Healdsburg is a bit of a trip from San Francisco, but we needed
to go to Simi Winery to pick up our Wine Club shipment. You know how the wine clubs work… you join, they ship two or three bottles of wine to you each quarter and in exchange, a you get a big discount – 25 to 30% – on any wine purchased. At Simi, I had signed up for pick-up only; that saves on shipping and makes a good excuse to go to the wine country from time to time.
Of course, by the time we got to Healdsburg, we were ready for lunch. Barndiva is a restaurant that Carol and I had visited a number of times and always enjoyed. We sat outside in the garden and delighted, still, in the spring day as we ordered Tempura Beer Battered Shrimp to start.
After bringing wine, the waiter returned with a plate of unexpected goodies: “We’re out of shrimp, so the chef whipped up a little something in its stead – Tempura Beer Battered Cod with a celeriac remoulade for dipping, and Tempura Beer Battered goat cheese with honey for dipping.”
Oh my… I’m glad they were out of shrimp. The cod was light and moist in a tender batter, the remoulade lending a nice tangy complement. The cheese ball dipped in honey exploded in my mouth with warm creamy sweet and salty goodness. Yum.
I ordered the daily special, Rabbit Rillettes, a delicate deep fried cake draped with – I don’t know – baby parsley? I’m not a lover of parsley… this green had a much more delicate flavor and texture than parsley.
Carol had her favorite Ruben Sandwich. She claims the Barndiva Ruben is the best she’s ever had, and she’s ordered Rubens everywhere, from San Francisco to Boston to New York to Paris.
Sarah had a salad of Endive, Beet and Avocado, with glazed pecans and bits of goat cheese. It was as lovely as it was tasty. We’ve been visiting Barndiva ever since it opened in the spring of 2006 when Carol had her first Barndiva Ruben. Simi was one of the first wine clubs we joined after moving to San Francisco. Their wine is good and well priced and it’s always a pleasure to visit there. On the down side, it’s about twice as far to Healdsburg as to the Carneros region at the bottom of Sonoma County. On the up side, they will hold your wine until you pick it up. We picked up our six bottles (two shipments) and a few additional bottles and were off to White Oak Winery, outside of Healdsburg to the east on Route 128, past the Jimtown Store. The roads were free of traffic and from the back seat; Sarah kept saying how beautiful the Sonoma wine country is. Indeed, I love it in winter when you see the cover between the rows, from bright yellow mustard to vivid green to brown grass or turned black earth. White Oak is another of the wineries that we got to know early and on this day; the bartender was in a jovial mood, glad to see most anyone on a Wednesday afternoon.
We drove south from White Oak – off the Russian River map – and ended up on Route 27 at Calistoga, the top of the Napa Valley. Route 27 will get us home… we drove on. As we passed through St. Helena I realized the next town is Yountville and it was nearly 5 o’clock. “Hey – let’s stop in Yountville at ad hoc,” I called out, “I’ve wanted to go there since they opened over a year ago.” Ad hoc is Thomas Keller’s casual family restaurant.
“The idea for ad hoc was simple – 5 days a week we’d offer a 4 course family style menu that changed each day, accompanied by a small, accessible wine list in a casual setting reminiscent of home.”
We parked on the street, right in front of the restaurant. A few clusters of people were hanging out around the front door. I asked one of them what time ad hoc opened. “Usually at five,” he said, “but it’s ten past now.”
In no hurry, we sat on a bench to hang with the rest. A menu hung on the wall and I checked it out, “Wednesday March 25th: roast pig.” I can deal with that. As we waited, more and more people arrived.
The door swung open at 5:30 and we wondered in with the rest. “Do you have a reservation?” we were asked. “Just passing through,” I said. It turns out they’re normally closed Wednesday and this was a special event dinner with seatings at 5:30 and 8:30. “There are a few places at the late seating if you want to wait,” said the hostess. We thanked her, but decided to move on up the street to Bouchon.
This is as far as we got at ad hoc.
We’ve been to Bouchon a few times; it’s a neat destination for lunch on a beautiful day – reliable, good and not too expensive – but I don’t think we’ve been there for dinner. Our first time there was for a book signing party for Thomas Keller’s book, Bouchon.
Bouchon is a bistro, a type of restaurant with origins in nineteenth century Paris, so the menu doesn’t change often. What they have is what’s in the book. And since I have the book, I can eat the Bouchon cooking, and cook the same meal on my own at home. Most of the recipes are straightforward and the instructions thorough. “Bouchon is about maintaining classic traditions, renewing our respect for those great dishes, holding them up to the light to understand them, in order to perfect them.”
As I often do, I ordered two appetizers, rather than an appetizer and an entrée. I find that the appetizers are generally more interesting and the serving size is just right for me.
My “appetizer” appetizer was Salmon Rillettes, a mixture of steamed salmon and smoked salmon.
“For traditional rillettes, cooked, shredded meat is mixed with its own fat to make it moist, succulent, and flavorful. Fish, of course, don’t have that kind of fat, so butter replaces it. Beaten until it is creamy, butter is folded gently into a mixture of two types of salmon: steamed and cold-smoked. To enrich the salmon further, we add raw yolks and a little crème fraiche, the latter lending some acidity. Clarified butter is poured over the top to seal the rillettes.”
The waiter asked me if I would like him to remove the butter top. I declined, and removed it myself to the plate of toasts. I don’t know if one is supposed to eat that sealing butter, but I did… butter on toast, salmon on butter, chomp, yum. That is super-rich and yet delicate.
For my “entrée” appetizer, I ordered Cod Brandade, a quintessential bistro dish. I have made Catfish Brandade at home – copied from a lunch at B Restaurant & Bar in San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Garden. I expected it to arrive in a baking dish, sprinkled with buttered breadcrumbs, hot from the oven. Surprise!
“This is Bouchon’s version of the dish called brandade, which dates to the early nineteenth century. It’s poached salt cod mixed to a virtual paste with olive oil and milk (and sometimes potato), then served as a spread or sautéed as a fish cake. Here the cod mixture is coated in a fritter batter and deep fried – our version of Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks – served on a sun dried tomato and garnished with fried sage leaves.”
It was lovely and truly salt cod and full of flavor, but I thought a bit dry. I’ll stick with the traditionally prepared version. And I especially like my catfish version.
Carol ordered Gnocchi a la Parisienne. If gnocchi is on a menu, you can be sure that Carol will order it. I’m not a fan, because I find the Italian gnocchi very starchy. But this version is very French, made with pate a choux, so it has body and flavor to please even me.
“Parisienne gnocchi are made from pate a choux, a versatile dough made by cooking flour and water together until the flour cooks, after which eggs are stirred in. It can then be piped… and gently poached in water. They’re not a traditional bistro food, but the technique is a French one, dating back to before Escoffier.”
We passed on dessert and, the dinner over, we had only one thing to take home: a few olives from our Marinated Olives starter.
At Bouchon, even the take-home is elegantly presented.
A fine day, that.