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Edible Marin


Dish of the Week........ In the Gallery


Dish of the Week:

Lunch at Copain Winery

I hadn’t planned on attending the lunch party we were set to cater at Copain Winery last Monday, until I happened upon the list of ingredients Chef left in the kitchen for staff to start packing up early Monday morning.  Charmed by the confluence of ingredients, it being a gorgeous day, and Copain being a beautiful winery, I decided to crash the party.

We are partnering with Copain on a number of weddings this summer and I’ve heard nothing but wonderful things about it and about Wells Guthrie, the inordinately talented winemaker and driving force behind this state of the art facility ~ one of the most ergonomic around. Set on a hillside with a magnificent view running almost the length of the Russian River Valley, the facility is pleasing to the eye with a pared down, elegantly understated style.  Farmhouse meets Koolhaas.

Still, I was curious to take a closer look for myself.  Crucial to us with any off-site venue is whether or not the right pieces are in place which will enable us to pull off an authentic Barndiva experience when we aren’t on home ground.

According to Tommy, the critical trademark of the Copain wine list is lower alcohol wines that preserves the brightness and acidity of the fruit. It was to taste through this remarkable line up of vintages ~ which would precede Barndiva’s four course lunch ~ that key servers and chefs from The French Laundry were coming to Copain that day.

Scheduling off-site events on our days off happens very rarely around here, but such is the affection Thomas Keller and TFL inspire in many of our staff that Ryan, Pancho, Katherine, Bennett and Tommy were more than happy to work on their day off to provide a meal that would honor the ingredient driven, classical technique focus  TFL  is know for. That they are standards we too aim for with every plate that leaves our kitchen didn't lessen the tension on our end:  this would be a most discerning crowd to please. Restaurant folks ~ especially those who work at places like The French Laundry and Barndiva ~ eat out a lot. They are usually generous to a fault to your face (knowing how hard it is to pull off that level of excellence on a day to day, meal to meal basis) but intensely critical as a matter of course.  While Ryan planned four courses that would elevate the wine experience ~ the entire menu was designed to highlight the wine friendly (especially for Pinot) flavor profiles of truffles, beets, salmon, bacon, mushrooms ~ he was also intent on balancing proteins to vegetables to fruits, so the meal as a whole would flow seamlessly from one paired course to another.

The three passed appetizers, all served with sparkling wine, exemplified this approach. First up was fresh Dungeness crab on sliced cucumber topped with a thin disc of kumquat ~ tart orange fruit which opened the palate with a citrus slap, followed by the fresh smell and taste of the sea and a green crunch. Next came a smiling nod to TK with a quail egg BLT ~ a rich mound of yolk, bacon, tomato jam and brioche with a delicate trailing stem of chervil, an herbal grace note to civilize all that umami.

The last of the passed appetizers, a single ripe strawberry from Quivira, went out unadorned, but was no less complex for the role it played in the flow of the afternoon. A tart and fruity palate cleanser which also signaled the seated lunch was about to begin, for the wise (or the lucky) it provided an opportunity for one last look down into the vineyards below, where the valley spread out in all its summer glory, caught in the throes of the first real heat of the season. Cicadas buzzed the air, and the connection to lush vines and the wines that had come from them and just been drunk, was palpable. Whether Ryan intended it or not, the moment made sense in the way poetry makes sense when you stop worrying about what the words mean and just lean in and let yourself relax.

The next two courses have both been featured as Dish of the Week before.  Chef wanted a flawless summer salad, Healdsburg style, which meant every component at the peak of ripe perfection. Another single strawberry was joined by heirloom golden and red beets, two varieties of radish, whole peeled truffled almonds, chives, chervil and a perfectly ripe wedge of Cypress Grove Truffle Tremor.  Beet vinaigrette (beet juice, Preston VOO, champagne vinegar) was drizzled alongside the salad. The summer salad was paired with a 2004 and 2006 Roussanne, both from Copain's James Berry Vineyard.

