting in a soup, except that it wasn't served with a spoon. Just a puzzling choice. There were no such identity problems with my main, however. The Mongolian pork chop is a huge chunk of meat sitting on top of a couple of piles of vegetables, all doused with a ton of sauce. Subtlety, it would seem, is not so much Pawlcyn's thing. The chop was heavily glazed with a syrupy sweet concoction that featured hoisin, and it was swimming in a pool of Chinese mustard sauce that was as sweet as it was pungent, and it was a lot of both. Even the sweet and sour cabbage skewed far towards the sweet end of the spectrum. One bite and it was clear that Pawlcyn was trying to buy my love with sugar. And truthfully, though that would normally annoy me, I found myself okay with it. Excessive sugar is usually a crutch, sure, but this wasn't a bad dish. They get a nice smoky flavor out of the oak grill and the sauce's zip did keep it from simply being a sugary mess. I felt dirty about it, but yeah, I'll cop to it. I enjoyed my pork-glazed sugar.

Mongolian Pork ChopDominic Armato

So, you know, hit and miss with a side of guilty pleasure over at Mustard's Grill. Big on flavor, low on restraint, which is all fine and good, but a couple of puzzling choices that made it less than it could've been. The big upshot was that we'd definitely be leaving Napa with full bellies. Well, mmmmaybe not quite as full as we'd like. Clearly, what we needed was more sugar, so we dropped into Bouchon Bakery again a little further down the road. An entire bakery full of sweets and what do I do? I get another éclair. Coffee, this time, which turned out to be an awesome call. Crazy intensity of flavor. The coffee reduction that went into the pastry cream must've looked like freaking maple syrup. And why stop at sweets? I... uh... picked up another "Cuban" for the plane.

Chocolate ÉclairDominic Armato

And with that, our Napa odyssey -- the first of four where we really had some time to absorb the place a bit -- came to a close. The Avenger conveyed us to the airport and we were on our way. It's interesting, we had some fine meals, but with this trip I was left with the impression that while there's obviously some great food here, it's undeniably a *wine* destination. Yes, I know... duh. But one might presume that the two always walk hand in hand... or at least that wine doesn't walk without the food it's paired with. Napa Valley, however, is not so much a food and wine destination as it is a wine destination with some great food. My point is that this isn't a shared stage. More than a couple of times over the course of our trip, we were told that Napa Valley is growing as a food destination, implying that food is second fiddle, and I'd have to say that our experience supports that. The French Laundry is worthy of a pilgrimage, but otherwise there's nothing I can see that makes Napa Valley unique or even exceptional purely as a food destination. You could eat better an hour and a half down the freeway in San Francisco.

Of course, it isn't purely a food destination. It's stunningly beautiful, the culture is just so darn agreeable, and if you're a wine geek as well you can't do much better. Taking the food nerd's perspective, there are plenty of better places to eat, but there are few more enjoyable places to eat well. And there's no question that you will eat very, very well. Heck, I continued my good eating on the plane ride home. The folks around me looked jealous of my sandwich. They didn't know the half of it.

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

Mustards Grill
7399 St. Helena Highway
Napa, CA 94558
Mon - Thu11:30 AM - 9:00 PM
Fri11:30 AM - 10:00 PM
Sat11:00 AM - 10:00 PM
Sun11:00 AM - 9:00 PM

March 18, 2010

Napa Valley - Day III

Mac and Cheese Dominic Armato

UPDATE : Martini House has closed

On day three, we lost all motivation to do anything other than sleep and eat.

This isn't to suggest that we were doing a whole lot of other things on days one and two, but on day three, we emphatically resolved to do even less of them. This was partly a matter of desire, as the realization struck that this would be our last day without little ones underfoot, and partially a matter of necessity, as my ladylove wasn't feeling quite up to snuff and pumping her full of alcohol seemed like it might not be the best idea. So we rolled out of bed late in the morning, with a little disappointment I cancelled our winery appointments for the day (not too much disappointment -- the promise of sleep is incredibly seductive these days), and we took a quick jaunt down to St. Helena to look around and grab lunch at Market, about which I'd heard some good things.

