Rotisserie and Wine

December 19th, 2010
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Happenstance brought a handful of old friends to Napa and unexpectedly, the four of us found ourselves at Rotisserie and Wine, the newly-opened restaurant in downtown Napa by television darling, Tyler Florence. Of more interest to me however, is that Jeremy Fox, a favorite chef of yours truly, has been hired by Tyler to head up the kitchen in this meat-centric, waterfront establishment with a decidedly Southern bent. They have only been open two weeks and already it is jam-packed, but with a full capacity of barely a hundred diners, it is not surprising that without a reservation, there is a bit of a wait. While waiting, the service staff, thematically clad in jeans in plaid, work hard to ensure comfort with drinks and a menu for early perusal. It is the costume of the waiters and overalls and plaid donned by Jeremy which gives the restaurant an almost hick feel to it. The bulk of the space is taken up with the open service area where diners can see Tyler directing the staff. My friends noticed that Nancy Silverton was also waiting for a table with her friends, so even the famous don’t necessarily get preferential treatment.

After almost a half-hour wait, the four of us were given a counter spot. While this was not necessarily conducive to sharing the food, it did give a great opportunity to witness the action in the kitchen. While perusing the menu, some corn sticks arrived. I have a feeling these were comped; I didn’t see them on the menu and I’m not sure they were offered to everyone. About four inches long, these warm fingers of goodness provided a fantastic start. A crisp, crunchy exterior gave way to a sweet, tender crumb so light and delectable. Sighs were heard as one friend immediately commented, “I could eat these for breakfast every day of the week.” This was also my first glimpse at another aspect of the restaurant which charmed me, the place settings. Classic and elegant with a Victorian aesthetic, it is the sort of thing my Grandmother would have swiped to keep and I personally covet.

The menu is broken up into Snacks, items To Share, Fixins, and The Rotisserie. Separate from all these categories was a highlighted offering of something called The Meat Board. Snacks include a handful of individually-priced bites that can be ordered including Kale Chips, Olives, Scrapple, and the two snacks we ordered, Cheese Puffs (gougère) stuffed with bacon Mornay, aged Vella jack cheese, and chives and Deviled Jidori Chicken Egg, a deviled egg made with maple, sherry, celery, and candied bacon bits. The gougères, large with a delicate crust, oozed with rich and creamy bacon Mornay sauce. It would be very easy to eat an entire place of these. The deviled eggs’ filling was probably the most creamy and smooth ever tasted. The maple flavor was subtle and slightly sweet. I appreciated the micro greens garnish, giving a crisp bright contrast to the stalwart egg.

Shortly after our three tantalizing “bites,” The Meat Board arrived. Unlike most restaurants offering various cured charcuterie salamis and sausages, here it is terrines and potted meats. I would be very interested to know who was the brainchild behind its inception but there is no doubt that it is Jeremy who is adding the final touches which make this platter the shining highlight of the evening’s meal. Not only did we have the vantage of watching him cutting and plating and decorating, but the skill and artistry is not lost on the other staff in the kitchen as several stopped to view the master in action. Like watching a Da Vinci with a paintbrush, Jeremy layers slivers of radish into flowers and creates a mille fleur garnish with truffles and slivers of mushrooms. The plating is not just decorative, every delicately-placed leaf, perfectly dotted mustard, and stacked and layered vegetable is a part of a whole creating an incomparable platter of the most stunning terrines I have tasted.

On the platter was a Game Bird Terrine, laden heavily with porcini mushrooms and served with red wine jelly. Rich and earthy, the delicacy of the game meat was punctuated with the porcini but heightened by the truffle mille fleur garnish and red wine jelly. A large slab of country pâté had been carefully dressed with a bit of olive oil and micro greens and consumed with the toasted, country bread from nearby Model Bakery with dots of grain mustard and Moutarde Violette. But it was the Duck Liver Mousse on the board that surprised me the most. With the texture and lightness of whipped cream, concentrated richness of liver was accented with fried sage, frizzled leeks, and decorated with chunks of pickled beets and vegetable crudité. This is a restaurant riding on the laurels of its ability to roast giant hunks of meat, but I have no doubt that the restaurant’s appeal and reputation will grow based entirely on this amazing platter of potted meats.

