From The French Laundry to France: I’m digging the continuum this week.
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.
Shortly after my previous “experimental post” – which I’m glad to see was a success – my phone died, too.Â I blame it on the sheer volume of food consumed at The French Laundry – along with my obsessive need to photograph each and every course that came out of the kitchen.
Devoid of communication and documentation I nevertheless soldiered on eating (and drinking) my way across the Napa Valley.
Ultimately I found salvation yesterday afternoon in the arms of a generous stranger at the St. Helena public library who allowed me to jump onto his Mac and reboot my gear.Â So I am back in business – if just a little bit behind schedule.Â (A red-eye out of San Fran last night is not helping, I hasten to add)
Check back tomorrow and the rest of the week, however, for an almost-live blog detailing the Herculean amount of calories consumed and my flirtation with gout.
My computer seems to have crapped out, so my planned live blogging of a working weekend of gastronomic indulgence in the Napa Valley appears to be tenuous at best.
As a result I’m now trying out a new program designed for the iPhone. I guess I’ll just have to see how this little experiment goes.
Off to Thomas Keller’s French Laundry for lunch. Fingers crossed!