Bay Shrimp CocktailDominic Armato

Market's a pretty laid back little joint, right on the main drag in downtown St. Helena. Though clean and almost a little elegant, it never projects an upscale vibe, particularly at lunchtime when sandwiches dominate the menu. But I can see how it might come across as a little less casual and a little more classy at night when the lights are dimmed and folks dress accordingly. The menu's pretty typical for what I've seen in the valley... New American, very seasonal, the usual. Of course, it provided me with an immediate issue because I'm not a big mac and cheese guy, and yet mac and cheese is a dish that they're known for. After hemming and hawing for a bit, our server sensed my consternation and offered to start us off with a side of it. Perfect! I didn't regret not having it for my main, but I can see how many would. It's a very loose, creamy rendition with cheddar, Parmigiano Reggiano, plenty of minced herbs and a horde of tiny bits of crisp bacon, with a breadcrumb top. Upscale mac and cheese interpretations are a dime a dozen these days, and for all I know these guys were way ahead of the trend, but either way there's no denying that it's a particularly enjoyable rendition thereof.

Fish and ChipsDominic Armato

While my ladylove went with a beet and blood orange salad -- perfectly delicious, if exactly what you'd expect -- I attacked their bay shrimp cocktail. It's got some punch, which wouldn't have surprised me if I'd bothered to do my research and learned that the chef/owner, Eduardo Martinez, is a native of Mexico. It may not be what I think of as your run-of-the-mill mariscos (because, you know, I've traveled extensively through Mexico and am an authority on such matters </sarcasm>), but that's clearly where it is in spirit, with tomatoes, avocado, lime and plenty of chiles. A good shrimp cocktail. Too bad half of the chips were chewy. Sticking with the seafood vibe, I'd been craving fish and chips ever since the Pete's Fish & Chips fiasco, so that's where I went for my main. Three cigar-shaped fingers of freshly-battered cod came on a pile of thin and crispy fries, with all of the usual suspects for dipping. I'm not sure if the fact that it came across as a little more refined than your average F&C was a function of substituting champagne for beer in the batter, or the fish's slender torpedo shape, but it felt just a little fancy. Pure fish and chips at its heart, well-executed, but with a touch of refinement, reflecting its environment. We enjoyed Market. It wasn't especially memorable, but it was a perfectly pleasant and classy lunch spot for a gasto-vacation.

Mushroom Mousse with Porcini CrispDominic Armato

After lunch we wandered down the street to Woodhouse Chocolates, where I was lax in my duties and neglected to take any photos of the wares, but I can attest to the fact that they were both photoworthy and exceptionally delicious. And thus sated, we returned to our temporary abode and crashed out until a scant hour before dinnertime. Following The French Laundry simply isn't fair, and for the task I chose Martini House, a name that somehow feels awkward to me without a definite article in front of it, but apparently that's their official appellation, perhaps because it refers to the establishment's original owner, Walter Martini, rather than the cocktail with which he shares his name. Martini House is undeniably old school, which shouldn't come as any surprise since its official history dates back to 1923. It has a sort of rustic lodge vibe, dim and warm with stone and oak and Native American design elements strewn here and there. It doesn't feel put on. It just feels like the place has been around for a while. But what intrigued me about Martini House, other than the amount of love it seemed to engender on a number of food boards, was that chef Todd Humphries is apparently a total mushroom freak, and in addition to a seasonal tasting, he always offers a mushroom menu. If it weren't already known, the man doesn't wait long to betray his mycological tendencies. Each course is listed by the focal mushroom's scientific name. Clearly, I'm obligated to do the same.

Cream of Mushroom SoupDominic Armato

Of course, this meant that my dinner selection was a foregone conclusion. Well, except for one issue. In puzzling fashion, the cream of mushroom soup that's become something of a house signature dish isn't actually a part of the mushroom tasting. Huh. No matter. Next to its listing on the a la carte menu is an option for a demitasse serving of the soup for $3. Perfect! We'll start with that, please. Though in fact, we started with an amuse of button mushroom mousse on puff pastry with a porcini crisp. A silky mousse bracketed by two crisp elements, the button mushroom's uncomplicated flavor shining through, it was a very nice amuse and I especially like that Humphries doesn't hesitate to utilize the lowly button mushroom. We then moved on to the cream of mushroom soup, which probably deserves its reputation. The mushroom flavor is potent, derived -- I suspect -- from a careful mixture thereof, and it's matched by a bracing jolt of sherry, yet the soup isn't so heavy as to be cumbersome. Served scalding hot with a light froth on top, the demitasse cup somehow seemed even more appropriate than a bowl.