Almost ten items made up the To Share section of the menu and for me were the most intriguing and reasons I want to go back. I am dying to try the Uni Toast with Shaved Pine Mushroom as well as the Sonoma Duck Confit with Cracklin’ Waffles. Instead we opted with only a Beets and Avocado salad, made with red quinoa, Fuyu persimmons, and pistachios to accompany our Rotisserie selection, Beef and Bones, prime rib eye saddled up next to a horizontally-severed marrow bone, Yorkshire pudding, and horseradish. I suppose my only complaint about the prime rib is that instead of one, large thick slice of rare meat, two thinner slices were served. Good prime rib is good prime rib and we all wanted to order this more for the marrow which was crusted with bread crumbs. It was all very good, but hardly memorable considering everything else the restaurant has to offer. Other rotisserie meats for potential future visits include Sonoma BBQ lamb ribs, Petaluma chicken, and a stuffed porchetta.

Sadly, no Fixins were ordered on this trip and again, the Fixins and To Share menu options are what will bring me back; Arbuckle grits draped with lardo, Hudson Valley broccoli with pine nuts, capers, raisins and Vella dry jack, Mac & Local Cheeses, and David Little’s potatoes…

While I stepped away to take a phone call, my friends ordered dessert. I was only surprised because I was more than full at this point and would have been quite content to call it a night but was more than pleased after taking a few bites of what they ordered; a classic slab of apple pie à la mode and a panna cotta, dressed with Balsamic vinegar and served with cookies. The apple pie is about as great as it comes. The apples were crunchy and perfectly spiced but it was the crust that shines. Too often I am left disappointed by a pie due to a soft or soggy crust and this does not disappoint. The panna cotta is another nice surprise but more for the cookies for me, although the panna cotta was perfectly prepared and made that much more interesting with the vinegar. The cookie we all loved with pig-shaped with a bacon flavor to it. I also greatly enjoyed the gingerbread as we had been sent a complimentary glass of Aloroso Sherry which made for a great combination and a lovely way to end the meal.

That this restaurant is a mere block away from my new job could be my downfall. As part of the revitalization of downtown Napa, it faces the riverfront and outside chairs show that once the warmer summer evenings arrive, outside service will obviously increase the number of people which can be served and will make this a destination for those looking to expand beyond the standard Napa standard of Cal-French or Cal-Mediterranean fusion cuisine. While the name of the restaurant implies that meat and wine is the draw (and I regret that I completely forgot to take a note on the glass of wine which I ordered), it is the Southern cuisine-inspired sides which will tantalize and ultimately please.


August 19th, 2010
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Saison had been on my list of must-try restaurants and it was when chef Joshua Skenes announced a series of “fire dinners” with some guest chefs that rushed to book a table because the first buddy he had working with him was the high-priest of vegetables, Jeremy Fox. Since leaving Ubuntu, I have been waiting anxiously to eat Chef Fox’s food again and had some brief hope in his partnership with Daniel Patterson for the Oakland restaurant, Plum, but instead it seems that Jeremy is looking for his own place instead.

What I did not know when I sat down was that the meal I was about to consume, was going to blow the publicly-lauded Benu out of the water. I am sure this write-up is probably a bit stilted because there there is an obvious question as to what the restaurant is like without the guest chef scenario, but based simply on the quality of the ingredients and preparation alone, I will definitely go back to see what Joshua Skenes does on his own. Those Chef Fox influences I know well and could detect his influence in certain dishes.

This review is also a little different in that I have separated out the photographs; I took a handful of shots of the restaurant upon our arrival. There are two seating areas, one inside with comfortable and intimate banquets surrounding a few rustic, dark wood tables and an outside seating area around the wood stove and fire pit. There are also eight bar stool seats; a chef’s table inside the kitchen and a similarly-designed table for the fire pit. After we completed our meal, Lisa and I went outside and struck up conversations with some fellow diners and Chef Fox who had been minding the fires. All of those pictures are at the end of the post.

But to the food first:

Château de L’Aulée Cremant de Loire, NV paired with an amuse of Wild Things, a concoction of cactus, pear, fennel and caviar. A few tender bites of texture and flavor dressed in crème fraîche. Reminiscent of Japanese textures, the cactus provided a bit of stickiness the way Mountain Yam produces a bit of gooeyness. The bright flavors of the pear and slight crisp spice from the fennel were all balanced with the salty caviar and hints of faint citrus from nasturtium buds. These tiny buds provided tiny little explosions of flavor that both intrigued and beguiled. Paired with the lively bubbly, this was a stunning beginning.

