I discovered that making a really good roast chicken is actually incredibly easy. A roast chicken suggests some sort of a special event, like Thanksgiving or a family Sunday supper, and so you think that this type of dish requires a lot of time and preparation. I came across a Thomas Keller roast chicken recipe on Epicurious–the title “My Favorite Simple Roast Chicken” caught my eye–and I was impressed by how little work was involved. Basically you salt and pepper the bird everywhere, stick it in the oven for about an hour, let it rest in its own juices for 15 minutes, and you’re done. I thought a Thomas Keller recipe would involve a lot of complicated steps, but it really is very easy to execute, as demonstrated by my ability to successfully execute it multiple times.Read More
Day drinking is the ultimate luxury in life. It means that you have all the time in the world to kill, with no pressing work deliverables or social obligations hovering in the horizon. It’s a great feeling knowing you can get wasted without repercussion, and it only gets better with each drink.
Which is why I love Napa Valley. It’s basically a high-end day-drinking destination, and it’s in the most idyllic and picturesque setting ever. Rolling hills in Technicolor green and beautifully manicured vineyards are essentially the backdrops for your outdoor bar. There’s really not much else to do here other than drink and eat, which sets you up for being totally happy and relaxed. If you aren’t happy in Napa, then you’re not drinking enough.
Before kicking off the wine tour, we wanted to make sure our stomachs were comfortably coated with some carbs so that we wouldn’t have a crazy hangover the next day. A quick pit stop at Oakville Grocery was in order. Oakville is the best gourmet food market ever, equivalent to a Dean and Deluca or Joan’s on 3rd, but even better. The quality of its made-to-order sandwiches and deli sides are pretty spectacular and make for an ideal picnic lunch. We grabbed a baguette, some cheese and a roast beef sandwich, and off we went to the first tasting.
First stop was Frog’s Leap, a vineyard in Rutherford that specializes in cabs and zinfandels. We chose to partake in the $20 Signature Seated Tasting, which featured a flight of four wines and a small cheese and cracker plate. The tasting took place outdoors on the front porch of a nice country home, which really helped to get me in a Napa Valley state of mind. The chardonnay, which was aged very quickly in oak barrels and then transferred to steel ones, was very light and citrusy. The darker reds had a much earthier taste, almost like wet soil. Our wine specialist also gave us an extra pour of the 2010 Rutherford, a blend of 90% cabernet sauvignon and 10% cabernet franc, which was probably my favorite out of the mix.
Rather than hop to another tasting immediately, we decided to have lunch in Yountville at Redd, a restaurant run by acclaimed chef Richard Reddington. The restaurant is pretty high-end, but the atmosphere is comfortably relaxed as opposed to being stuffy and formal. The dining room has a modern feel about it, a hybrid of an intimate art gallery and a nice loft, with a lot of sleek wood panelling and urban lights enhancing the contemporary aspects.
We didn’t really have much room for the $60 five course lunch tasting menu, so instead we shared three small plates and one entree. Overall there were a lot of Asian influences in Reddington’s cooking, as well as some Old World European ones.
The yellowfin tuna and hamachi tartare was a nice, light way to start the meal. There was a good balance between the savory and the sweet, and the ginger and cilantro helped to keep things bright. The crunchy fried rice was a unique way of providing the dish with some texture, and the sensation of biting down on the kernels was a satisfying one.
The lettuce cups that followed were a bit disappointing. To tell you the truth, these weren’t marginally better than the ones you get at PF Chang’s. There was way too much liquid in the stir fry, which was dripping out of the lettuce cups and making the leaves wilt. It was overly seasoned, both with salt and sugar, which is one of the biggest offenses of Americanized Chinese fast casual cooking.
The pork belly was definitely my favorite–the glaze and the char on the pork belly meat was absolutely perfect. Sweet soy was again the marinade here, but the balance between the two was just right. Every ribbon of marbled pork belly fat was saturated in this pleasing glaze, and the underlying apple puree made sure that the richness wasn’t overwhelming.
The petrale sole was a refined, modern take on the familiar comfort food paella. Rather than having a creamy base, the rice was immersed in a liquid, foamy broth with a lot of peppery and deep spices. There were a few traditional touches like the notes of saffron and smoked chorizo. I thought the fish was poached beautifully, and its mild texture and base flavor melded well with the sharper, brinier elements of the surrounding rice and broth.