Using Wild King Salmon from Oregon on a Lucian Freud sized brush stroke of fresh pea purée with a generous trail of caviar crème fraîche, the main course was finished with fresh porcini from Mt Shasta, tiny house made chips, and chive flowers. The salmon was paired with two Pinots: a 2006 Hacienda from the Sequoia Vineyard,  and a 2006 from Cerise.

Dessert had been made that morning in the Barndiva kitchen by yet another French Laundry and Bouchon alum, Octavio, our wonderful new pastry chef who has been wowing diners and wedding guests all summer. Big O’s Blueberry Clafoutis was presented with vanilla bean crème fraîche and a not overly sweet but wonderfully indulgent crème fraîche ice cream.

I left Copain just as the desserts were being plated, luckily not before I heard a short but pithy exchange that summed up the meal for me precisely. Shale, a young garde manger whom Chef has taken under his wing this summer quietly reminded Ryan that he hadn’t plated the Clafoutis with the raspberries he'd been told to bring expressly for this dish.  Ryan looked at him, deadpan, “Knowing what not to put on a plate is as important as knowing what is, ” he said, waiting a beat for it to sink in before he broke into his first real smile of the day.  Standing in Copain’s beautiful space, after the meal he’d pulled off, it was an almost perfect moment. The only thing that could have made it better was if TK had been there to enjoy it.

In the Gallery

Seth Minor, our favorite single-wire artist and all around guy (Camp Meeker politician, MFA student, killer accordion player, seminal member of Barndiva's Tractor Bar Trio) has just brought in six wonderful new pieces to bolster up his coveted collection in the Gallery.

To my mind Seth is the closest thing this medium has to John Updike, managing to capture in a few spare but elegant lines universal character traits that ~ like it or not ~ make us vulnerable, if not lovable, humans.  Mordant in tone, yet oddly hopeful in a insouciant way that can't help but make you smile (a lot like the artist) believe us when we say this shadow driven rogues gallery needs to be viewed in person.  Photographs ~ even ones as good as these by Studio Barndiva's Dawid Jaworski~ don't do them justice.

Until he lets us increase them, prices for Seth Minor's work will start at $110 this summer,  for any in the ‘Faces Collection,’ with larger pieces from $800 - $3,400.  Mr. Minor will work on commission, from photographs, as his schedule allows.

To meet Seth in person, come for dinner any Wednesday night through August when his Tractor Bar Trio will hold court in the Barndiva gardens where, weather permitting, they will serenade diners with two full sets of beer fueled excellent gypsy jazz.


In the Press:

If you've missed the incredible edible issue on soil, it's not to late to check it out online:

Edible Marin - All Hail Soil   (fyi, we're on page 15).

All text Jil Hales. All photos, Jil Hales and Dawid Jaworski (unless otherwise noted)



Dish of the Week........ In the Gallery

Wednesday at the Barn

Dish of the Week

Summer Vegetable Chicken Fricassee

I’m super critical of any dish with chicken in it, probably because it’s the protein we ate the most of when I was growing up, the one I know the taste profile of by heart.  When my mom was on form there was nothing in the world like one of her juicy, bursting with flavor whole roasted birds. But when she was tired, it often became dinner by default, dry and tasteless as cardboard (sorry mom. Love you.). Even the texture changes in poultry when it's not cooked to perfection, which to my mind is just the far side of pink.

Hang around kitchens and you’ll learn that while good chefs can prod any protein and know if it’s the witching moment, great chefs can tell just by looking. With poultry, often the hardest to discern, Ryan can tell from across the room.  He’s just a great chicken chef ~ even with a small poussin, his brigade consistently produces birds that have crisp skin with hits of briny salt followed by moist meat that is the essence of comfort.

When Chef said he was going to do a Chicken Fricassee for Dish of the Week, I was somewhat surprised. Fricassee is basically a stew, which in my experience can only ever be, at its best, a satisfying mess.  The classic recipe calls for a good number of vegetables and a protein, usually chicken, cooked together and served together. Great stew recipes invariably run the risk of losing the unique taste profiles of singular ingredients. In general you don’t say the word ‘stew’ and think ‘vibrant distinct flavors.’  Comfort, yes.  Elegant presentation, no.

