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Divine dining at Sante

  • The little gem salad at Sante.

Once in a great while, a chef will come along who hits on a flavor combination so profound that it's like great poetry, where simple words become rich with complex meaning. Literary examples include Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost and William Butler Yeats. A culinary example is given by Andrew Cain, the chef at Sante, the restaurant at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn in Sonoma.

The dish in question is Sonoma Foie Gras Two Ways ($17 ****). Cain has gone out of his way to gussy up some really good duck liver, first by creating a caramelized, liver-flavored custard with a creme brulee-like crackly sugared top that's completely beside the point. Second, he has seared a wonderful duck liver and topped it with a strawberry rhubarb compote. This topping is also unneeded and interferes with the core of the matter — the combination so interestingly delicious it should be enshrined in the culinary hall of fame, were there such a place.

And that is the pomegranate reduction sauce and the foie gras that sit side by side on the plate. Forget about the weird creme brulee thingy. Scrape the strawberry-rhubarb compote from the liver. Take a small piece of the seared foie gras, swoosh it through the pomegranate sauce, then taste it.

Sante

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Ka-pow! Instant enlightenment.

Foie gras lovers know that the pre-eminent drink with this delicacy is French Sauternes because the dessert wine's strong acidity and focused sweetness cut through the liver's broad fattiness with a synergy that makes the two together better than each separately. The pomegranate reduction does the same thing but with more authority, deeper and richer fruitiness, and a bonding between the flavors so close and perfect it reminded me of the tsaheylu (bonding process) in the film "Avatar."

Chef Cain learned his art in stints at Citronelle in Washington, the French Laundry in Yountville and Michael Mina in San Francisco. In his more than two and a half years as chef at Sante, his work has been rewarded with one star in the most recent Michelin guide to Bay Area restaurants. He's the chef de cuisine, and to give proper credit, he works for executive chef Bruno Tison, who came to Sante from the Plaza in Manhattan. Yet it's Cain's hands on the copper pans that are making the food come to life.

But Sante's charms aren't limited to the quality of the food. This is dining at its most deluxe, with large window views of the resort's swimming pool that's replenished constantly with naturally heated mineral water that flows not far underground in Boyes Hot Springs, the small town that's now considered part of Sonoma.

The room itself is decorated in a harmonious color scheme of warm, earthy colors. Table linens are the finest figured cloth draped over a gold undercloth. The service is impeccable — you will be well cared for and even pampered by the waiter and his or her minions bearing three kinds of Della Fattoria bread and plates with hand-churned French farmhouse butter, elaborate amuse bouches (ours was a swig of parsnip puree on a plate sprinkled with powdered beets), water with or without bubbles, and bus folk who whisk plates away as soon as you finish with them.

The wine list contains more than 500 bottles of whatever you want, but especially Sonoma and Napa wines both young and well-aged. Wines by the glass include Robert Sinskey's fabulous 2008 Pinot Gris, Richard Arrowood's 2006 Chardonnay, Merry Edwards 2007 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, Buena Vista's wonderful 2005 Syrah, Joseph Phelps 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, and topping the list, Pride Vineyards' 2006 Merlot. If you know someone who's still disparaging Merlot, buy them a glass of the Pride and you'll change their mind forever.

Dishes at Sante usually provide you more than you bargained for. The Little Gem Salad ($13 ****), for instance, has a small head of Little Gem romaine lettuce flanked on one side by three pieces of house-cured gravlax rolled up and set on end, and on the other side by three marble-sized balls of red potato set upon thin round slices of radish.


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