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Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Campton Place Restaurant: The prune is a fig

CamptonplaceThere are so many dinners I’ve had in the last few months -a disappointing meal at L’Arpège, a great one at Pierre Gagnaire, and many many others- which, for different reasons, I simply haven’t got around to writing about yet. As I’ve said before, if I blogged about everything I did in real time, I would have no life at all, which would –in turn- make for a very boring blog for you to read.

But once in a while, there’s a meal that simply begs to be written about immediately, even if it’s nearing midnight by the time I get home. The Campton Place dinner tonight is one. Why so, you asked? Well, because it is infuriating to see some place that was so very nearly there, with so much potential, stumbled on so many silly mistakes that could have easily been prevented.

I went to dinner tonight truly hoping to love the place, after all, it is really suboptimal to have to drive to Yountville or Los Gatos every time I want a great meal. I’ve heard some very nice things about the chef at Campton Place, and have been looking forward to trying his food. I decided at about 5pm today that tonight would be it, called the restaurant, and was able to get a 7pm table, a little on the early side for me, but as I’ve just come home from a long skiing weekend, the time was perfect.

My dining companion Dave and I arrived at the restaurant to find a very pleasant room that was much smaller than I’d expected, not more than 18-20 tables altogether. This was quite a good sign, I thought, as the small size of the dining room should make it easy for the kitchen to control the quality of the food. Together we decided to have the tasting menu to get a good turn around the chef’s repertoire on our first trip there.

While inquiring about the possibility of having the chef’s tasting menu for the non-shellfish, non-pork eater Dave, we found out that the chef was not in the kitchen that night. I almost balked and ordered a three or four course menu instead, but as we were assured by the waiter that there would be no affect on the quality of the food at all, we decided to trust him and kept our original choice -the tasting menu it was.

Dinner began rather badly, the Billecart-Salmon Rosé that we ordered off the by-the-glass menu were corked, ever so slightly so, but as it was one of our favorite champagnes, and together Dave and I must have had really a lot of this particular wine, the corked effect was rather obvious. The finish was of a wet cardboard rather than the usual strawberry.

The first few courses were mixed. The Skipstone Ranch olive oil sorbet with marinated anchovy tasted just as odd as it sounded. The “cappuccino” of carrots with apple, mango and green papaya was offensive, a confused mélange of thin, foamy carrot juice, thin strips of carrot and green papaya, and some utterly flavorless mango dices. And of the three otherwise pleasant Iranian Osetra Caviar garnishes –Vichyssoise, marinated Suzuki, and Ragout of seafood- one had absolutely awful, fishy tasting, Uni (sea urchin) in it.

But equally as striking was how truly wonderful the dishes that worked were. The “cappuccino” of sea urchin and Dungeness crab topped with a spoonful of Gewurztraminer foam was bright and fresh-tasting, not to mention a brilliant marriage of flavors. The warm “mille-feuille” of Artisan foie gras and apples with cassis jus was quite amazing, beautifully presented with a skewer of thyme to hold the layers together. Both the soup preparations were simply delicious. The squash chowder with Maine lobster knuckles and roasted chestnut oil was inspiring and intensely flavorful. The soup of parsnip with sweetbreads was at once earthy and ethereal.

This was to be the theme for the night, as though it was the intention of the kitchen to send out one bad dish just to highlight how good the other one in the pair could be. The Amandine of frog’s legs with leeks and –albeit mediocre- black truffles was crispy and delicious, with perfectly cooked and delectable leeks that won over even Dave who normally was not a fan of leeks. While its twin, the “torte” of frog’s legs with celery and black truffles was awful, the frog’s legs having been fried in a tempura-like batter that was inexplicably thick and badly soggy. The warm and wonderful “mille-feuille” of foie gras was served together with “l’étoile de foie gras”, two layers of the blandest of the specimen sandwiched between oddly soft chopped hazelnut, covered with boring port wine aspic, fashioned into a beautiful star on the plate.

The meat preparations were equally as baffling. The expertly cooked to the most perfect texture Kurobuta pork was contaminated by a sauce of bad quality black truffles, which claimed to have been from Périgord while tasting ever so faintly of truffles and in the shade of drab-gray, without any discernable marbling indicative of the true Perle Noire du Périgord. If they were truly from there –anything is possible I suppose- I would be entirely surprised. The otherwise nice tasting potato “mille-feuille” –also served with the pork- had an inexplicably sour after-taste. The lambchop and foie gras in yet another truffle sauce suffered the same fate. The lamb -itself cooked to a rare perfection- was covered in a bizarre crust of rancid-tasting pistache, which altogether had an effect of licking a used pan covered in a layer of burnt oil.

The savory portion of the meal ended with a cheese course, which -in yet another strange service mixed up- was served without asking our preference at all. Our main waiter pushed the interesting looking cart –created by the lovely Soyoung Scanlan of Andante Dairy- over to our table, but instead of presenting us with the choices, proceeded to slice whatever pleased him and served them to us. We ended up with a badly constructed cheese course with 3 year-old Gruyère, young-ish Mimolette, and Sbrinz, all hard cheese, with a few almonds and a “prune” as garnishes. The Gruyère was fine, the Mimolette had weird swiss cheese-like holes in it and was rather rubbery, but the worst of the bunch had to be the hard plastic-textured Sbrinz, which was so hard I could barely break it into two with both hands. Also, the prune -on closer inspection- turned out to be a fig! We asked the waiter twice, to be sure that it wasn’t a slip of tongue, before telling him his prune was, in fact, a fig, to which he replied –with not a small measure of enthusiasm- “Great!”.

The dessert course did not do much better. Only one of the three desserts, the Symphony of chocolate and caramel ganache served with a chocolate sable and ice cream and a cocoa nip tuille, was fabulous, while the Quark soufflé was oddly textured, almost curdled, and the basil sorbet offensively sour.

But most disconcerting to us was the manners of the staff when we tried to offer a few criticism. Of course, we were careful to also point out the positive bits as well, but it didn’t help still. Our complaints were –at best- met by the most cursory of replies and –at worst- by a visibly irritated waitress. This, to me, was really the most disturbing. There were so many mistakes, the most unbelievably slow pacing even though the dining room was barely half full was one as well as other confounding service mistakes which –though not major- added up to be quite an annoyance. My wine pairing, a mix of a few good Italian and German wines and also a perfectly nice Doisy Sauterne, was served exclusively in Spiegelau Riesling glasses, yes, white and red alike. We were served from both sides at different times, and at least once saw a confused runner bearing our food came half way across the room only to look around hopelessly for someone to unburden him, and ended up turning back to the kitchen because no one else was around to do the deed. But many of these mistakes could be so easily remedied, had the staff been willing to listen to some constructive criticisms.

Frankly, I would not have been so bothered by any of these things had I found the restaurant with no redeeming quality at all. But that was far from the truth. In spite of the manners in which our criticism was handled, the staff was otherwise enthusiastic and even nice. And most of all, the food showed sparks of brilliance that made it quite hard for either of us to write the place off so easily. Well, perhaps all of these problems could be traced back to the absence of the chef from the kitchen on this particular night, and with all the service mistakes I fervently hope that the floor manager was also missing as well. Perhaps I should still give them another try, and will make sure the chef is in the house next time.

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