For the fifth consecutive year, we celebrated our anniversary at The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards, the best fine dining spot in the Livermore area. I sent a unanswered handwritten letter to the chef, who left a week before our dinner, then talked with his temporary replacement, Chef William Rucker. My goal was a tasting menu that would allow us to sample a broad section of the constantly changing seasonal menu. It's always seemed odd to me that a restaurant of Wente's caliber did not offer a tasting menu. After being initially turned down due to the short notice, the date (Saturday) and abrupt staffing change, the next day Mr. Rucker called back to say that they had added a staff person and would love to make a menu for us. I asked him to choose courses, and we were not disappointed. We arrived and were seated at a four-top overlooking the patio, allowing us to sit side-by-side. Our server, the friendly Elizabeth, handed us a wine list and menus but let us know that the courses had already been selected. I appreciated this touch because it allowed me to refrain from note taking. Our amuse was a diminutive cup of Chilled asparagus-fennel soup with crème frâiche and garden blossoms. I loved the way the anise ntoes of the fennel contrasted with the herbality of the asparagus, and the edible blossom on top was a beautiful touch. At this point I also got to try our wine, 2003 Tamas Estates Pinot Grigio (Monterey, California), a crisp but medium bodied stainless steel number that brought out a more savory tone in the soup. Next was a half of a perfectly deep-fried soft shell crab, topped with tarragon aioli and served over arugula-endive slaw. I grew up in Maryland, and I've had a lot of soft-shell crabs in various forms. I've never had one where the outer shell was so crispy, like a potato chip just seconds out of the oil, with the inside still moist and not too strongly crabby. I don't know that it's possible to improve on this crab, especially with the intriguing aioli. Later we saw a table of four order two crabs, and it was left up to them to divide the crabs. Why not just split them in the first place like they did for us?
After the crab we received Cured salmon on crostini with eight-minute egg, crème frâiche, caviar, and onion sprouts. My wife felt this should have been served before the somewhat heavier crab dish, but its intensity of flavor more than carried it. I loved the combination of fishy caviar with fishy but entirely different cured salmon, with the crème frâiche and onion sprouts lightening the taste. Another winner.
The final seafood course came in the form of Sautéed lingcod with fregola, Blue Lake beans, fennel, cumin, and avocado coulis. The lingcod gave the crab a run for its money in the perfect cooking department; the browned exterior was heavy on the savory, while the interior was lush and almost creamy. Every so often an exciting jolt of cumin would come through, though neither of us could tell whether it came from the avocado coulis or some other element of the dish. Our server picked out wines to go with this course and the next two, serving generous half-glasses of just the right amount. This course's was 2003 Murrieta's Well White Vendimia [sic] (Livermore Valley, Central Coast, California), rich and oaked, especially compared with the pinot grigio, but an excellent pairing with the fish.
After the lingcod there was a substantial delay (twenty or thirty minutes) before the first meat course, but this seemed about right to us. Considering that our amuse arrived minutes after we sat down, we still stayed almost three hours and never felt rushed. I'm thankful they let us occupy our table on a Saturday for that length of time. With the Pan-roasted duck breast on fried jade rice with spring vegetables, Shittakes, and soy-vincotto sauce, we enjoyed 2003 Murrieta's Well "Los Tesoros" Tempranillo (Livermore Valley, Central Coast, California) which positively sparkled. It smelled almost alive, and its brightness brought out the savory character of the duck skin and the fried rice. Which, I should mention, is fried rice as it would be if Chinese restaurants made their fried rice taste good. All the components contributed, while remaining separate enough to enjoy them individually.
