Barndiva, Healdsburg CA, April 2014

Many people who say they have visited “The Wine Country” in California have never left Highway 29, the main road that runs the length of the Napa Valley. To be sure, there are plenty of great wineries, restaurants, hotels and interesting towns along that route, but the Napa Valley, for all its great wines and spas, is just a part of the Northern California Wine country, which, in turn, is just a part of the total California wine scene. 

Napa’s Cabernet Sauvignon-based red wines stand among the great wines of the world, with all due respect to the magnificent wines of the Old World and the growing number of excellent wine regions in the New World. Still, a traveler to the northern California wine country would be wise to heed Horace Greeley’s advice and “Go west, young man (or woman) go west!” If your taste runs to European-style Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, go west from Napa until you pass the Sonoma Valley and start to approach the Sonoma Coast. Some amazingly good wines are being produced there. Start at the website of the West Sonoma Coast Vintners to learn more about the wineries in this region.

In addition to great wines, there are some really great towns that are home to very good restaurants in west Sonoma. One of my favorite towns is Healdsburg, and you would do well to consider using it as a base for exploring the surrounding wine country. Even if you just visit for a day, you can park near the town square and wander through any number of quaint shops and winery tasting rooms.

Healdsburg is also the home of several restaurants any foodie (or hungry traveler) needs to consider. Indeed, Healdsburg was the home of THE Northern California restaurant until it closed in late 2012: the 2-Michelin starred Cyrus. Cyrus was a true destination restaurant that could have been in Paris, New York, Chicago or any great food city in the world. In that sense, it was not representative of the more casual California style of restaurants and cuisine. Sadly, the hotel in which the restaurant was located was sold and the new owners wanted a different type of restaurant on property.

Nevertheless, plenty of good restaurants remain in Healdsburg and one of them is Barndiva. The restaurant was started by a local farming family and is literally a barn that

was relocated to the site. Just a half a block down Center Street from the Town Square, the building and landscaping make you feel like you are suddenly in the country. Once inside, however, the ambience is more Diva than Barn: stylish, but not stuffy with an option for outdoor patio seating.

Barndiva’s regular menu changes frequently with the seasons and ingredient availability. There is a clear bias toward local ingredients, but it’s not an unbreakable rule. Vegetarian and gluten free items are available, and I’m sure the kitchen would work with you to expand those options beyond what is on the menu.

I usually chose a tasting menu if one is available. Barndiva has one; choice made. Wine pairings too, please. Now, unless you are in a very high-end restaurant where the tasting menu is the focus, if not the only option, opting for the tasting menu can be taking a chance. Some restaurants have decided they need to offer one, but put little effort into it or, worse, use it to get rid of food not sold the day before. The wine pairing can be well thought out, include clever, off-the beaten path choices that allow even old winos – I mean sophisticated wine drinkers – like me to learn about yet another little obscure wine region in the world. Or it can be a random hodgepodge of highly marked up mediocre wines. For these reasons, I use the tasting menu and pairings as a test of just how serious the restaurant is about its food and wine programs.

It seems that Barndiva is as popular for its cocktail program as for its food and wine among some of the locals, so I had to try at least one. I chose a “Slide 2,” a blend of Orange Peel Brandy, Lillet Blanc and Lemon Chamomile Bitters served with a minted sugar rim on the glass. Nicely balanced, not too sweet, I couldn’t decide if I really would eliminate the extra sweetness of the sugar rim or keep it because of the nice mint touch. Either way, a nice drink.

Valeria chose a “Bitches of the Seizième” – the house Champagne Cocktail with Orange Peel Brandy, Coriander, Creole Bitters. The name is a reference to the opening performance of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” on May 29, 1913 in Paris. The story goes that the rich patrons starting loudly voicing their discontent with the piece. They were shouted down by the artists and middle class patrons who loved it. Specifically, composer Florent Schmitt was heard to yell either ‘Shut up, bitches of the seizième!’ or ‘Down with the whores of the seizième!’, depending on who’s account you believe. The “seizième” is the sixteenth arrondissement if Paris, which is the area where all the wealthy ladies lived.

History aside, the cocktail was delicious. Complex and not too sweet it was just what a modern cocktail should be.

Having relaxed with our cocktails and our local friend, Ronie, for a while, it was time to start the meal. First course: Chilled Asparagus Soup with Crème Fraîche and Dungeness

Crab, which was served with Barndiva White, a proprietary blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier blend made for Barndiva by the Preston Farm and Winery, which is also based in Healdsburg. Nothing says spring any better than asparagus, and the chilled soup was perfect on a warm California evening. The soup was thick and had a rich taste of, well, asparagus. The classic dollop of créme fraîche was nice, but the Dungeness crab, a favorite of mine, was a great addition.

Sauvignon Blanc, with its natural grassy-vegetal notes, typically pairs well with asparagus and this was no exception. One never knows about wines bottled under a house label, but this one was clean and crisp with good Sauvignon Blanc character rounded just a bit by the Viognier.

The second course was Yellowfin Tuna Sashimi with Sticky Rice, Avocado, Pickled Chili, and Ponzu served with the Toni Jost 2012 Bacharacher Hahn Riesling Kabinett.

Once upon a time I called things like sushi and sashimi “bait,” but I have seen the culinary light and love these dishes now. Great quality tuna with a just enough heat from the pickled chili and acid kick from the ponzu to balance the blandness of rice and the creamy richness of avocado.