Pleurotus EryngiiDominic Armato

My first course of the mushroom tasting, Pleurotus Eryngii, could, I suppose, best be described as a salad, but only in the broadest sense of the term. It consisted of olive oil poached king trumpet mushrooms with dabs of whipped mascarpone, artichoke, slivers of radish and enormous olives, dressed with Meyer lemon. Unsurprisingly, given Humphries' reputation, the mushrooms are skillfully handled. The olive oil poaching preserves their delicate flavor and dense texture, making them rather satisfying as the centerpiece, which they are. The centerpiece, that is. Which is something I greatly appreciate. Though strewn about with a myriad of (well-matched) compatriots, there was no question about what anchored the dish.

Morchella EsculentaDominic Armato

Next up, Morchella Esculenta. Morels. And what's not to love about morels? The funky appearance, unusual texture, flavor that brings the forest floor along with it... small wonder they're so prized (not to mention expensive since, like truffles, they stubbornly resist cultivation). Here, they were simply sautéed and laid upon a sunchoke soup, creamy in texture if not overly so in flavor, and finished with a drizzle of honey. In the case of morels, it was a wise choice, I think, to keep the rest of the dish fairly uncomplicated. Sunchokes and cream are natural partners for morels. The honey struck me as less conventional, but I definitely enjoyed what it brought to the dish. The flavor of the morels didn't come out quite as much as I would have hoped, and whether this was a matter of product or process, I don't know. But an enjoyable, well-conceived dish.

Grifola FrondosaDominic Armato

The star of the menu, a singular fist-sized Grifola Frondosa (hen of the woods or maitake), was dropped into an Indian-spiced palette. Sitting atop a creamed cauliflower puree with potatoes, caramelized cauliflower florets and diced turmeric-spiced apple with cumin, cardamom and some other usual suspects, I believe, the mushroom itself was really beautifully done. Pan-roasted, it had taken on a very deep, intense flavor and the edges -- of which there are many on a maitake -- had been lightly crisped to provide a great texture. The combination of flavors was certainly no great reach, but the dish was beautifully prepared and presented, and I appreciated that the chef took pains to design a satisfying dish, which is always a little more difficult when it comes to vegetarian entrees.

Lactarius RubidusDominic Armato

Dessert took advantage of what I consider to be one of the coolest foods ever, Lactarius Rubidus, the candy cap mushroom. I actually wrote about candy caps a while back, including a recipe for the dessert that clinched Iron Chef Mushroom for me. Candy caps are a pretty typical-looking and tasting red mushroom when fresh, but as they dry, they take on an intense maple flavor. Make something with powdered candy cap mushrooms, and people will swear up and down that there's maple syrup in it. While I did cheesecake, Humphries did a panna cotta with caramelized banana and candied bacon. Maple, banana, bacon... of course it worked well. And while the surprise that I expect catches many was lost on me, I loved seeing a great use of one of my favorite ingredients.

I really had a lovely meal at Martini House. Being only 24 hours removed from The French Laundry kind of skews your calibration a bit, but I suppose one of the best ways to follow a dinner like that is to have something a little unconventional, done uncommonly well, and that's exactly what the mushroom tasting was. My only complaint would have been that I could have used another course or two, perhaps partly because it was a completely vegetarian tasting to which I'm somewhat unaccustomed, but as is always the case with these types of things, your mileage may vary. At $64, including the soup we requested, I certainly don't mean to criticize price performance. I wouldn't hesitate to go back not just for the mushrooms, but to try some other items on what looks like a rather nice menu as well. Of course, if you're especially keen on mushrooms, that pretty much makes Martini House impossible to skip.

Our last full day in the Napa Valley was complete... but we still managed to do a little damage on the way out the door. Day four tomorrow.