As if all this rich food weren’t enough, we also stopped by Bouchon Bakery quickly and bought a giant pistachio macaron and some coffee. The lingering effects of the wine at Frog’s Leap were making us drowsy, so we figured having some caffeine would make a lot of sense before driving towards Fontanella Family Winery, a small boutique vineyard in the Mount Veeder region of Napa.
The tasting at Fontanella was probably the most informative one that I’ve been to, which I really appreciated. The estate was pretty breathtaking, especially the picturesque lake and dramatic willow trees that greeted you as you drove up. Stacey, along with her good-natured black Lab Cody, walked us through the tasting and shared a lot of interesting facts on wine-making. We started with the chardonnay, which was refreshing and just slightly sweet, and it paired well with the chilled butternut squash and pumpkin soup that accompanied the wine. We moved on to the zinfandel, a varietal I had never paid much attention to, but now I know that these reds are jammy, with a lot of dark berry notes coating your mouth.
My favorite part was when she led us to the warehouse so that we could do a cab taste test. All the barrels contained the same Mt. Veeder cab, the only difference being the type of soil they were grown in. It was pretty eye-opening to see that a grape grown in shale would produce a smoother wine, whereas one grown in granite would result in much more spirited notes. Stacey also let us taste some of Fontanella’s port, which they make on the side in limited quantities.
After Fontanella, I was all wine’d out. I didn’t even want the free wine that was offered at the Andaz happy hour. I just wanted water. For dinner we decided to do something close to the hotel in downtown Napa and went to The Pear, which was recommended by the locals and received a high rating on Yelp, but honestly it was not that good. Maybe it’s because I was in New Orleans recently and had fantastic Southern food there, but the Southern food at The Pear did not even come close.
The potato croquettes were sold as tater tots, but they were essentially mashed potato balls with a fried sear around them. The reason why I love tater tots is because they have such great texture from all the bits of grated potato making up the nugget, so the fact that you would remove that essential element was a head-scratcher to me. The crab dip was fine, and I commend The Pear for being generous with the crab, but it wasn’t all that different from the overly rich spinach artichoke dips that I’ve had at most chain restaurants. I didn’t bother with sticking around for the entrees as the appetizers weren’t all that inspiring.
On to Day 2 of Napa! After all the chi-chi and scene-y restaurants that we went to yesterday, we decided that we wanted something more low-key. Enter Andie’s Cafe, a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant in a gas station that looked like it could have been featured on “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.” This diamond in the rough serves the best breakfast burritos ever. I ordered the veggie burrito, and it was insanely good. I think the key ingredient was the hash browns–something about incorporating golden, starchy fried potatoes makes a burrito awesome. Ruoxi ordered the chuck burger, which was pretty solid, but the standout here was the veggie burrito by far.
After the hearty breakfast, we made the trek over to Ladera Vineyard, which produces cabs in the Howell Mountain region. We first came across Ladera’s wines during our trip to Hawaii, where we tried a bottle of Pillow Rd Pinot Noir that we really liked. Again, this tasting was held in a very intimate setting, in which we were the only people on the estate, and our guide walked us through each one of the different wines. We started out easy with a light sauvignon blanc, working our way up to a pinot noir and then ending with several different cabs. The cabs here are much more of the traditional old-school variety, in which they are extremely full-bodied with heavy tannins, and they were also my favorite. We bought 2 bottles at the end of the tasting.
For lunch, we headed back to Yountville to try Thomas Keller’s Addendum, the take-out concept of his casual Addhoc restaurant. Unfortunately it was still closed for the season, with a sign saying it would reopen in early spring, which it technically was, but oh well. We decided to try Keller’s other more affordable restaurant that isn’t French Laundry, also known as Bouchon Bistro.
I’ve been to the Bouchon Bistro in New York, and it is worlds apart from the one in California. The California version is a proper, Parisien bistro, more in common with a Balthazar than its random Time Warner Center sister restaurant.
The food as expected is very traditionally French, which means a lot of rich creams and sauces. I ordered the soup of the day, the green garlic soup, which consisted of pureed spinach, potato and leek and, of course, garlic. It was a very well-executed, comforting soup with great texture and balanced flavors. I appreciated how Bouchon relied on the potatoes as opposed to heavy cream to provide the soup with a full-bodied base. It had the feel of a luscious bisque but it didn’t weight you down.
