After the cold rainy season, the days grow longer in California, and the sun warms the softening earth. The bounty of spring arrives in the form of savory endive, haricots verts, early morels, young lambs and the last, sweet Dungeness crabs until winter.
California chefs, focused ever more intensely on locally-produced fare, pounce upon these gifts of the season. With more options in their larders, they tend to design more complex and elaborate fare.
Lots of California wineries have delis where you can get good takeout. Many others, such as Jordan and Iron Horse, have talented chefs who prepare feasts for private functions. But public, white-tablecloth restaurants at wineries are an endangered species. They’ve fallen victim to zoning regulations (Napa prohibits them), competition with local restaurants and challenging profit margins. Besides, wineries don’t wish to divide their energies by going into another line of business.
As a result, there are only a handful of upscale winery-based restaurants remaining in California, and this number may actually be on the decline (although rumors abound that Francis Ford Coppola is determined to do something, somewhere, in Sonoma County).
The four restaurants detailed here are among the top in wine country, and their chefs are certified superstars. Two of these restaurants, étoile at Domaine Chandon and The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards, are legends. Domaine Chandon was the first Napa Valley winery to offer upscale dining on its own premises, and it remains the valley’s only upscale winery-based restaurant. Chef Chris Manning, at the helm since 2001, graduated from San Francisco’s California Culinary Academy, and honed his skills at the famed Campton Place before relocating to étoile.
Bay Area residents have been making the trek to Livermore Valley for 21 years to dine at The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards. The fare, California fresh and regional, has touches of Italy and France, but inspiration can come from anywhere. “You’re always around individuals who are passionate about wine and food,” says executive chef Jerry Regester about his colleagues. His previous stints include Domaine Chandon (a true breeding ground for California chefs), the Highlands Inn and The Lodge at Pebble Beach.
The other two restaurants are relative newcomers, but they’ll be around for a while, to judge by their popularity in their respective regions. Deborah’s Dining Room, at Justin Vineyards, in Paso Robles, and Marinus, at the Bernardus Lodge & Winery in Carmel Valley, prove that talent and a deep-pocked commitment to quality can succeed.
Justin, tucked into the hilly, remote northwestern corner of Paso Robles, has become a destination for its inn, the Just Inn, and for Deborah’s Dining Room. Executive chef Ryan Swarthout, a 1997 graduate of the California Culinary Academy, earned his stripes at some of San Francisco’s top restaurants. This is his fifth year at Justin.
Marinus is the only restaurant of these four that is not located directly at the winery. The latter is a vertiginous drive over the coastal hills, while the restaurant and inn are just a few miles from Highway 1, south of Monterey. Prior to joining Marinus in 1999, Chef Cal Stamenov was executive chef of the Pacific’s Edge restaurant at the Highlands Inn in Carmel, and like so many others, did a stint at Domaine Chandon.
Chefs at winery restaurants usually have a working understanding of wine-and-food pairing that exceeds that of chefs at regular restaurants. Even in the most respected restaurants, the chef may have little time or inclination to study his or her wine list, while the sommelier has restricted influence in the kitchen. If you’ve ever come across a wine list that seemed out of kilter for the menu, that’s probably why.
But if you’re a chef at a winery restaurant, “You have a chance to work directly with the winemakers, go into tastings with them, which is a definite advantage in designing the food to go well with the wine,” says Manning. He’s referring mainly to Domaine Chandon’s table and sparkling wines—he even gets to weigh in on dosages —but étoile’s 500-label list includes plenty of great wines from around the world. Manning is exposed to a huge range of wines: Cabernets from Bryant and Araujo, Sauvignon Blancs from Cloudy Bay and Cliff Lede, and so on.
Deborah’s Dining Room also carries a full wine list besides Justin’s. “I think, with our situation, we have an advantage working with wines other than our own,” says executive chef Ryan Swarthout. “[Owner] Justin [Baldwin] is willing to let us open other bottles and pair them. In fact, he requires it.” The massive list ranges from Champagne and Bordeaux to Burgundy to Chianti and beyond, allowing Swarthout, working closely with wine director Mark Jensen, to marry plates and wines with pinpoint accuracy.
