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Napa and Sonoma Cook

Submitted by on February 16, 2009 – 1:00 pm 4 Comments
Chef's kitchen, CIA.

Chef’s kitchen, CIA.

You can too!

Have you thought of adding “culinary education and cooking skills” to your wine country travel menu?

Story and photos by Wanda Hennig
First published in Black Diamond Living magazine

A food writer friend recently came to visit me from South Africa for the second time. On her first visit, at the end of the first day, she sat me down, poured me a glass of wine, and firmly advised me that she was not interested in any more of this sightseeing — unless the sight was between one good place to eat and the next. So my quest became good restaurants. And isn’t it amazing? Just like the fool-proof floating islands that sank the time you most wanted to impress, chefs disappeared, restaurants closed, and food became bland. The best meal we had was one she cooked, at my place for a group of my friends. See “Squashing the Competition,” Los Angeles Times.

This time around, determined to make amends, I decided to jump-start her visit with an intense three-day foodie trail through Napa and Sonoma. I would write it for this issue — and give her something to write home about.

Before Anne came, she e-mailed a request. Her goal, she said, was to eat at one of the world’s top restaurants on each overseas trip. She’d done Australia’s Tetsuya the previous year and Gordon Ramsay in London the year before that. This was the year for The French Laundry. We had to go. When I mentioned the price, she was unfazed. I was having her to stay and this, she said, would be her treat.

To plan our itinerary, I sniffed out the truffles (black diamonds, naturally, not chocolates), gathered the best of them, road-tested them with Anne, and now invite you to indulge in their varied flavors —

In Napa county, the sensuality that is The French Laundry, the smorgasbord that is Copia and the banquet that is the CIA;

In Sonoma county, Ramekins all-encompassing menu of choices, Relish’s friendly feasting, Patty James’ healthy alternative and La Buona Forchetta’s appetizer to share.

Whether you’re a food klutz, or just need some new inspiration or confidence building, follow our culinary trail through Napa and Sonoma. Think of it as a menu. You might tickle your taste buds with a sampler, then return later for the entrée, cheese course and dessert. On the other hand, you might pack all our suggestions into one gluttonous getaway and end up feeling like Anne. To quote her, “So much deliciousness, so little time.”

Negotiating Napa

The French Laundry, Yountville

A scallop tempts at The French Laundry.

A scallop tempts at The French Laundry.

Chef Thomas Keller bought The French Laundry in Yountville in 1994. In 2004 Saveur magazine called it the best restaurant in America, and it consistently makes the world’s top three or four. Asked to explain his food philosophy for BDL readers, Chef Keller said: “The law of diminishing returns is very important to us. We don’t want to give someone so much of something that they get palate fatigue, so they are unable to have the flavor response they had earlier to the dish. The key is to give someone just enough of something that the flavor is profound.”

In the understated opulence of the compact two-story restaurant, across the street from their veggie patch, we were offered a choice of three seven- to nine-course prix fixe menus, “tasting of vegetables,” “dinner,” and the “chef’s tasting menu,” which we both chose. Expect to pay $175 a person (plus tax, a 19 percent service charge, plus for wine of your choice from a 72-page tome. Please check prices when you book).

The atmosphere was reverential until Anne said: “Go on, take a picture.” Soon as I did, other cameras came out, and as the wine flowed and the friendly waitstaff explained dishes and answered questions, the atmosphere turned festive. If you want real indulgence, we learned, you can ask in advance to have specialties added to the menu, which could take the food-only part of the bill to $350 per palate.

To dine here is to experience food created by an artist who is a master at marrying tastes, textures and colors. We were sold when we gasped at the flavors that burst from a miniature savory ice-cream cone topped with salmon tartare. It was an unannounced appetizer that came before our first course, which had the flavors of two tiny Beau Soleil oysters and a dollop of sevruga caviar explode in our mouths.

To say you’ve eaten at The French Laundry impresses people. The very fact that you got a table elicits an amazed: “Wow! How?” In fact, it’s as simple as boiling an egg — which means, if you do it right, you crack the code.

To book call The French Laundry (707.944.2380) at 10:00 a.m. two months to the day in advance and keep trying if the line is busy, or go to www.opentable.com.

Copia, Napa

The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts, was named for the goddess of abundance and what you get there by way of food (and wine) tidbits is the equivalent of the best self-serve buffet, offered in an accessible (think paint-by-numbers) format. I have now been there twice and it’s not enough.

