August 28, 2002

i am returned!

Hey, everyone! I've survived Napa and the French Laundry, and have in the process made critical contributions to the research of such important questions as: "How much wine can one man drink in one day?" and "Can one wafer thin mint really make an overstuffed person explode?"

And I'm ready to tell you all about it. Well, nearly ready. I'll get it up on the site as soon as I can, I promise.

Editor's note: These entries have been posted here.

In the meantime, take solace from the fact that I'm back at work, same as you, no longer out having a wild time while you're stuck in the office. I didn't want to say anything about it before, but really, that sort of jealousy is unbecoming on you anyhow.

August 28, 2002 in napa_trip, old_site | Permalink | Comments (0)

August 26, 2002

napa trip log: french laundry

French Laundry

Editor's note:  Entire Napa trip report begins here.


    "Oysters and Pearls"
    "Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca
    with Poached Malpeque Oysters and Osetra Caviar

(With this dish we ordered a half bottle of NV Billecart Salmon Brut Rose.)

This dish consisted of a small bowl with a bed of pearl tapioca at the bottom, a few pieces of poached oyster meat resting on that, and caviar on top, surrounded by a pool of some kind of cream sauce.

Not typically the kind of dish I enjoy best.  But I loved it. I worried that the dish would be briny, something I'm sensitive to, but it was instead just pleasantly (and mildly) salty. The combination of textures of the oyster, tapioca, and caviar was fun!



    Moulard Duck "Foie Gras Au Torchon"
    with Bartlett Pear Relish and Toasted "Brioche"

(With this dish we ordered an aged Austrian dessert wine made from a lesser-known relative of Gruner Veltliner. I wish I'd written the information down.)

Given the choice between the endive salad and the Foie Gras, we all ordered the Foie Gras.  The torchon was creamy and delicious, as you might expect.



    Pan Seared Filet of Atlantic Halibut
    with Summer Pole Beans, Squash
    and "Confit" of Vine Ripened Tomato

(With this and the following dish, we ordered a half bottle of 1999 Premier Cru Chassagne Montrachet, Domaine Marc Colin, which is a white Burgundy, which is typically made from Chardonnay.)

Fantastic.  The halibut was done perfectly , with a crispy sear on the outside and a firm but velvety texture on the inside. It was also inexplicably flavorful, as if this halibut had lived out its life in a pool of chicken stock and white wine instead of seawater.  The beans, squash and tomato were perfect complements in texture and in taste.

The wine was very good.  I can see this being a "bridge wine" that might draw lovers of California Chardonnay into the world of Burgundy -- it's very accessible, full of peach and pear flavors, but still exhibiting the restraint and balance that's characteristic of good Old World wines.



    "Beets and Leeks"
    Sweet Butter Braised Maine Lobster
    with Melted Green Leeks, "Pomme Maxim"
    and Red Beet Essence

Otherwise known as the "Tower of Lobster".  The base of the tower is built from lobster tail meat.  This base is covered in a thin layer of bright green paste, ostensibly the "Melted Green Leeks". This paste is a kind of mortar which joins the base to a second layer of lobster -- this time composed of claw meat.  Set gently atop this majestic column is a wide, thin cracker of fried potatoes ("Pomme Maxim"), which makes this dish look like a radio telescope in The Little Mermaid.

The tower is surrounded by a moat of "red beet essence", a thick red sauce made from beet juice and a strong stock, among other things.  This sauce is the tastiest thing imaginable.  I wanted some with every course.  Including dessert.  ("Sir, here is your Creme Brulee with Red Beet Essence...")

The whole ensemble was good -- sweet, buttery lobster framed by the strangely neon green leek mortar -- but what I remember most is the Red Beet Essence.



    Braised Cloverdale Farms Young Rabbit "En Ravioli"
    with a "Ragout" of Forest Mushrooms

(This course was served with a half bottle of 1999 Pommard Les Perrieres  Jean-Michel Gaunoux, a red Burgundy from Cote de Beaune.)

Both Rebecca and I like rabbit, but nevertheless I liked this much more than I expected to.  The rabbit was flavorful and moist, and the giant fresh pasta ravioli was the embodiment of chewy goodness.

The wine, I must say, was a perfect choice.  Earthy and slightly spicy, and with a long finish, this is a great wine -- especially so for the price.  Wine is amazing.  Just when you think you're getting the slightest handle on it, you realize there's a whole wild world out there of wildly different stuff just waiting for you.

It's not like I haven't had Burgundies before.  But every time I have a good one I get this feeling, as though it's a drink from an alien planet.  (Which I suppose it is -- it comes from France. )  Slowly I'm coming to realize that it's a planet that I'd like to spend some time on.



    Pan Roasted "Chateaubriand" of Four Story Hill Farms Veal
    Garden Herb "Risotto" Cake
    and Jacobsen's Farm Fig "Marmelade"

(With this course we ordered a bottle of 1998 Chateau De Pez, a red Bordeaux from St. Estephe.)

The perfect veal dish, I imagine; succulent, perfectly cooked slices of veal atop a risotto cake.  Trouble is, I'm never deeply impressed by veal.  I've never walked out of a restaurant thinking, "Oh my god, that was the best veal dish I've ever had." This probably was, in fact, the best veal dish I've ever had, but I found myself wishing I had some Red Beet Essence to go on top of it or something.

