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Cyrus Restaurant

October 6, 2008 Leave a comment

The last dinner of our trip was at Cyrus Restaurant, in Les Mars Hotel. We went down a few minutes before our 6:30 reservation so that we could enjoy a final wine tasting in Les Mars’ library with Ron.

Ron in Les Mars' Library

Les Mars wine expert Ron in the hotel library

In the library with Ron was the gentleman from Baton Rouge with whom we talked the evening before, plus another older couple. They were talking about their wonderful visit to Lambert Bridge Winery in the Dry Creek Valley. We intended to stop there on Saturday, when we explored Dry Creek, but it was closed for the day for a special event. Our hotel mates had spent some time earlier in the day with Lambert Bridge’s owner, and they and Ron were talking about him. It turns out that he is on the board of some organization for old-time baseball players. He had told the hotel mates, during their winery visit, about his helping of a down-and-out third baseman of the 50’s and 60’s, whom he did not identify specifically. We started speculating on who it might be. I mentioned the Boyer brothers, and Gil McDougald. This led our Baton Rouge friend to reminisce at some length about Herb Score, the great young Cleveland Indian pitcher of the 50’s whose career was curtailed by the eye injury he suffered on a line drive hit by McDougald. (You can read about this in many places, but you might start with the post last summer by the fine sportswriter and Cleveland native Joe Posnanski at his blog.)

Our Baton Rouge friend grew up a Cleveland Indian fan. He spoke about putting some antenna rig together in Louisiana with his father to pull in games from Cleveland. And he described waking up one 1957 morning to read about what Score did the night before, only to learn of Score’s injury. But soon he was talking about Bob Feller, one of the ten or fifteen greatest pitchers of the twentieth century. We needed to be going across the hall to Cyrus, but there was no stopping him and we didn’t want to be rude. He reviewed the 1954 World Series, which the Indians lost to the Giants in four straight (after winning an amazing 111 games in the regular season). It’s best known for Willie Mays’ great catch in deep center of Vic Wertz’s shot, but this story was about Feller, who was at the tail end of his career, and was the fourth starter, but after the Indians were down 3-0, the manager, Al Lopez, decided to go back to game one starter Bob Lemon rather than letting Feller pitch. Our friend’s father decided on that day to stop following the Indians.

The story jumps to 1997. The Indians are facing the Marlins in the World Series. The Indians win the first two in Miami. Our friend tells his wife that whatever it takes, we’re going to Cleveland for game three. She shows no interest. But he makes all the arrangements — tickets, flights, ride to Jacobs Field. The timing is tight. They race straight to the field, haven’t eaten all day, sit in club seats, and a tuxedo-ed young man appears to ask what they would like to eat for dinner. Are these great seats or what? But wait. The ceremonial first pitch is to be thrown, and out comes Bob Feller. Bob Feller! Our friend is in tears. It’s too much.

Jump ahead yet again, to 2004 perhaps, which finds our friend and his wife at Indians spring training in Florida. It’s hot. Way hot. The wife is sitting high up. He’s down in the first row. His wife calls to him. It’s Bob Feller, in uniform, on the field. He can’t believe it. And then, later, he feels a tap on his shoulder, looks up, and Bob has come to talk to him. Rapid Robert himself.

At Ron’s invitation, we tried to leave in mid-story, but our friend wouldn’t let us. This time we had to. We said our goodbyes, crossed the hall, and entered Cyrus.

Cyrus Restaurant, Healdsburg

Cyrus Restaurant, Healdsburg

The hostess takes us to a two-top near the front of the restaurant, right up against a wait station. The room is fairly full. I don’t ask if we can be moved. But after 15 minutes, the action at the station is so frequent and intrusive that I get someone’s attention and ask. He checks with the hostess, offers a two-top right at the entry to the dining room and another farther back. We take one farther back. I’m glad I asked, because the meal was to be so incredible, and if we had stayed by the station, it would have been a continuing distraction. Part of the problem is that there are so many courses with the meal, each with a new set of utensils, so the wait staff is constantly going to the station to take out new silverware.

