From The French Laundry to France: I’m digging the continuum this week.
Across the road from The French LaundryÂ is what appears at first glanceÂ to beÂ a public park. On closer inspection, however, it reveals itself as the restaurant’s extensive chef’s garden. Interestingly, it’s neither gated nor guarded, giving anyone and everyone free rein to roam the planted beds and see what a handful of lucky diners might be feasting on that evening. Tonight, one of those lucky diners is me – turning my early evening stumble into a serendipitous aperitif.
Hall is one of those small-scale wineries that make tasting your way through the Napa Valley so enjoyable: intimate, artisanal, organic, they produce fourteen-odd varietals each season, two of which you might find in your local liquor store – if you’re lucky. Because they’re such a diminutive producer, the majority of their wines sell out via subscription. Which means to taste the breadth of their fabulous Cabernet, you really need to visit theÂ St. Helena estate vineyards. Though currently in the throes of constructing a major new guest experience facility – of which I’ll tell you more later – I still got the chance to relax in the dappled sunlight of the tasting garden and sip my way through a handful of choice bottles. Cabernet is like the Chardonnay of reds: people either love it or loathe it. If your palate falls into the latter camp you might be surprised, however,Â by the pure and vivid flavors Hall achieves. Unfined and unfiltered, these wines are layered, expressive, and totally delicious.
ARGENTINA/NAPA:Â Far from being the cruelest of months, April was a banquet of adventure.Â My first foray to South America took me from the cultured urbanity of Buenos Aires to Bariloche’s lake district (and a near fatal expedition in search of condors) to the otherworldly glaciers of Patagonia.Â The variety of experiences in Argentina whet my appetite for a return, while the Michelin stars dotting the Napa Valley whet an altogether different kind of appetite:Â the all-you-can-eat hedonistic kind. Bardessono may have been a disappointment under the fussy hand of Sean O’Toole but Michel Chiarello’s convivial Bottega was extraordinary.Â The high point:Â a gastronomic pilgrimage to the altar of Thomas Keller at The French Laundry.
No visit to the Napa Valley would be complete without stopping into one the hundreds of vineyards that cover the valley like kudzu.Â Throwing a dart at a map, I ended up at Swanson Vineyards, a cheeky little producer of delightfully decadent – yet accessible – estate wines.
Greeted outside with a glass of crisp and cheery Rosato I was soon happily ensconced in theirÂ louche and luxurious salon. The Harvey Tasting is an informally formal tasting experience that covers theÂ breadth and depth of Swanson’s cellars:Â a 2008 Chardonnay was perfectly paired with caviar on potato chips; the Merlot was served with an intriguing hard cheese, Mimolette Vieux; a ripe, ruby Petite Sirah – my favorite – was made even more complex with a sliver of cave-aged Gruyere; a Vosges Haut Chocolat bonbon made the perfect foil to a 2006 Alexis, an estate blend; and paired with a well-veined Danish blue Castello, the 2005 Tardif was as magnificent as any French Sauternes.
Needless to say it made for a most entertaining – if boozy – afternoon.Â I left with a couple of bottles intended for home, reflecting on the benefit of occasionally embracing the music of chance.
Because a four hour lunch at The French laundry wasn’t enough, I checked into my hotel and headed back out for dinner at Bottega, Michael Chiarello’s restaurant in Yountville across the street from Thomas Keller’s mini-empire of Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery and Ad Hoc.
Chiarello is a bit of a polarizing figure for anyone who saw his appearance on Top Chef Masters, but ultimately it’s the food that counts.Â And the food at Bottega is as spectacular an example of one man’s dedication to craft as is Keller’s haute cuisine across the road.Â Showcasing big bold Calabrese flavors, the menu’s refining twist is a focus on the seasonal bounty of the Napa Valley as well as artisanally produced and house-made ingredients.
What further sets it apart is a boisterously convivial come-as-you-are atmosphere and – most startlingly – a price point that belies the kitchen’s extravagant attention to detail.Â Bottega is – dare I say it? – a bargain: appetizers in the $12 – $14 range; main courses in the mid-20’s.Â The wine list shines, too:Â focused mainly on local small-production vintages and a solid collection of Italians.Â All are reasonably priced to encourage tastings and many come in quartinos.