The wine is another story.  My complaint about inexpensive Bordeaux is that they often feel flat in my mouth; there's a nice start and often a decent finish, but nothing in the middle.  Not so with this one.  It's incredibly full-flavored and  left my entire mouth tingling slightly.  The only thing that made it even better is knowing that if I can manage to find it around town, it'll cost me less than $30/bottle.



    "Goat's Leap Eclipse"
    with Golden Raisin and Hazelnut Salad

Now begins the endless parade of dessert courses to wind down the meal.  One gets the feeling that, behind the politeness and decorum, the waitstaff has the desire to see you explode.

This phase of the game is all about economy.  Spread as much of the food around on your plate so you may miss some, not realizing there is more to consume.  Resist the temptation to order any more wine in an effort to conserve space in your stomach.  Attempt to convince whoever finishes first to have a couple of bites of yours.  Whoever's stomach ruptures last wins.

Actually, the pacing has been very good.  I've had tasting menus before (most notably the remarkable meal at Masa's) where I was getting full going into the two "main" courses.  It wasn't until this point that I got that funny feeling that means that your stomach is reaching the limits of its elasticity.

Simple as it was, I enjoyed this dish immensely.  The cheese is a great find, and is superb in combination with the sweetness of the golden raisins.

Editor's note:  We now see the first significant manifestations of the author's food-induced psychosis.  Here he jokes about the waitstaff being out to get him and the meal being a competition of sorts.  These seemingly harmless humorous gestures are in fact indicators, as you will see, of the author's growing paranoia.



    Goldmine Nectarine Sorbet
    with Toasted Almond "Financier"

Getting full.  Not sure how much more of this I can take.

A Financier is merely a small rectangular browned-butter pound cake, but describing this one thusly doesn't do it justice.  It's a paradox:  light but somehow substantial.  The perfect platform for showcasing the sorbet, which is a masterstroke.

Despite being close to capacity, I found myself checking other people's plates to see if they had sorbet they couldn't finish.



    "Delice Au Chocolat"
    with Coffee "Anglaise" and Chocolate "Dentelle"

Editor's note:  The author's handwriting becomes increasingly erratic at this point.  The experts we consulted see the sudden shift to present tense to indicate an dangerous change in mental state that is common in food-based psychosis.

Barely holding it together.  In the future for meals like this I will bring a girdle, in the hope that compression will assist in keeping my stomach from ripping at the seams and the contents of dinner spilling into my intenstinal cavity.

Heavy but well balanced chocolate dessert.  Frankly, I don't remember too much about it, as most of the blood had migrated away from my brain and to the vessels in my stomach lining. I must have liked it immensely, since I ate it all, despite not having any space for it.

That was the last course, so after a brief walk to my hotel I can spend the rest of the evening immobile in front of the television.  So I think I'll be fine, no thanks to those gits in the kitchen who keep bringing me more food to eat.



    with Coffee "Anglaise" and Chocolate "Dentelle"

Editor's note:  The author's aggressiveness may seem sudden, but as we have pointed out it has been a while in coming and was clearly forecast in the text.

Bastards!  They've brought an entire plate of strange little cookies!  They said we were done eating!  Now they taunt me!  In particular there is a tartlet with a large glowing yellow ball in the center, somewhat reminiscent of lemon curd, which I must investigate.  They have researched me and know about my weakness for lemon curd.  I must be watchful.


Editor's note:  The author's handwriting is nearly illegible.

I have downed several cookies and managed to avoid consuming the others.  But now the waiter dropped the final gauntlet.  He's brought  a box containing five macaroons and set them in the center of the table.  Each macaroon, he explains, had its own delicate flavor: jamaican vanilla bean, saffron, red beet, pistachio, and coffee.  I see their plan. They made them different flavors so I must try each one . They don't think I can do it!

They have no antacids here, so I have ordered a preparation of baking soda and water, which my mother always took for stomach problems.  I will take a short break and resume eating the macaroons and whatever else the devils bring me from the kitchen.


Now I am ready.  People will tell tales for years of my victory over Thomas Keller.  They will sing songs in my honor.  I will begin with the saffron macaro

Editor's note:  The record ends here.  The author's psychosis prevented him from seeing what any seventh grader who has dreamed of blowing up seagulls would have spotted:  bicarbonate of soda should never be used as an antacid on a full stomach.  In a particularly ironic circumstance, we suspect that the baking soda had a virulent reaction to the vinegar in the Red Beet Essence which he had eagerly slurped off of the plates of his dinner companions earlier in the evening.

The subsequent rupture of his stomach combined with the existing psychosis sent him into what is known in the vernacular as a "food coma".  He has yet to awaken from this state.  Food comas resulting from dinner at The French Laundry and other, similar restuarants have been known to last years.

The author has been released, still comatose, from the hospital where his ruptured stomach was successfully treated.  He is now being cared for at home.  Messages and inquiries can be sent here.


August 26, 2002 in best, napa_trip, old_site, restaurants | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

napa trip log: monday

"Um...what time is our first appointment this morning?" The voice on the other end of the phone was the voice of a man who could barely hold it together.

"We have an 11 a.m. at Cardinale." I said.

"Uh...I don't think we're going to make it," said Eman.

No problem. You sleep in. Rebecca and I will persevere.