Here’s how Cyrus works. One can choose an eight-course chef’s tasting meal. As our captain explained to us (at our initial table), this consists of six savory courses, a cheese course, and a two-part dessert course. Or one can choose any number of courses from those listed on the menu. Prices are given for three-, four-, or five-course meals, with the option of adding more courses for an additional fee per course. Anything goes — one can choose courses that seem more like appetizers, or entrees, or cheese, or dessert, but all courses have equal weight. The captain made her initial appearance with a three-level tray on which were five pairs of small tasting items, canapes, corresponding to the five types of taste — sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami. She told us what each was, urged us to start right away, and described the menu options, as above, while we ate. The five tasting items were wonderful. Umami was some sort of mushroom broth. Bitter was a beer bubble. Sweet was a half grape filled with grape things of some sort. Salty was some tiny soft pretzel (like 3/8 of an inch long) with lavendar something on top. And sour was a piece of seared tuna with something on top. I can’t remember.

It was after eating this that we moved tables. At the new table, with a new captain, we made our selection of four courses. Right after that, an amuse bouche was served, some sort of gazpacho jelly with tiny apple and tomato pieces on the side. There would be several interludes and a postlude, but I’ll probably not remember them all.

For a first course, we both chose the Tasting of Fall Beans. Gail’s initial reaction as we reviewed the menu was that this was pedestrian, but I wanted to try it, so when we reviewed the menu with the captain as we ordered, he described it in detail, from which we could see that it was anything but pedestrian. Words will fail me here. There were a few green beans on a basil sauce, a pesto, that was out of this world. Fresh garbanzo beans on a tiny spread of hummus. Wax beans on something, I don’t remember, but they were the best wax beans I’ve ever eaten in my life.

For second course, I chose the Dover Sole with Sweet Corn and Tomato Fondue, Lemon Verbena Nage. Gosh it was good. The sole was on the corn thing, which was like the most heavenly corn chowder imaginable. Gail had The Cyrus “BLT”. Where to begin? The waiter had described this in detail in reviewing the menu, and warned us that it was rich. Well, the B was pork belly, along with a beautiful pancetta slice. The T was a local heirloom tomato. The L I have forgotten. I didn’t try it. But it was gorgeous.

Perhaps the next interlude was after this. One of the waitstaff appeared with a tray holding two sticks, like lollipop sticks, upright, and at the top of each was what looked like a gumball or a dot candy jelly. She had to convince us to take the sticks while she stood there and eat the little candy-like item. We must have been staring confusedly for a couple of seconds. What it was was actually a little canteloupe ice, with some other flavor as well. Exquisite.

Third course already. I had the Lamb Loin with Cranberry Beans and Cippolini Onion, Van Santo Sauce. Gail had the Crispy Poussin with Roasted Corn Stuffing and Nardello Peppers. Again, we didn’t share. She loved hers. I loved mine. There were so many flavors that to share would have overloaded us. Each and every little bit was perfect.

This must have been when we got the next interlude. The interlude waitress returned with two tiny glasses, each of which had a bit of nectarine concoction at the bottom and a metal straw. She also had a classic soda bottle, from which she squirted soda into the glasses to mix with the nectarine. We drank. Nectar indeed.

For course four, we both chose dessert. But there are three dessert options, listed only by theme — a chocolate theme, a tart and tangy theme, and something else. When we were ordering, the captain said we could choose a theme and be surprised, or ask what each theme consisted of and spoil the surprise. I might have been willing to be surprised, but he seemed to misunderstand our intentions, based on our attempt to ask questions without revealing details, so we got the details. But even so, the details did not properly convey what came, so we were properly surprised.

I chose the tart and tangy theme, which yielded Pomegranate and Pear Baked Alaska and Lemon Almond Custard. Gail had the chocolate theme, yielding Chocolate Ganache Bar, Milk Chocolate Sorbet, Raspberry Tuile. When I saw the two plates, I was convinced I had erred, but the moment I tasted the baked alaska, I was thrilled. The dessert was stupendous.

Finally, the Mignardises. One of the waitstaff rolled a tray over and put a selection of tiny bite-sized (or really smaller than bite-sized) mini-desserts on a plate for us to share. Sugar cookies about half an inch in diameter. (He put on one. I suggested two.) Chocolates. Some candies wrapped in foil, such as a home-made tootsie roll. Maybe 14 items in all. At the same time, he gave us each a box to take home with another goodie. (It turned out to be a brownie, wrapped in plastic with the printed message “Tomorrow??”)