For the last meat course Wente served Mesquite-grilled filet of beef with herb-roasted red skin potatoes, asparagus, and porcini-Dijon sauce. I should note here that we were getting half portions of everything (I took occasional note of passing plates, and I don't think we were getting much if any extra food), yet it never felt like we were receiving anything less than the appropriate portion. The series of smaller plates enhanced the flavor impact of each dish, as it should. The filet was a true filet mignon, small in diameter and meltingly tender. The sauce, dominated by porcini flavor, did not overwhelm the steak flavor at all, and paired amiably with 2002 Murrieta's Well Zarzuela (Livermore Valley, Central Coast, California), a blend of 65% Tempranillo, 26% Touriga Nacional, 9% Souzao, the latter two grapes typically used for production of Porto but apparently doing really well in the hot Livermore climate. I drained my half-glass and ordered a glass of 2002 Murietta's Well Meritage Vendimia (Livermore Valley, Central Coast, California), which was arguably more noble on its own but not as good a match as the Zarzuela. Rather than having to choose one cheese (I've done that in the past and been served probably a quarter-pound of Humboldt Fog, a quantity which even I have trouble dispatching) we were then served a proper portion of two cheeses, Pecorino Tartufo (sheep's milk with black truffle) served in Wente Riesling reduction and mountain Gorganzola with port reduction. The pecorino showed loads of black truffle flavor, and to my surprise was improved by the riesling reduction (though the florality of the Wente "riesling," made with 23% gewurztraminer, may have something to do with it) and the Gorgonzola was blue to the core.
Dessert was, well, see for yourself:
We didn't see a dessert menu, but I believe they assembled a portion of every single dessert for us. I think this must have been done specially, since everything was served in a tiny vessel, including the pot de crème and crème brûlée. In any case, it was spectacular, the finale of a fireworks
show where you know that you're not appreciating each burst fully, but it doesn't matter because they're all so good and there's just so damn many good bits to enjoy. Highlights were the basil ice cream on "chocolate decadence" (two o'clock) and hazelnut crème brûlée (three o'clock), though hot on their heels were the raspberry and apricot sorbets. I'm sure my wife will forgive them for implying that she's a gentleman, assuming she noticed before reading this sentence.
Overall, I was extraordinarily satisfied with this meal. It showed off the creativity of the kitchen with some unusual flavor pairings that worked, ingredient freshness and quality (the herbs are grown on site), as well as precision-tuned cooking. The service was excellent, with only a minor hiccup or two by a runner prematurely clearing a plate. For just $242 including tax for eight courses (not sure how to count dessert) and appropriate wines, I was also highly satisfied from a value standpoint as well. Is it Manresa or Jean Georges? No, although there were moments that reminded me of those benchmark meals. The by-the-glass wine list is too heavily slanted toward the Livermore Valley for my taste (and eighteen of twenty selections are from wineries owned by the Wente family) but as a flagship for regional wines it's appropriate and I have no complaints about what we were served. The only thing I can really fault the restaurant for is for not offering a tasting menu on a regular basis. The average diner, even a sophisticated one, is going to see pick a started from column A, a main from the eight items of column B, and only see a limited selection. If you go, Chef Rucker told me on the phone that the kitchen would be willing to split courses, so if you don't mind making yourself an pain in the butt like I did, go for it. Sure, a lot of restaurant's traffic is walk-in from the golf course or tasting room (and to the gentleman in the short-sleeved black shirt accented with flames, it does wonders for your coloring), but my guess is that a tasting menu would be well received. Steering everyone toward the signature pork chop (an excellent but not especially innovative barbecued item) to the avoidance of all the distinctive cooking does the kitchen a disservice.
I'm in debt to Chef Rucker, his staff, and Elizabeth for accomodating our requests so cheerfully.
I realize that I should also have commented that there was almost no sign during the meal that front or back of house were doing something outside their comfort zone. Courses came out at a measured pace, wine always arrived at the table before its associated dish, and not a single presentation looked as if it had been hacked to pieces to fit the tasting format. With the executive chef gone and Chef Rucker not even in the kitchen that night, the only clue was that the spoon we were given with which to consume the soup didn't fit in the mouth of the cup. I think it speaks to the level at which Wente was performing that they were able to reconfigure themselves so adeptly.