Sunday, December 14, 2008

Anderson Valley: My Happy Place

When life gets too hectic, my favorite escape is to the Anderson Valley, specifically to The Other Place . I wish I could say that it is really my other home, but sadly that is not the case :). It is a dog friendly rental home perched high above the town of Boonville and Hwy 128, and we like to go there once or twice a year for our vacation with the pups.

The dogs get a couple of fenced acres of their own to run around unfettered, and dig for moles and voles to their hearts' content. Sammie likes to swim in the pond, which also doubles as Kevin's Kayaking training area. And then there's a few hundred acres of private land to hike around on. Our favorite cottage is The Oaks, named after a couple of ancient oaks that shade it, and it offers 270 degree views of the mountains that surround Boonville.

I love the bucolic nature of Anderson Valley -- It is green and lush and still a whole lot unspoiled, at least compared to Napa & Sonoma. No fancy tasting rooms, low/ no tasting fees, no attitude, and no drunken frat boys veering wildly on the road. It is mercifully free of fancy hotels and resorts, and celebrity chef restaurants. What is has instead is several very good wineries -- most specializing in dry Alsace Whites and dustier, earthier Pinot Noir.

Navarro is a long time favorite of ours and we served some of their dry whites at our wedding - they are also very dog friendly, and have a nice picnic area -- make sure to taste their late harvest dessert wines -- sweet, but with enough acidity to make it interesting. We also like to stop by Roederer (preferable to go during the week when it's less crowded) Greenwood Ridge (the prettiest picnic area, and a very cool tasting room designed by one of Wright's disciples), Handley Cellars (with a female wine maker making some kick-ass wines) and Husch (their lighter white and dessert wines are a great value) and a comparatively new presence in the area: Zine Hyde Cunningham. I would be remiss not to mention, Golden Eye - they are the pinot arm of the venerable Duckhorn empire, but that venerability comes at a slightly higher price, at least by Anderson Valley standards. It is certainly worth visiting, especially if you can do a tasting in their beautiful outdoor tasting area overlooking the vineyards.

Our latest winery discoveries in this area are two of our favorites next to Navarro, and definitely fall in the not-to-be-missed category. And it is not just because they are really nice dog people, but also because they make great wines and are warm and welcoming when you visit. The first is Londer - chances are you will be tasting with Shirlee Londer in her kitchen, with her dogs at your feet. My favorite is their dry Gewurtaziminer but I also like their syrahs and pinots, especially the Anderson Valley Pinot.

The 2nd is Toulouse, which we found entirely by accident since they were one of the last ones open at the end of an afternoon of wine tasting. We really liked their wines and enjoyed talking to the owner, Vern, and his friends and bought a couple of bottles. The next day we went back and retasted the wines to make sure that our judgement had not been impaired the previous evening. We liked the wines almost as much, and bought quite a bit more. We have pretty much drunk our way through our Toulouse stash, and recently when I called to see if we could restock, learned that they had sold out of all our favorites. And that is also when I looked through their website and discovered that some their wines had been reviewed very favorably by both the Wine Spectator and SF Chronicle. Go Vern, we said, but we were just a little bit sad that it was no longer "our" secret winery. But we are happy at their most deserved success and wish them all the best!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Date Night Dinner with Melissa Perello

Kevin and I like to do monthly date nights. You know, keeping the romance alive, getting away from the daily grind and all that good stuff. Oh yeah, and creating an opportunity to indulge in culinary decadence of some sort on a monthly basis ...

December's date night happened to fall on a Monday -- one of those Mondays when Melissa Perello (former chef of Fifth Floor Restaurant) happened to be serving one of her $45 four-course dinners at Sebo. Turns out that she misses feeding a restaurant crowd (her new restaurant Frances is in the planning stages) enough to start serving a pre-fixe dinner to a reservations-only crowd on Monday nights when the restaurant is normally closed.And we also happened to snag a reservation for what apparently is rather a hot ticket in this foodcrazed town. And frankly, it wasn't even that hard - I read about it on tablehopper (or was it the Chron?), immediately joined Melissa's email list, and then responded with our reservation request as soon as she announced the dates for December! Easy Peasy... and I told myself that finally I had discovered an upside to working a lot - one can respond to important emails like these as soon as they are received!