I know Ryan: vibrant flavors and elegant presentation is usually what he is after. He pointed out that while many great chefs ~ think Boulud or Bouley  ~ might rely upon adding ingredients slowly to the pot to the build flavor in a stew, he preferred the Thomas Keller approach ~  prep each ingredient separately in order to vary and control how each was cooked, and with what herbs, oils and spices (if any).  The flavors, colors and textures in this fricassee only met up when they slid into the pan for that last hit of heat ~ with a few knobs of butter and confit garlic ~ a few minutes before plating.

Here’s what I tasted in Ryan’s Summer Vegetable Chicken Fricassee, which in honor of its humble origins I ate straight out of the skillet: the favas and fiddleheads were punchy, green and earthy, the baby red onions bright and vinegary. Nuggets of bacon were salty and chewy, while English peas and Nantes carrots, despite being different shapes and colors, shared a delicate garden flavor profile. The stand-out vegetable were the Tokyo White Turnips Myrna Fincher of Earlybird’s Place had dropped that morning in a plain brown box. To my eye these white jewels with their bright green stalks would not have been out of place in the window at Tiffany's . Ryan simply steamed them, taking care to leave them with a juicy crunch that was rooty and beguilingly sweet. To this vegetable mélange he added the whole poussin which had been pan seared to a golden hue.

The biggest surprise of the dish was how well the sauce, which consisted of nothing more than a diaphanous halo of white crème fraîche foam, worked to unify all these delicate flavors. I’ve come around to Chef’s appreciation of foam, which is not so much making a comeback in our kitchen (because it was never really here) as much as a re-evaluation. I loved how it worked, especially with the garlic confit, to open a vegetable bouquet that seemed to carry the essence of the dish in every bubble. “The next time someone asks you to define Modern Country,” Chef said as I snapped away, “show them this.”

In the Gallery…

No doubt a rainy Wedding Day gives pause, especially one that’s been anticipated to unfold in “sunny” wine country. But I must say I find something very special ~ as in beautiful, intimate, memorable ~ when we have a ceremony inside the Barn, with dinner in the Gallery, as we did this past weekend thanks to tumultuous thunderstorms.

Happily, as our Saturday couple, Allison and Shaun, have strong ties to Healdsburg and had it in their hearts to be married at Barndiva in great part because of out commitment to the food shed, the symbolism of their ceremony ~ beneath the crossed pitchforks in the Barn filled with Dragonfly flowers and lit by a dozen tapers ~ was right on (and pretty wonderful).  Something about the space makes every word clear and distinct, so it was especially dramatic when the hush that descended on the perfumed warmth of all those in attendance exploded with joy when Lukka pronounced them husband and wife. It was the bride’s inspired idea to have table arrangements of summer salad greens and herbs that could be taken home and used again to flavor future meals of those she loved ~ a small, beautiful, mindful detail that bodes well for their future, rain or shine.

If you love looking at weddings, here’s a link the wedding of Laura and Charles last week. Though in this case the sun came out briefly on the day, they were married in the gallery by choice, and it was intimate and wonderful. Some great shots by Flory Photography. Thanks for sharing!

In the Press

Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce President Mo McElroy introduces the irrepressible Clark Wolf who was a funny and charming MC for the Early Summer Farm Forum hosted by Barndiva last Thursday.  In the only break in the weather all week, even the sun came out to hear about a wide range of farm, garden and culinary programs that make a difference in so many lives here in Sonoma County.  How we might affect the controversial Farm Bill which goes before Congress in 2012 was just one of the many issues discussed by an information rich, forward looking line-up of speakers who addressed a group that had as many local luminaries in the audience as on the dais.