Alliment Laugner Cremant d’Alsace Rosé, NV. This 100% pinot noir rosé demonstrates a wonderful strawberry fruit with a faint sweet entry that expands into a delightful flowery blossom in the back of the mouth and was paired with Tomato In Different Ways. A beautifully composed platter was placed in front of us that showed a chunk of green tomato, tomatillo, a peeled yellow cherry tomato, nardello peppers, river vegetables, and small slivers of a pork product. The waitstaff then poured a thickened, unctuous tomato-based sauce and the worship began. With every bite the distinct ingredients produced exciting variations of sweet and spicy, rich and subtle, sexy and demure. We discovered later that the pork slivers were, in fact, pork face so any bite might have been cheek or jowl and the hints of salt playfully toyed with the freshness in the river vegetables and clean tomatoes.

Bread and Butter. We were not given bread and butter upon sitting down, but after two courses. I am not sure whether I should be annoyed or if it was done strategically. The bread comes from Acme and is their Upstairs Bread, a heartier and chewier carb, studded with whole wheatberries and rye without being dense or heavy. Warmed briefly in the outdoor oven, it is served with a disk of house-churned butter unlike any I have ever experienced. Flakes of smoked Japanese nori, river vegetables, and topped with fleur de sel, I cannot remember ever being so excited about a butter before. Had we received bread and butter upon sitting down, we would have easily just sat there and consumed piece after piece of warmed bread with this brilliant condiment. I am reminded of the fresh nori-studded rice I get at Nombe created by Nick Balla which is so good, I take it home for breakfast. The subtle umami and earthiness of nori elevates these simple ingredients but in the case of Saison’s butter, it does not hurt that Saison is churning their own butter on a daily basis. Absolutely gorgeous.

2007 Domaine Leflaive Mâcon-Verze, Burgundy poured with Polka Corn and Okra. The stunning white burgundy had a pale nose of lime rind but produced a creamy mouthy entry which expanded with fleshy and focused wine. I have always lamented Chardonnay for being over-oaked and it has taken me too many years to realize I just don’t like California Chards but this French version has tang and zip and structure. The red okra was prepared in several ways; thin, wafer-like slivers were nestled amongst some cornmeal-breaded and fried chunks. The smoke from the fire and a faint hint of ash played against the sweet seat of corn on which the okra was sitting. Like tomato dish, there is a playful juxtaposition of textures in the crunch of the fried okra with crunch of the sweet corn and crunch of the raw okra, toying against the faint tender okra interior and balanced out by the creaminess of the wine.

2006 Müller-Catoir Weissburgunder, Pfalz, Germany coupled with Various Carrots, our vadouvan, stone fruit and nasturtium. One of the things I miss about Ubuntu is the famed cauliflower with vadouvan and having the memories of that favored flavor brought back in this context was fun and impressive. Several varieties of carrots had been pre-cooked for softening yet given a darkened, charred exterior giving away to sweet mouthfuls of earthy goodness with chunks of peach and nectarine. The burnt crust on the vegetables exploded against spicy flowers and sweet fruit – all these seemingly disparate flavors coming together with their individual freshness; spice without pepper but with flowers showed brilliance in knowledge of the ingredients.

2006 La Font du Vent, Côtes du Rhône Villages, France showed a dark cherry nose and exploded with well-integrated fruit. A tannic entry with balanced black berry in the back of the throat. This showed well against Merlin Beets prepared in ash with buckwheat leaves, wild cherries and grains. This was a truly stunning dish – deconstructed ingredients, letting the diner choose which flavors to bring together. The brilliant aspect? A cylinder of of veal marrow which had been removed from the bone and briefly fried to produce an entirely crisp interior but maintaining the creamy, rich fatty interior. The occasional bits of grain developed the stable, earthy base with a core of the marrow fat, a heightened layer of earth with the clean beets and a top, bright sweet component in the cherry. Scattered amongst the plate were a few slivers of pickle, but pickled what? We weren’t quite sure — it could have been pear or apple but the bottom line is that the pickle produced a cleansing factor which elevated the simple marrow.

