November 18, 2010

One could spend a whole month hunting and pecking around the San Francisco Bay, unguided, in search of the kind of culinary satisfaction that is present in a single day spent wandering aimlessly in Sonoma County. Plus, you’re likely to have sun, world class wine, and sweeping inspirational vistas and not a bit of traffic.

At least, this was my single impression of this first foray into the fabulousness of the oasis of food, wine, rides and relaxation that lies just an hour north of our new apartment in East Bay.

Having sealed a deal on a new apartment amidst indian summer, we jumped out of Berkeley a day early, planning to enjoy the fruits (literally and figuratively) that Sonoma had to offer.

Its hard for a Portlander to beat the sun beating on your face in the middle of November. It takes a cyclist to appreciate what it might be like to whisk from winery to winery on two wheels, and to imagine the plethura of amazing rides exist in this little speck of heaven. And, it probably takes someone whom at least enjoys wine to see the complete beauty in field upon field upon field of golden vines sparkling in the autumn sun. But anyone whom has ever eaten anything can appreciate the culinary genius that exists in these small towns. And one, in particular.

This may have been my first true visit to Sonoma County, but this is not to say I am not in the know. I set my GPS for Yountville, CA — the little village north of Napa whose palate and stomach (and certainly, heart) is practically primed, stoked, and satisfied by the work of Thomas Keller.

There is nary a chef/restauranteur/author whom is as decorated, celebrated, and accessible as Keller. His restaurants – The French Laundry, ad hoc, Bouchon, and Bouchon Bakery, of Yountville and now per se in NYC, each have cookbooks of their own specific and menus built around Kellers’ knowledge of classical French technique, devotion to local purveyors, and uncompromising desire to present simple, delicious food to his guests prepared with the utmost level of care and attention.

Keller’s approach to cooking is (unlike other well-known chefs that fuss with foams, gelling agents, and architectural structures designed on the plates before they depart the kitchen for your table) simple. Accessible. Authentic. And true. They say that pastry chefs are the neurosurgeons of the kitchen but subtle and mindblowing tastes like those that appear on your dinner plate at Keller’s restaurants do not arrive as strokes of genius but rather tried, true attention to detail.

My favorite stop was the afternoon spent at the original Bouchon Bakery. Certainly the most understated of Keller outposts, but yet the most simple and fabulous on this particular occasion. No fretting over reservations, or sports jackets. Spoon etiquette. Rather we enjoyed a sunchoke soup that could make your heart skip a beat, bibb salad, and perfect sandwiches of sauteed mushrooms, brie, ham and jerusalem artichokes as the sun peeked through the changing leaves. Eyes close. Take your time to savor the bite. And, of course, indulging in the golden pastries that gift wrap fruits of the season, chocolate Bouchon that encase soft morsels of chocolate all the way to the finish, and perfected macaroons that present just the right amount of crunch before the chewy melt-in-your-mouth sensation that makes you eat another one, just to figure out “how he does that.” As the afternoon breeze brought my sweater from accessory to necessary, we hit the road full and longing to get back to our kitchen.

The word bouchon in French means “cork” or “stopper.” Certainly this road trip pit stop put a stopper in our want for a refresher before hitting the road again, heading home. And, reminded us that there would be nothing wrong with being stopped in our tracks in this little hamlet for weeks with an appetite. In a nutshell, it was a pleasure to set foot in these houses of fine cooking, especially after marking up his cookbooks in my own home so lovingly, the product of being such a long-time devotee.

It would be a bit chubby of me to say that our entire visit was engulfed in stalking, and paying homage to this icon of farm-to-table eating….but we did do our fair share. It seemed the best way to celebrate good food, and the start of new life in a new place. As always, new places, tastes, and chefs inspire my own cooking at home and thus, Keller’s recipes will grace our Thanksgiving table and weeks of appetite-inducing rides and runs in the Pacific Northwest in weeks to come. Plans to return to his delicious haunts already grace our 2011 calendar; for my birthday in the late winter, as well as for the Vineman in July.

The trip stoked our fire to explore Northern California. We could live here. 🙂

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