The last item we were given before the bill was an envelope with our personalized menu. It’s about the size of a greeting card, with the restaurant and address on the front. The inner left page has the date and says The Irving Party Dinner. It also lists the wines we drank. (I haven’t mentioned these. We had so much wine at this point in the trip that we weren’t up for more than single glasses. We had a Russian River Valley Syrah from Dutton Goldfield “Cherry Ridge Vineyard.”) On the right is the list of all our courses, which I have been making use of above. The interludes aren’t listed.

Well, that’s it. We’ve never eaten a better meal in a restaurant. We sure wish it were closer.

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Categories: Food, Travel

Alexander Valley and Calistoga

October 6, 2008 Leave a comment

Our plan today was to visit the third of the wine valleys that abut Healdsburg, the Alexander Valley. These wine valley divisions are somewhat artificial. The Alexander Valley, after all, is in fact a part of the Russian River valley, in the sense that the Russian River runs through the middle of it. But officially, for wine purposes, a certain segment is called Alexander Valley and a segment downstream of it (plus lots of land to the south) is called the Russian River Valley.

We headed north from Healdsburg in Highway 101 to an exit about 10 miles north above Geyserville, so we could start from the north and work our way southwards through the valley. Our first stop was Silver Oak Cellars, which makes only Cabernets. They had a beautiful building with a big wine tasting room accessible via a courtyard. We had the tasting room to ourselves. There’s not much to taste — the most recent vintages of their Alexander Valley cab and their Napa Valley cab. And this for $20, the most expensive wine tasting fee we had stumbled on, for the fewest tastes. And in contrast to every place else, buying wine did not result in a fee waiver. You got $10 waived if you bought one of the two tasting wines, nothing waived if you bought an earlier vintage. Plus, the prices for the Cabs were the highest we had seen, starting at $75. We were a little put off by the experience, but we chose to play by the rules. We tried the wines and ended up buying an older one (untasted), with no fee waiver.

Silver Oak Cellars, Alexander Valley

Silver Oak Cellars, Alexander Valley

The Alexander Valley has much more open vistas than the Dry Creek and Russian River Valleys. The Russian River has limited views because it is heavily forested when not planted. The Dry Creek Valley is much narrower. But the Alexander Valley has broad views across miles, which gives it great beauty and character. California Highway 128 runs north-south through it, paralleling the Russian River, until 128 turns east to head over the hills to Calistoga. From Silver Oak, we followed 128, through Geyserville, passing the restaurant where we dined on our first night here (Santi), and continued farther south for a few miles until we reached a turnoff for Robert Young Estate Winery. We passed lovely vineyards, then came to a complex with a small tasting room on one end of a barn.

Robert Young Estate Winery, Alexander Valley

Robert Young Estate Winery, Alexander Valley

There were no cars in the parking lot, but lots of bicycles. We could barely squeeze into the room, filled with 15 bicyclists. They were a most friendly and pleasant bunch, so we all happily accommodated ourselves to the space. One fellow was filling out a wine club enrollment form. When the pourer asked him about what he had given as his hometown, we were able to learn that he was from Shaker Heights, Ohio. Gail heard from one of them that they were part of a club. It wasn’t clear, since we didn’t ask them, if they were part of a local club, all from the same place, or a national club, all descending on the region for the trip. They eventually left the tasting room, but by then we were done too. We made a purchase and got back to our car as they took off. Only then did I see that in addition to the 15 bicyclists, there was a tour group host, driving an SUV with a trailer hitched behind and bicycles on top of the trailer roof. The name of the touring company was on the side.

We drove back to 128. Just around the bend was Stryker Sonoma, a beautifully set vineyard with a great tasting room location. On three sides, it overlooked the vineyards, with glass walls. On the fourth side, one could look through a window to a wine storage area below. The tasting room had a long bar and lots of patrons. They were also generous with the range of wines they offered for tasting, well beyond the official list. Despite the crowd, it was an excellent experience. We bought several wines, returned to the car to get the camera, and came back to take photos.

Stryker Sonoma, Alexander Valley

Stryker Sonoma, Alexander Valley

The next stop was to be Hanna Winery, at just the point, a couple of miles south, where 128 turns east and climbs out of the valley. But it was 12:30, we had done three wine tastings, and lunch seemed more pressing. We drove past Hanna, stayed on 128, and headed east for the 15 mile drive to Calistoga. The road climbed, curved a lot, passed through a wooded area, and then came out on high flat ground, with hills just a short distance away. The flat ground had a mix of farms and vineyards, continuing for about 4-5 miles, then a second winding climb began, through woods. At the high point of the drive, the top of the pass, we left Sonoma County for Napa County and began a descent into the north end of Napa Valley. More woods, then more vineyards, then flat ground, then we entered Calistoga city limits. After another 2 miles, we turned left for downtown Calistoga, with 128 continuing south down the Napa Valley to St. Helena. We could see a two-block stretch ahead with stores lining both sides and diagonal parking all the way down, so that’s where we headed.