I also ordered a goat cheese salad (or the “salade maraîchère au chèvre chaud”, to be more precise), which is not the most exciting dish, but at the same time I was still recovering from the burrito this morning. Even the simple salad was handled with dexterity. The mixed greens looked like a run-of-the-mill salad, but the lettuce used was much more fresh, and the intriguing hints of parsley and fennel held my interest. The goat cheese was also extremely fresh–I’m sure it came from some happy goat living on a Napa Valley farm. Happy goats make happy cheese, apparently!
Ruoxi ordered the pasta of the day, which was pretty impeccable and the best dish I’ve had in Napa. The tagliatelle was perfectly al dente and coated lightly in olive oil, and the accompanying mushrooms added a pleasing, earthy depth to the rich layers. The fava beans offset the robust heartiness with its lighter flavor and texture. The ability to extract such fullness and depth from vegetables was very impressive.
Our last stop was at Hall Wines in St. Helena. As much as I love wine tastings, the hangovers from them are the most intense, so I decided to opt out of this one. I can tell you though that this is probably the flashiest and sceniest tasting room that we’ve been too. The tasting center was fairly new, unveiled in early March, although the vineyard has been around for many years. I felt like I was walking through a nice contemporary art gallery, although I prefer the low-key, bucolic settings of something like a Frog’s Leap. Something about it felt too much like a tasting room factory. I did steal some sips from Ruoxi’s tasting glass, and my favorite was the “La Brisa” pinot noir.
Afterwards we were in a nice, buzzed haze. I was really proud of keeping it together this time around. My last trip in Napa did not end well, as I visited 4 vineyards in one day and tried to drink literally everything set in front of me. Although no vineyard blew me away like Jarvis, they all produced elegant, high quality wines that I would seek out at restaurants. I had higher expectations for the food, which was mixed, but what matters most is that I drank good wine in good company, and at the end of the day I was happy no matter what!
Per Se – it really needs no introduction. No. 11 on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. 3 Michelin stars. 29 rating in Zagat (30 is the highest, which indicates “perfection”). The accolades go on and on. Clearly one reserves Per Se for the most special of occasions–like our 2 year wedding anniversary!
So did our meal live up to the expectations? The answer to that question is yes, in the way that a performance at the Metropolitan Opera House lives up to your expectations. What I mean by that is, you appreciate the level of skill and talent involved, you admire the beauty of your surroundings and you certainly don’t regret having attended. But at the end of the day, you would prefer to let your hair down and go see the Yeah Yeah Yeahs play at a smaller, scruffier venue. The performance was technically perfect, but lacked soul.
I know comparing a performance of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to the Met is like comparing apples to oranges, so I’ll use Blue Hill at Stone Barns as a basis of comparison for Per Se. Both Blue Hill and Per Se are highly acclaimed, service-oriented restaurants that offer elaborate tasting menus. At both places, the service is attentive without being too formal or fussy, the plating is beautiful, the surroundings are gorgeous and the flavors are inventive. But I enjoyed Blue Hill much more and would rank that as my favorite meal ever. Per Se, not so much. I’m glad I went but I don’t want to return.
I think the problem was that the majority of the dishes weren’t mind-blowingly good. For $295 a person, I would require that each course or at least the majority of them be spectacular. I wanted my taste buds to be completely won over and wanting more, but at the most they were slightly piqued and then lost interest. The meal started out on a very high note with the impressive “oysters and pearls” course, but it soon lost momentum as every subsequent dish failed to make a similarly memorable impression.
I don’t want this post to appear too critical of Per Se, because I did enjoy my meal and was very impressed with the whole experience. It definitely made the top 10 of my favorite formal restaurants. Per Se actually offers three different tasting options–the traditional 9-course at $295, a 7-course for $235, and a 5-course for $195. We opted for the 7-course option, since the only difference between that and the 9-course option was one less dessert and fish course.
But even so, there are so many other in-between courses that make “7-course” a bit of an understatement. The dessert portion of the meal, for instance, is an elaborate, drawn-out affair where additional plates of macarons, chocolate truffles, donuts, iced caramel semifreddo, mini ice-cream sandwiches and a complimentary anniversary cake arrived unannounced alongside the single scheduled dessert. I imagine it’s sort of how Katniss felt when she ate at the Capitol for the first time–mesmerized and bewildered by all the luxurious excess. I don’t think words are sufficient to describe our meal–click through the visuals below.