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Rock'n Both Houses

We had TWO elegant NYE dinner parties last night, followed by a rock'n dance party that rang in 2015, Barndiva style. It was the first New Year's Eve we dined in the Studio Gallery thanks to finally finishing the build-out of our second kitchen. In both the Barn and Studio we felt especially blessed with incredible guests... romantic deuces, four and six tops who always celebrate NYE together, some great groups from NYC, DC, and the very cool Toronto. Everyone was primed to party. Our little group of 11 camped out on the new couches, drank, ate, and (I know I was not alone) drank some more. Then we started dancing. NYE is about creating a great din and ours grew louder still when diners from the Barn wandered over. I try to keep bragging at a minimum, but food and service were incredible, no two ways. Hats off to Chef Fancher and our entire staff.

Ever wonder why it's so easy to party with strangers on NYE? Doesn't matter if you've had one of those years you are just happy to get out of alive or you're genuinely looking forward to a new year, new projects, renewed optimism for something... partying with other people in rooms decked out to show off your finery and your cool moves (be they actually cool or not) can feel so good. Now is the time to say thank you to everyone who dined with us, or entrusted us with your special event this past year  -  NYE was reflective of a year of great patrons who have helped us become better at our jobs. We actually love working together, which makes earning your continued support resolution #1.

Glasses raised for an interesting, forgiving and fortifying new year.

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Clockwise from 11:00: Chris,our musical prodigy/ bartender with New Orleans moves; the lovely Sarah, shining star of the main bar with two new cocktails on the list; the one and only All Night All Dave; Andrew, who with Pancho, crushed it in the Studio Kitchen

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So I say it quickly; whoever is in your life, those who hurt you, those who help you, those whom you know and those whom you do not know- let them off the hook, help them off the hook, Recognize the hook.
You are listening to Radio Resistance.
— Leonard Cohen

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Decapod Heaven for the New Year

Beautiful Northern Lobsters from Maine are back in the kitchen this week, and really, what odd extraterrestrial looking creatures they are. Hard to believe that beneath that foreboding carapace, gleaming with extraordinary color, is the softest most succulent white flesh in the Crustacea kingdom. The work to get at what’s inside is well worth it, even if all you end up doing is gobbling it off a small fork, sea water dripping from your chin. Ryan’s plan for them was a bit more evolved however, Ryan being Ryan. Imagine a tower of freshly cracked lobster meat gently mixed with lightly pickled red cabbage, mascarpone, tarragon and lemon zest, gently tucked inside a giant saffron ravioli. Delicious. I especially loved the dish being paired with cardoons glazed in brown butter in an al dente mirepoix of vegetables as a bed for the ravioli. 

Cardoons, another beautiful freak of nature, look like they come from ancient times, which in fact they do. Often mistaken in the garden to their cousin the artichoke (also known for its pairing with lobster), they have spiky celery-like stalks topped with thistle flowers that bloom a gorgeous imperial purple. The expressive geometry of the cardoon flowers look like something designed by Rei Kawakubo, but are all but inedible. The stalks on the other hand, if harvested before the flowers bloom, are delicious. Like celery, cardoon leaves and stalks need TLC, trimmed carefully to render them string less. I've never seen them sold in supermarkets and even around here they disappear from farmers markets this time of year. We usually get beautiful cardoons from Preston, but this week they arrived from Knoll Organic Farm in Brentwood. 

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Pancho, our consummate pasta guy, was entrusted with making the saffron pasta, then enclosing the lobster filling in perfectly air tight ravioli so the shellfish and herbs steam through without any water slipping in. Slide a fork through one of these heavenly bundles and a heady perfume of sea and garden inundates the senses for a brief few seconds. What you taste picks up the theme from there, and for a few perfect mouthfuls you could be facing the sea, dreaming of a trip to Italy.

We are serving this luxurious dish as a winter starter. Elegant and surprisingly light, it's a perfect first course before a heartier stick-to-your-ribs entrée. It will also be one of the choices on our NYE menu. I have no idea if any seats remain for the 31st but Natalie tells me the response to us scaling down the price and opening the gallery to a midnight dance party for guests dining with us has been impressive. We have a few surprises up our sleeve - the more Eat the View readers present, the better. (always the case, of course).

Enjoy!

