Which is a tribute to Chef Max Schacher, for he has been at his stoves and ovens for 45 years ? 21 in Kenwood and 24 before that in other restaurants here and abroad. During this time, he has mastered classic French dishes like his Country Style Duck Pate ($11 ****) served with a small pot of piquant mustard, pickled onions, cornichons, olives and crostini.
It?s possible to find some very fine pates served in this area. Chef Philippe Jeanty makes a superb duck foie gras pate at Bistro Jeanty in Yountville, for one example. But Max?s pate is anyone?s equal. There?s a hint of duck liver and plenty of sweet, rich, ground duck meat, plus enough black pepper to pleasantly prickle your tongue. The pate fills a mold, then is covered with half an inch of aspic and chilled so the aspic jells. Slices are taken as orders reach the kitchen so each cold slice has an edging of melt-in-your-mouth aspic. This rustic pate is excellent, but from time to time, when the mood strikes him, Chef Schacher will make a mousse-style foie gras pate ? as smooth as silk, pinkish gray, with an elegant flavor. Lucky are those who arrive when the duck mousse pate is available.
And then there?s the chicken. Chicken is so easy to over- or undercook, especially when orders are backed up and the kitchen is hustling, and especially when the cut is the delicate breast.
Schacher and his sous chef, John Pardy (JP to his friends), go straight for the heart of the challenge, offering a Grilled Chicken Breast ($24 ***?) with a mixture of wild and white rice and golden raisin chutney. All of this sits in a pool of curry sauce. The chicken is a revelation, although its title on the menu is a misnomer: It?s not grilled. The breast is dredged in flour and condiments then pan seared just to the point where its skin is semi-crispy. It?s then popped into a hot oven for exactly the right amount of time, until the flesh inside is perfectly juicy and it?s cooked to the same degree of doneness from just under the skin to the center of the meat. At first I thought it was cooked sous-vide (in an airtight plastic bag in hot water for many hours), a technique that produces a similar textural effect, but without the crispy skin. How the kitchen achieves this is a mystery, except to say that it?s a mastery of knowing exactly ? I mean exactly ? when the pan should come out of the oven. Presumably after 45 years, you do get a feel for it.
But there?s that problematic curry sauce. It detracts from the ability to savor the perfect chicken, because when the meat is coated in curry sauce, it tastes like curry, not chicken. A little reduced meat jus, sure, but the breast meat is simply too good as is to submerge its flavor under such intense spices.
The restaurant is in an ideal location, just south of the hamlet of Kenwood on Highway 12. From the outside tables on the patio and along the front of the restaurant, patrons can look across the highway to the Kunde winery and its hundreds upon hundreds of acres of vines covering the ascending slopes of the Mayacmas Mountains. The vines clamber in regular rows from the valley floor up over hills that reach 1,600 feet of elevation. On a warm fall evening, with the lowering sun bathing the hills and vineyards in a buttery-orange light, the view is incomparable.
Inside, the restaurant has a clean, classy, generous look. A mural recalling Ovid?s ?Metamorphoses? shows a young swain climbing to reach a young woman who is becoming part of a vine that stretches over the bar. Schacher?s playful sense of humor shows in the art he?s chosen for the walls. In one, a tippler knocks back his drink while a waiter, whose head has turned into that of a bull, wags his finger at him in disapproval.
The wine list includes some wonderful older bottles, but also merlot made from Schacher?s vineyard, which lies just to the north of the restaurant. Tom Smothers? Remick Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon ? made from Smothers? fruit by Richard Arrowood ? is also on the list, and both are available by the glass along with other Sonoma Valley and international wines. Corkage is $18.
The restaurant has roots deep in the community, and the staff turnover is low. It?s therefore possible to become a regular after just a few visits, as you?ll encounter the same staff as before. And you?ll find them smoothly efficient, meticulous and friendly.
Many chefs at popular Bay Area restaurants got their start under Schacher?s tutelage. One notable example is Chef Manuel Azevedo at LaSalette Restaurant in the town of Sonoma. There are many others. There?s a saying that it takes 10 years of sustained effort to get really good at anything, in which case Chef Schacher is three and a half times as good as he has to be. That?s why so many young cooks have learned to be good chefs in his kitchens, and why the food at The Kenwood Restaurant hits such a level of unostentatious excellence.