We had reservations for the 2nd seating at 8:15pm (the first one is at 6pm would be way too early for us -- and I can see my friend Laura shaking her head in dismay at this!) and showed up at the restaurant, miraculously on time. We made our way through the small throng smoking just outside the door -- majority of the guests that night appeared to be from the bay area restaurant industry, and they were busy socializing with each other and with the servers sneaking in a quick smoke break before start of service.

We were greeted warmly and seated promptly at table 1A, close enough to watch some of the plating action in the open kitchen. This was my first visit to Sebo -- I could not find a website for it, but rumor has it that it serves very pristine and very pricey sushi on other nights in its true incarnation as a sushi joint, and is quite popular in foodie circles. Rumor also has it that Danny, one of the co-owners of Sebo, who is not at all coincidentally Melissa Perello's current arm-candy, also happens to be rather hunky eye-candy.

The restaurant is located in a smallish space with mellow lighting and soothingly uncluttered modern decor in a vaguely Japanese vein. The music playing on the night of our visit is probably best described as danceclub-ish, but thankfully just the thump thump thump of the bass beat was the only thing audible, and it was easy to have a conversation at the table.
The pleasantly unobtrusive but very capable service continued after we were seated and throughout the meal. Given that most of the staff working that night had also worked with Melissa at The Fifth Floor, it was not at all surprising that the service was at least a notch or two above what one could reasonably expect at this price point. Once we got the mildly annoying "bottled or tap/ fizzy or flat water" question out of the way, we were presented with the night's menu: 4 courses for $45 with no choices, based upon whatever was fresh at the previous days' Farmers Markets.

We started with lightly fried almonds - simple but yummy, salty crunchy and warm -- what's not to like? And not too filling - a much better alternative for starting the meal than bread or chips. Already excited at the prospect of a nice meal with a very reasonable $10 corkage, we were even more excited to see roast suckling pig as the main course. We requested the waiter open the bottle of 2001 Scherrer RRV Pinot that we had brought with us. It was smooth with muted but discernible fruit, and just enough mild tannins and acidity to be a good food wine -- once again I was reminded why I like drinking wines, and why I love drinking Fred Scherrer's wines.

The first course of roasted caramelized squash with pickled (and crunchy) currants with a sherry vinaigrette was the highlight of the meal for me - the contrast of the sweet squash with the sourness of the vinaigrette and and the interplay of soft and crunchy textures was just perfect.

The next course was a dungeness crab soup with chunks of very fresh tasting crab - a great way to showcase our local crab which has just come into season. The accompanying mini creme fraiche biscuits stole the show however - the warm, flaky, buttery golden orbs were just irresistible, and it did not matter that they were a bit too heavy for the rather thin soup.

The main course of roasted suckling pig was perfectly cooked, but a bit bland and overly fatty for my taste. I needed the accompanying scalloped potatoes and braised kale in every bite to "brighten" up my meat, but given its perfect symbiosis with our mellow aged pinot noir, I had no complaints. However, in the absence of the wine I might have been slightly less thrilled.

The dessert course was a light and buttery brioche bread pudding with distinct savory notes and it would have been nice with the black tea we asked for, but sadly none could be located. The bread pudding was served with a babyfood textured applesauce that did little to enhance it -- I would have much preferred a scoop of ice cream or caramelized apple slices instead. But my real quibble is that this applesauce was referred to as "apple confit" on the menu. Confit - pray why I ask? Confit = preserve in fat, or in the cases of fruit, perhaps candied. This apple sauce was neither -- even my lazy microwave apple sauce tastes far better.

Thankfully, my disappointment did not last long - the peanut brittle served at the end with our check more than made up for the lacklustre bread pudding. Made from the chef's grandmother's recipe, it was crunchy and yummy, with just the right balance of sweet and salty, and since my date dislikes brittle, I was more than happy to eat both our shares.

Overall, it was a very pleasant experience at a reasonable price -- particularly, the white tablecloth service at no-tablecloth prices. I am not the sort to be star-struck but I enjoyed the opportunity to comment about the meal to a celebrity chef right after she had prepared and served it to us (she stopped by all the tables at the end). I hope she was not offended by my comment that she should consider selling the cool burlap aprons that she had made for her wait- staff. And, if you are interested in repeating the experience, hurry up and email - you never know when she will stop doing these fun intimate one-of-a-kind dinners!