The last hurrah of the summer: the final gigs. I’ve been excited for months that we are performing at the Napa County Fair, in the heart of the California wine country and a food nerd’s paradise. The gig itself turns out to be less than delightful, not because of the audience certainly, but because of the promoter’s less-than-exemplary hospitality. I don’t know this at the time of course, but this is why I am leaving a day early to ma ke sure I get my dose of what this beautiful part of California can offer to The Insatiable Singer.
Of course, my alarm doesn’t go off, and I get that dreaded phone call, “The car is downstairs.” Luckily years of practice have prepared me for this very moment where I gather up my things while I am still unconscious, unplug the appliances, take out the garbage, change the phone messages, splash water on my face, and fly out through the door to the airport.
I’m flying out to Napa a day early for a day of eating and drinking with my friend Bob Eberhart and his wife Dee. I met Bob in Tokyo, on a rare solitary night off. I decided to treat myself to a spectacularly stylish dinner at The New York Grill at the top of the Park Hyatt Hotel (scene of the movie “Lost In Translation”). Because I deserved it, goddamn it! Since I was alone, I decided to sit at the chef’s counter so I could watch the kitchen action. Uh-oh…there’s a bunch of loud American businessmen on expense account next to me. Before you can say “ワインをありがとう,” I am in an animated conversation with the gentlemen directly to my right, one Mr. Robert Eberhart, a wine merchant from Palo Alto, California, and a soldier in the battle to bring the grape to a beer-dominated society. I cannot help but salute him in his quest. We bond over entrees and wine selection, another example of how food brings people together who would never have met each other otherwise. Phone numbers are exchanged, cards are handed off, and a love of food and wine is shared and expounded upon over after dinner drinks in the incredible lounge on the 52th floor of the hotel. What an insane view of Shinjuku! Bob has connections in Napa and so ……
The first stop…directly to lunch at Bistro Jeanty in Yountville to taste some of Phillipe Jeanty’s bistro cooking. A warm, homey atmosphere greeted us as we settled in at our table. I order the tomato soup in puff pastry as my starter, the Creme de Tomate En Croute (see!! that high school French DID come in handy!) It is deliriously delicious…very, very far away from Campbell’s (which can be great with a gooey grilled cheese sandwich, don’t get me wrong). This soup was so refined, it was more like a broth in consistency, but with an unctuous mouthfeel because of the cream. As you perforated the buttery, golden dome of crusty puff pastry, the perfumed steam rose to greet your nose: essence of summer tomato, fresh herbs and a touch of dairy cream to tame the natural acidity of the tomatoes. Did I lick the bowl?? Nearly…but I couldn’t fit my nose in there. The three of us made a conceptual decision not to eat too much or drink at lunch, since we had to pace ourselves.
There were so many temptations though…home-cured pork belly with a lentil-balsamic vinegar and foie gras ragout, a delicious-sounding salad of bitter escarole with a warm apple smoked bacon dressing and a soft-boiled egg on top, warm lamb tongue and potato salad to mention a few – I eventually decided to check out the Francofied version of Grandma’s gefilte fish….Quenelles de Pike. Traditional gefilte fish,
perhaps the defining dish of Ashkenazi cuisine, is made from 3 fish ground together and then bound with egg white, sauteed carrots and onions and matzo meal; the fishy troika being pike, carp and whitefish – there should be a good balanced combo of fat and lean fish. This bistro staple at Bistro Jeanty was just made with pike, a relatively lean (and bony) and delicately-flavored fish, shaped into light-as-air, fluffy dumplings. These quenelles were then bathed in a finger-lickin’, briny lobster sauce – something my grandmothers Anna or Goldy surely wouldn’t have done. Bob heroically orders the giant plate of steak tartare, which is ground to order and pristine in it’s beefy freshness (never thought I’d use those two words together). Personally, I LOVE raw chopped meat, and used to steal clumps of it from the family refrigerator like a bloodthirsty beast before I had heard of anything remotely like steak tartare. Bob’s glistening, raw steak came with all the traditional goodies: capers, a hint of anchovy, raw egg, raw onions, croutons and a whopping great mess of pommes frites. Dee decides on one of the specials which are delineated on the chalkboard, an onion pie. Delicious flaky pastry formed the underside of the tart, and nestled into its buttery bottom are a tangle of cooked-down onions, softened and redolant with balsamic vinegar & herbs and dotted with local goat chesse.
In a rare mood of restraint, we decide on one dessert to share. It’s a tough call – all our bistro favorites are there: tarte tatin, crepes Suzette, chocolate pot de creme, not to mention les fromages, both local and imported. Ooh-la-la-love that cheese, but I have to sing the next day, and besides, it’s always better when you’re finishing off a bottle of good red. We settle on the tarte au citron and lots of caffeine…cause next, we are off to Clos Pegase.
Here is the recipe for the cream of tomato soup:
Cream of Tomato Soup in Puff Pastry
1⁄2 cup butter unsalted
1⁄2 lb. Yellow onions-sliced
6 ea. Garlic cloves
1 ea. Bay leaf
1⁄2 Tbl. Whole black peppercorns
1 tsp. Dried thyme leaves
1/4 cup tomato paste
2 1⁄2 ib. tomatoes – ripe, cored, and quartered
1/2 cup water (no more – use only if tomatoes are not ripe and juicy)
4 cups heavy cream
2-4 Tbl. Butter
salt to taste
1⁄2 tsp. Ground white pepper
1 lb. Puff pastry-or store bought sheets
1 ea. Egg- beaten with 1 Tbl. of water
1. Melt the 1⁄2 cup butter in a large stockpot over medium-low heat. Add the onions, garlic, thyme, bay leaf and peppercorns; cover and cook for about 5 minutes. Do not let the onions color. Add tomato paste and lightly “toast” the tomato paste to cook out the raw flavor, then add tomatoes, and water if needed. Simmer over low heat for 30-40 minutes, until the tomatoes and onions are very soft and broken down.
