Wednesday, November 29, 2006

a night in NAPA - the artful AUBERGE du SOLEIL

It's been five years since my last visit to the NAPA VALLEY, where I used to gravitate to almost every year for a decade or more. This is a quick trip; in yesterday, off to San Francisco later today, so I thought long before deciding where to dine.

I chose to stay at the luxurious AUBERGE du SOLEIL ( with its gorgeous spacious suites overlooking the Napa Valley as I had always wanted to come here. The Restaurant at "Auberge" as it is more commonly known has had a long and illustrious history. Once considered the top dining spot in the valley and even all of California in days before the French Laundry even existed, it had some down years but has come back in the ratings to the top of the list. I somehow can't agree, however, that this is a top dining spot, while it was still mostly enjoyable.

The dining rooms sports the same subtle burnt orange colors used throughout the resort with modern artwork (another singnature) and a gigantic kiva-like fireplace. It was fun to watch the twinkling lights in the valley and turn to be mesmerized by the dancing embers in the fireplace. I opted to try Chef ROBERT CURRY's $120 Tasting Menu with the accompanying wines for an extra $80. I could have ordered a bottle of wine or even two half bottles for the same price (there are some surprisingly medium range priced wines on the extensive and exciting wine list), but felt the pairings would work best.

A glass of Sparkling 2003 SCHRAMSBERG BLANC de NOIRS from the North Coast was a bit too gassy for me with intense green apple flavor and a peachy finish. It needed to be a bit colder, but it was a refreshing aperitif. The amuse was a VENISON CARPACCIO with Julienne Hearts of Palm, Shaved Parmesan & Huckleberry Jus which was pretty good, but not exciting. The bread was a standard very SOURdough served warm with a nice crunchy crust.

My first course was TUNA SASHIMI, Sevruga Caviar, Poached Quail Egg and Sauteed Escarole. This dish was an odd combination of flavors as the Warm Escarole tasted as if it was pickled (although the server said it was not) making for a combination of many flavors depending on what you combined on your fork. I wisely kept the caviar away from the escarole.

A DAY BOAT SCALLOP with Verjus Poached Quince, BEETS, CANDIED WALNUTS & Horseradish Nage was also fun, and I normally don't care for these "foamy" dishes. The light horseradish foam was fun and especially tasty with the thick beet puree. A superb creamy 2004 MARTIN SCHAETZAL PINOT BLANC Reserve from Alsace was a brilliant pairing.

The rare and tasty PAN SEARED FOIE GRAS with HUCKLEBERRIES, Pain Perdu & Almonds was easily the highlight of the meal and the excellent (and also rare and expensive) 2004 DAGUENEAU et PAUTRAT "Les Jardins de Babylone" Jurancon from France was a real treat from the rare Petit & Gros Manseng grapes.

My server suggested we have a glass of Oregon Pinot next to the California as I had said I prefer the former. He offered up a glass of one of my favorites: DOMAINE SERENE 2003 "Evenstad Reserve" from Oregon which was completely wimpy as the bottle had been open for over a day. He ultimately replaced the glass with one from a new bottle, but I had to give in an d say the RENTERIA 2003 "River Ranch" Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley was still much better, bigger and fruitier. I have to also mention here that the medium quality glassware used by Auberge is really in bad need of upgrading.

It went superbly with the APPLE GLAZED PAINE FARM SQUAB, Braised Celery, Radish, Chestnuts & Medjool Dates. The dish was also superb and I adore chestnuts, but sadly one small piece of the sqaub was a bit too dry.

The VENISON TOURNEDOS wrapped in Pancetta with Sweet Potato Napoleon, Chestnuts & Red Wine Cranberry Jus which sadly came way past the rare to medium-rare I requested. I was so full, it didn't matter and instead thoroughly enjoyed the swirls of sweet potato with tall pieces of crunchy (baked or fried) root veggies standing at attention in their midst. The 2001 CLARK-CLAUDON Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was a bit too tight for my taste, as so many cabs can be.

A spicy yet cool PUMPKIN GELEE with Fromage Blanc Sorbet was an enjoyable if jiggly palate cleanser.

Pastry Chef Paul Lemieux has reserached his chocolate well for the FRANCOIS PRALUS "TRINIDAD" Three Presentations. A NAPOLEON with CHOCOLATE CREAM had three ultra-thin layers (one was a bit plasticky) with dollops of chocolate in between that was none too exciting. The WARM CAKE with VANILLA FOAM was a small fondant like treat that was quite tasty, but the PAVLOVA (meringue) with CHOCOLATE SORBET took the prize as the sorbet was so intensely chocolately that it made it the one of the best I have ever had. Oddly, the beautiful rectangular presentation plate had curved edges on all four sides that resulted in the fork and spoon falling into the plate and food no matter WHERE one placed them! A Banyuls like 1990 Mas AMIEL from Maury in France was a perfect pairing as well with the intense chocolate, as anything too sweet would have been overly cloying.

I skipped the two chocolate mignardies and thoroughly enjoyed the mini APPLE FINANCIER and a refreshing STRAWBERRY-GUAVA Gelee before heading to my room where I lit a fire and realxed before heading to bed. Oddly, I awoke quite early because the temperatures dropped below freezing and my heat cut off dropping to the low 60's in my suite! So, I will now head out to warm up in the hot tub and workout room! I need that anyway!

More wine tasting today.