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

1347 Main Street
St. Helena, CA 94574
Sun - Thu11:30 AM - 9:00 PM
Fri - Sat11:30 AM - 10:00 PM
Martini House
1245 Spring Street
St. Helena, CA 94574
Mon - Thu5:30 PM - 9:00 PM 
Fri - Sat11:30 AM - 3:00 PM5:30 PM - 10:00 PM
Sun11:30 AM - 3:00 PM5:30 PM - 9:00 PM

March 16, 2010

The French Laundry, Redux

The French Laundry Dominic Armato

So we scored a return trip to The French Laundry, and since I've been asked at least 18 times already, the secret -- which isn't really very much of a secret -- is apparently to spring for exceptionally (read: absurdly) nice hotels and let the concierge do the work for you. In fact, when we nabbed our table, it was nearly a month after that particular date had opened for reservations. Now, I'm no stranger to rapid-fire dialing on multiple lines at precisely the right moment after three straight days of dry runs (that's how I got our reservation at Per Se a few years back, after all), but in this case, it was simply a matter of having access to the right person and asking nicely. Of course, the first time around we'd just had our wedding reception at the hotel and this visit was another property under the same ownership, so perhaps they've called in special favors as a means of an extended sort of thank you for your business and we'll never be so fortunate again. But you asked, that's the secret.

GougèresDominic Armato

So I'm now in the position of writing about what is widely regarded as one of the greatest restaurants in the world for the second time in a four year span, and I'm a little unsure of how to approach it. I kind of covered the basics the first time around (and got a little hung up on a completely unnecessary comparison to Jean-Georges Vongerichten, but this was the earrrrrrrrly days of Skillet Doux, so be kind), so I've decided to pretend my name is James Pendleton III, do my best "What, hasn't everybody dined at The French Laundry multiple times?" and act like it's the most natural thing in the world next to summering in the Hamptons. Which is kind of tough to pull off when you're sneaking around the courtyard trying to peek over the hedges so you can watch the kitchen through the windows.

Salmon TartareDominic Armato

It hasn't changed much since we last visited, neither in the front nor the back of the house, at least not to the casual observer. Though the kitchen now features a flatscreen TV with a live feed of Per Se's kitchen in New York, presumably so Keller can keep one eye focused on each coast at all times. The boss may have skipped town for a couple of weeks, but he can still see that you used a pair of tongs to flip that venison medallion rather than an offset spatula, except that you never would have considered using the tongs in the first place or you never would have even been asked in to interview, because Keller, seeing that your resume was done in Word's default font of Verdana, would have known that you're the kind of chef who takes the easy, conventional way out. Thomas Keller's just that obsessed with detail. Everybody knows that.

ButterDominic Armato

It's also why the night's tasting menu features no fewer than sixteen items in quotes, because god forbid we call something a bavarois if it isn't produced precisely as the dish was originally conceived. Don't misunderstand, I salute the dedication to pedantry, but there does come a point where you start to wonder if he's having you on. For full effect, I've preserved the items I chose exactly as they were listed on the menu, punctuation fully intact. The first few bites to hit the table -- unbilled -- were the same amuses we received the last time around, and I say this without the slightest hint of disappointment. Two perfect little gougères were followed by the famous salmon tartare, for which I finally -- after four years -- now have a photo. A perfect, simple little dollop of finely minced tartare sits atop a crisp tuille cone that's filled with creme fraiche. The source of the amusement isn't a wacky flavor profile, but an unusual amount of precision and a little bit of whimsy applied to something that would otherwise be entirely pedestrian. This would become a theme. Bread service was accompanied by some killer butter, and this was one of the rare instances where I went for unsalted -- the deep yellow dollop on the right -- over salted in a non-cooking context. It spread like a country club socialite... cultured and rich and kind of cheesy.

Oysters and PearlsDominic Armato

"Oysters and Pearls"
"Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar

Last time out we passed on the chef's tasting in favor of a smaller version that featured a few dishes that caught our eye. And even if it were still an option (they now offer only the nine-course chef's menu and a vegetarian tasting), we'd resolved ahead of time to go with his signature menu. What can I say? I'd dined at The French Laundry and had never tried Oysters and Pearls. It's easy to see why this has arguably become Keller's signature dish. Classic flavors, precise technique, creative twist, a bit of decadence and wit -- it's all there. What I didn't expect was the fact that the dish was served warm, a pair of oysters and a generous caviar quenelle bathed in a creamy "sabayon" (see, now I'm doing it) that's studded with tapioca pearls. Oysters and pearls. Get it? It's creamy and salty, a guilty sort of mouth-pleaser despite the precision involved in its production which I won't rehash in full here. But when you realize that the oysters have been trimmed down to perfect little circles and the trimmings used to flavor the sabayon before being strained out, and learn that this luscious, creamy not-quite-custard is actually a combination of three distinct elements -- a pudding, a sabayon and a sauce -- you immediately get a sense of what you're dealing with here.

