|Bistro Jeanty's Tomato Soup in Puff Pastry|
It’s hard to have a bad meal in the Napa Valley and choosing between restaurants is like deciding which of your children you like best. As there were only so many meals that could be crammed into our Napa Valley visit, alas, it wasn’t possible to revisit all my old loves and still experience the thrill of at least a couple of new places. Luckily, the guilt pangs of my unfaithfulness were eased by the fabulous meals we shared at restaurants old and new.
This is where we ate. One of my Napa Valley traditions is having the first meal at Tra Vigne in St. Helena. It’s a tradition shared with my colleagues at Viking and we make it our first stop, always eating at “our” table by the bar, when we come to visit the Culinary Institute of America. After a tiring travel day and Mississippi to California jet lag, Tra Vigne is lovely, comforting, dependable and a great way to shake off the road dust and get into the spirit of the Napa Valley. I honored this tradition by sharing it with my six travel companions and it worked the same magic. Our favorite dishes of the night were Wood Oven Baked Fig Pizza with black mission figs, gorgonzola, arugula, and aged balsamic and another amazing starter, Mozzarella Cheese “al minuto”. The cheese is handmade at the moment ordered and placed on grilled bruschetta then drizzled with Napa Valley olive oil. Creamy, luscious, ethereal.
The Cindy of Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen in St. Helena is the inimitable Cindy Pawlcyn who was and continues to be a culinary pioneer in the Napa Valley food scene. The vibe is welcoming, casual and laid back. The food is eccentric but familiar and always tasty. My favorite dishes shared among our table of seven were Oysters Bingo (a take-off on Oysters Rockeller with spinach, garlic and a cheesy sauce) and the Wood Oven Duck with caramelized quince, Marsala sauce and roasted root vegetables.
There are two Michelin 3 Star restaurants in the Napa Valley and we dined at both, The French Laundry and The Restaurant at Meadowood. A Michelin-starred chef before the age of 30, Chef Christopher Kostow earned that third Michelin star with the imaginative California he creates in this Meadowood kitchen. Our reservation was for lunch which is served in restaurant’s Grill Room. Among our favorite dishes were the Pea Shoot Salad and Grilled Watermelon with Watercress.
|The French Laundry|
Dinner at the world famous French Laundry in Yountville is a religious experience for food lovers. Chef Thomas Keller creates the ultimate dining experience where the highest level of ingredients meet the pinnacle of culinary creativity, imagination, skill and artistry. The table settings, atmosphere, and incomparable service combine with the other-worldly food to create an unforgettable dining experience. It is perfection on a plate and this visit – my fourth – was the most enjoyable. In reliving my night at the table, I realized that the added ingredient that elevated this particular experience was the friends around the table. It was an unforgettable evening.
The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone is a must-stop for any food lover. Within its historic walls, one can learn, sip, shop and savor. Even a meal at the C.I.A.’s student-operated Wine Spectator Restaurant is a culinary lesson. Students learn their trade by cooking in the bustling open kitchen where they interact with guests at the food bar and field the casual question from a diner. Diners learn by experiencing the meal and through the educational wine flights accompanied by teaching points
and wine notes. Highlights of our meal were Today’s Temptations, a variety of shared “small plates’ artfully arranged on a table centerpiece holding all five plates…and the Duck Fat Roasted Fingerling Potatoes. Need I say more?
Cindy Pawlcyn’s newest restaurant is Brassica, a Mediterranean Kitchen and Wine Bar, in St. Helena. The wine bar is spectacular, serving by-the-glass wines from small vintners, and the menu is a happy combination of Mediterranean small plates – meze and tapas – and entrées that cover Southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. The small plates were exactly what I was in the mood for and they were divine – especially Eggplant Fries with Za’atar and Spiced Yogurt, Fried Zucchini Blossoms and Crispy Star Anise and Ginger Quail.
Our last meal in the Napa Valley was a serendipitous one. We were scheduled for a lunch of burgers and garlic fries at the famous Gott’s Diner (formerly Taylor Refresher). A departure meal at Gott’s is another of my beloved Napa Valley traditions and always hits the spot after all the fancy food and wine. Our plans were foiled by pouring rain which made outside dining at Gott’s a cold and messy proposition. As we rolled toward San Francisco, hungry, cranky and wedged into our mini-van with luggage piled around us I was praying for inspiration and an open table. A call to Bistro Jeanty in Yountville, one of my all time favorites and an old love I had spurned on this trip mainly because of logistics, magically yielded a table for seven. Chef Phillipe Jeanty has created the best French Bistro on this side of the pond – a view shared by legions of loyal fans. Shucking pretension for authenticity, it evokes the feeling of a neighborhood bistro somewhere in the Burgundy region of France. The dish that brings me back again and again is Coq au Vin, a hearty stew of chicken, mushrooms and bacon in red wine stew. But Jeanty’s most famous dish is Crème de Tomate en Croute, tomato soup in puff pastry. The puff pastry presentation gives it a wow factor and breaking the crust with a spoon to savor the creamy soup is a guilty pleasure.
And so we left the Napa Valley on a culinary high note, vowing to return and do it all again. Oh…and by the way….if the Napa Valley is not on your horizon any time soon, make Phillipe Jeanty’s famous tomato soup … and dream.
Cream of Tomato Soup in Puff Pastry
½ cup Butter, unsalted
½ lb. Yellow onions, sliced
6 Garlic cloves
1 Bay leaf
½ Tbl Whole black peppercorns
1 tsp Dried thyme leaves
¼ cup Tomato paste
2 1/2 lbs Tomatoes, ripe, cored and quartered
1 cup Water (no more – use only if tomatoes are not ripe and juicy)
4 cups Heavy cream
2-4 Tbl Butter
Salt to taste
½ tsp Ground white pepper
1 lb Puff pastry or store bought sheets
1 Egg, beaten with 1 Tbl of water
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. 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. 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.
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.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Lightly paint the top of the dough rounds with egg wash without 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.