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October 25, 2005

Otherworldly, Les Mars

By M. L. Hilton

(HEALDSBURG, CA) -- An evening stroll in a beautiful little Northern California town found me looking upward into the darkening sky. I could count no less than four contrails streaking southward and I wondered if Healdsburg is on the interstellar highway to destinations more metropolitan.

You wouldn’t lack for urban comforts, however, in this wine country hamlet. Besides world-class restaurants, right off the main street is Les Mars Hotel, a new boutique hotel developed in the tradition of old world finery. It is sumptuously appointed and has many features for the sophisticated traveler. Beautiful beds, the softest linens, a well-balanced and tasteful décor, the rooms breathe ease, quiet, and culture.

The bath alone was lavish. Roomy without being too big, it had a clear glass enclosed shower with high overhead faucet that let the water rain down upon you. The tub itself was a work of wonder. Laminated instructions were tucked tastefully in to a drawer of the beautifully sculptured vanity. You needed them to operate the bath. It could wave, it could pulse, it could heat, it could even dry itself when you were finished. I briefly considered attempting to have it blow dry me after the bath – but the thick towels were too tempting to pass up.

Can I admit this? Beside the bath, there was a pictorial guide to the three remotes that controlled the tv, stereo, and other electronic accoutrement. But, there was no operating instruction for the bidet. Somehow, I don’t think that is a question for the concierge. I suppose it is somewhat self explanatory but until I have that one-on-one with a European woman, I am always going to wonder what the exact steps actually are.

Besides creating a fabulous environment for sleeping (and bathing), Les Mars offers a delicious three course breakfast that is not to be missed and for the fall, an evening fromage tasting in the library.

The cheeses that were served the night I attended were beyond delicious. But almost more fun was Les Mars “Maitre Fromager” Joseph Bain. Bain’s international and courtly manner charms the patron as much as the cheese does. Not only is he incredibly knowledgeable about fromage, but his poetic manner of speaking brings to light the nuances of the flavors, textures, and artisan cheese-makers.

While he was speaking about the cheese and wine selection, Monsieur Bain could have been describing the entire evening when he said that the commonality of the experience is the finesse.

Les Mars Hotel, 27 North Street, Healdsburg, CA 95448. 707.433.4211. (www.lesmarshotel.com)

Restaurant on site: Cyrus. Read about it in this winecountry article.

October 17, 2005

Yountville Daze

By M.L. Hilton

(YOUNTVILLE, CA) -- The Indian summer has been holding, and holding me in its spell. Sunday’s temperatures after a short spate of rain jumped to the 80’s. I briefly saw my vintner neighbor as he was watering my roses – roses he actually planted (that’s another story). He said he is looking down the barrel of several more weeks of harvest and that they were only a quarter picked by Sunday. The brief rain which to me smelled so fresh the next day, gave him a bit of a scare.

I dispatched household duties, okay I avoided them, and wandered to Yountville for afternoon repast. My favorite Sunday breakfast place is Sally Gordon’s café. Strong morning coffee laced heavily with cream, a big newspaper and something wonderful to eat while crowded out on the small porch if possible, with bicyclists, dogs, and other lazy bones like me.

I lucked out on a patio spot this weekend, mostly because I arrived so late in the day. I ordered that down home food favorite done winecountry-style: grilled cheese sandwich and potato salad. Of course, this was a three cheese with garden fresh tomatoes (yellow) on artisan bread and a very light and delicious potato salad – meaning hardly a hint of mayo. I was served a Luna Pinot Grigio laced with D’Arvo Raspberry syrup and read and ate until I became drowsy and the sun rolled down my back with the small beads of perspiration.

Sally wants to sell and I am worried that Gordon’s will go the way of that other great Yountville cafe, the Diner. Once a thriving breakfast place with always a huge wait (worth it) now turned into another wine tasting bar with oh-so-chic offerings. Probably fabulous, but just not the same.

My typical stop after Gordon’s is the Pioneer cemetery just up the street from the café. Sunday, I only paused briefly to read the ancient headstones before wandering down Yount Mill Road. It may seem a bit macabre, but it reminds me that my days are not so hard, nor my aging so fragile, and that healthy babies are a blessing no matter what era you live in.

Only an occasional car spoiled the hot sounds of the day – the sporadic bird call, the rustling of leaves caused by lizards and other denizens of the underbrush, insects floating in spinning clouds above the vineyards which still linger in a mysterious green cloak. There are spots of autumnal color but they are largely still at bay.

Perhaps I will rue the short season on the slopes this year, but for today a glass of wine, a messy sandwich, an old graveyard, and a hot walk down a vineyard lane are enough.

Gordon's Cafe & Wine Bar, 6770 Washington Street, Yountville, CA 94599 tel. +1 707.944.8246
dining review

October 14, 2005

Dinnerly Diversions at Budo

By M.L. Hilton

(NAPA, CA) -- The weather was in that exquisite state of balance last night. Its gentle weight against the skin was like the touch of a patient lover – the contact that reminds you that they are there, but without the insistence, only the promise or perhaps the reminder, of passion.