I first tasted Cardinale and Lokoya at my favorite wine shop in the world: Vin, Vino, and Wine in Palo Alto (I'd link to it, but if they have a website, I can't find it.) It's my favorite wine store because they did tastings every day, and it wasn't rare to walk into the store and find them tasting wines that cost $120/bottle, like Cardinale or Lokoya. No one else tastes stuff like that. I learned more about what I like in high-end wines -- and medium-cost wines, for that matter -- tasting there for six months than I did before or since, I'll wager. Vin, Vino, and Wine is one of the few things I miss from my days on the Peninsula.

Of course, they weren't tasting Lokoya at the winery. They do occasionally, I am told, but production is just too low to do it consistently. But they were tasting their second label, Atalon, which ranged in price from $25 to $80. Atalon was comprised this year of three Cabernets and three Merlots. Rebecca and I tried the three Cabs, one Merlot, and the Cardinale.

One thing I liked about the lineup is that for both the Merlots and the Cabs it pitted Valley fruit against Mountain fruit, allowing you to compare the two.

[You can read more about the relationship between Cardinale, Lokoya, and Atalon here.]

1998 Atalon Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Dark, strong Cab. Nice astringency. Dark fruit, gravel, and lead pencil. $35 ****
1998 Atalon Mountain Estates Cabernet Sauvignon Brighter in flavor, but has a similarly refined, even tone. Redder, tarter fruit. $45 ****
1998 Atalon Beckstoffer Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon I take it from the taste that we're back down in the valley for this. Lush, ripe, dark fruit. Nice, even, controlled structure; not thick but strong. $80 *****
1999 Atalon Keyes Vineyard Merlot This is very respectable. Dark, ripe plums. I may like Merlot after all. $60 **** 1/2

Like the Opus, I didn't take any notes on the Cardinale; just drank it and enjoyed it.

The lower scores on the first few wines don't accurately reflect what I think about them. They're low only because it's such a strong field. They're clearly better than any other Cab or Merlot-based wines that we tasted this weekend, with the possible exception of the Oakville Ranch label; I'd have to taste those again with a fresh palate to see. I was tempted to go back through and re-normalize all of my scores to show that more clearly, but, well, I'm lazy and I haven't done it.

These are very classy wines, and I wouldn't be ashamed to serve these to anybody -- not the most shameless Bordeaux Nazi or Old-world wine bigot. I'm not saying they're better than Bordeaux, by any stretch -- just that this is wine that can't be ignored or wished away. Californians can make wine too, dammit, and even if it's a bit more expensive than it should be, it's often good wine, and it's here to stay. Avoid it to your own detriment.


Eman and Yolanda caught up with us around noon-thirty. We had an appointment at Truchard at two o'clock, but decided to drop by Artesa, which is also in the Carneros area, before heading over there.


Artesa first came to my attention when I ran into Brian at some restaurant in San Francisco. He made me try the wine he was having -- an Artesa Pinot Noir. It was a thick, meaty, oderiferous wine replete with anise and olives. Very strange, I thought, for a Pinot Noir. I bought a bottle or two, and have since had it at a couple of restaurants. I've also had a Chardonnay of theirs that I liked. It had been awhile since I thought about them, but if the quality of their offerings is consistent with my memories of those two wines, I figured the winery would be worth a visit.

The woman at Cardinale had explained the origin of Artesa to us: sparkling winemakers in Napa had plateaued in the late 1990's and were looking to "still" wines as possible areas for financial growth. In some cases they supplemented their line with still wines; in other cases they switched completely over to the production of still offerings.

Such is the case of Artesa, which until 1999 was the Napa Valley branch of the Spanish sparkling winemaker Codorniu. They did extensive remodeling of the facility and did a lot of work to refocus the winery on making high-quality Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and other varietals.

(You can read an interesting account of the Artesa's transformation here . Other sparkling winemakers that have faced challenges adapting to the U.S. market include Domaine Chandon and S. Anderson , which we visited on Saturday.)

2000 Napa Valley Chardonnay Pretty fruit smell, but also a nice stink to it. No malolactic, and that suits it. $23 *** 1/2
2000 Carneros Chardonnay The buttery flavors from the malolactic fermentation seem to undermine the pleasant stink that this wine has going for it. $23 ***
2000 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir Strawberry and a little oak. A bit thin. This is not what I'm looking for. $23 **
2000 Reserve Chardonnay Butter, butterscotch, a little funkiness on the mid-palate. Pretty concentrated. This is a good wine. $? ****
2000 Reserve Pinot Noir This has a great, silky mouthfeel. I'd like to have this again sometime, see how I feel about it. But it's not like the Pinot I'm looking for. $? ****


Truchard is iconic for my wine-drinking friends and I. We "discovered" them on our trip to Napa together last year. While at dinner at Domaine Chandon, one of our number asked for a Pinot Noir. The waiter recommended the Domaine Chandon Pinot, but we'd all had that already as part of the tasting menu. "You know what?" he said. "Here's something you'll like." He brought her a glass of Truchard's Pinot Noir.

Most of us thought we didn't like Pinot Noir. In particular, we'd decided we didn't like California Pinot Noir. (So young, so inexperienced...) But we took the glass away from her and tasted it anyway, if only to put an end to the gratuitous lip-smacking noises she was making.