Arrive when they open (10:00 a.m.) and ideally, give yourself a day there. Do the 30-minute guided tour included with the day pass. Also, don’t miss the 3.5-acre edible garden tour for a painless lessons in sustainable agriculture, seed saving, heirloom veggies, genetic diversity, biodiversity and organics — all must-knows to make the best use of farmers markets.

Check out the classes in advance online. We did “Fun with Fruit: Cobblers, Crisps, Bucklers and Grunts.” Bucklers and grunts? Told you you’d learn something! We wanted more time at the interactive, all-American Forks in the Road exhibition. We ate at Julia’s Kitchen, named for the late, legendary, Julia Childs, where Anne claimed the foie gras ($14) and crispy lamb sweetbreads ($13) were the best she’d tasted. I was happy with two salads, baby beet ($11) and duck ($12). We never got as far as a main course.

At Julia’s Kitchen, linger, savor, and ask about everything you eat. It’s another place to learn what food should taste like.

Please note, due to financial woes, Copia is currently closed, hopefully temporarily.

The CIA, St. Helena

No, not that CIA silly! This is the important one. The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, the West Coast branch of the famous Hudson Valley, New York cooking school. It’s worth a visit not least to see the gorgeous old stone winery building and to eat at the Greystone restaurant, where James Corwell, executive chef, offers dishes designed to tease the palate into becoming more informed and discriminating. (Keep reading for Corwell’s tips for BDL readers.) There are wine and olive oil flights, seasonal specialties, and every table has a view of the chefs at work.

Many of the courses offered here are for culinary professionals, but there are opportunities for the home cook. Sign up for one of the daily cooking demonstrations (call to check prices). Or get serious and consider the 30-hour Career Discovery Program, geared to career changers and people who want to learn about cooking and cooking methods hands-on, in a professional environment. The CIA’s store is a home-cook’s dream shop for kitchen things to use, and to eat. There’s a kids corner and a large selection of recipe books.

Learn more about the CIA online or call 707.967.1010.

Napa Stayover

For comfort and accessibility, try the Napa River Inn. Stroll to downtown Napa and enjoy the dynamic redevelopment and plethora of new wine bars, drive five minutes to Copia, 15 minutes to the French Laundry, longer through the vineyards to the CIA. The boutique hotel is built into the circa 1884 Napa Mill. The on-site Celadon restaurant is a long-time Napa favorite.

Nice touch: The VIP (Very Important Pet) program. Your dog will get a welcome letter, Cab-Bone-Nay dog biscuits and more. Costs $25 a night. For a pet sitter, 72 hours notice is required. Check for price updates.

Napa River Inn, 500 Main Street, 707.251.8500.

Savoring Sonoma

There are many roads from Napa to Sonoma County. If you take the woodsy, hilly route over the Oakville Grade that branches off from HW 29 close to the Oakville Grocery, you’ll exit near the restaurant-infused town of Sonoma, on the outskirts of the more secluded Glen Ellen, both of which have not-to-be-missed food markets for nibbles, stocking up, and taking home. (The Sonoma Market, 500 West Napa St., and Glen Ellen Village Market, 13751 Arnold Drive.)

Ramekins: Cornucopia

Wanna-be and wanna-be-better home cooks can feast on the range of cooking class options at the 7-year-old Sonoma Valley Culinary School, named “Avocational Cooking School of the Year” in 2005 by the International Associate of Culinary Professionals. Ramekins is a short drive, or a stroll, from the Sonoma plaza. Book for one class, two classes or more, and spend your downtime checking what it is about the food that gets people eating at Deuce (707.933.3823) and Café LaHaya (707.935.5994).

We caught the “Easy Cheese Making” class with Mary Karlin and learned the secrets of panir, chevre, mascarpone, ricotta and queso fresco.

You can choose classes on anything from tapas, paella or kebobs, to handmade pasta, bread and sushi. They also have a lot of inspiring “How To” classes, for example, “How to Throw a Hors d’Oeuvres Party.” And you can meet and learn from some really well known foodies — cookbook author and teacher John Ash and the San Francisco Chronicle restaurant columnist GraceAnn Walden, to name just two.

For more about Ramekins or to book classes, visit them online or call 707.933.0450.

Relish: Movable Feasting

“Have kitchen, will travel,” is how Donna del Rey runs her business — a cooking school cum road show headquartered in the picturesque town of Healdsburg, California. Del Rey operates from a pristine white 1952 Chevy panel van. Her cool Relish Culinary School logo is painted on each side. She found the vehicle with a “for sale” sign parked along a Napa Valley road. In it is everything a cooking class needs except the kitchen sink and a stove. Those, someone else provides — along with a good working space that might be in a private home, a winery cave or cellar, on a farm or, the night I went, in a private community center way up at the top of a hill above Geyserville.

