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BY ANTONIO GALLONI | OCTOBER 29, 2021
The Jamón Ibérico de Bellota; garlic croûton
Japanese Hamachi tartare; mouse melon, yuzu, fermented chile-miso, red crimson grapes
San Diego Bluefin Tuna Toro; sudachi, hibiscus-kosh, forbidden rich, Russian Osetra caviar
Hand cut tagliatelle; Parmigiano-Reggiano, white truffle
Marin Sun Farms whole chicken for two; pepper-tarragon butter, pommes frites, little gem lettuce
Four Cheeses and Condiments
2001 Domaine Leflaive Bâtard-Montrachet Grand Cru
2001 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Richebourg Grand Cru
1954 Henriques & Henriques Madeira Terrantez
Getting a restaurant reservation in Napa these days is quite a challenge. Readers visiting wine country anytime soon should be planning lunches and dinners out well in advance. It was quite odd to show up at TORC, one of Napa’s hottest destinations, knowing every table was booked and yet seeing the restaurant half full. TORC is not alone. This is the situation pretty much everywhere in the valley. What gives?
Restaurant owners and managers shared a long list of reasons why during the month I spent in Napa this past fall. Let’s start with the obvious. Restaurant work is hard work. The hours are long, jobs are physically demanding and dealing with the public, especially right now, is not at all easy.
The Jamón Ibérico de Bellota; garlic crouton.
And then, there is the context of the period we are living now, as the world learns how to live with a virus that will likely be with us for some time. For starters, it is clear some restaurant workers have been able to earn the same or more money staying home and collecting unemployment benefits. That won’t last forever, of course, but is a real phenomenon. Restaurants also face new competition from wineries that are serving food. When California wine country started to re-open post lockdowns, priority was given to wineries that also served food. Guess what? It is much easier to work a winery tasting room that is open from 10-5 each day than work Saturday lunch and dinner at a busy downtown Napa restaurant. Lastly, many people work restaurant jobs while they pursue other academic or professional interests. It appears some former restaurant employees have chosen to just do what they are interested rather the work they had done previously. All of this leaves restaurants severely short-staffed in both front and back of the house positions. As a result, opening hours have been curtailed and many restaurants are limiting the number of patrons they can serve. For an industry that works with razor-thin margins to start with, the current situation is untenable for the long-term, maybe even the medium-term.
Japanese Hamachi tartare; mouse melon, yuzu, fermented chile-miso, red crimson grapes.
I was delighted we were able to get a table at TORC for
Saturday lunch. Sean O’Toole’s menu dazzles with French, Spanish and Italian
inspired dishes. High ceilings, warm service and a 1980s soundtrack (at least
on this day) make TORC the kind of place you want to spend hours in. The wine
list is stunning in its breadth and representation of reference-point wines
from around the world.
San Diego Bluefin Tuna Toro; sudachi, hibiscus-kosh, forbidden rich, Russian Osetra caviar.
We did our best to try as many things from the menu as possible. A small plate of salty Jamón Ibérico de Bellota was the perfect start to this lunch as we mulled the menu. Our server advised that the chicken main required an hour to prepare, so we ordered that immediately as we settled in. The Japanese Hamachi tartare was a delicious and refreshing dish on this unseasonably warm October day. I also liked the San Diego Bluefin Tuna Toro. These days I have a very hard time being too critical of anything in a restaurant because people are so obviously stretched thin, but I did find some parts of the tuna dish too salty.
Saturday lunch wines.
My friend very generously brought some amazing wines to this lunch, which we enjoyed over the course of several hours. Just in the time I have been writing, I have witnessed the frenzy and very high prices that are now, sadly, common in Burgundy. Among other things, that means bottles like these are almost always opened for large group tastings. There is nothing wrong with that, of course. But there is something (a lot, actually) to be said for drinking and not tasting. For spending hours watching wines develop in the glass. It is a privilege, to be sure.
I have to admit that my heart skipped a beat when I saw the 2001 Bâtard-Montrachet from Domaine Leflaive placed on the table. If forced to choose, an aged white Burgundy might be my desert island wine. I don’t think there are too many better wine experiences than a superb aged white. Domaine Leflaive divides opinions pretty strongly. The pedigree is unquestioned, but so many consumers have been burned by a raft of vintages affected by premature oxidation.
I can feel the anxiety as our sommelier starts to open the 2001. Nothing needs to be said. We are all thinking the same thing “Is the bottle going to be good?” Only aged white Burgundy provokes this level of uneasiness. The cork is pulled with no problems. So far, so good. As the wine is poured into a decanter (I almost always decant older whites), the color is just gorgeous. But I am a bit superstitious and don’t want to say anything until we taste the wine.
Finally, the moment of truth arrives. The 2001 Bâtard is absolutely stunning. What a wine! It’s everything one could ask for, and more. The aromatics alone are breathtaking. On the palate the 2001 is vibrant, with the oiliness and texture of Bâtard, but no excess weight and exactly the sort of mellow patina a Grand Cru white Burgundy should show at age twenty. Orange confit, spice, almond paste, honey and a kiss of new oak all open with a bit of air. The 2001 is an emotionally moving wine of the very highest level. Magnificent.
Hand cut tagliatelle; Parmigiano-Reggiano, white truffle.
A plate of hand cut tagliatelle topped with Parmigiano-Reggiano, white truffle and an obscene (read: just right) amount of butter arrives. The aromas of fall soar with intensity. I might have preferred the pasta more al dente, but you know what? Who cares? It is divine.
I have never had good luck with Domaine de la Romanée-Conti's 2001 Richebourg. In its youth, the 2001 was incredibly austere for years. Now, the fruit is starting to fade, while whole cluster inflections and potent tannins dominate. Maybe I have had bad luck. I will hold up hope of encountering a better example at some point in the future. This bottle is good, but it does not meet our expectations.
Marin Sun Farms whole chicken for two; pepper-tarragon butter, pommes frites, little gem lettuce.
The much-anticipated chicken arrives, all decked out in a scorching-hot cast-iron pan. There are few things better than a roast chicken and fries in my book. TORC’s chicken is enough for a family of four, which is just fine. I am delighted to have some leftovers for dinner. The chicken is perfectly cooked and seasoned. Divine.
Although I enjoy sweets from time to time, I much prefer cheese at the end of a meal. TORC’s selection of four cheeses with condiments is the perfect conclusion to this lunch. We go back to the Bâtard. One of my favorite things to do at the table, especially with older whites, is have a glass to start, and then save the rest of the bottle for the cheese course. After a few hours of air the Bâtard is even better than it was when we first opened it.
Our last wine is the 1954 Madeira Terrantez from Henriques & Henriques. I don’t know much about Madeira, except that I love it. There is only one problem with the 1954. It is too young! Bright acids pierce through a core of dark spice, leather, licorice and black cherry fruit. Readers who own the 1954 and have actuarial tables on their side might want to think about cellaring it for at least another decade.
Four Cheeses and Condiments.
All in all, this was a fabulous meal at TORC. I would like to thank our server and the manager on duty for taking such good care of us and helping make our Saturday lunch truly special.
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