Downtown Calistoga

Downtown Calistoga, Napa Valley

In planning the trip in August, before settling on Sonoma County, I had been imagining staying in St. Helena, and had read about the Calistoga Inn, Restaurant, and Brewery. In the back of my mind, once we chose to go to Healdsburg, was that if we made it to Calistoga, we should eat there. Well, it turns out that we drove right past it, just a block off 128, the last building before crossing a creek and coming to the two-block commercial stretch. Right past it. Never saw it. We parked, walked up and down the street, and saw many interesting restaurants. Pasta, steak, cheeseburgers, salads, upscale places, less upscale places. Hard to choose. But once we looked at the menu for Miguel’s Restaurant (subtitled California Cuisine), Gail decided that was the place. I resisted for a moment, but then I thought, why not? California cuisine doesn’t have to be Chez Panisse, or the French Laundry. Why not Miguel’s?

It turned out to be pretty good. Maybe the best simple Mexican food we have had since eating at a place in Whittier three years ago. We were happy. But when we walked farther down and found the Calistoga Inn, I was a little disappointed. We could have sat over the creek in their outdoor patio, a lovely setting. Oh well.

As we were driving out of town at 2:00, we saw a museum, made a u-turn, and pulled in. It was the Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History. The older woman who greeted us explained that Ben Sharpsteen started it to tell the story of his adopted home, Calistoga. He had been a cartoonist, director, and producer for Walt Disney, quite a prominent one, later receiving an honorary doctorate from UC Davis for his contributions. (The diploma was on display in the museum, in the room devoted to Ben, signed by Ronald Reagan.) I could write at length about the museum, but maybe another time. I’ll just say that it focused on Sam Brannan, who built it up as a hot springs resort starting in the 1860s and eventually failed. Saratoga Springs was his model. Hence the name — California + Saratoga –> Calistoga.

We headed out of town at 2:30 and were back in Alexander Valley quickly, pulling into Hanna Winery at 3:00. Like Stryker, it is beautifully set. We entered the tasting room and squeezed into a space at one end of the bar, next to two women who turned out to be very good company. They are naval officers, with 25 and 27 years of duty. They were working their way over to St. Helena, where they would be staying at a bed and breakfast. The older woman would be celebrating her birthday in 4 days and the trip seemed to be part of her birthday celebration. A few people down the bar from them were our Les Mars honeymooners. They came over and we chatted about where we had each been today. By 3:30, we were done, ready to return to Healdsburg and Les Mars.

After a short rest in the hotel, catching up on the latest stock market news and McCain-Palin news, we headed out on foot to explore Healdsburg again. I showed Gail some of my favorite sights from my walk two days ago, including Powell’s Sweet Shoppe. We passed the Topel Winery tasting room, saw Donnis Topel behind the bar, and headed in to chat some more. (Donnis and her husband poured their wines at Les Mars Hotel our first evening there, just before going out to celebrate her birthday.) We talked about what we had done during our stay, learned that she and her husband ended up having her birthday dinner at Dry Creek Kitchen (in the Healdsburg Hotel, just across the plaza from her tasting room), and bought some of their wine. Thus, our wine tasting ended as it began. We walked around a little more, then sat in Healdsburg Plaza for a while, discussing our trip and watching a five-year-old girl play with her array of dolls on the edge of a pool, with her father nearby.

We got back to the hotel just as the honeymooners pulled up in their convertible BMW, leading to another conversation about the day. They also showed us the special CD they prepared for wedding guests with songs from the wedding, a photo of them, a photo of the winery where they were married, and other remarks for the guests. The father of one of the grooms had died recently, so there were remarks in particular recognizing him.

After another short rest, I went out one more time to get some photos of Healdsburg, covering much the same ground as before, with my camera this time. On my return to the hotel, it was time to get ready for dinner at Cyrus. Another full day of touring had come to an end.

