Sunday, July 10, 2011

Down & Out In Napa City Part II

Woozy with the simultaneous outrage of the prior evening’s meal and fortified with a little booze and a lot of wine still coursing through my system; I woke early from my beautiful room at Avia Napa seeking redemption, a little exercise and something to soak up last night’s exploits. Unshaven and unshowered, I wandered out of the hotel and began to walk Napa City. With the streams of disappointment still burning in my mind, I began to search for some silver lining. I mean, Napa is supposed to be going through a revival – a rebirth that is revitalizing the town and luring tourists by the droves. While this was no Shawshank, Gillwoods provided the perfect start to what was to become an unforgettable day of dining. I don’t really need to go any further than showing you this photo of a perfectly done Belgian Waffle with Fresh Mixed Berries and a side of Slab Bacon. Nuff said…

We jump in the car and head to Sonoma for an appointment with an old friend who had a lead for us that worked out brilliantly. I’m proud to announce that there will be a 2010 Pre en Pierre Chardonnay Russian River Valley and it is delicious! Terry Thiese once wrote that “delicious” is a word that is under-utilized in tasting notes. I agree and am here to reclaim the word and grab it from the world of pedestrian nomenclature. It encapsulates so much in those nine little letters. Who doesn’t like “delicious” foods, wines, people? I try to use “delicious” every day. If you do the same, your life will be enhanced no doubt…

Anyway, we find the “delicious” Chardonnay and plow through about 40 other really awful bulk wines. I mean thoroughly revolting wines! I’m talking about turning the cap to the bottle and having shitty, spritzy wine flying out at me covering my face with a thin film of grossness. Believe me, we taste a lot of poo before we find these little wine jewels. With that torture finished yet running a little late for our next appointment, I ask if we have time for a quick bite to eat, Lita and I leading the charge for some sustenance. The short answer was no but then on our way to the next meeting, we quickly swerve into a parking lot at what appears to be a sleepy roadside grill.

Henweigh’s Café was like an oasis among the scrubby landscape of Occidental. We walk in to this quiet restaurant with our typical New York City bluster informing the waitress that we need to order quick and leave quick to make an appointment. She smiles and says, “Sure, no problem. What can I get for you?” We order five Arnold Palmers and ask what’s good? Then a voice comes out of nowhere; a grizzled old guy looking slightly disheveled lifts his head up doing his best Billy Bob Thornton in Slingblade impression, “Get the pulled pork…” and then returns to his food never to be heard from again. Armed with the recommendation of a local (always a good idea) we all order Pulled Pork Sandwiches. In less than a couple minutes, the waitress brings five refreshing Arnold Palmers, a perfect division of iced tea and lemonade clearly evident in the contrast of colors. It struck me that she did this faster and with more care than anything that happened at the Napa Disaster the evening before. Then came the sandwiches…

Made by a transplanted Boston-ite chef-owner, who spotted our NY accent as easily as we spotted his Red Sawks drawl; this was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. Yes, I said it! So succulent, perfectly smoky, slightly sweet and melting in your mouth, it was like all the sins of yesterday washed away with that sandwich. Starting to nibble on them, we were powerless against the pulled pork accompanied with homemade potato chips. Thinking it was better to take in the “terroir” of Henweigh’s by eating this masterpiece at the counter than it was to be on time, we quickly devoured this heavenly delight. Thanking our hosts profusely, we barreled out of the parking lot like Starsky and Hutch chasing a coke dealer.

Two more appointments with lots of blending and tasting of more samples and the trip was officially over. The only thing left was the “out”, as in back to San Francisco for dinner and an early am flight back home. Hitting the normal maddening traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge, we arrive at Spruce in a huff. I hadn’t even had an opportunity to change clothes from the day’s tastings so I was wearing a white t-shirt, jeans, sandals with my sunglasses perched on my now tanned bald dome. Warmly greeted by the maître d, we were shown to our table in the gorgeously adorned restaurant. I couldn’t help but notice the elderly woman with huge glasses lock her gaze upon me as I walked by her table. Her eyes never leaving me with a look of disdain as if to say, “Morris, who let this riff-raff in OUR restaurant? What in the world is this negro wearing in OUR favorite place?!?” Chuckling as I took my seat, that is where the pretentiousness ended. We all took turns laying into the extensive and very well chosen wine list and decided to begin with a gorgeous bottle of NV Diebolt Vallois Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs “Cuvee Prestige.”

Everything, I mean everything done at Spruce is top-notch. Not only the sommelier but each server, food runner and bus boy had an air of confidence that didn’t feel stuffy; something one would acquire from a) experience b) excellent training and c) confidence that you will do everything to make the customer feel welcomed and satisfied. A delightful amuse gave way to my first course, Seared Sweetbreads over Tagliarini with Foraged Mushrooms. Whoever came up with the name for the thymus gland as “sweetbreads” is a real joker…There is nothing sweet nor bread-like about them. Just the most tender, fleshy gift from the food gods that have richness and succulence to stand up to the perfectly al dente pasta and the earthy but subtle flavors of the champignon. A magnificently conceived and executed dish that set my weary brain ablaze with sensation. Surprisingly, the dish even worked with Brian’s selection of 2003 Raveneau Chablis Montee de Tonnerre 1er cru. The deux mille trois was in great shape, minerally and briny, fresh and vibrant and showing no signs of oxidation. Brilliant!

Finally, for the main course Chris ordered a sexy beast of a wine, the 1995 Joseph Roty Mazy-Chambertin Grand Cru. Expertly decanted by our sommelier, this wine was beauty personified in a glass. I knew some form of meat was in my future and went with the Honey Lacquered Duck Breast with Cinnamon Spiced Fois Gras, Watercress and Glazed Rhubarb. This sounds like its sticky sweet but the chef’s sensibilities here worked with smashing results. This is a rich dish for sure and not for those seeking to slim down, but my God was that fois gras melt-in-your-mouth good! I finished up with a cocktail, one of my favorites called The Last Word and off we raced to get half of our traveling crew to the airport. Many thanks to Brian DiMarco, Lita Rosenberg and Ted Wilson (and Chris Cree) for a great and successful trip.

The “out” more than compensated for the “down”.

JCB the 4th