It was a revelation to us. Rich and complex, with layers of spice, vanilla, berries, and many other flavors that we couldn't identify. It was creamy, not thin and tinny like the Pinots that I'd come to dislike.

The next day, while Rebecca and I were at a spa in Calistoga and Eman had gone back to San Francisco to go to work, the rest of the group made a day trip to Truchard. They made friends with the family and have since gone back several times. Eman, Rebecca, and I, left out of the loop the first time, have never visited the winery.

It was a great thing to finally get to go. We took the full tour (and we rarely do tours anymore) and tasting, and it was time well spent. The tasting was good, but since I drink their wines with some regularity and had tasted most of what we were served on previous occasions, I didn't take any notes.

The Truchard Family and staff are exceedingly friendly and very generous, and their wines are very, very good. We left Truchard grudgingly, but we needed the time to prepare for the ordeal to come: our meal at the French Laundry.

August 26, 2002 in napa_trip, old_site, wine | Permalink | Comments (0)

August 25, 2002

trip log: sunday

Opus One

What a way to start out the day! I'd have preferred to do Opus One in the middle of the day, after I'd warmed up, but its location at the very start of our route meant that we'd have to visit it very early or visit it last. Since I knew there was no way my taste buds would be in any condition to appreciate Opus after five hours of tasting, we had no choice but to go there first.

The Opus One winery is located in a giant pyramid just north of Oakville crossing. The giant ziggurat juts out of the ground as if raised by the gods. ("I feel as if I'm headed up to be sacrificed," I heard one woman say as she was traversing the front stairs. "Don't worry, I think they only kill virgins," I almost said, but I bit my tongue. Didn't want to start the day out with fisticuffs. Wine club, not Fight Club.)

As it turned out, Opus was a good place to start out. They only serve one wine, so you don't have to make any choices. The snoot factor is high, but you don't have to stay in the tasting area; you can wander off to the roof of the ziggurat, enjoying views of the valley like the one above.

The winery is remarkably beautiful and peaceful, if a bit ostentatious. There's not much to do except relax, but it's such a great place to relax that we wound up staying there for forty-five minutes.

And we did actually buy some wine there. We don't buy Opus One -- $150 is a bit out of our price range, and we don't have a good place to store something like that for the long haul. But they sell Overture, a non-vintage wine made from the grapes that weren't quite good enough to go into Opus, for $40 only at the winery. Rebecca and I bought a bottle last year and loved it. So we picked up a couple of bottles for special occasions.


Plumpjack is an interesting facility. The grounds have a weird, whimsical, Alice-In-Wonderland feel -- oversized picket fences with gaps between them far too large to keep anything out or in, huge doors with handles sized for ogres.

Overall, I was somewhat disappointed with their wines this time. I've had previous vintages of their Cab and can recall being far more excited about it. The Syrah was something of a revelation, though. I wonder how widely available it is?

2001 Reserve Chardonnay Good fruit. "Sauv. Blanc style", says pourer. Long finish. Many tropical fruits. $38 *** 1/2
2000 Syrah Medium-bodied. A few notes in the high register. Red fruit. A fascinating wine. Best of the lot -- most interesting, at least. $40 ****
1999 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Strong mocha nose. Smooth California cab. Not particularly interesting. $54 ***

Miner Family

We continued on Oakville Crossing to the Silverado Trail to visit the Miner Family. This visit was one of the best -- if not the best -- of our trip. I'm grateful to Rebecca for insisting that we come.

Both Miner Family and the Oakville Ranch labels are made here. Interestingly, until 1994, the Miners were partners with R. Lewis (patriarch of Lewis Cellars, one of my favorite wineries) in Oakville Ranch. When heleft to start Lewis Cellars, the Miners started the Miner Family label in addition to Oakville Ranch.

2000 Napa Valley Chardonnay Soft, round fruit flavors. Oaky/buttery, but in a good way. Manages to stay balanced. $30 ****
2000 Oakville Chardonnay Excellent. Crisper flavor. A little sassier. $35 **** 1/2
2000 Gary's Vineyard Pinot Noir Wow. Heady smell. Fascinating flavor. I won't even try to describe it. $50 *****
2000 Gibson Ranch Sangiovese Great nose. Very aromatic. Very drinkable. Here's a wine Rebecca and I could easily compromise on. And at an attractive price for weekend consumption. $20 **** 1/2
2000 Napa Zinfandel Lighter style, peppery. "Food friendly." $24 *** 1/2
1998 Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon Lots of cassis. Mountain fruit. Call this a provisional rating -- I'd like to give this another try. $60 ****
2001 Viognier This is good. Pear, some melon flavors, etc. $20 ****

The staff offered us a lot of insight into their winemaking. On the Napa Valley Chard: "You'll find mostly pear and hazelnut type of flavors. We stay away from the tropical style." Which is a great thing -- so many California Chardonnays are all about the tropical fruit. The Napa Valley Chard is 100% malolactic and it shows. When we were given the Oakville, our pourer asked, "how much ml do you think this is?" The Oakville was much cleaner and crisper, though there were still hints of butter. "25%," we guessed. "Nope. 100% malolactic. These grapes are from our highest vineyard and have a very high natural acidity. Because of this, they can go through malolactic fermentation and still retain a lot of crispness."

