Visiting Hound: - nice weekend in Sonoma/Napa - two special meals, Pt 1. – Santé
So I was visiting up in Sonoma and Napa from Los Angeles and we two decided to try two places, Sante at the Sonoma Fairmont and KEn Frank's La Toque in Napa.
YES -= I'm sure there are places there about which many here are more passionate and how could we eat there etc. But for the most part I was very happy with the selections, esp. with La Toque.
At Santé, we opted for the tasting menu. As the foie gras is soon to be legally a thing of the past, barring the usual loophole that was used in New York, opted for the additional foie gras course.
A complaint - very personal, and perhaps outside the purview of chowhound... this restaurant was incredibly dark. Yes, I understand that there is some weird thing we Americans have about wanting our restaurants to seem like Englishmen's Clubs, but it's ridiculous. Is it romantic? maybe if the lady's wearing pancake or lead-based make-up. But when you're in a room for a meal like this, say in france, the room is brilliantly lit, you can see the white of the tablecloths, the shine of the sterling, the colors of the porcelain and of the food for God's sake, and teh colors of the wine. This is Sonoma (and Napa for that matter) - when it's this dark, you miss the quality of the colors of the wine. Someone works very hard to polish all the silver (or if stainless, at least to keep it bright), why be so dark that you can't enjoy it? As well, the food colors the placement etc... Also, I understand that my fellow diners may have spent quite a bit of the day touring and "tasting"/guzzling it seemed, but the conversations were incredibly loud and therefore also detectably, maybe a little boorish/vulgar. I was surprised to see this kind of behavior, but then again, when the table is going through bottle after bottle, there's bound to be an effect.
Now on to the food:
1. Amuse-bouche/amuse-gueule... two clever items, delicious, didn't mesh for me, but who cares? a tiny vol-au-vent stuffed with dungeness crab bits and a tiny hot (wonderfully hot, temperature) potato-leek soup. The acidity of the crab preparation and the brininess didn't mesh that well with the soup, but if I think of them as two separate courses sharing a plate... fantastic. The soup was so good, I'd wished for a lizard's tongue just to get out the last bits.
2. Beautiful cliché. A layer of caviar on perfectly made French-style scrambled egg served in an eggshell. The caviar was an American osetra-style caviar from the Sacramento delta, sustainable if folks care about that. It was great. Again, the lizard tongue would have been useful to make sure I got every last grain of caviar and smidgen of scrambled egg. Simple, delicious, gave me high expectations for the rest fo the evening.
3. Salad of asparagus, mache, cute little potatoes (LITTLE) in cylinders sporting a tiny thin wedge of prosciutto chip, crispy and fun.
4. foie gras en torchon, with apricot marmalade. Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of foie gras with sweet accompaniments – they can get cloying (I guess the exception was a sauternes gelee that went beautifully with the liver). But the liver was excellent, the texture was meltingly wonderful. The apricot would have been quite good, as a separate dish or somewhere else. I’m sure most of the clientele adored it. I just ate the foie gras first, then had the marmalade on some bread and it worked out well. Incidentally, we were presented with a French unsalted butter, a local creamery salted butter and fleur de sel for the bread. Both butters were great.
5. Little agnolotti, stuffed with a local cow’s milk ricotta. They were nice, but a bit bland and I missed the freshness I associate with ricotta. BUT, they were layered with big slices of black truffle and parts of the dish were swathed in a white truffle (alba) foam that was fantastic. The black truffles had a nice texture but light taste. I asked what kind of black truffles these were. I was told – Himalayan truffles, which I read as Chinese. Granted, Perigord truffles would have upped the price another 30-40 dollars at least. So I was satisfied and knocked out by the white truffle foam.
6. Diver scallops. OK – they were briny, thin (maybe a 1/3 inch wide) grilled, apparent grill marks. There were great pickled cherries (home-pickled I’m sure) served with these and a bordelaise sauce, called a lobster bordelaise, - stil; it had a rich marrow-like texture and taste so there was enough marrow to make me happy.
7. Culotte of beef – it’s a tasting menu, so the cut was culotte, and we were given a suggestion of the cut, which was fine. It was beautifully prepared, not dry, still warm, the grill is excellent here. The accompanying mushroom tart was tasty and earthy and had a lot of flavor. As we were seeing the swansong of the legally bought foie gras, the sauce had a great deal of melted foie gras. Unfortunately for me, I was tasting a little more truffle in the sauce than I’d have wanted, given the foie gras. Yes, I know – odd, but my review, my preferences. Don’t get me wrong, I love a nice truffle flavor if it’s a Madeira sauce. But here, I’d liked to have had more flavor of the simple liver. The beef though was a standout.
8. Three small wedges of cheese, wished I’d have noted down what they were. One was a blue, two were domestic from the area, one was French. All were delicious and had surprising accompanying sauce drops nearby. The breads were delicious – they have a great sesame roll. Wish I had one now.
9. Rhubarb sorbet covered with a bit of local strawberry on a bed of macerated strawberries that would have looked like tiny rubies if the light had been a bit less cave-like. What I saw was beautiful, unfortunately, hard to see with such dim light. On the plus side, I’m not particularly fond of rhubarb but this sorbet was quite good and showed what a master can do with ingredients we don’t necessarily adore.
10. Final dessert, a chocolate and peanut (butter) concoction that sounded a bit uninteresting. It was ethereal – the essence of all that a peanut butter cup could aspire to attain. Really surprised by how much I liked this as well.
Service was fantastic. I was the only one drinking wine – a California viognier for the start and a pinot noir off the wines by the glass list served me well. Glad I went, but was worried I wouldn’t be able to enjoy Ken Frank’s as much the following night. Portion size was appropriate so that didn’t feel as though I’d gorged by the end of the meal. Again, service hit the right point of being attentive without being overbearing.