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Our Cup Runneth Over

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I’ve been drinking wine and loving it for more years than I care to count, but in the unique way wine manages to be both celebratory and sustaining, I’ve always thought of it as more of an art form than a simple entertainment. Wine is one of the few things in life that can be either playful or serious, sometimes, depending on the occasion (or the vintage), both at the same time. But from a restaurant’s perspective, building a cellar can be an ongoing conundrum. Even a lot of money invested towards creating a stellar list doesn’t ensure the final product will have heart, must less integrity.

For a start, you need to remember that no two customers will look upon your list (and judge it) through the same eyes. Some diners come in hiding their preferences, or not knowing them, while others wear their new found expertise like a badge of honor, or use it like a high powered flashlight.

A few years back, hoping to address this diversity of interest, we created narratives for our wine book - with chapters titled Local Heroes, Hands Across the Water, Off the Beaten Path. We even called one 97+, because while we held the opinion Robert Parker’s rating system was deeply flawed, if that’s what customers came in looking for, we wanted them to have it. We were happy, if not relieved, when diners gravitated to Local Heroes, followed closely by the foreign entries on the list, but we had to admit we still hadn’t cracked the code. 

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Though we live in the heart of arguably the best wine growing region in America, our list has always had a healthy percentage of foreign inclusions. It was our hope that the vintners who might become regular customers (they did and thankfully still are) already had plenty of access to local expressions of terroir and style. What they sought when they dined out - what we sought ourselves - was expanding a life-long love of the grape and the almost mystical way it transforms itself - with a little help from the human hand - in the bottle.

Figuring out the secret of what drives an exciting wine list is a conversation we’ve had with every wine director we’ve ever hired. Our litmus test was never how much ego they brought to the job - too little and the list floundered, too much and we soon parted ways - but how creatively they tapped into a hunt for gems, how closely they wore humility next to prowess.   

Which brings us to our new list, and the talented woman now guiding it. 

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I can give you Alexis Iaconis’ impressive achievements  - she was Head Sommelier at the Restaurant at Meadowood, and has reached level three in the four level Court of Master Sommeliers - but a careful reading of her résumé does more than shout accomplishment. To command respect in what remains the still very cliquish, male centric world of wine takes hard work, long hours, and incredible focus. It takes mastering the ability to communicate what you know with elegance instead of verbosity. She worked as a food runner at Cyrus to get her fine dining knowledge, and before that was the brains (if not the heart) behind the still much lamented Green Grocer in Windsor. Once upon a time, after art school and the CIA in New York, she had thought work behind the scenes in the kitchen was the future, but life had other plans. These now include, in addition to being Barndiva's Wine Director, the demanding full time job of Hospitality Director at Copain Winery where she manages the tasting room, direct sales, a huge wine club and all their events, while raising two great kids with new husband Matt Iaconis. Who just happens to be a terrific winemaker.  

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In the course of getting to know Alexis I’ve learned that it’s not the bragging rights of having an exquisite palate that is her favorite part of the life she’s chosen, it’s sharing her excitement for wine and its flavors, passing on the story behind the region, the history and culture that cross-pollinates wine and food. I don’t just love the fact we have a woman now managing our wine program, I love the fact it's this woman. One who cares about how grapes are grown, and every step they take after they leave the vine. Because it’s the same way we feel about food.

 It's early days in knowing what lasting changes Alexis will bring to our cellar, but we’ve already seen an end to the line of rolling suitcases that used to form on tasting days. There is a sharper focus on balancing new winemakers with revered ones, with special care taken to bring back old friends. With Lukka and Cathryn’s help we’ve introduced a single page “snapshot” of wines-by-the-glass, splits and specials treasures for those who don’t want to peruse the book. And for those guests who have longed to taste a glass of a precious vintage without committing to a whole bottle, Alexis has instigated a Coravin program where single glasses can be extracted from bottles without pulling the cork - a thin hollow needle is inserted to withdraw the wine before the cork reseals, with argon gas preventing any oxidation in the bottle.

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Perhaps the art of curating a discerning wine list is allowing that it is an organic document, and so, by its very nature, will always be a work in progress. Therein lies the fun and the challenge. I look forward to growing the list in more ways that fully reflect the diversity of talent possessed by the growers and vintners we are so fortunate to know. And most especially, with Alexis' help, to revitalizing our commitment to creating a cellar with a personality reflective of the multi-faceted Barndiva experience.  

For the look at our complete current wine list,  click here

For a look at how Alexis is pairing our wonderful menu for New Years Eve , click here.