We actually tasted more wines than I have listed, including two great Cabs from the Oakville Ranch label. Unfortunately, I slacked off on the tasting notes. You know how it is -- you get to drinking and chatting...

This was a fantastic experience. The pourers were friendly and knowledgable, and the wines were fantastic. We bought more wine here than at any other winery, and now that we're back home, we wish we'd bought even more!

Napa Wine Company

The Napa Wine Company is actually a "custom crush" facility. It's a company that offers all the services that you'd need to make wine -- from grape crushing and fermenting, chemical analysis, and barrel storage to bottling, labelling, and legal compliance services. This way, a winemaker could make a wine and establish an entire brand without owning a winery at all!

You'd think that a lot of substandard wines would come out of this facility. But the opposite is true. Some of the biggest names in cult California wines -- Colgin, Bryant Family, Staglin -- started here, although they eventually bought their own wineries and equipment. Pahlmeyer is still here.

But the Napa Wine Company is also a winery in its own right. They own some good valley floor vineyards and make use of their own facilities to make several different wines.

I wanted to come here for two reasons. First, I wanted to taste Pahlmeyer. I knew they wouldn't have the flagship available to taste -- it's made in far too limited quantities for that, I imagine -- but I wanted to try the Chardonnay or the Merlot.

Second, I'd had a Pinot Blanc from the Napa Wine Company itself sometime last month that I was very impressed with. Based on the restaurant price by the glass, I was hoping that the bottle price would be around $12, in which case I could hardly resist buying a case.

2001 Mason Sauvignon Blanc "Best selling Sauvignon Blanc in the Valley." I thought it was pretty boring. But then, I'm not an S. Blanc fan. $16 **
2001 Napa Wine Company Pinot Blanc Yeah, baby. This is what I came here for. It's a good wine at $18; but it would have been a great one at $12. $18 ****
2000 Pahlmeyer Chardonnay The other wine I came here to taste. The pourer kept talking about how overvalued it was. But there's something sublime about it. It's definitely in another class. $60 **** 1/2
2000 Del Bondio Syrah Big time barnyard stench. It's like the chickens and pigs they must have used to make this stuff are still in the room. It's been open all day, but it still tastes fresh. This is what I want from a California Syrah. $25 **** 1/2
1998 Fife Max I was looking forward to this one, but it's just...odd. Could never see paying this much for it. It's a blend of Syrah, Petit Syrah, and Zinfandel. $40 ***
1998 Showket Cabernet Sauvignon "Best Cab in the room," says the pourer. It is good. Rebecca likes it, which is always a plus. But for this price, I could buy a Lewis and go see a movie. $70 ****

My notetaking continued to deteriorate here. We tasted four or five other wines that I didn't record here because I didn't write anything useful. We had the Tria Pinot and Syrah, the Del Bondio Cab and the Madrigal Merlot, at least. Wish I remembered what I thought of them.

Oakville Grocery

On the way to St. Helena, we stopped at Oakville Grocery and picked up bread, cheese, pate, and other sundries to eat on the way. They have a great selection -- the only downside is that everyone knows this and it gets crowded.

It was only here that we realized how late it was getting. We'd started tasting at 11, and it was already getting close to four o'clock, our scheduled stopping time. And we'd only been to four wineries! Last time out, when we'd rented the limo, we visited eight wineries in five hours.

This time, we'd spent more time at each winery and (on average) had more wine at each one. Last year we were concerned primarily with reds and often didn't try the white offerings. And this year, Eman's industry connections ensured that we were poured a lot more wine than last year.

We decided to go an extra hour with the driver and hit one last winery.


By the time we made it to Berenger, I didn't care about tasting notes.

1999 Private Reserve Chardonnay Creamy, buttery, blah blah blah. Well executed, near as I can tell. $35 ****?
2000 Sbregia Ltd. Res. Chardonnay No notes taken. $40 ****?
1996 Alluvium Believe it. $30 ****
1994 Knight's Valley Cabernet This is really good -- I'll admit it. Very California Cabernet, with just a touch of stink. Maybe I should have bought a bottle of this. $35 **** 1/2?


Bouchon is Thomas Keller's other restaurant in Yountville. Bouchon is more of a brasserie or bistro, featuring dinner options such as Croque Madame alongside more traditional entrees like Roasted Chicken and Steak Frites.

One distinguishing feature of Bouchon is that it has a full raw bar. We decided to start with that, ordering the "Grand Plateau", which is comprised of one lobster, eight shrimp, eight clams, eight mussels, some unspecified amount of crab, and sixteen oysters. The lobster, crab, and shrimp are served cooked but cold; everything else is served raw.

I haven't had a great many oysters in my life, so this was very entertaining for me. The sixteen oysters were of four different types, which divided nicely into our group of four.

With the seafood, we had a half bottle of 1998 Schramsberg Blanc de Noir. It was a good pairing, I thought; I'll consider having champagne with any seafood platters or raw seafood I have in the future. (Champagne and sushi?)

Having successfully navigated the first course of the meal, I proceeded to make an egregious error in the second half. That's right, I ordered the steak.