I hasten to add that one doesn’t necessarily expect to see a chef of this caliber actually doing the cooking.Â Out working the floor, yes; but getting his chef whites dirty? Not so much.Â So I was doubly impressed on the night of my visit to see Chef Chiarello in the open-plan kitchen, busy directing traffic and knee-deep in the cooking.Â He appeared to be thriving in it.Â And that made for an awful lot of happy diners – chief among them me.
Polenta under glass with caramelized wild mushrooms and balsamic game sauce.
Ricotta gnocchi, salsa di pomodoro della Nonna, pecorino.
Smoked and braised natural short ribs, preserved Meyer-lemon spinach, smokey jus.
Tomme de Brebis, Barigoule pain perdu, globe artichokes, piquillo peppers and arugula coulis.
Robiola tre latti (made from both cow, goat, and ewe milks), Royal Blenheim aprocots, celery branch and toasted oats.
A most refreshing palate cleanser:Â English cucumber sorbet, white verjus gelee, green grape and quinine-juniper foam.
Coconut milk sorbet, vanilla-roasted Maui Gold pineapple, medjool dates and cashew nuts.
“Coffee and doughnuts” was a humbling pre-dessert dessert.Â Is there anything better than a warm, sugared beignet?Â I think not.
Rhubarb and kumquat vol-au-vent, vanilla chiboust, poppy seed ice cream and 100-year aged balsamic vinegar was accented with delicate edible blossoms from the French Laundry’s garden
Peanut butter Bavarois, crunchy feuilletine, milk chocolate “whip” and Gros Michel banana sorbet
Mignardises:Â lavender scented rice paper wafers on the left.Â a bowl of candied macadamia nuts on the right.
Mignardises:Â truffle heaven!
Sauteed fillet of Atlantic Coast halibut, turnips, English peas, Meyer lemon and garden tarragon.
The soft-poached Americana hen egg, with lobster Salpicon, sunchokes, Savoyard spinach and mousseline Bearnaise was a revelation of taste and textures.Â Who knew a simple egg could taste so rich and complex?
New Bedford sea scallop, French Laundry garden spring onions, melted leeks, hazelnuts and black truffle.
Herb-roasted Hen-of-the-Woods mushrooms were a crunchy, woody taste sensation served with fennel bulb, San Marzano tomato compote, green garlic, Marcona almonds and sherry mignonette.
I once thought Kobe and Wagyu were indulgent grades of meat.Â Then along came this tartare of Kuroge beef from Shiga – accompanied by broccolini, lily bulb, pine nuts and cherry-olive puree – and I learned they are but rank amateurs.Â The fat content of the Kuroge is ridiculous.Â But then again so, too, is the umami flavor.
English pea agnolotti with confit d’aile de volaille, Nantes carrots, Cipollini onions, Parmesan nuage and sauce Dijonnaise deserves some sort of prize for the most inventive use of a chicken wing.Â It’s genius:Â the salt, fat and crunch of the confit elevates the delicate spring flavor of the pea and carrot.
Elysian Fields Farm lamb rib-eye, lamb ribettes, pomme Boulangere, Nantes carrots, fava beans, green garlic and sauce Bordelaise.Â Check out the color of that meat!Â I look at this photo and I am able to conjure the taste of it all over again.
The first (of many) amuse:Â a velvety sunchoke puree with just the faintest taste of fresh earth.
Cauliflower “panna cotta” with California sturgeon caviar.Â A mother-of-pearl spoon at a place setting elicits an almost Pavlovian response in me.
Shirred egg custard with lamb gelee, potato chip and chive.
Two different butters arrived for the bread (which was warm and golden and gobbled so quickly that it escaped the camera’s glare):Â Â a lightly salted pot on the left and an extravagantly dense quenelle of unsalted from Andante Dairy on the right.Â Look at that color and then blame me for expecting to hear it was duck fat.
Three different salts:Â sel gris at the top, a Filipino white salt similar to fleur de sel, and pink Jurassic salt, mined from a deposit in Montana that was a seabed back when dinosaurs roamed.
Salad of roasted Belgian endive, sour Michigan cherries, pecans, oxalis, and kola nut gastrique.
Pave d’aubergine confit, with cauliflower, chickpeas, sultanas, harissa, pine nuts, cilantro, and yogurt was perhaps the most perfect expression of a humble eggplant that I’ve ever tasted.