The Big Eat – Part II

Steps away from amazing food.

We woke up Saturday morning to Vintage Inn’s “Champagne Brunch” spread. After all we’d eaten Friday, we surprised ourselves by diving headlong into the omelet station. The jog we planned for later in the day became imperative if we were going to enjoy the rest of the day’s culinary indulgences. Because after all, we do live, breathe and write about food.

After a four-plus mile run through Yountville and a local vineyard, we still weren’t hungry for a typical lunch. We knew we’d be famished if we didn’t get a little something into our bellies before our Bouchon reservations at 7:45, so we tucked into Philippe Jeanty’s charming Bistro Jeanty for a cocktail and a bar bite to take the edge off.

Bistro Jeanty

Seated at the bar, we sipped our drinks and noshed on a hearty serving of Terrine de Lapin (rabbit pate) accompanied by céleri rémoulade (celery root and apple salad), cornichons and a tasty housemade yellow pepper mustard dressing. The thick slice of terrine was well balanced with the lean, meaty rabbit and pork fat. The pepper mustard was an elegant accompaniment to the rich charcuterie.

Rabbit terrine on the left, ratatouille on the right.

Terrine would have done the job of curbing hunger, but we’re on holiday and the ratatouille on the menu was irresistible. Served in a small casserole and bubbling hot, the ratatouille was beautiful with its thin neat scalloped layers of tomato and zucchini (very similar in presentation to the ratatouille dish in the Pixar film of the same name) concealing a savory, saucy vegetable mélange. We sopped up the juices with slices of crusty baguette, finished our drinks and headed back to our room to rest up for the evening’s main event.

Bouchon Bistro

Bouchon at night with the full moon on the right. Hey, that rhymes.

Day two in Yountville and we’re seated once again at a Thomas Keller restaurant. This is our second meal at Bouchon (the first was a brunch back in 2007) and this time it is to celebrate the nineteenth anniversary of the night we met. Still working off the rabbit, Jason recommended we take it easy and share a salad, an entrée, and a side of French fries dusted with truffles so we could save some room for dessert.

There are times when the lighting in restaurants needs a little help.

We ignored the evening specials and ordered a Salade de Cresson et d’Endives au Roquefort, Pommes et Noix (cress and endive salad with bleu cheese, apple and walnut). We love crisp, bitter leaves of endive and these were nicely dressed with a walnut vinaigrette that added a warm, nutty richness to the salad. Peppery watercress and small cubes of fuji apple gave the dish a bright tang and the bites of bleu cheese added a bit of richness. The rather tall pile of a salad was hearty and filling and once our plates were empty, we knew we’d made the right decision about sharing an entrée.

Using the iPhone flashlight app and Photoshop, this photo came out a little better.

Always suckers for short ribs, we ordered the Boeuf Bourguignon. Still haunted by the memory of the short rib hash we enjoyed back in ’07, Steve couldn’t resist the braised beef dish that so many consider quintessential French bistro fare. Of course, any foodie will tell you that Boeuf Bourguignon is Julia’s signature dish. Served with a generous slice of thick porkbelly (bacon), cipollini onions, root vegetables, butter noodles and red wine sauce, the dish was an ideal antidote to the chill of the evening. The braised beef was tender but not mushy and the red wine jus gave each piece a beautiful lacquer finish. Tender egg noodles sopped up the sauce and the bacon scented the dish with sweet smoke. We loved this dish, but the root vegetables need some work. We found the cubed veggies to be a little off, tasting of cardboard. But because they weren’t well integrated, we were able to push them aside without losing anything else in the dish.

The stand out star of the evening was the basket of truffle dusted French fries. Mind you, almost anything with truffles will shoot your taste buds into orbit, but these fries were crispy on the outside and light and fluffy on the inside, just as they should be. The photo we took was too blurred to publish, but just imagine a cone filled with these beauties.

The best photo of the night, but sadly the most disappointing dish.

After finishing our half-carafe of the house red wine ($25 for 500 ml = bargain), we sipped coffee and attempted a slice of Tarte au Citron (lemon tart). The tart slice was beyond generous; double the size one would expect from a fine restaurant of Bouchon’s caliber. Alas, while the tangy lemon sabayon was refreshing, we didn’t love the pine nut tart pastry. We love pine nuts and we eat them regularly, but they are delicate and tend to oxidize quickly. We don’t know if the crust failed because of the nuts, but our server admitted that this desert was a love-it-or-hate-it gamble as some customers found the shell to exhibit odd, off-putting flavors, while others believe it to be wonderful. He graciously removed it from the table, and our tab, and replaced it with a lovely bag of the bakery’s signature Chocolate Bouchons (dense brownies), which we took to go.

Even with the minor meal infractions at Bouchon, we left very pleased with the experience, service and the food, which is exactly why we dine out.