2. Puree by passing through a food mill. A food mill works best, however, you may use a blender in batches or a handheld immersion blender until finished, then strain. Return the soup to the pot.
3. Add the cream, salt, white pepper and remaining butter to taste. Bring soup to a simmer, then remove from heat. Allow the soup to cool for two hours or overnight – in the refrigerator.
4. Divide the soup among six 8-ounce soup cups or bowls. Roll out the puff pastry to 1/4 inch. Cut into 6 rounds slightly larger than your cups. Paint the dough with the egg wash and turn the circles, egg wash side down, over the tops of the cups, pulling lightly on the sides to make the dough somewhat tight like a drum. Try not to allow the dough to touch the soup. These may be made up to 24 hours in advance and covered with plastic in the refrigerator.
5. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
6. Lightly paint the top of the dough rounds with egg wash with out pushing the dough down. Bake for 10-15 minutes, until the dough is golden brown. Do not open the oven in the first several minutes of cooking as the dough may fall. Serve immediately.
The God Of Wine and The Flying Horse
The Clos Pegase winery is an extraordinary experience. I thought so in 1988 (the main building was only finished in 1987) when I went there on my honeymoon, and I still think so in 2008. It’s a beautiful drive to Calistoga, as we pass rows and rows of cabernet vines. Bob and Dee are old friends of the winemaker/owners of Clos Pegase, Jan and Mitsuko Schrem, and we are very lucky not only to be invited to the winery, but to join Jan and Mitsuko for dinner at Ad Hoc Thomas Keller’s new place in Yountville. As we pull up the winery, I immediately recognize the distinctive Michael Graves-designed main building. Jan Schrem is a serious art collector, and it was thrilling to stroll the sculpture gardens, communing with the different aspects of Bacchus amid the living vines. I recognize the work of two great artists right away: Henry Moore and Richard Serra. The late afternoon light filtering through the trees, provides a dreamy soft-focus lens through which to view the beauty of Jan’s collection of sculpture and fountains.
Ad Hoc, Per Se, Sous-Vide etc.
Thomas Keller is one of only 3 chefs in the world to own 2 restaurants that both have earned 3 Michelin stars. His restaurant Per Se in NY is supposed to be a sublime experience, but I can’t find anyone with a big enough expense account or trust fund to take me there…I’m working on it!
I always took the expression “ad hoc” to mean an improvised event, or something specifically designed for one purpose and then discarded. This place is surely here to stay. The menu consists of one family style prix fixe meal – CRAZY!! It’s really not a place for people on diets, vegans, vegetarians, people who keep kosher, or picky eaters. You have two choices, as my mom used to say, “Take it or leave it.” The meal is also as local as possible, with most ingredients coming from within 50 miles of the restaurant. Jan & Mitsuko bring the wine of course, and we immediately open a chilled bottle of Clos Pegase Chadonnay from Mitsuko’s Vineyard. I’ve drunk this wine before and am thrilled to actually be sitting with the lady herself. I don’t care what anyone says…I love me some rich, buttery Chardonnay. This one though, has a lovely crisp balance of acidity and fruit, which makes it really pleasant drinking for a summer’s evening such as this. Waiters bring the first course to the table – a huge salad of crisp little Gem lettuces with homemade dressing. So fresh, so intensely delicious we can’t stop eating. The only jarring thing about the place is the music, which for some reason is antithetical to the high level of the cooking – the banal thumping of bad pop music and disco. We get the waiter to mercifully lower the volume so we can continue talking, and as I ask Jan about his beginnings in the publishing business, the waiter appears with our main course. The spiced flank steak is perfectly cooked, resting on a bed of corn, french beans, tomatoes – a summer succotash of sorts (say THAT 4 times fast!) It is such melt-in-your-mouth perfection, in fact, that I have to ask about the cooking technique. The chef apparently does the steak, and a lot of the other cooking in the restaurant in a sous-vide style. I had read a bit about this technique, where food is cooked in airtight vacuum bags in a water bath at low temperatures for a long time. This not only maintains the integrity of the food, as in keeping its appearance, fat and texture, but you can also add any herbs or spices right into the bag before you vacuum seal it. I couldn’t believe the brisket-like, tender texture of the flank steak, which often is stringy or overly burnt on the outside. It was surely time to open the Clos Pegase Cabernet Sauvignon, and I was in heaven with my mouthful of the plum and cocoa flavors of wine, combined with the flavorful steak and vegetables just picked that day. For dessert, a buttermilk panna cotta, that delightful “cooked cream” originally from Northern Italy, but here made with tangy local buttermilk. A perfect counterpoint to a harmonious symphony of friends, wine and food.
Till next time…I’d like to sign off with an observation of that great French gourmand, Brillat-Savarin who compared after-taste, the perfume or fragrance of food, to musical enharmonics: “but for the odor which is felt in the back of the mouth, the sensation of taste would be but obtuse and imperfect.”
It’s Martini time somewhere,
Miss Eydie Gourmet