It's one of my personal policies: when you're dining out at an expensive restaurant, Never Order The Steak. One reason is that making a good steak is not the hardest thing in the world. I'm not saying it's easy. I know it's not -- I've screwed up plenty of steaks in my lifetime. But most of the time that's just due to negligence. If you're willing to go out and get a good cut of meat and take a little time out and watch it cook, as long as you follow a few simple rules, you'll wind up with a pretty good steak. A steak doesn't exactly tax the capabilities of the chef or the kitchen staff. When I want a steak, I cook one myself. It's virtually effortless to do, and two times out of three I wind up with something nearly as good as I might get in a restaurant.

The main reason, though, to Never Order The Steak is that one well-cooked steak is very similar to another. Now hold on a minute -- before you get up in arms, I'm saying this is true relative to "The Lamb" or "The Duck" dish that's on the menu. By comparison, "The Steak" is generally a concession to weakness, a dish that's put on the menu expressly for wimps who are frightened off by the thought of Cherimoya and Fennel Puree and dullards who are afraid to ask what the long French word du jour on the menu actually means. They need to put the safety net somewhere for these people. If someone is afraid to order The Steak, what the heck will make them feel safe? Their mom in the kitchen? As a result, chefs don't seem to express themselves very much with The Steak.

And that's the main reason I go out to eat -- to "listen" a very experienced individual express themselves to me through their food.

But sometimes I get suckered in. Occasionally it's the promise of a unique preparation that turns out to be not so unique after all. Most of the time, though, it's just that I have a hankering for steak. I'm always happiest when I don't listen to it. That's what I have to keep in mind.

This time was no exception. You know, it was a pretty good steak. Can't fault it. But it was just a steak.

August 25, 2002 in napa_trip, old_site, wine | Permalink | Comments (0)

August 24, 2002

trip log: saturday

This is a record of the three days Rebecca and I spent in Napa Valley. We stayed at the Lavender Inn in Yountville. My friend Eman and Yolanda, a friend of his, joined us on Sunday. The vacation culimates in a visit to the French Laundry on Monday evening.

It was nearly three o'clock by the time we'd checked in and gotten settled in our hotel room. That left us just enough time to take the hotel bikes out and hit a few wineries before closing time.

A brief discussion with the staff indicated that our best bet was to head across Yountville Crossing to the Silverado Trail. Yountville Crossing is about a mile and a half long -- just right for a casual bike ride by two mostly-trim-yet-somehow-very-out-of-shape foodies looking for wine. We didn't have a specific agenda -- we decided to go as far as we could before the wineries started closing.

Goosecross Cellars

The first winery we came across was Goosecross Cellars, the entirety of which was contained in a small associated winemaking/tasting facility adjunct to a large house. Despite its small size, the tasting facility itself was very polished. The staff was very friendly and knowledgable -- the latter, no doubt, because they consisted of the winemaker, his wife, and others who were perhaps involved in the winemaking process.

Goosecross' wines are like toys. I don't mean to patronize. What I mean to say is this: They have big, bold, and sometimes unusual flavors; they're polished and accessible; they are sometimes proportioned in ways you don't see in the "real world" but which make total sense in their own universe; and, most importantly, are a whole lot of fun.

2001 Sauvignon Blanc Sharp and fruity. I thought it was unremarkable, but then, I'm not a big fan of Sauvignon Blanc. $16 **
1998 Chardonnay Very smooth, buttery, and rich. Apple pie flavors. $23 *** 1/2
1999 Chardonnay Bolder smell, lighter color than the 1998. Mild aftertaste. $23 ** 1/2
2000 Chardonnay Even lighter in color. More butterscotch. Finish is not as bold as '99, but more pleasant. $23 ***
1999 Sangiovese Full-flavored, but sprightly. Many different berries, spices. I'm a fan. $32 ****
1999 Syrah Definite barnyard stink. (I love that smell!) Tastes of anise, black cherries, and earth. A bit lacking in the finish. $30 *** 1/2
1998 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon Drinkable, but unremarkable. $44 ** 1/2

Rebecca and I are "interviewing" Chardonnays on this trip. Neither of us are generally big on white wines, but I'm trying to eat more fish these days, so I'm trying to learn to appreciate them.

We started with all the hallmarks of novicedom in the white-wine arena, including a preference for oaky, malo-lacticized Chardonnays and a distinct lack of appreciation for crisp, minerally Sauvignon Blancs (which would really go better with the more delicate fish dishes), but that's changing. I'm starting to feel that some of the Chardonnays I used to prefer are a little "flabby"; that is, they lack structure, typically provided by acid in white wines, to counterbalance the creamy oakiness. One gets the impression one is eating a pat of butter.

We liked these Chardonnays enough to want to buy a few. My initial impression was that I liked the 1998 the best. But I kept thinking: "When I get this home, will it taste flabby to me?" I think it might, and I think that in the long run, I might like the 2000 better. But: they want to clear out the 1998s and have marked them down to $15, so that pretty much settles the issue of which to buy.

In the end, I'm not sure how much of a value Goosecross is. Outside of the marked-down Chardonnay, how much wine would I buy at those prices? Would I buy the Syrah for $30 when I could have the Joseph Phelps Le Mistral instead for less than $20? Not exactly a fair comparison, since the former is a full retail price and the latter is a discounted wine store price, but which would I choose even if they were the same price? The Phelps, but I'll admit it -- it's closer.