2006 Jaboulet Crozes-Hermitage, Rhône, France, a rich, jammy syrah unlike most syrah I have experienced from California in its intensely smooth, concentrated mouth. So easy to drink and a surprisingly big wine to be paired with Heartbreads served with muscat grapes, asparagus green, and alliums. We were told there were five kinds of garlic constructed within the dish but we were hard-pressed to detect that, they were so well integrated. Superbly prepared protein, a very thick, crunchy crust capped the lighter, sweeter underbelly of the meat. These were served atop a tiny brunoise of carrot, cocoa and romano beans, haricot verts, vidalia onion slices, and a few scattering muscat grapes. All of the ingredients themselves provided relatively delicate flavors with the wine elevating it in boldness. I can still taste that crunchy carnitas-like exterior of the heartbreads, craving it really…

Rhubarb Sorbet with milk granité. A simple slice of roasted rhubard set next to a quenelle of rhubarb sorbet but it was the milk granité which brought the simple offering together. That faint creamy structure which occurred in the back of the throat with the melting granité gave the sharp, rich sorbet a rounder mouth flavor.

2009 Giacomo Bologna “Braida” Brachetto d’Acqui, Piemonte, Italy. A slight, sparkling wine is ruby red in hue with tons of candied raspberry and cherry on the sweet side which surprised me to be paired with a fruit-based dessert, Summer Berries in their consommé with yuzu ice cream. A similar complaint that I had a Benu, simple fruit desserts with a frozen component does not quite satisfy my sweet tooth in that I want something with a little more substance. I greatly enjoyed the incredibly fresh fruit which had been macerated enough to soften and sweeten them and the yuzu was demure in its citrus component with a little crunch coming from the broken cookie underneath. I guess it is the Fried Dough Ho in me that craves something a bit more cakey and substantial.

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A few closing thoughts; as I stated above, this meal was far more successful and memorable than Benu was for me, just a week prior. Here, every dish was a discovery of textures and fresh flavors without the pretense of style over substance. Each individual ingredient could easily stand on its own but the brilliance came from their combination and preparation.

The service was exemplary with one small snafu in that we asked to share the wine tasting as neither of us want to drink that much. We commented that the pours seemed heavier than they should be which ultimately proved to be true; we were charged for two pairings. The tasting was $98 and the wines were $88. Service and tip and health care costs were added already but it still made for a $250 per person evening, a bit on the pricey side when it is this type of dining I wish I could afford on a daily basis.

There was a brief moment at the end of the meal where the outdoor fire pit was producing so many sparks out of its flue that the fire department showed up. Chef Skenes confirmed that it was the first time that had happened and it was a bit of a humorous moment in that regard. In chatting with other diners after we finished our meal, I confirmed that we were not the only diners who were happily reveling in a transitory experience. It is this sort of experience that I look for in innovative and superlative dining.

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Gussie’s Chicken and Waffles

August 18th, 2010
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I admit it – I eat at Gussie’s Chicken and Waffles a lot more than I should. How can I not? They are quite literally out the front door of my apartment complex. And I have this thing for fried chicken livers.

Somewhat dark inside, I often have to ask to have extra lights turned on and it worries me that they might be trying to keep costs down by having the lights as dim as they are. And service can definitely be hit or miss. No, that is not true. It is usually a miss in that I can’t remember a time when I haven’t had to ask two or three times for something I have ordered; be it remoulade for the chicken livers (since it comes with gravy), a glass of milk, or simply water

What is the appeal? For us die-hard groupies who care little for our health or cholesterol, it is – of course – crisp fried chicken and homemade waffles. Are either exceptional and worth going out of the way for? Probably not. But both have some things going for them. With the waffles, it is their house made brown sugar syrup. Maple is of course available but I much prefer the brown sugar syrup for some reason. Many people pour the syrup over the fried chicken as well, but I am a purist, preferring to consume them separately.

They also have a variety of other waffle flavors available, including sweet potato, cornmeal, and more, but I admit I haven’t gotten beyond the plain ole standard round, thin crispy waffle. Not a thick, fluffy Belgian waffle – nope, these are the thinner versions. And the fried chicken? I like the spicing and the crunch of the coating, but tend to find their white meat pieces dryer and less enticing as the wings or thighs.

There are a number of side dishes available, some worth trying and others worth avoiding. Having a sweet tooth, I don’t necessarily mind that the candied yams are soft and suspended with cinnamon-spiced goo that would indicate they are from a can. I grew up on those canned yams so there is some ancestral memory calling to me, I’m sure., which makes them taste like they should – soft to the tooth and unctuous.

The Mac-N-Cheese is one of the most regrettable and forgettable ever conceived. Dry and pasty, one taste was more than sufficient. I know many that adore their mashed potatoes and gravy and I’m not sure why. Adequate enough, the gravy itself is forgettable in its thick, gloppy nature. Red beans and rice are similarly thick and pasty, but surprisingly I enjoyed their flavor more than I expected to.

