At the quiet corner of Washington Street and Creek Street in the peaceful Northern California town of Yountville resides hallowed gastronomic terrain. No, even though this is the heart of the most revered Wine Country in the New World, this intersection is not the home of coveted Cabernet Sauvignon terroir. Go a mile north to Oakville for that and pay a visit to the To Kalon Vineyard. A babbling creek can be found at the intersection, where an iron bridge running along Washington Street crosses the creek, but the creek itself doesn’t exactly have prized Copper River salmon swimming upstream.
Take Creek Street and walk directly across Washington Street to witness an immaculate garden. It is not a marvel of hedge trimming à la Hampton Court or a masterful oasis of harmony à la Ryõan-ji in Kyoto. However, the garden is equal parts architectural marvel and tranquil oasis, where beets and tarragon bask in the 300 days of fresh California sunshine so adored by the grapes growing on vineyards dotting every hillside for miles in every direction.
Across from this garden is its owner, the esteemed anchor of this intersection. Hollywood and Vine. Times Square. The corner in Winslow, Arizona. They are the iconic intersections of our common vernacular. Washington and Creek is the most iconic of intersections for gastronomy purposes.
A five-minute stroll along Washington Street beyond the commercial heart of Yountville leads to this intersection, where since 1978 The French Laundry has resided as the most mythical name in restaurants. Much as with the tectonic plates of its California terroir, this is where dining culture plates collide. The Old World meets the New World. Traditional technique interprets today’s modernism. Salmon tartare and ice cream cones co-exist.
There is no way to quantitatively explain the importance of The French Laundry in the restaurant world. Perhaps “three” for its number of Michelin stars or “$270” for the price, service included, of a “four”-hour meal here. Or “ten” as in the hour of the morning, Pacific time, when hundreds or thousands of wishful future diners call hoping to procure a reservation for “two” full months to the calendar day when they desire to eat at this restaurant, only to have all of those phone calls run into a busy signal, if the busy signal isn’t too busy.
The French Laundry by all accounts was an accomplished, special occasion restaurant in its first two decades under the ownership of Sally and Don Schmitt. It probably was a very useful French steam laundry too in its fifty years as that, prior to the Schmitt’s transforming the stone building into a restaurant.
However, The French Laundry never became The French Laundry until the chef Thomas Keller left New York and returned to his native California to purchase this old laundry in 1992 and re-opened the restaurant under the same name in 1994. Yountville has never been the same since. Fine dining has never been the same since. (more…)
What does one’s imagination create when pondering the concept of la dolce vita? Lying on the beach? Dressed to the nines for a night at the opera? Sophia Loren?
La dolce vita is all I could think about sipping the Chiarello Family’s exquisite Chiara Bianco Ribolla Gialla, contemplating the revelation that is Bottega’s polenta under glass. Served in a canning jar with the lid open (so the polenta really is more “inside” glass), the polenta arrives heated to a lusciously soft consistency that no polenta has ever seen, and is so robust in flavor than any other polenta you’ve likely encountered. We’re talking about polenta here, the side dish everyone dreads to see with that tempting fish or steak you were originally planning to order. Usually polenta, or corn meal, or also considered baby food, is a waste of plate space. It’s a plate and stomach filler. Not here whatsoever.
Michael Chiarello and his executive chef Robert Hohmann elevate the humble polenta to unseen before gastronomic heights. Caramelized mushrooms relax atop the polenta until your server instructs you to spoon both the polenta and mushroom together when serving onto your plate. The polenta’s creaminess is as majestic as Jöel Robuchon’s mashed potatoes, with far less actual cream involved. After serving, you pour from the miniature pitcher of balsamic game sauce, lending an acidic-meaty kick to the sweet earthy mushrooms and that precious polenta. In the hands of a master, a common peasant dish such as polenta can be transformed into a meal centerpiece, where polenta is no longer polenta. It is something far above we could ever have imagined from cornmeal. (more…)