Foie Gras au TorchonDominic Armato

Moulard Duck "Foie Gras au Torchon"
Celery Branch, Granny Smith Apple Relish, Marcona Almonds, Watercress and Banyuls Reduction

Playful twists aside, Keller is still a French chef at heart, and as lovely as I'm sure a salad of compressed cucumbers would have been, you know I wasn't going out the door without sampling the day's foie. Until the day when I'm VIP listed (ha!) and he sends out the whole roasted lobes, I'll have to make do with the torchon, which was surprising in its simplicity. Sort of. Like so many Keller dishes, complicated preparation plays simple here, and the buttery foie picks up just a little bit of everything from its companions -- a little sweetness from the apple, a little tartness from the banyuls reduction, a little saltiness from the celery and a little bitterness from the almonds. I particularly enjoyed what I believe was almond mousse, as though the nuts had been pulverized, creamed and passed through a tamis god knows how many times (Q: What do you call a French Laundry chef who strains his sauce a dozen times? A: Slacker). This was an exercise in restraint, though, the very simple, pure foie as the star with an unheralded supporting cast. And inch-thick toasted brioche.

Sauteed MoiDominic Armato

Sauteed Fillet of Pacific Moi
Hearts of Peach Palm, Red Radish, Medjool Date Chutney, Madras Curry and Coconut

I adore moi. I've only had it on a few occasions, but based on that limited sample I feel comfortable calling it one of my favorite fishes. It's rich and mild with a great texture and a skin that loves searing. A dish I had in Hawaii and still can't get out of my head, even five years later, was a moi with fennel confit and nicoise vinaigrette. So when it came to selecting the third course, the hamachi sashimi didn't stand a chance -- even if I was deathly curous to see how Keller fuses raw amberjack and broccoli(!). The presentation here kills me. Bury everything underneath and let that beautiful fish shine. I thought about getting a very low angle from the back for the purposes of demonstrating that, yes, there were other components present. Then I decided that would be violating the spirit of the presentation. Keller evoked the fish's heritage a bit here with the coconut, and I'd very much like to know not only how one produces a perfect brunoise on something so squishy as a date, but also how the heck one maintains that texture through the process of turning it into a chutney. No matter. Again, flawless as the accompaniments were, this was all about the fish, and the picture says it all, I think.

Butter-Poached LobsterDominic Armato

Sweet Butter-Poached Maine Lobster
Green Garlic "en Feuille de Bric," Sacramento Delta Asparagus, Petite Lettuces and Black Truffle

Then the other extreme, with every little component carefully splayed out for maximum exposure. To the left of the asparagus, which made notable mention despite being simply a single thin slice of a third of a spear, is the aforementioned green garlic, one tender, braised (I think) shoot enclosed in a crisp, rolled shell. The butter-poached claw is exactly as you'd expect, cradling the inky black essence of truffle, but the dish, for me, was all about the components on the right. First, a lobster boudin that was absolutely dynamite. I've no idea what went into it, but it had just a little bit of funk and spice and I wish I'd had just a little bit more of it, which, as Keller has often stated, is precisely what he's shooting for. There was also a little relish that played like kind of like an upscale tartar sauce, creamy with a pickle flavor and chunky texture, and given Keller's penchant for working the humblest of elements into his incredibly refined dishes, it wouldn't surprise me if that was exactly what he intended.

Dégustation of PorkDominic Armato

"Dégustation" of Gloucester Old Spot Pork
with Winter Pole Bean "Cassoulet" and Whole-Grain Mustard

The next course was, again, a selection that made itself. Though I'm an unabashed fan of quail, if you've read anything about Keller, how do you not go with the dish where he crams in as many different pork preparations as he can? On the right, a crispy fried and succulent nugget of a cut I'm afraid I don't recall, taking me back to the pork palaces of Germany. In the middle, a tile of pork belly, not the almost liquid Asian variety, but with some body and chew, but not so much to distract from the all-important fat. Both were pure expressions of pork, barely touched by other flavors other than the beautiful, creamy beans beneath. But the boudin noir on the left absolutely floored me and was, I think, my favorite taste of the night. It brought the funk and that beautiful grainy texture, but did so in a refined and delicate way. And to understand how one can apply "refined and delicate" to blood sausage is to understand why I loved it so much.