Categories: Food, Travel

Les Mars and Farmhouse

October 6, 2008 Leave a comment

After resting from our travels through Russian River wine country and to the coast, we stopped in Les Mars’ library for wine tasting before heading to dinner. Ron was hosting, as usual, talking with two couples when we walked in. We started talking to him about wineries to visit in the Alexander Valley, but Gail was on the far side of Ron from me and got pulled into a conversation with one of the other guests. When a new couple walked in, I stepped around Ron to join Gail so the new couple had room to get to the wines and Ron. As the new couple introduced themselves to him, I overheard that they were here on their honeymoon. I then left them to talk to Ron while I introduced myself to the older gentleman whom Gail had been talking to. I learned, as he had explained to Gail, that he had just come down from a visit to Seattle.

This gentleman (and he was indeed gentle, gentle and sweet), whose name escapes me at the moment, used to go to Seattle regularly during the nineteen months that his son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren lived there. Whenever he went, the weather was perfect, so he never understood what his son was complaining about. (They’re from Baton Rouge.) On his just-completed visit to Seattle, he had attended a meeting, he told us, at which he was very impressed with one of the speakers. He knew the name might be sensitive, and warned us that maybe we thought differently of this speaker, but he really enjoyed Dino Rossi. We shared his desire to avoid politics, saving our thoughts about the Republican candidate for governor of Washington. He then listed some of the other speakers, including Michael Medved and Ben Stein. The meeting, he eventually elaborated, was one of the regular summit meetings of Catholic CEOs organized by Tom Monaghan’s organization
Legatus. I immediately recognized Mr. Monaghan as the founder of Domino’s Pizza and former owner of the Tigers, and remembered that he is a Catholic who is using some of his wealth to fund conservative Catholic causes. Our companion made reference to this, described Legatus as pro-life, but we skirted any serious discussion of the issues, talking instead about the organization’s schedule of meetings and Tom’s good work.

Meanwhile, Ron began talking to others, freeing up the honeymooners, and at the same time our conversation with the older Legatee wound down, so I turned to the honeymooners to offer them congratulations, explaining to Gail that I had heard they are on their honeymoon. They turned out to be a charming couple, up from San Francisco. They had married the day before at a nearby winery, one of whose owners they knew, with a hundred guests from all over the world. They were such a beautiful couple, so happy, so excited. One of them described dancing with his 92-year-old mother, who was more able to dance than the other’s 79-year-old mother. Each was given away by his mother.

Yes, each was given away by his mother. Both were men. There was in fact some urgency to their wedding, since they were only legally allowed to marry effective in June, and a measure to end gay marriage in California is on the ballot next month. Gail asked whether the ballot measure, if approved, would apply retroactively. That’s not clear yet.

They were delighted to be able to spend two nights at Les Mars for their honeymoon, and to be dining the next night at Cyrus, as we will be doing as well. We easily could have kept talking, but time had flown and we had to rush off to dinner.

Dinner was at the Farmhouse Restaurant in Forestville, about twelve miles down the Russian River, which we had passed on our return to Healdsville in the afternoon. We drove down Westside Road, past vineyards and wineries, in dusk, crossed over the river, and arrived. The restaurant is in a charming farmhouse building, with a stairway leading up to guest rooms right as you walk in. Walking down the hallway, past the stairway, we reached a room behind where the host greeted us and ushered us to our table, in a lovely, intimate dining room to the left. The room has a mural painted around the upper part of the walls with mid-twentieth-century farming scenes. The menu was small, but with a varied selection.

Gail started with a seared scallop and crisp pork belly combination, complemented with a gingered curry carrot puree molded into the shape of a small carrot. I had the corn and seafood, consisting of a cylinder of corn and lobster salad in the center of the soup bowl, over which the soup was poured. For her entree, Gail had seared duck breast with mixed vegetable faro pilaf and huckleberry glaze. I had Colorado lamb loin served with a wonderful assortment of beans, featuring tasty brown lima beans, and a small corn flan. The presentations were beautiful, the preparation perfect. For wine, we couldn’t resist each having a glass of Porter Creek Pinot Noir. Having just visited Porter Creek in the morning, and being directly across the Russian River from them, we were truly drinking the local wine. Dessert? We shared a chocolate souffle and a peach and cream concoction. A great dinner.

We drove back to Healdsburg on the south/east side of the river, passing a continuous sequence of vineyards in the dark until we crossed under Highway 101 and entered the south end of town. It was a lovely evening.

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