Such precision can be gauged in the way Jerry Regester, at Wente, pairs wine with his Dungeness crab salad. You might think this sweet crustacean would call for Chardonnay, and no doubt the majority of crab salad in California is drowned in oceans of buttery, oaky Chard. But Regester pairs his with a white Meritage because of the blood orange vinaigrette that adds tartness to the salad. “The wine is crisp and acidic, and goes clean into that rich crab meat. And the vinaigrette having that citrus also is a nice blend,” he says.
We set the pace for this spring repast with an elegant sparkler accompanying a caviar-topped sushi-style Ahi starter, followed by a dry Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc blend paired with that crab salad. Next comes a rich Chardonnay and a bit of a breather, an elegant mushroom soup that sets you up for the climax, a red Bordeaux-style blend paired with succulent spring lamb. Dessert, if you have any room left, is up to you.
TUNA “ALLA NAPOLETANA” WITH OSETRA CAVIAR
Courtesy of Chef Chris Manning of étoile at Domaine Chandon.
4 ounces tuna, (grade-A Ahi), diced small
1 tablespoon chives, chopped
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
Sea salt, to taste
White pepper, to taste
1 1/4 teaspoon lemon juice, divided
4 ounces Roma tomato, peeled, seeded and diced small
1/4 cup zucchini, washed, diced very small
For the lemon cream:
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 ounce Osetra caviar
2 tablespoons lemon zest, dried
Combine the tuna, chives, 1 tablespoon olive oil and salt and pepper to taste in a stainless steel bowl and mix well.
Combine tomato, 1 teaspoon lemon juice, 1 tablespoon olive oil and salt and pepper to taste in a stainless steel bowl and mix well.
Combine the zucchini, 1/4 teaspoon lemon juice, 1 tablespoon olive oil and salt and pepper to taste and mix well.
To make the lemon cream: In a stainless steel bowl, whisk the cream until stiff, fold in lemon juice and season with salt.
To assemble: In a five-inch circular mold, first place the tomato, then the zucchini and last the tartare. Remove the ring mold, dollop with lemon cream and top with caviar. Sprinkle plate with lemon zest and serve with thin crisp crackers. Serves 2.
Wine recommendation: The rich tastes of sushi-style Ahi and caviar pair perfectly with the elegance and crispness of étoile 2001 Rosé.
DUNGENESS CRAB SALAD WITH ROASTED BEETS, ARUGULA AND BLOOD ORANGE VINAIGRETTE
Courtesy of Chef Jerry Regester of The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards.
For the vinaigrette:
4 blood oranges
1 tablespoon ginger, grated
1 tablespoon honey
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
For the salad:
3 whole beets
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
8 ounces Dungeness crab meat, picked over
1 cup arugula
1 bunch chives, chopped
To make the vinaigrette: Juice two of the oranges. Add ginger, honey and a pinch of salt and pepper, then slowly drizzle in the olive oil while whisking in a mixing bowl. Set aside and use in the final plating.
To make the salad: Preheat oven to 325Â°F. Toss beets with vinegar, a pinch of salt and pepper and a splash of water, then cover and roast in oven until tender. Let the beets cool, then peel and slice into medium-sized pieces. Toss the beets with a splash of the vinaigrette and place into a serving bowl.
Next, peel the other two remaining oranges and cut out the segments. Toss the orange segments, crab and arugula in a mixing bowl with some of the vinaigrette. Place on top of the beets that are already in the serving bowl. Serves 4.
Wine recommendation: Try the Wente 2004 White Meritage. This Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc blend has citrus flavors that mirror the vinaigrette, while the wine’s acidity balances the richness of the crab meat.
GARLIC AND PORTOBELLO SOUP WITH GOAT CHEESE AND WHITE TRUFFLE OIL
Courtesy of Chef Cal Stamenov of Marinus.