Calotte de Bœuf GrilléeDominic Armato

Snake River Farms "Calotte de Bœuf Grillée"
Nantes Carrot Purée, English Peas, Black Trumpet Mushrooms, Béarnaise "Pain Perdu" and Tarragon Jus

And then we hit the dish that was a total jaw-dropper. When I saw that our final savory course would be grilled beef, I was a little disappointed. I don't want to say I was looking for something exotic, precisely, but to see something so conventional was a bit of a letdown. The fact that it was billed along with peas and carrots and mushrooms didn't help. But I should have known better. It was amazing. The boudin noir may have been my favorite component, but this was my favorite dish. And I'd be lying if I didn't admit that half of the appeal was in my sitting there asking, "How? How does he make steak with peas and carrots the most delicious dish of the evening?" There's a tarragon jus, sure, and the bearnaise has been transmogrified into little pudding-like nuggets, but take them off the plate and it still might've been my favorite. Again, that stunning precision took something entirely pedestrian and made it something special. And the best part is that if you've followed Keller at all, you know that he isn't trying to be ironic. He isn't putting us on. He isn't chuckling to himself over the fact that he's getting people to pay $250 a head for a meal that features steak with peas and carrots as its headliner. The guy just knows that as overplayed and poorly done as it usually is, there's an elemental appeal to beef with peas and carrots, and why not elevate it as high as you possibly can and make a French Laundry dish out of it? You just have to laugh. And I did.

Cheddar with Polenta GnocchiDominic Armato

"Clothbound Reserve Cheddar"
White Polenta Gnocchi, Popcorn Mousseline, Charred Scallions and "Piment d'Espelette"

One of my favorite features of our last meal at The French Laundry was the cheese course. And it was precisely because I've never been a big fan of the stodgy old chunks of cheese with some nuts and fruits, no matter how carefully they're prepared, that his practice of creating carefully composed cheese dishes appealed to me. So when you've just taken beef with peas and carrots to new heights, what cheese do you choose to feature? Cheddar, of course! And what a way to bring out cheddar's oft overlooked beauty. The tender little polenta dumplings mimiced the appearance of the craggy bites of cheddar, which had been warmed to the point where the outer edges were juuuuuuuust barely getting a little melty, while the inner core mostly maintained its normal room-temperature texture, but fell apart in a softer manner. And the warmth brought out the flavor as well, which was carefully and gently highlighted by the scallions and piment d'espelette. The mousseline rounded it out with a more luxurious texture, and you've got yourself one hell of a cheese dish. Beats a hunk of brie and slices of nut and fruit bread, if you ask me. Can this be a trend, please?

Passion Fruit SorbetDominic Armato

"Maracuyá Sour"
Passion Fruit Sorbet, Pisco Granité, and Angostura Bitters

I still get the shivers a little bit every time I see pisco. Let's just say that while most of it was wonderful, my trip to Peru, digestively speaking, did not end well and leave it at that. But that's ancient history now, and I can once again approach Peru's greatest contribution to the international pantheon of cocktails with an open mind, and it's a good thing. The sorbet course was less notable only because of those that preceded it. There's absolutely nothing wrong with the cool and refreshing combination of lively flavors and textures herein, and it's only when you deconstruct it a bit that, again, you see the care that's going into it. It's sweet, it's sour, it's bitter, it's a little salty -- and the frozen marshmallow is a cute little treat.

Savarin au CitronDominic Armato

"Savarin au Citron"
Citrus "Vierge," Moulin des Pénitents Olive Oil and Straus Dairy "Crème Glacée"

Dessert was a choice between the light and the sticky and, predictably, I went for the former while my ladylove went for the latter (a peanut butter bavarois). It was a beautiful almost creamy-textured cake, laced with citrus and alcohol and strewn with pretty little flowery bits of indeterminate origin. It also furthered the entirely welcome trend (heck, for all I know Keller kicked off the trend) of olive oil in desserts. A simple frozen cream was all it needed on top. Anything more would have been overkill, I think. Of course, this is Keller we're talking about, so there were probably thirty-eight steps involved in the frozen cream's creation, but it played simply and that's what mattered. And it was here, with a heavy heart, that I realized we'd run out of courses.