And as it turned out, The Forum took place the same day Edible Marin's All Hail Soil summer issue was published, with a feature about last fall's Taste of Place dinner which was truly an edible exploration of many of the subjects discussed at the Forum. We love Edible (and its editor Gibson Thomas) because rain or shine one can feel the commitment to the health and well being of the Northern California Food Shed on every page. Check out the issue using the link below, or better yet pick up a hardcopy at the Studio or in the restaurant next time you are in town.

All Hail Soil, Edible Marin, page 15

All text Jil Hales. All photos, Jil Hales and Dawid Jaworski  (unless otherwise noted).



All Tomatoes Are Not Created Equal

(originally posted June 2, 2010) Barndiva received some wonderful press last week, which we wanted to take a minute to share with you. We have been very blessed over the years with incredible newspaper, magazine and online coverage. Incredible because we are a family with little PR experience that started a restaurant in a small town knowing next to nothing about the business. When we first opened we were flavor of the month, and that went on for a long time. But even afterwards, when the occasional barbs would come, we’ve tried to put criticism, good and bad, into a context that could help us understand what diners really want, what we might be missing. It was wonderful to hear what we’re doing right this week. Barndiva is our baby. We want the world to love it.

But it hasn’t always been easy to ‘simply’ define who we are, or what we are trying to do. Barndiva was very much a ‘build it and they will come’ adventure. We wanted to make the point that it’s possible to balance cool with accessible, serious with playful. There is a famous image from the 40’s of a café on a side street near the great meat markets of Les Halles, taken in the early hours of morning. Ladies in gorgeous gowns and men in tuxedos, all at the end of a glamorous evening, are sitting elbow to elbow with big butchers in blood-stained aprons, fresh from the market. Everyone is eating and talking, smoking and drinking ~ you just know the food is delicious. What struck me about the photo was how comfortable everyone looked, despite differences in class, the odd hour of the morning, the randomness that brought them together. The photographer had captured a moment where good food and the warmth it generates had brought a totally disparate group together. The meat markets of Les Halles are long gone now, having morphed into a giant underground shopping mall in the late 70’s. It saddens me to think restaurants like the one in the photograph disappeared with it.

Imagine two ideal ends of the dining spectrum. At one end you have a great Thai (or Chinese or Indian) joint, with platters of food served in rooms that are too hot and overcrowded, where service is rushed, the waiter is perfunctory, the music (if any) is scratchy, and you don’t give a damn because the food is so delicious you want to eat it with your hands. We return again and again to that place.

Now travel to the other extreme. Lots of room between the tables. Sound is hushed. Waiters glide. Plates are composed like a Caravaggio still-life, using ingredients in ways that test what you know about taste and texture, making you think about flavor anew. A big bill is coming at the end of this meal, but if it’s been perfect (and it has to be perfect) you won’t care. You are happy to be alive and able to afford it. When you can, you will come back here too.

Barndiva doesn’t fall somewhere in the middle of these two restaurants, that wasn’t why we entered the game. Middle is not what we do best. We wanted to take the vital parts of both of these experiences and combine them, to create a business that was uniquely honest in the way it approached sourcing, preparation and presentation of food, but nevertheless managed to elevate the dining experience, to make it really special. We wanted to design a space where every piece of the room celebrated the food on the plate and the act of eating. The visceral act of eating, that was crucial for us, but so was the before and after. We wanted fresh soundtracks and soft lighting. We wanted to show some love in the service, not just professional indifference. We didn’t want stuffy. We wanted the opposite of stuffy. We have all suffered through one too many evenings of “fine dining” where a ‘church of food’ approach demands supplication, taking the air out of the room, along with any spirited conversation.

We got a lot of props those first years from so many strangers who “got” what we were trying to do, but we also found there was no way to make everyone happy. For some the music was too loud, for others the lighting to low to properly read the menus. We had very few seasoned servers the first few years, preferring to hire children of friends and neighbors who dined with us, but while it was true they didn’t come to us with tired old habits from other restaurants, their enthusiasm did not make up for their lack of experience. Great restaurant service is not instinctive, it must be learned, and in order to be learned, it must be properly taught.