Even the late evening hour was temperate and the patio at Budo (www.restaurantbudo.com) did not have an empty table at 9 p.m. I cannot remember a more serene arrival of fall. Certainly last year this time we were in the throws of winter’s assault and I was on the slopes at Tahoe in late October.

Dinner itself was like an undulating dance, its own compliment to the softness of the night. I usually find strict Asian overtones in décor to be a little sterile, but the shadows cast by the light heighten the evening’s illusory promise.

Our table was attended meticulously and we indulged in the Chef’s Tasting Menu. The extravagance was not the amount of food, but in the variety. Each small dish (around eight) was an intricate creation. Carefully crafted and presented plates of sashimi, foie gras, sqab, steak, cheese, and dessert followed each other with precision. Even the changing of the silverware became part of the tightly executed procession.

The complexity in each dish teased tastebuds and the artful presentation on the plate deserved a few minutes of study. My dinner companion quipped that if he was the dishwasher, he would negotiate to be paid by the piece. Each white plate held but one offering, centered and well surrounded by porcelain.

If you are very hungry, the pace and quantity of the Tasting Menu may not be your first choice. But, if you have time to linger and savor, Chef James McDevitt’s offerings stimulate both conversation and consumption.

The night was a fabulous diversion. Conversation, it turns out, is a specialty of my dinner companion. His cell phone however, seems to be a casualty of a car fire. Along with the feast, do you think I was being fed . . . a line?

Budo closed Dec. 30, 2005.

October 10, 2005

Putting your Heart into it

By M.L. Hilton

(NAPA, CA) -- I have given up cooking. I am insisting that it has to do with the very 50’s kitchen I have: beyond small, rusting metal cabinets, and every tool I ever owned divvyed up between past long-term relationships. I didn’t buy a new spatula and I haven’t put a new man in my life. Perhaps that is fodder for the therapist’s couch.

I have however, been able to maintain sustenance by frequenting a number of Napa’s excellent restaurants. Last Monday (and Friday) I stopped by the new Zare. I had been to Hoss Zare’s new restaurant (www.zarenapa.com/Directions.htm), located where the old Red Hen used to be, when he promo’d the opening a few months back, but had never dropped by for dinner. Hoss is well known in the San Francisco restaurant scene for his work at a number of renowned eateries, as well as the places that currently bear his name.

Monday night the crowd was light and so was my mood, I had just the soup of the day and a warm beet salad served with an awesome cheese from Cowgirl Creamery (www.cowgirlcreamery.com). If you are thinking about great cheese as a gift for a loved one this holiday, make your order soon. These ladies get very busy during the holidays. Once you have had their cheese, the reason is obvious.

My meal was good and the bartender entertaining. Enough so, that I came back on Friday to get a feel for the place when the locals were out in force. Friday night’s service was as personal as Monday’s though I teased the bartender (I usually eat at the bar when dining alone) that I was only allotted two chocolate truffles at the end of my meal – since I didn’t eat the third that was presented on Monday.

A jazz duo played on Friday and the old building is nicely spruced up and feels clean. For those that remember it during its Red Hen heyday, the aging building had showed the many years of its use. Hoss is convivial and seems to already be greeting many of the locals by name. His heart-shaped logo and the romantic sentiments painted across the walls make it a nice choice for date night. I think the tourist crowds have not yet re-discovered this location for a fun and fulfilling dining experience. But, they will.

October 3, 2005

Star Struck Wine

by M.L. Hilton

(LODI, CA) -- Harvest has been lingering in the Northern California counties. September’s mild temperatures have extended the growing season and have many vintners and vineyardists doing a delicate dance of waiting, fretting, and hoping.

For those of us not intimately involved in the fingernail-biting balance of ripening fruit, extended costs of longer labor, and the vagaries of weather a drive through wine country this time of year, can be intoxicating (in many ways).

This weekend, a girlfriend and I dusted off her truck and bumped along backroads through Lodi to attend the grand opening of Miramont Estate Vineyards tasting room.

Miramont produces Celestial Cabernet Sauvignon Estate and Reserve wines. The heavenly name is a nod toward their unique harvesting which takes place under fall of night, and when available, carpets of stars.

I especially enjoy the 2001, and when you see the price of around $10 a bottle it is hard not to stock up. Actually, if you also enjoy this wine you may want to purchase enough to get you through to your next visit. The winery is a bit out of the way and there are not a number of other wineries close enough to make it a jam-packed Lodi winetasting day. You are, however, welcome to bring your small children to this family-oriented winery.

If you want to save on gas, you can call, or fax and get them to mail your wine order, but at least one visit should be made to this very hospitable tasting room. Miramont Estate Vineyards, 24837 E. Milton Rd., Linden, CA 95236 (209) 887.3860