Next up: The French Laundry

The Big Eat – Part I

At least once in every food-obsessed person’s lifetime, the opportunity to go absolutely nuts must be seized. This has been an amazing year for us and we’re celebrating our good fortune by indulging in what may be our most epic culinary splurge – ever! It’s Friday, December 9, 2011 and we’re sitting in our beautiful room in Yountville, California’s Vintage Inn, just steps from Ad Hoc, Bouchon and one of the world’s greatest temples of food, The French Laundry. Yountville is a diner’s paradise, chuck full of the best food California has to offer and we’re here to eat as much of it as we can stomach in three days.

Journey begins...

We started this weekend’s celebration with lunch at Chef Michael Chiarello’s Bottega. Tucked away in a discreet, but easy to get to spot on Washington Street (arguably the globes most prestigious culinary address), Bottega fits right in with the stylized European-inspired architecture common to this short stretch of a town with its rich, earth colored interiors and old world sensibility – entirely appropriate in the heart of California’s wine country.

Our meal started with a nice hunk of crusty bread and a bit of olive oil embellished with bits of hard cheese and herbs. The antipasti menu had us agonizing over so many choices, but we managed to settle on the Wood Grilled Octopus and the Lamb & Egg. Both were excellent. The octopus was served with a slice of olive oil braised potato, pickled red onions and a salsa verde. While the dish was delicious, one of us was less impressed than the other because of his near obsessive adoration of the many octopus dishes we devoured in Spain this summer. Now nothing seems to meet his high bar.

The Lamb & Egg was amazing! The kitchen’s “house made” lamb sausage is served with a pepperonata (caramelized peppers) and a crispy soft boiled egg, red endive and smoked olive oil poached enoki mushrooms. The creamy, soft-yolked eggs are briefly boiled then lightly battered and finally quickly deep-fried. The crisp, slightly bitter endive tempered the richness of the egg yolk and sausage. The mushrooms, while texturally perfect, were a bit flavorless and superfluous with everything else going on in the dish.

Lamb & Egg; Wood Grilled Octopus; Red Wheat Tagliarini Bolognese; Paprika Oil Marinated Grilled Skirt Steak

Bottega’s pasta menu is inspiring. We opted for the Red Wheat Tagliarini Bolognese. Thicker than spaghetti, the tagliarini was cooked as it should be – toothsome and well seasoned. It came smothered in a rich, meaty sugo of veal, pork and porcini mushroom scented with rosemary and enriched with parmigiano reggiano. We wanted to lick our plates clean once it was gone, but thought better of it. We still had the Paprika Oil Marinated Grilled Skirt Steak to eat, after all, and we didn’t want the rest of the dining room to suffer a couple of poorly mannered chow hounds. The steak arrived just as ordered, medium rare and tender, accompanied by Yukon Gold potato chips, salsa rossa and a pile of arugula.

We washed the meal down with a Trumer Pils and a flight of zinfandels served to represent the diversity of styles available in a wine that has its origins in Croatia. The Italian was light and unremarkable while the Chiarello produced California zinfandel was typical of the region with its big, chewy fruit. The Croatian wine was the star of the trio. We would have been happy with a bottle.

Service at Botegga was spot on – informed, efficient and friendly. Our meal was memorable and a fine beginning to a long weekend of grand dining.

Ad Hoc

Our second course.

Our Friday dining splurge didn’t stop with Bottega. After lunch, we did a little shopping before returning to the hotel for an evening wine tasting and a walk. We needed to keep moving to work up an appetite for our next big meal at Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc, a decidedly casual destination that serves hearty, four course, prix fix meals that change nightly.

Our first course was a salad of baby mixed greens, toasted sunflower seeds, shaved shallots, pickled baby fennel and cauliflower, olives, anchovies and crispy capers, dressed in a red wine vinaigrette. The Snake River Farms Pork Loin gave us pause until it arrived. The savory, juicy pork was surprisingly delicious as were the accompanying black eyed peas, roasted baby beets, toasted farrow and braised chard. In spite of all we’d eaten up to the point of the pork loin, we wanted to lick the pan it was served in and we still had two courses to go.

Salad of Baby Mixed Greens; Ubriaco; Sanke River Farms Pork Loin; Tiramisu

Our third course, a wine washed raw cow’s milk cheese, was as rich as you might imagine made all the more so by the accompanying paladin toast and black trumpet mushrooms. We couldn’t eat it all. When the tiramisu arrived at the table, we nearly fell out of our seats. Desert was presented in a big soup bowl that was filled to the rim with mascarpone and house made ladyfingers. We were ready to cry uncle, but we dove in anyway. While tasty, it wasn’t amazing. The cookies were tough to cut through with a spoon. It’s a small complaint, and after all we’d eaten, it would have taken nothing less than perfect to get us to finish desert. We simply couldn’t this time.

A Domaine Dupeuble Pere et Fils Beaujolais Nouveau washed the meal down, aided by an end-of-meal espresso. Our hats off to the staff at Ad Hoc. Our server couldn’t have been more charming.