One reviewer in the early days called our menu, which we had flavor profiled into categories of ‘light, spicy, comfort,’ “Barndiva’s mood food.” He wasn’t wrong ~ we all set out to dinner in a frame of mind that the restaurateur is wise to acknowledge ~ but it looked silly in print. On the other hand, the last thing we wanted to present to our guests was a polemic about our food. We put as much information as we could on the menu and hoped intelligent diners would ask questions.

And so we learned, sometimes the hard way, to improve our game and fix what we could, without succumbing to the ever-present desire to take the easy way out and just give people what they were used to getting. I’m not sure why we are so stubborn about keeping it real. Perhaps in part because, in our short but interesting lives, it was usually the things we least expected that turned out to give us the most pleasure.

The recession has upped the ante with respect to making it in this high stakes business as there are decidedly less diners out there willing to part with their money without a good reason to do so these days. But the challenge of perfecting a hybrid like Barndiva is important enough to pursue even in these trying times. Maybe it’s more important now, considering that, thankfully, the underlying politics of food sourcing is becoming more relevant to diners.

I still find it hard to reconcile that even if you put everything you love into place ~ beautiful rooms and gardens, flowers, music, candlelight, inspired drinks, delightful plates of food ~ sometimes it’s just not enough. The timing is off, or one of your key players who should know their lines flubs them. You can apologize, but this being a performance art, prone to mishap, you just have to move on. Sometimes it’s the diner who has brought the unhappiness of his day (or his life) with him to the table and nothing you do is good enough, even if it should be, even if it is. Again, you have to move on.

Through it all you try not to forget what made you get into this crazy business in the first place. Oddly for me, it’s not the nights of perfect service that bring that message home. Since Ryan joined us, and now with Tommy out front, we have many more perfect nights that ever before. But there is still that incredible frisson of not knowing what can happen when you open the doors. Back stage in the kitchen the mix is always heady and slightly dangerous ~ knives, fire, product from hundreds of mercurial purveyors in the hands of a few dozen people who are responsible for carrying out different complex pieces of a single unifying vision. Timing is crucial. So is the chain of command. While on stage in the dining room the scene is the polar opposite, romantic but charged, like a house before a party. Timing, for that first drink, between courses, again, is crucial. Mood, how to create it, how not to destroy it, is essential. Physical semaphore rules. A raised eyebrow can mean something is not quite right at the table and you need to get over there, or, wait, something is happening there you should not interrupt. In a split second, you need to know the difference.

Whatever goes wrong in the kitchen cannot be allowed to interrupt the flow of the evening out front. Everything is in play. Everyone is important. Every detail matters. Getting it all to hang together is magical when it happens, and can haunt you, for days, when it doesn’t.

We served 690 plates this past Saturday and until ten o’clock every one was presented to the diner having met chef’s exacting standards. We were rocking. This, despite the fact that the dishwasher had failed to show up for work and one of the big fridges broke down in the middle of service. Then, heading into the homestretch, with the dining room and both gardens packed, a full board of entrees to fire, inextricably, four plates slid from a shelf and landed with a terrifying crash onto the stainless steel table below, obliterating ten first courses and four desserts. I don’t know what Ryan and Tommy felt. I know what they did. They carried on.

At times like these I think of Alice in Wonderland. No one made her drink the bottle to change her size in the first place, curiosity made her do it. What she discovered in the end was that accepting risk was OK, so long as she accepted as well that growing larger and smaller goes with the territory. Changing shape without changing your essence is sometimes necessary to survive. Restaurants are a consummate collaboration, but for the key players, those of us who have chosen to crawl through the looking glass, growing larger and smaller is the skill we strive to master every night in order to create the art and the thrill of a great dining experience. The rest ~ the security, the reviews, the respect of our purveyors, our peers, and our customers ~ hopefully, will follow.

SF Gate: Michael Bauer's review