2 slices apple-smoked bacon, cut in half-inch pieces
5 shallots, skinned and sliced
1 head garlic, skinned & sliced
1 medium leek, cleaned and sliced in half- inch pieces
Five 6-inch Portobello caps and stems, cubed
1/2 bottle Pinot Noir
2 cups chicken stock
2 cups cream
Salt and pepper to taste
4 tablespoons goat cheese
5 drops per soup white truffle oil (optional)
Garlic flowers, for garnish
In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, sweat out the bacon, shallots, garlic and leeks until transparent.
Add Portobellos and continue to sweat until about 90% of the moisture is removed from the mushrooms.
Add Pinot Noir and reduce to three-fourths.
Cover mushrooms with chicken stock and reduce to a slow simmer. Add cream; bring to a boil and purée. Season well and pass through a fine sieve. Keep warm.
Serve with garlic croutons, crumbled goat cheese and garlic flowers. Serves 4.
Wine recommendation: Bernardus 2004 Rosella’s Vineyard Chardonnay has the acidity and fruit intensity to stand up to this flavorful soup.
HERB CRUSTED STRIP LOIN WITH CREAMED MORELS, HARICOT VERTS AND JUSTIFICATION ESSENCE
Courtesy of Chef Ryan Swarthout, Deborah’s Dining Room at Justin Vineyards & Winery.
Swarthout advises to buy aged, well-marbled meat, of the highest grade available, if possible.
For the Justification Essence:
3 cups Justification (or any good Bordeaux red)
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 cups thick veal stock
1 tablespoon butter
Salt and pepper to taste
For the creamed morels:
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons shallots, minced
1/2 pound fresh morels (any mushroom may be substituted)
1/2 cup white wine
1 cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper to taste
For the haricot verts:
1 pound haricot verts (French green beans)
1 tablespoon butter
Salt and pepper to taste
For the herb crust:
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
2 tablespoons flat leaf parsley, chopped
2 tablespoons lemon thyme, chopped
1 tablespoon rosemary, chopped
2 tablespoon olive oil
For the strip loin:
Four 6-ounce New York strip loins, cleaned and trimmed
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper
To make the Justification Essence: Place the red wine and crushed garlic clove into a sauce pot over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil and reduce by three-quarters. Add the veal stock and reduce until thick. Strain and finish sauce with butter and season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
To make the creamed morels: Melt the butter in a pan over medium heat. Add the shallots and sauté until softened. Stir in the morels and the white wine and bring to a simmer. Decrease the heat to low and cook until the white wine is almost evaporated. Add the cream and cook until the sauce reduces enough to coat the mushrooms. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
To make the haricot verts: Bring salted water to a boil while trimming the ends of the beans. Prepare an ice bath. Blanch the beans in the boiling water for 30 seconds, then remove from the boiling water and add to the ice bath. When cooled, remove beans from ice bath and drain well. Set aside to finish the plate later.
To make the herb crust: Combine the minced garlic, parsley, thyme, rosemary and olive oil in a bowl to form a paste. Set aside.
To make the strip loin: Preheat oven to 375Â°F. Season beef on both sides with the salt and pepper. Heat olive oil in a sauté pan over medium-high heat. Carefully add the strip loin to the hot pan and sear for one minute on both sides. Remove beef from pan and spread the herb mixture on both sides of the strip loin. Place back in the pan and put in oven. Roast for 7 minutes or until it reaches desired doneness. Remove from oven and set aside to rest.
To assemble: Warm the morel mixture. Melt the butter and sauté the beans until warmed through. Season with salt and pepper. Place the beans in the center the plate. Slice and fan the strip loin on top of the beans. Spoon 2 tablespoons of the creamed morels off the right side of the beef. Drizzle the red wine sauce around the edge of the food. Garnish each with a small sprig of Mâché, butter lettuce or Bibb lettuce. Serves 4.
Wine recommendation: The smoky, gamy flavors of Justin 2004 Justification Bordeaux blend pair with the rich, earthy flavors of this dish.
Etoile at Domaine Chandon
One California Drive,Yountville
Justin Vineyards & Winery
Deborah’s Dining Room
11680 Chimney Rock Road,
Restaurant at Wente Vineyards
5050 Arroyo Road, Livermore
415 Carmel Valley Road, Carmel Valley