Since we rented a small house, we actually did quite a bit of cooking at home during this trip. We were there over New Years and my husband and I both hate going out to eat on New Years Eve – the service is usually rushed and impersonal, the menus are often pre-set or pre-fixe and the restaurants are frequently over crowded. So, we ordered a pizza to go one night and for New Years Eve, we grilled steaks on the outdoor grill and had them with baked potatoes. Another night we got pre-prepared food from a local gourmet grocery store that we re-heated.
However, we didn’t eat at home all the time! Our first night in Sonoma, we drove to Healdsburg, which was about 10-12 minutes from the rental house, and had dinner at their top-rated restaurant, Valette. This was one of my favorite meals of the year. I started with a glass of local sparkling wine and Steve had a manhattan cocktail.
The restaurant was very small but had a lively bistro-like atmosphere. They also cured their own meats and salumi which were hanging above the kitchen area.
My appetizer was one of the best things I have eaten all year. It was scallops cooked inside a puff pastry (which looked like a souffle) that was dusted with black fennel pollen. Similar to a souffle, the waiter poked a hole in the puff pastry and poured a rich champagne cream sauce inside. Unlike a souffle, the puff pastry never deflates so you open it up and eat it like a pot pie. This dish was perfect – creamy sauce, light and delicate scallops, buttery puff pastry and some lightly sauteed veggies inside.
Steve chose a pasta dish with veal cheeks and a poached egg that was equally delicious. The cheeks tasted like succulent pot roast and the egg added even more flavor.
We went in different directions on the entree and this is where Steve tripped up. He chose a seared fish (I believe it was branzino or halibut) served over a polenta cake with steamed clams in a saffron broth. It was quite good but the polenta cake was bland. I went with the duck breast, which was fabulous and was served with poached pears and some duck confit with a fruit sauce/jam. It was a wonderful sweet-savory combination.
Sad to say that we skipped dessert because we were too full!
Our other favorite meal was our paired food-wine lunch at Seghesio Winery in Healdsburg. We have had Seghesio wines before but we only get two types of their red zinfandels here in Texas. They also make several Italian varietals, including an excellent chianti-style wine and some other sangiovese blends that we really enjoyed.
The tour started off with a visit to the barrel room and then their production facility where they explained their vine to bottle process.
After that we headed to a private room on the 2nd level of the winery where our trained sommelier led us through the tastings as they were paired with dishes brought out piping hot from the kitchen immediately adjacent. This was no simplistic cheese/appetizer pairing with sip of wine! It was large tasting style dishes with good-size pours (and you were allowed to revisit any wine that you particularly enjoyed).
The sommelier gave us a lot of interesting information about how one gets trained as a sommelier and the testing process as well discussing the history of the Seghesio family and the wines they make.
As we all conversed, the chef brought out the courses and we tried them with our matched wine pairing.
Honestly, every course and pairing was a knockout. The only dish that I didn’t love was the first course pairing of pasta with crab. The wine pairing was actually quite good with it but I found the pasta dish itself to be a bit bland (thus, no picture included).
My favorite of all the pairings was the pancetta-wrapped stuffed pork tenderloin with dried cherries. It was like turkey and dressing with cranberries but instead was pork, dressing and cherries. It was tender, moist (pork so often can be dry and tough) and the pork au jus had a nice balance of saltiness that stood up to the sweet cherries.
Our last pairing was steak with a riff on a chimichurri sauce and some roasted potatoes. The steak was perfectly cooked and the chimichurri added a nice brightness to what otherwise could have been a boring meat and potatoes dish. Once again, the sommelier did a great job on the pairing.
There wasn’t an actual dessert dish served, which was fine by us because we were stuffed by the end of this. They did serve a sweet port wine that is made by Seghesio. I couldn’t drink that. Sorry, but I despise ports and fortified wines. I have never tasted one that I could stomach for more than one small sip and this was no exception. Others at the table that enjoy ports gave it high compliments, though!
So, these were our top 2 meals in Sonoma and Steve and I can’t agree on them. I give Valette the #1 slot and Steve disagrees and enjoyed the Seghesio pairing lunch the most. Of course, Steve is wrong.