Crème CaramelDominic Armato

Naturally, the end of the menu isn't precisely the end of the menu. The kitchen was kind enough to send assorted mignardises in our direction. This is the French Laundry's way of breaking up... letting you down easy by telling you that you really are a beautiful person who deserves a few extra plates of sweets. A baby crème caramel, delectable chocolates on a silver platter, some dynamite toasted macadamia nuts in some manner of candy shell (also available at Bouchon Bakery... get them), and a parting gift of shortbread that never passed my lips. My father is a big fan of shortbread and it was he and my mother who enabled this excursion by taking care of the little ones while we were away. A few pieces of shortbread seem like kind of a meager thank you for such a favor, even if the shortbread IS from The French Laundry. I tell myself that watching the little ones is its own reward. Yes, we are every parent, apparently.

ChocolatesDominic Armato

What's to say that hasn't already been said? A spectacular meal. Everything you expect from Thomas Keller. And to me, it's about two things. The first, I hate to say, because this is a bloated, stinking, long-dead horse corpse we're beating here, but there's the finesse. How else do you make a ribeye cap with peas and carrots the highlight of the evening? By obsessively refining and refining and refining and refining until it's something special, that's how. The second, and one I think is less often discussed, is a kind of humility -- yes, humility -- that comes through on the plate. What struck me on this second pass at The French Laundry was that despite the absurd amount of detail that you know went into creating these dishes, they played very simply... almost deceptively so. When it hits your tongue, it's steak and carrots and peas. That's a classic combination. A real one. And why should a titan of even Keller's stature stand in the way of that? Achieving simplicity by complicated means. When all is said and done, the food is his boss, not the other way around.

I've said too much already. It was a wonderful evening. Our meal thusly completed, we stumbled out into the night, made our way through the courtyard and back to Calistoga and our waiting pillows where we promptly crashed, our sleep punctuated by creative, delicious and obsessively detailed dreams.

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

The French Laundry
6640 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599
Mon - Thu5:30 PM - 9:15 PM
Fri - Sun11:00 AM - 1:00 PM5:30 PM - 9:15 PM

March 15, 2010

Napa Valley - Day II

Quintessa Wines Dominic Armato

The downside to nabbing a reservation at The French Laundry, not that I imagine it will quell the ire of those who have been unsuccessful, is that it kind of puts a damper on the rest of the day's food festivities. Getting in the door often means taking an early 5:30 or 6:00 reservation, and who wants to have a big lunch a scant few hours before a nine course meal prepared by Thomas Keller? Similarly, you could tour a bunch of wineries, but hitting the French Laundry in a state of inebriation where a quarter pounder inspires the same reaction as a perfect torchon of foie gras hardly seems like an efficient use of your dining dollar. So we mostly dedicated our second day to other pursuits -- my ladylove, the spa. Me? Markets.

Oakville GroceryDominic Armato

Napa Valley is primarily known as wine country, and while it's true that the area doesn't have the kind of awesome food density of many other culinary destinations, it's inevitable that good food follows good wine. But it seems like there's a certain air of simplicity to the food scene in wine country. Of course, we're talking on a relative scale here, but avoiding complication seems to be a local mantra. Though a little higher rent than most, this IS still farm country, and local chefs seem dedicated to making sure the food doesn't get in the way of itself -- or the wine. So it should come as little surprise that there are some rather nice markets to be found as you cruise down the highway. When ingredients are paramount, so are their purveyors.

Oakville GroceryDominic Armato

I'm actually rather disappointed by what I didn't get to this trip, market-wise. More than anything, I wanted to get down to the new-ish Oxbow Market, especially to check out The Fatted Calf, whose meats both fresh and cured are starting to border on legendary. Sadly, Napa proper is nearly an hour's drive from where we were staying, and every time the opportunity to slip away presented itself, it seemed like kind of a long haul that would rush our leisurely pace. Ah, well. You have to have something to go back for. Instead, I dropped into a couple of markets in the Oakville area, starting with the semi-famous Oakville Grocery. It's cute! Tons of bottles and jars of specialty concoctions that I've no doubt are delicious, a nice cheese selection, decent deli, selection of wines, coffee bar up front and a lengthy list of prepared-to-order sandwiches. I'm not sure I understand why it's become a stop for tourist buses, but it's a great little grocery that's undeniably quaint.