Anyway, it's immaterial. The truth is, I have to have at least a few of these; it's the particular combination of quality and novelty. It may not become my regular weekend wine, but... hey, who am I fooling? I don't have a "regular weekend wine".

Goosecross is exactly the sort of winery I want to visit when I come to Napa. It's new to me, it's small but polished, and they have some fun wines.

S. Anderson

S. Anderson is another small, family-owned winery on Yountville Crossroad. Culturally, though, they're worlds apart from Goosecross. For one thing, they appear to take themselves a wee bit more seriously. For another thing, they focus on sparkling wines. I'm not sure the two things are unrelated. In my experience, sparkling winemakers are 42% more pretentious than those that make still wines. It must have something to do with long-term exposure to carbonation.

Anyhow, the S. Anderson people are just fine. I think they just feel a little oppressed. Just get them talking about how Americans only drink sparkling wines on special occasions and you'll see what I mean.

But the wines...the wines are excellent. This was definitely worth a stop.

1997 Napa Valley Brut Tangy, tasty, $28 **** 1/2
1997 Napa Valley Blanc de Noirs Interesting. Very clear for a Blanc de Noirs. I don't like it as much as the Brut, but it's good. $28 *** 1/2
1999 Estate Chardonnay, Stag's Leap The first Chardonnay I've ever had that tasted like Champagne! Lemon zest finish. Interesting. $25 ***
1999 SLD Cabernet Sauvignon Cassis smell. Tastes "sweet". Good ashiness. Very smooth. $30 ***
1997 Cherubim Chardonnay Not too sweet, which is good. Big-time coconut. Interesting idea. Would be better served cold. Cool bottle. $20/500ml ***

The Cherubim is a Chardonnay-based dessert wine. I'm not sure if it is late-harvested or simply made to retain some residual sugar. Either way, it's not overly sweet. It's redolent with vanilla and coconut. It's an interesting idea. I wish they'd served it colder, so I'd have a better idea whether I liked it or not. It's priced attractively for this sort of thing.

Their Brut Rose is another novel wine. They took their basic Brut and added just a touch of Cabernet and Merlot before they barrelled it. I've never heard of this being done before. Unfortunately, they didn't have any available for tasting. I should have bought a bottle just to satisfy my curiosity; it's only $32.

The staff occasionally lapses into pretension. (Although I must admit it was fun to watch our pourer spit every time she said the words "Charmat method".) Even so, they had some interesting insight into the world of Champagne making. "The idea behind Champagne is complexity without weight," she began, and she launched into an informative discussion of how this philosophy influences the way they make wine. I'd definitely recommend a visit to S. Anderson if you're near Yountville.

Silverado Vineyards

Finally we made it to Silverado Trail and turned right. We weren't sure what wineries were nearby, but figured we'd try to hit at least one more. We passed Robert Sinskey and Stag's Leap Wine Cellars but opted not to go to either as we'd hit both on our last trip to Napa. We were just about to turn around when we saw a mansion on top of a hill and a sign that said Silverado Vineyards .

And it was a big hill. We, out of shape as we are, didn't even try to ride up it. Probably safer that way, anyway, as the 4:50 vultures -- people who swoop into the nearest winery to try and catch a last tasting before everything closes -- were on the wing, whipping up the hill in their Lexuses and Infinities like they were in the Indy 500.

Here's the view from the hill:

Silverado Vineyards is a large, elegant complex at the top of a tall hill on the Silverado Trail. The tasting area was large and very busy. (They seemed to be hosting some kind of event upstairs.)

We'd planned to get the reserve tasting, but through some misunderstanding with the unfriendly pourer, we got the regular tasting instead.

2000 Sauvignon Blanc Smells like wildflowers. Heady. $14 ***
2000 Chardonnay Smells like France. Tastes like California. $20 **
1998 Sangiovese Heavy tannins for a Sangiovese. Juicy. Tongue-drying finish. $18 **
1998 Merlot Tastes like a Merlot. Liquid, fruity, unstructured. $25 ***
1999 Cabernet Sauvignon Not my style. This is not a bad wine, but it's refined to the point of boredom. $35 ***

As you can see, I wasn't particularly impressed with their wines. The same is true of the service. Our pourer was reticent and unfriendly. He was busy, for sure. But it's important to handle your customers with grace even when you're busy and it's almost time to close.

The most incredible wine

We made it back to the hotel just in time for the afternoon "teatime". Just what we needed: bread and cheese, crudite, dessert, and ... wine! We loaded up and sat down in the courtyard to eat.

Both wines were served from a carafe, so we didn't know what kind they were. I took a sip of Rebecca's (white). It was very bad. I felt like I should know the style...but I couldn't place it. Then I tasted mine -- the red one. It was horrid . Some kind of off-dry red wine gone horribly awry. I couldn't drink it.

I went back in to get some water and I saw a patron asking for a corkscrew from the woman at the front desk. When she couldn't find one, the patron asked, "Well, what did you use to open those?"

The woman blushed. "Those came out of a box," she said.

Wow. Now that takes balls. To serve wine out of a box to patrons who have come to Napa Valley to visit some of the best wineries in the New World.

I think I may need to send them an email.


Biking around had exhausted us, so once we made it back to the hotel, we crashed out on the bed, relaxed and watched television. Fortunately our dinner reservations were late, so we had plenty of time to recover before heading out to eat at Bistro Jeanty.

