Many joys accrue to those who plant a garden and eat their own home-grown food.
Freshness is one. The taste of a just-picked vegetable is like that moment in "The Wizard of Oz" when the world turns from black-and-white to color. Suddenly you understand what a carrot is really all about, or why fresh-picked peas might just be the best-tasting vegetable on earth.
Unfortunately, those flavors start to disappear before the farmer even gets the produce into the truck to take it to market. And so, in its well-planned wisdom, Lucy, the restaurant and bar at Yountville's Bardessono Hotel, supplies chef Victor Scargle with whatever seasonal produce is available from Lucy's Garden, located right outside the kitchen door — what the French call a potager and we call a kitchen garden.
Lucy, by the way, and her husband John Bardessono, came to Yountville in the 1920s. They were a farm family and Lucy grew a large garden for many years, supplying the family with that just-picked flavor. Sleepy little Yountville eventually become a world center of gastronomical gravity, of course, and the farm became the Bardessono Hotel. The place is a wonder.
You step well into the 21st century when you enter the grounds. It's one of only three hotels in the entire country to get Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design's Platinum Certification, LEED's highest award. The d?or is mainly recycled materials, but it's crackling with smart, futuristic design. The restaurant gives you space with pools of seclusion, and as spring proceeds, chef Scargle will give you those much-sought-after flavors of just-picked produce.
That became apparent with the <CF103>Freshly Dug Carrot Salad</CF> ($12 <SC12,197><SC12,197><SC12,197>). "Thumbelina" carrots are small, crunchy, orange cones, served here with the stem end still on, along with lighter yellow carrots and carrot chips given a subtle curry-shallot dressing. I hunted for that breathy phenolic flavor of carrots just pulled from the ground, but the curry, subtle though it was, must have hidden it. Still, the salad was lovely.
Even lovelier was the <CF103>Chicory Salad</CF> ($12 <SC12,197><SC12,197><SC12,197>), a symphony of icy sweetness and bitterness that was utterly enchanting. Here were radicchio, frisee, Belgian endive leaves and seldom-seen escarole — chicories all, and all grown right outside. Walnut halves were not just candied, they were spicy, too. Smoky blue-cheese crumbles added intense savory bursts, and the whole salad was dressed in tangy citrus vinaigrette.
There was a moment of perfection when the <CF103>Maine Lobster Risotto</CF> ($26 for small, $37 for full entr? <SC12,197><SC12,197><SC12,197><SC12,197>) hit the table. It was perfect in all regards — the rice, the creamy delicacy of the sauce, the bits of lobster, the anise flavor of the kitchen garden's tarragon and the overall flavor and impression. Risotto is so easy to get wrong and so hard to get right. This was right.
And there was a big flop. <CF103>Antelope</CF> ($42 <SC12,197>) was on the menu, and the only other time I'd had it, from the same south Texas ranch, it was one of the best meats I'd ever tasted. This piece of antelope was overdone and had toughened up. It was served in a black huckleberry jus, with bacon-infused Brussels sprouts, chard and herbed farro. The chef must have been thinking of venison when deciding how to present the antelope. Southwest might have been a better direction to look, with mesquite smoke and a slower hand on that burner.
The kitchen regrouped and recouped with the <CF103>Liberty Farm Duck Breast</CF> ($26 small, $35 for full entr? <SC12,197><SC12,197><SC12,197>?). Sonoma's own Liberty duck sets the nation's standard for this flavorful fowl, served here with roast spaghetti squash touched with a hint of vanilla bean, Belgian endive braised with citrus, and classic sauce a l'orange. Savory salty duck, vanilla and orange sweetness, bitter and tangy endive, all coming together seamlessly. Nice trick.