When del Rey decided to open Relish in 2003 she had a vision but no building to work from, no staff, no experience in the food industry, and she was not a chef. Undeterred she teamed up with chefs from well-known wine country restaurants, such as Girl and the Fig’s John Toulze and Ralph Tingle of Bistro Tingle in Healdsburg. She also partners with winemakers.

At Relish, del Rey and her appointed chef for the night, Healdsburg’s Nitsa Prousalis, proved you can teach old dogs new tricks. Get a bunch of adults in a kitchen and tell them to chop and blend butter, sage, thyme and garlic to stuff, by hand, under the skin of several chickens; let them drink chardonnay, zinfandal and cabernet — poured in this case by Jason Passalacqua, whose eponymous winery (Passalacqua) is fairly new to Sonoma County — and a learning experience doubles as a raucous party.

Find out more about the Relish Culinary School online or call 707.431.9999.

Patty James: The Healthy Alternative

When Patty James gets on her soapbox, she creates converts. “The health of the planet starts with the individual’s health,” she says, describing the benefits of the assorted colorful grains stored near the teaching table at her Sebastopol cooking school that’s as bright and cheerful as she is upbeat and encouraging.

Like all the schools, James uses fresh, organic, in-season products — but her good-health focus goes all the way to the roots. Her motto is Healthy kitchens – Healthy lives, and she is equally happy reeducating experienced cooks on how to make shifts in the name of good health, teaching kids, and leading specialist classes that focus on cooking for diabetes, heart disease, cancer and more.

“I eat chocolate chip cookies like the next person, but I don’t eat any white sugar,” says James, who advocates simple practices like sprinkling on fresh herbs instead of salt, and who stresses that healthy cooking can be sumptuous, uncomplicated and fun. Classes are hands-on and when the cooking is done, the table gets set and you eat what you made.

Patty James, 330 South Main St., Sebastopol, 707.829.6707.

La Buona Forchetta: Togetherness

La Buona Forchetta as a cooking school is like an appetizer, or a dessert, to the main meal — which in this case is exploring the fare of the Russian River Valley. This school works best if you want a bonding experience over food in a tasteful villalike setting with a group of six to 12 friends or family members, and you can all agree on something specific you’d like to know more about — like braising meat or making ice cream.

The school is part of Applewood Inn and Restaurant, a 19-room Mediterranean-style B and B with nighttime dining, located on the outskirts of Guerneville. Innkeeper-owner Darryl Notter says classes are typically half-day. This is a place where, for example, a group of old school friends, and a family with a grandson thinking of being a chef, booked in for a minivacation that included a custom-designed class. Applewood’s executive chef Brian Anderson runs the classes.

La Buona Forchetta at Applewood, 13555 Hwy. 116, Guerneville, 707.869.9093.

Sonoma Stayovers

Try the Glen Ellen Inn (707.996.6409) for informality and comfort in what they call their “secret cottages,” tucked behind their fun Oyster Grill & Martini Bar, the California-fusion restaurant that’s part of the mini-complex. Owner-chef is Christian Bertrand, whose kitchen background includes the Sonoma Mission Inn and Fifth Avenue Grill, New York; his wife, Karen, manages the restaurant and the inn; and daughter Savannah Rose rules the roost.

In a class of its own is the four-star Santa Rosa Vintner’s Inn (9707-575-7350) with suites, patio rooms, fireplace rooms, fountains, tranquility, vineyards — and on site, John Ash & Co., named for the chef who created the restaurant that has long been one of Santa Rosa’s best.

Top Tips

CIA Executive Chef James Corwell says:

  • To save space, use Ziploc bags to refrigerate marinades or sauces.
  • For dependable recipes and home cooking techniques, look for cookbooks by Marcella Hazan, Daniel Boulud and Joyce Goldstein.
  • When your grill, cook ahead. Make shrimp for tonight, chicken thighs to eat cold tomorrow, and vegetables for a smoky gazpacho later.
  • Heavily salt meat before searing. The salt draws juices to the surface, creating a great crust. This crust produces fond — tiny bits of browned meat — to use for quick sauces.
  • For flavorful vinaigrettes, use two different acids (instead of just one) and salt. Examples: lemon juice, red wine vinegar, balsamic.
  • To save time, cook batches of brown rice, lentils, chickpeas and hearty pastas. Toss in whole garlic cloves, chunks of peeled ginger, or peppers for extra flavor. Remove flavor agents and refrigerate grains and beans. They re-heat excellently.

© Wanda Hennig, 2009

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