Bistro Jeanty

Bistro Jeanty is one of my favorite places to eat in Napa Valley. Generally I try to eat at new restaurants every time I visit, but I keep coming back to Jeanty. (Ironically, they opened a new restaurant in San Francisco early this year, Jeanty At Jack's and I still haven't been.)

Jeanty serves, they say, "regional homey French cuisine". I don't know what kind of French homes have three different pates in their repertoire, but I must say, I love Jeanty's menu. I'd consider ordering nearly everything on it. There should be a restaunt menu metric, the Orderable Quotient, that is determined by dividing the number of menu items that you'd consider ordering by the total number of menu items. If there were such a thing, Bistro Jeanty would have one of the highest Orderable Quotients for any restaurant I've visited.

Naturally this makes choosing what to eat difficult. I considered the possibilities for my appetizer. On the one hand, there's the Tomato Soup en Croute. After my last visit, I made tomato soup for months in an attempt to reproduce theirs. It's my benchmark for all tomato soups. On the other hand, there are the three pates, including a Foie Gras pate. There's also a Lamb Tongue and Potato Salad that I'm curious about. And then there's everything else.

There were so many eatable appetizers that Rebecca chose to get three appetizers as her meal. I went for the more traditional approach.


Croutons de Foie Blond [Orion]
Tomato Soup en Croute [Rebecca]

These are both great dishes. It's still my favorite tomato soup. The pate was delicious and served in a generous portion. If I had to complain about something, it would be that the poached pear served with the pate wasn't quite up to the task. Nothing wrong with it; it was just rather bland when put up against the pate.

Rebecca had the 1999 Miner Family Chardonnay with the soup. We both recognized it to be a great Chardonnay for us and decided to go to the winery the next day.

I had the Tria Pinot Noir, which I liked very much as well. Fortunately, Tria is tasted out of Napa Wine Cellars, which we already had plans to visit.


Lamb Cheeks with Fennel and Pasta [Orion]
Croutons de Foie Blond [Rebecca]
Beet, Mache, and Feta Salad [Rebecca]

The lamb cheeks were superb -- tender and succulent. The sauce made me want to lick the plate. I had some Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon with the meal; it was good, and went well with the lamb, but ultimately didn't make an impression.

The only disappointment was the salad. As you probably know if you've been reading this site for any length of time, Rebecca has long had a thing for mache, and recently we've both unexpectedly developed a thing for beets. But the salad was less than the sum of its parts. Texturally, it just didn't come together.

Nevertheless, it was a good meal overall. Neither of us had room for dessert, so we paid up and headed home, concluding a fabulous first day in Napa.

August 24, 2002 in napa_trip, old_site, wine | Permalink | Comments (3)

off again

Well, it's Saturday morning and I'm off for Napa for what will probably be the greatest culinary and oenological experience of my short, happy life. I speak in such grandiose terms because it's quite possible that I could die of pleasure on this trip. If I do, let me take this opportunity to let you know how happy I am to have had the chance to reach out to you, dear reader. And please call my roommate and remind him to water my plants and feed my goldfish.

On the offchance that I survive, I'll see you again on Wednesday.

-- Orion

August 24, 2002 in napa_trip, old_site | Permalink | Comments (0)

August 22, 2002

whetting your appetite

In order to whet your appetite (and mine) for this weekend, and to motivate me to finish making the trip preparations, I thought I'd link to some other bloggers who have been to the French Laundry and lived, if in somewhat distended form, to tell about it:

Note:  You may need to search on the page for "French Laundry" to find the relevant information.

My own experience
I've retroactively added my own French Laundry experience to this page.

Some recent visits

Making a reservation

Three friends have a food orgy

Other experiences

I am sooo ready.

August 22, 2002 in napa_trip, old_site | Permalink | Comments (1)

unprepared again

It's Thursday and I haven't done any planning for my Napa trip this coming weekend. I have a place to stay and my French Laundry reservations, and that's it. I've got to put my ass to the grindstone.

I don't even have dinner reservations for any other night! We might not be able to eat! Bacchus knows you can't eat at McDonald's out there without getting a reservation.


Last night I started my period of abstinence. When I'm planning a weekend (or more) of excess, like this vacation will no doubt be, I like to tone it down for at least a few days before. I don't drink any alcohol, I try to eat less and eat at least a little healthier.

I had two bowls of soup for dinner and I had no wine. Tonight I'll have another bowl of soup and a frozen vegan chicken patty. (Well, it won't be frozen when I eat it.)

It gets me ready, you know. You've got to be mentally ready for this sort of thing. You think it's all fun and games? Wrong. You've got to be prepared .


Speaking of preparation, I've spent the last hour or so attempting to get reservations for Saturday and Sunday. I've always wanted to go to Terra, but that was a no-go -- I couldn't even get through on the phone.

I did manage to finagle reservations at Bistro Jeanty on Saturday night, albeit a bit late, and Bouchon for Sunday night, so I'm not a total loser. Bistro Jeanty is one of my favorite Napa restaurants.

I've never been to Bouchon. Coincidentally, it's Thomas Keller's other restaurant. It's more of a bistro, from what I understand, so I don't think it will have much overlap with the Laundry.


August 22, 2002 in napa_trip, old_site | Permalink | Comments (0)