Toni Jost is a family-owned German winemaker that has been producing Riesling for several generations. Cecilia Jost is currently in charge and Bacharacher Hahn is a vineyard in the Mittelrhein that is almost entirely owned by the family. Their style is usually a little lower in acid, higher in residual sugar and low in alcohol. This one fit that description and was a good match to the tuna. Asian food is generally not very wine friendly as it has not traditionally been a wine region, but a good German Riesling Kabinett or Spätlese is often a great choice.

The next course was Lobster Risotto with Fennel Pollen and Garlic Nage, which was served with 2009 Simonnet-Febvre Chablis Premier Cru “Vaillons.”

It is hard to go wrong with a creamy, well-made risotto made with a good lobster stock and some nice chances of lobster meat. Fennel pollen is not a common ingredient, but it should be. Imagine the the taste of grind fennel seeds, slightly sweetened and intensified. That’s fennel pollen and a little goes a long way. You can see it on the edge of the bowl in the photo.Just a touch added a nice layer to this dish. You may not find it at your local grocery store, but it is easily available online at The Spice House.

For me, you can almost never go wrong adding garlic. A nage is just a thickened reduction of the flavorful liquid that was used to poach the lobster. Add some crisp, tiny potato chips on top for texture and you have a flavorful, colorful and delicious dish.

I rediscovered Chablis last year on a barge cruise through Burgundy that went though the heart of Chablis. We got off the boat and went to the top of the hill overlooking the town and the Grand Cru vineyards on the slopes, including Vaillons. Good wine is always a reflection of the place where it was made, and actually being in that place always helps you connect to the wine just a little bit better.

Chablis is made from Chardonnay and the region is at the coolest, northernmost part of Burgundy. This makes for  lighter Chardonnay with lively acidity. The Grand Cru vineyards get additional warmth and sun exposure from their position on the hillside, so they are generally the richest wines produced there. 2009 was a good year in Chablis, and the 2009 Simonnet-Febvre Vaillons was terrific. It was starting to get some complexity from bottle age but was still young and lively

The first meat dish was Sonoma Valley Duck Breast with Caramelized Endive and Huckleberry sauce, served with 2011 Copain Pinot Noir “Les Voisins” Anderson Valley.

Valeria and I both love duck, so it often finds its way into our meals. Sonoma Valley had had a thriving duck industry for years, but California has outlawed foie gras production, leaving the best part of the duck off the table. Chicago enacted a similar ban a few years ago, but was ridiculed into rescinding it after a year or so. I know there are some who strong disagree and feel foie gras production is bird torture, but I don’t agree and hope the Sonoma Valley farmers are again allowed to produce this delicacy one day.

Meanwhile, we can continue to enjoy the duck meat, and this breast was a treat. Duck loves a little fruit on the side and the huckleberry sauce was perfect – not too sweet, but a nice compliment. Gotta have your veggies, and caramelizing endive is a great way to bring out some natural sweetness to counteract the natural bitterness of the leaves.

Sticking with classic wine pairing, Pinot Noir, especially a fruity California Pinot Noir, is an excellent match for duck with a fruity sauce. Copain’s “Les Voisins” (the neighbors) is blended each year from several vineyards clustered together at one end of the Anderson Valley. 2011 was a problematic year for North Coast Pinot Noir in California, so this was not the finest Les Voisins I have tasted, but it was good and a fine accompaniment to the Duck.

The final savory course on the tasting menu was Petite Filet Mignon with Spring Vegetables and Chive Blossoms. It was served with Ramey 2007 Claret from the Napa Valley.

The petite filet was a perfectly fine piece of beef, but I have to say that the vegetables were the star of this plate. Impeccably fresh, perfectly prepared, the carrots, fiddlehead ferns, snow peas and more were just delicious, and the meat and jus were a nice seasoning and counterpoint to them.

Ramey’s Claret, a Bordeaux-style blend of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with varying amounts of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec (depending on the vintage) is generally an easy wine to drink when young even as it ages gracefully for a decade or more. 2007 was a very good year in the Napa Valley, and this wine has matured beautifully. Again, the wine pairing was a classic – beef and Cabernet – and it was perfect.

Finally, dessert. Some restaurants get carried away with deserts and add 3 or 4 desserts at the end of a long tasting menu. I am happy with one, especially of it is chocolate. Barndiva apparently saw me coming and ended the night with Dark Chocolate Bavarian, Coconut Sorbet with Pickled Rhubarb and a 10-year-old Cossart-Gordon Bual Madiera.

The only thing better than dark chocolate is dark chocolate with coconut. There are a million variations on chocolate bavarian, but they generally involve a layer of cake, a layer of chocolate mouse, and some additional chocolate, perhaps sprinkled on as shavings or, in this case, a solid shell. It’s a classic because it is delicious and the cool coconut sorbet set it off nicely. The picked rhubarb added a nice slash of color to the plate, but, at least to my taste, did not add much to the dish itself.

I love Madeira at the end of a meal and if you get a chance to try some very old Madeiras from 70 to 100 years old, do so. They are surprisingly affordable (not really cheap, but not outrageous) and they seem to be immortal. While an old Bordeaux from even a great vintage will eventually fade, Madeira is much less risky to buy at a very old age.

The 10-year-old Coassart-Gordon Bual did not reach the amazing heights of a decades old vintage Madeira, but it was good and certainly had that special character that makes madeira unique – sort of sherry meets port, although that is a very inadequate analogy. Bual, for lack of a more precise measurement, is a “medium sweet” madeira, sweeter than Sercial, drier than Malmsey.

Thus ended a delightful evening of good food and wine with a good friend. If you are in the Healdsburg area, so consider a meal at Barndiva while you are there.