Cheeses... Lots Of ThemDominic Armato

Less so is import Dean & Deluca, which should need no introduction. It's big and modern and looks like it could have been airlifted right out of SoHo. And as much as I'd love to sneer at the big city interloper while championing the local upstart, if I put on my +1 hat of impartiality, I have to admit that I'm kind of floored by the New Yorkers. Not to honor quantity over quality, but when the image on the right represents half of the cheese case, it's hard not to be impressed. There's much more, too -- more cheese, more charcuterie, a small (if lovely looking) produce section, etc. Dean & Deluca is also where I snagged my second taste of Jamon Iberico de Bellota about a year back. (Opinion? Machine slicing kills it.) Really, I shouldn't even compare the two. They're very different. But if I can hit one or the other to pick up items for a specialty foods picnic, I know where I'm going.

Market Lunch Dominic Armato

As it was, I got some goodies from both and put together a little spread back at the hotel room. It seemed in keeping with the spirit of the surroundings and made for a light-ish lunch. Prosciutto San Daniele, spicy sopressata, coppa, a couple of cheeses, crusty bread and crackers, eggplant spread -- lunch is served! Incidentally, one of the cheese selections only further bolstered my opinion that Cypress Grove Chevre can do no wrong. This was my first crack at their Midnight Moon, and it's a doozy. That's a cheese that keeps on giving.

Absurdly ScenicDominic Armato

After lunch, it was time for a little education. The sun, which had remained notably absent until this point, picked the ideal time to poke its head out, and we were treated to some beautiful weather for a few hours while checking out the Quintessa winery. Here is where I need to come clean on a subject I may or may not have already visited here: I don't know a damn thing about wine. I mean, sure, you can't spend a ton of time around restaurants and reading about food without picking up a thing or two, but once you get beyond the very, very basics, I'm bordering on clueless. Give me a plate of food and a glass of wine and I can tell you if they pair well. But give me a plate of food and a wine list and I'm pretty much useless. Red or white? Of course. Common characteristics? Yyyyyyeah, so long as we stick to the most basic varietals. Which will perfectly complement my main course? *pffft* Search me.

French Oak CasksDominic Armato

And so, a goal for the trip was to try to gain a little bit of basic working knowledge when it comes to wine. I'm not so sure our visit to Quintessa did much to help achieve that goal (I suspect the true solution is to drink, drink and drink some more), but it was a lovely way to spend the afternoon, nonetheless, starting with the grounds, which are stunning. We heard all about how the estate's topography is unusually varied for the valley, providing the Huneeuses with a broad palate of fruit from which to work, about how the lots exposed to constant sun will develop thicker skins, how those growing at lower elevations near the water will be subjected to slightly lower temperatures, how those growing on the hillsides will devote more energy to root growth and produce smaller fruit -- okay, so maybe I did learn a thing or two. I'm not sure that any of it will help me navigate a wine list, but it's all fascinating stuff, nonetheless.

The CavesDominic Armato

We toured the dormant facility, seeing massive fermenting tanks of both steel and French oak, hydraulic presses for extracting additional juice (which we were assured, due to their process' lack of a first crush, was of uncommonly high quality), cave walls lined with countless aging casks, and eventually four glasses in the tasting room, which were accompanied by a few cheese pairings selected by Douglas Keane of Cyrus. Was the purported excellence of the wine lost on me? Ashamedly, yes. This was complex, bold wine. And as an educational point, I could discern the difference between the raw product taken from the same vintage but different areas of the estate, which is fascinating stuff. But in truth, I was more excited by the cheese. One hour, unsurprisingly, does not an oenophile make.

Of course, this didn't quite bring day two to a close. But The French Laundry probably deserves its own post, huh?

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

Oakville Grocery
7856 St. Helena Highway
Oakville, CA 94562
Mon - Thu7:00 AM - 5:00 PM
Fri - Sat7:00 AM - 6:00 PM
Sun8:00 AM - 5:00 PM
Quintessa Winery
1601 Silverado Trail
Rutherford, CA 94573
Tue - Thu5:00 PM - 11:00 PM
Fri - Sat5:00 PM - 1:00 AM
Sun4:00 PM - 9:00 PM

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