I am a huge sucker for sweet potato fries and here Gussie’s does not disappoint. A large bowl would make a happy meal for me in a carb frenzy of crunchy ecstasy. And then there are those chicken livers. Large and delightfully spiced, these are not over-battered to hide the desired mealy texture of the liver and are served topped with thinly sliced, fried onion rings. Gravy is served on the side but again, I recommend asking for their remoulade as the dipping condiment. This is perfection in a comfort food, offal sort of way.

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Johnny Rockets Hamburger

August 17th, 2010
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I suppose some regular readers who are accustomed to me writing about heady, expensive four-star, over-the-top tasting menus will be surprised at a Johnny Rockets review. Admittedly, part of its appeal is its close proximity to me – just up the hill on Fillmore in San Francisco. I don’t mind how bright it is inside because it is a place where I can comfortably ensconce myself at the bar with a book. I don’t mind the background tunes, usually circa 1950.

Everybody has the occasional burger craving. That cannot be denied. When I get the craving, I also want onion rings to accompany my artery-clogging demise. But I do try and minimize the damage I know that I am causing to my body and this is why I like Johnny Rockets for they have these children’s sizes which work perfectly for me.

Instead of the monstrous, gut-wrenching burger that will be felt long into the night, I can order a smaller version of their classic burger. Decent meat, seasoned on the fryer (pity it isn’t grilled), fixed the way I like it, with fresh lettuce, pickles, catsup and mustard. No mayonnaise or onions for me, thank you. And then there are the onion rings.

They will fry up five or six for me so give me that hint of badness without over-indulging in a fry frenzy of oil and cholesterol. Their onions are real inside – not onion mash re-shaped into deceiving rounds. The exterior is a classic crumble batter which I prefer over the thicker, more doughy beer batter onion rings which I know some prefer. And they automatically serve them with a dish of ranch dressing.

And why is all this a good thing? Because said burger, onion rings, and a small lemonade can be had for under $10, that’s why. No, it is not healthy but for the price, it satisfies when I can’t get to an In-N-Out Burger (which doesn’t have onion rings anyway).

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August 15th, 2010

I joined my hairdresser for a post-coif meal on Tuesday to much delight. We both ordered cocktails to start; he a Cosmopolitan and I, an “Aviation” with Gin, lime juice, and maraschino liqueur (quite tangy!) We both ordered salads to share; a grilled Romaine which was served with St. Agur blue cheese, hazelnuts, and sliced apples with a champagne vinaigrette and a baby spinach salad accompanied with pomegranate seeds, toasted pumpkin seeds, sliced Black Mission figs, persimmon, and a vinaigrette. The grilled Romaine was stunning — I had not ever had grilled lettuce and the smokiness from the char was a nice complement to the melting cheese. Having the two salads side-by-side was nice as we could go from hot and melty to cool and refreshing, both well-dressed and nicely plated.

Again, we decided to share entrées – ordering the rib eye steak and duck confit. The rib eye was pan-grilled and served with “a twice baked white truffle scented potato, yellow wax and blue lake beans, and Oakville Ranch cabernet butter.” This was a really great steak. The beans were very fresh and the steak, perfectly grilled rare and tender. I didn’t even mind the clichéd truffle scent on the potatoes. The duck confit was served on butternut squash risotto with huckleberry gastrique, prosciutto, Brussels sprout leaves and toasted pumpkin seeds. This was an interesting combination, if not a bit on the salty side. Most of it was eaten as a left-over breakfast the following day and perhaps the saltiness was accentuated at that point.

For dessert, we decided to share an apple/blueberry crisp served with dulce de leche ice cream. This was a really stellar example – served in a shallow-enough dish to give an equal portion of warm, roasted fruit to a lightly buttery crunchy top. I thought the dulce de leche might be too sweet but it worked well.

I can see this restaurant as a great neighborhood establishment, moreso than a destination restaurant. The ambience is both slightly futuristic, with its metal mesh drapes and moderne lighting. I noticed a nearby table being given better glassware than we were offered. I asked for more decent glasses for our Havens syrah and a little scrambling occurred as I guess they just recently started to upgrade their wine service. Make sure to ask! The serving sizes were ample, the plating and timing worked well, and overall, a reasonable meal. Two cocktails, two salads, two entrées, a bottle of wine, a dessert with a small glass of dessert wine and tip came to just over $200. I wouldn’t hesitate to visit again!
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