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Finding the Community in Christmas

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One hears the term “Home for the Holidays” so often in the run up to Christmas it starts to feel positively anxiety inducing. Of course Home is the best place to be on Christmas Day (duh), but out of love, not obligation. And it’s not the only place to be. Sometimes it feels like everything is conspiring to turn us into holiday machines, instead of acknowledging and building on the obvious: people just long for a connection to other people of good will this time of year. Not so long ago even war stopped for Xmas. Now we’re encouraged to start rushing towards it before we've even given Thanksgiving its due.  'Tis a season to be joyful, and thankful, folks. In equal measure if we can manage it.

It takes a lot of creative minds - and hands  - to decorate two public spaces for the holidays in ways that will continue to surprise and delight our patrons, whether they come bundled with their extended families, or in ones or twos, seeking the warmth and succor of a bar stool or a banquette, a cocktail or a great meal.  Dawid, ever the track star, hurdles over most creative challenges, but we've both loved working with the HEW team this year. With Daniel in Paris with his family over Thanksgiving,  Alexis drove up from LA to help put the finishing touches in the Studio, even as workmen crashed and bashed through the final stages of the Gallery Bar, which we hope will be fully operational by New Year's. What’s it going to be? Come in and find out!

Consensus around town is that as Healdsburg rushes to embrace its future as a year round tourist destination, those who live and work here need places to unwind and relax, and share news of the day.  The gallery is often busy with private events, but with a new kitchen and now a wonderful new bar, we're going to do whatever it takes in 2015 to open it regularly to the community, and to stay open late. 

But I digress - back to Christmas.  I gathered an assortment of found treasures to hang this year - heavy Indian silver balls, red dogwood, recycled tin angels from Alabama (he’s a king, she's a ballerina).  Geoff and I cut long boughs of conifer and brought them down from the Farm for that fresh green smell of forest that should always be a part of Christmas. The night before Alexis arrived I had a strange dream that we were standing in the gallery filled with poinsettia plants. I know, beloved at Christmas, but with their dull red leaves, definitely not a personal favorite.  I remember shouting “but I hate poinsettias!” then I woke up. We laughed about it on the way to Safeway where I’d heard a local flower wholesaler has been selling roses. It was early in the morning, the Healdsburg time I love best. Inside the flower shop blooms were just arriving, and low and behold there were eight poinsettia plants at my feet, unlike any I'd ever seen before. They were ivory, with just a light sprinkling of crimson across the leaves. We bought them all and Dawid hung them upside down from the highest beams, burlap tightly wrapped to keep the dirt, and the whole plant, from plopping on the heads of customers.

While we were hard at work in the gallery, over in the kitchen Octavio was putting the finishing touches on a giant Croquembouche, which thanks to his considerable talent is fast becoming a Barndiva Christmas tradition. Like culinary paparazzi, Dawid and I circled him with cameras as he carefully made his way through the gardens to the gallery. There was something wonderfully incongruous in seeing this towering sculpture of choux pastry balls and spun sugar, first created by Marie-Antonin Carême for Talleyrand, moving through our gardens in Healdsburg. The mulberry trees have begun to turn from green to brilliant canary yellow, and thanks to the recent rain everything else is green green green. A shaft of sunlight reflected off the medallions of sugar as Octavio maneuvered down a series of steps and through the narrow Tunisian gate. Producing things that delight the eye and excite the appetite is what the holiday season is all about for us. This was one of those moments.

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The croquembouche is gone, but there is a lot to see in the gallery right now, not least some enchanting statues of French Saints that once played their role in traditional market nativity scenes, circa 1950.  Their edges are chipped a bit, colors faded, but they speak to an era when the holidays still revolved around something spiritual, and communal. I rarely find pieces like these anymore but I'm so happy to offer them in the gallery when I do.  Mention to Dawid or Fatima that you read the blog and we’ll see if we can’t find a sparkling libation behind the new bar to help keep your holiday spirits from flagging. Be they ever so humble or ever so small, there is great joy to be found in this holiday season.   Enjoy.

Here’s the New Year's Eve menu hot off the press - with a beautiful wine pairing for each dish from the talented Alexis Laconis. Should you wish to forgo the pairing, we will have exciting Champagnes poured from the Magnum and a by-the-glass selection, as well as special cocktails created for the night. After dining we'll be opening the new gallery bar for an after party with great music. Book your table (or tables) in the next week or two if you’d like to ring in the New Year with us.  We’re also excited to be able to welcome larger parties this year.  Shaking it up this New Year's Eve, for smooth sailing into 2015!  Join us!