Thursday, January 11, 2007

Napa Review: étoile at Domaine Chandon

In Napa Valley, good food and good wine are ubiquitous. During peak seasons in the valley the highly sought after dining rooms fill up fast and furious and getting a reservation is quite difficult. With a little planning and an off-season visit, however, it's a piece of cake to get a table at all the hot spots, except of course French Laundry, the most elusive reservation in the nation, some say.

Winter in Napa Valley is the off-season and my recent trip in December proved it. My wife J and I drank some good wine, some great wine, and a LOT of great food. There wasn't much traffic on highway 29, many of the tasting rooms at the wineries we visited were empty, and believe it our not, we were the only guests staying at our B&B the entire week we were there! Winter in Napa Valley is the best time of year to go for avoiding crowds, lines, waits, etc. Most importantly, it's the time of year when it's easiest to secure hard-to-get dinner reservations.

One such dinner reservation which I had no trouble securing was for étoile, the restaurant at Domaine Chandon. Due to the time of year, getting an 8pm seating was a piece of cake and the restaurant was fairly quiet when we arrived except for what appeared to be a company holiday party in a private area off to the right of the front door. It looked like they had been enjoying a lot of the great bubbly that Domaine Chandon produces.

We were sat immediately at a nice table next to the windows in the lower dining room, one of what appeared to be three. Once seated we were promptly greeted by our waiter, although he didn't seem to care much that we were there. Maybe we didn't look like the big spenders he had hoped for, we are young and were casually dressed. Or maybe he was annoyed with the slow night; it was Friday night after all, and very slow. I bet French Laundry was packed. He also seemed slightly annoyed that J did not order any bubbly. I ordered a glass of the étoile Brut sur lees 2000 which was very good. The étoile Brut is aged for five years on the yeast, sur lees by definition. I think the server warmed up to us a little once we ordered our entrées. In response to his question "we recommend a medium rare temperature, will that be alright with you?" I answered, "if that's how chef would like to prepare it, then that is how we will have it." He replied, "excellent" and smiled.

Our meal started with an amuse-bouche, an amazing sweet potato beignet served with an apple cider reduction and a soft, sweet cheese. The beignet itself was crispy on the outside and soft, chewy, doughy on the inside. It really was fantastic and a great start to the meal.

Next up, a half dozen Hog Island "Sweetwater" Oysters with an étoile lemon mignonette. The oysters were served simply on a plate of long strands of lemon zest and seaweed. I've had better oysters, but these were quite sweet, tasting of the sea in a most delicious way. The lemon mignonette brought out the sweetness of the oysters; no horseradish or hot sauce was needed on these, nor was any offered.

So far so good, but the kitchen was just getting warmed up as I would soon learn with the delivery of our entrées. J order the duck breast with green lentils, salsify, and orange Montana huckleberry sauce. The duck was cooked, as recommended, to a perfectly tender medium-rare. The sweetness of the huckleberry sauce paired up well with the richness of the duck breast and the smoky green lentils.

I had the rosemary-scented rack of lamb with broccoli rabe, cauliflower puree and port reduction and it was sublime. The broccoli rabe, laced with roasted red pepper and black olive, was a little too bitter for my taste buds, but the cauliflower puree was outstanding and the lamb, well the lamb may have been the best I've ever had. It was juicy, tender, and seasoned perfectly.

For a finale, J and I chose to share a trio of creative sorbets, prickly pear, quince, and pink guava served with a coconut tuile and yuzu powder. A tuile is a very thin, crisp biscuit and yuzu is a sour Japanese citrus fruit. The prickly pear sorbet was very creamy, almost gummy. The quince was icy, like a granita, with very bright, mouth popping flavor, and the pink guava was my favorite. Good smooth consistency, clean, delicious pink guava flavors.

With the delivery of the check, our server dropped off another courtesy of the kitchen, homemade candy. Sugared apricot gelée, a turtle square of caramel, chocolate and pecan, and a double dark chocolate truffle. Real good stuff.

In terms of the food I was extremely impressed but our waiter brought the whole dining experience down a notch. Maybe if the restaurant was slammed and our waiter was really in the zone it may have been different, but the bottom line is with so many great restaurants in Napa Valley, if the service doesn't match the meal, I'm not going to rush back. I'm unlikely to return to étoile on my next visit to Napa, but I do highly recommend the restaurant. It is definitely a must eat in Napa Valley.

étoile at Domaine Chandon
One California Drive
Yountville, CA 94599

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