Thanks to special deals from Southwest, Chad and I were able to indulge my wily scheme to visit Napa (and Sonoma!) for one day. No hotel… mostly movement. We flew out of Los Angeles at 8am, and we flew out of Oakland at 8pm. It was a tight schedule, but everything went like clock-work — the 4 shuttles, 2 planes, and 1 rental car. There was the issue of the collapsed freeway, but that only added a tolerable amount of traffic.
It’s been 3 months since I moved away, and I was so eager to remember the day that I took pictures of everything that I could. I’ve compiled them into an album on Snapfish of 136 photos with some captions (sorry, registration required). They are snapshots, not composed photographs. The majority of them were taken from the passenger seat of our rental car, going as fast as Chad deemed fit. It’s amazing how many of them are in focus, and even contain pieces of what I was aiming at. I like to think they fit well on the web, which reveals and preserves so much of day-to-day life around the world. I recommend slideshow mode. This was what it looked like to drive around Wine Country on May 5.
I did miss some things, though, like the two girls in Sonoma walking around with a youtube-inspired sign that said “free hugs” on one side.
Since this is a food blog, I don’t want to bury all my leads, so these were the food and drink goings on…
The top sirloin burger at the girl & the fig in Sonoma (here are previous posts). The cambozola option is the way to go with this burger, but bacon’s optional. I love the way this burger tastes, but as always, the subtle genius is in the Dutch crunch roll. It gives a satisfying crunch, but its inner softness marries it well with the other elements in the burger. I’ve read that a burger bun is ideally as soft as the burger meat, and I agree… and I can admire this bun because it bends the rule for a greater good. I suspect that the bit of salt from the cheese and the bit of butter from the bun are also secret weapons in this burger.
Unfortunately, Chad and I ordered our burgers medium-rare, but mine turned up rare and his medium. His was also missing cheese, which is, as I mentioned, mandatory. When informed, the restaurant took the plate back, put a piece of cheese on it in the kitchen, and brought it back out. I’m kind of conflicted about that. While I hate to see food go to waste, a cooled off burger isn’t as much fun to eat and doesn’t melt cheese well. It’s like a permanently defective burger.
At least our Roederer and Fig Royale (w/ black mission fig syrup) were refreshing. And the bread was freshly soft on the inside and delicious.
And for fellow devotees, the rabbit pappardelle pasta is on the menu again. When I had it last year, it was phenomenal.
Then to Bouchon Bakery in Yountville (previous posts here). Disappointed that their once heavenly Cheese Danishes were still sporting a coarse sugar crystal dusting and looked over-baked, I got a pistachio macaron, and Chad got a caramel.
The caramel flavor was good — caramel-y, butter-y, salty, but the cookies a bit too dense… and the filling a bit too light and buttery. Instead of a lighter than air wonder, the whole thing felt more like a standard sandwich cookie.
On the other hand, my first bite of the pistachio macaron was spoiled by my need to exclaim that “this is the worst macaron I’ve ever had!” The top crust shattered above the empty pocket of air in the cookie to lead to the way to the hard and chewy remainder of the cookie.
I went back into the store with it, and told them that it was really tough, like it was stale, and asked for a caramel instead. I would have loved a good pistachio one, but I didn’t want to take another chance with it. I was promptly given a caramel one by a courteous staff member, and was told that it was odd that they were stale b/c they were baked in the last day or two… but in my opinion, that’s a day or two too much for macarons. They don’t age gracefully.
I wish that the pain au chocolat could have made up for it, but that was off, too…
It shattered more like a folded cracker than a laminated dough. Perhaps it was old, but it seemed more like a prep issue to me. Either not enough butter was used or it was rolled while too warm to prevent it from laminating properly. At least the chocolate inside it was unaffected, and quite edible.
That was all the food we ate there. You might say that it was a little disappointing, but we’ll probably go back to both the next time we’re up there. This is one reason why I’ve never been comfortable with “reviewing” eateries, and recommending them to other people. None of them will ever have perfectly consistent food. Every dish that leaves the kitchen is different. Every dish is practice to improve.
I can reconcile these facts two ways. The first way reminds me of something that a film professor once told me – the skill of a director is measured by what she edits out of her movie. What’s shown is truly the best and most pertinent. This applies to restaurants in so far as what they choose to put into customer’s hands. It’s quality control. There will always be some rejects in food preparations, but standards vary about what will go out, from restaurant to restaurant, employee to employee, and day to day. There are waste and cost issues with this, so that’s where the “every dish is practice to improve” idea is handy.
Also, there are the emotional ties to restaurants. I happened to like the girl & the fig and Bouchon Bakery as local hangouts and will always have good memories at both, food-wise and personal-wise. Very subjective. Only an offensively bad experience would keep me away from them in the future, and going back to them is nostalgic excitement. Like most of this trip, it was just pleasing to know that they’re still out there.
Anyway, I also bought a couple spices from The Spice House in Chicago while in the campus store at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena. According to their labels… Ground Mahleb, which is the pit of sour cherries, is used in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern breads, cakes, and pastries… China Tunghing Cassia Cinnamon has a very high 4% natural oil content, which lends it a smoother, sweeter flavor while maintaining a strong spiciness. I’ll report back when I use them. I also bought a fancy cherry pitter at the Sign of the Bear in Sonoma, because I have high hopes for lots of cherries this summer, along with every other fruit I can manage.
I wanted to go to Duckhorn Winery, but it was closed for a special event. I have a good knack for choosing wineries on days that their closed, but luckily, Plumpjack was open.
The lively rock ‘n roll and conversations that surrounded us mirrored the boldness of the wines, which were a bit tannic and strong for me. Chad was more of a fan.
We also went to Paraduxx, which is is affiliated with Duckhorn. Again, the mood fit the wines. A relaxed, chic tasting room (and patio) matched the smooth and luscious wines.
Their wines are all fusions of zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon.
Be aware that tastings are $15, though it does include table service, spiced almonds, cheese straws, and bottled water.
Frankly, though, if you’re going to Wine Country with someone else, sharing tastings is the best option. Once you become accustomed to the fact that all wines taste and feel differently, you become eager to see what else is out there — what else wine can do. If you have to drink all the tastings by yourself, you’re more apt to become tipsy and unable to sample more, at least thoughtfully. After a while, the tasting size seems like so much. If you like it, you know you want to buy some or look out for it on the future, and if you don’t, you want it out of your way. For better or for worse, wine tasting is rarely a time to savor, per se. It’s a time to evaluate, and you may as well try as much as you can without getting overloaded. On the other hand, I prefer wineries like this one — with tables and chairs, a mellow ambiance, and pre-filled up glasses — so if you want to savor… well, just go right ahead.