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Playing Kitchen in Napa Valley, California

Alejandro Benes
Posted: July 30, 2008

I had to wait all week to make it to BakerStreet Tobacconist in the town of Napa. The proprietor, Brenda Roberts, had invited me to a cigar night during which Davidoffs would be featured. I really looked forward to it, but for four days before getting to Napa, a city that is renovating its downtown, I had to suffer mightily.

I had been invited by the National Pork Board (who knew?) to a four-day workshop titled "Culinary Innovations in Pork." The idea was to promote pork, particularly new, less-expensive cuts, for use in restaurants and other food-service businesses. The setting? The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone (CIA) in Napa Valley. Weather? Beautiful. Lots of Zinfandel nearby.

All this made for the perfect moment. So the last thing you wanted was to be somewhere you just can't light up. The Napa Valley, not to be confused with the town of Napa, is such a place. When I asked the guys at the St. Helena Wine Center, which also carries cigars, where one could smoke a cigar around here, they said, "Outdoors."

Don't get me wrong. St. Helena in particular is a fabulous place to spend the day. In just a few blocks, the main strip offers one of my favorite Cal-Italian restaurants (Tra Vigne), one of the nation's best fast-food places (Taylor's Refresher; it won a James Beard award) and, among others, a couple of fine new eateries that are getting raves (Cook; Market). It's just not complete. I sucked it up and told myself I was there to play in one of the best kitchens in the world.

THE PORK PART OF THE STORY

Arriving at the CIA on Monday, all the attendees had dinner in the Wine Spectator Greystone restaurant. I chose the hanger steak, one of my favorites. There would be plenty of pork tomorrow and for days. The evening ran late and the next day was to begin early with "Pig 101."

Tuesday began with a lesson and discussion on how pork was being raised and marketed. We learned to distinguish between different hogs and their virtues once they become meat. We talked about what it means when the pork chop in your supermarket is pale (it will be dry after cooking) and why you should always brine. Yeah, yeah. Then the hog arrived.

Well, actually, it was the carcass of a hog. Without the head. Stephen, from the pork board, expertly proceeded to take the animal apart and show everyone where ribs, among other popular pork dishes, originate. It turned out even some of the food pros had never "deconstructed" a whole hog. They were surprised to find that a baby back rib and a spare rib are all one rib before the butcher gets to it. Minds were blown. Pork was cooked and tasted. Lunch was served.

Here's the beautiful part about culinary schools: you get to eat what the students cook. So after the morning class, we all went to the CIA kitchen on the third floor and lined up for the buffet. I don't remember what we had for lunch, the point being that the baking students had made desserts and among them was a coconut macaroon that qualified as among the best ever created. We all agreed.

 

After lunch, we had to taste pork prepared about 12 ways using different international flavor profiles. I can't tell you how little appetite everyone had for this exercise, but we soldiered on. The day's "work" ended around 3 p.m. I went back to the kitchen and found the espresso machine and made myself a double to cut through the richness of the pork and the musta-been-seven macaroons I scarfed.

We now had some time before a group of us met up for drinks before dinner. I saw an opportunity and went into the little yard behind my motel room and stretched out on the lounge chair with a lovely Padrón Reserva de la Familia, the one you can't buy, that Orlando Padrón had given to me. (Frankly, when I think pork, I think Padrón family, since they invited me to be on their team when we cook a whole pig every year during the Lechon Cup competition at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Florida.)

This was an OK setting to enjoy a cigar, and this cigar is one that is impossible not to enjoy. Still, I would have preferred to be having it with the Zaya (dark rum) on the rocks I would be sipping in about two hours at the Martini House. No such luck.

Day 3 found me partnering with Pablo, executive chef at a resort hotel in Puerto Rico. He and I were tasked with preparing three Latin dishes. Two involved using pork tenderloin and we decided that to keep the cuts moist, we'd stuff them with chorizo even though the recipe didn't call for that. Three other teams made pork dishes from other parts of the world. My favorite was the Vietnamese pork sandwich with peanut sauce. The team couldn't find the baguettes so they made the sandwiches on small challah rolls and turned them into sliders. Killer. Everything we all made went on the buffet.

We had a few hours off before our afternoon class on pairing wines with pork, so, of course, I went with a colleague to try the new release of the Louis M. Martini Gnarly Vines Zinfandel that can be bought only at the winery. We split a case.

The next day, each attendee was on his own. We had to make our own three-course menu. That was a lot of stress for someone who's not in the kitchen every day. So I modified a couple of classic Cuban dishes to highlight pork. I added an amuse bouche of toasted brioche round topped with blueberries reduced in balsamic vinegar. On top of that I placed a small cube of very tender braised pork belly that I caramelized in brown sugar. The last touch was a sliver of Cabrales blue cheese. That should have opened up anyone's taste buds.

My next course was Cuban black bean soup with a dollop of sour cream topped with ample shards of applewood-smoked bacon towering high. That was followed by a pork picadillo (a sort of hash), which puzzled the students who later approached it on the buffet. The picadillo was served on white rice, then topped with any or all of the following: fried egg, sliced bananas, olives, golden raisins, capers. The pork had been browned and sautéed with crushed tomatoes, onions and some spices I won't divulge, but garlic and oregano played big parts. After lunch and a double espresso and a farewell macaroon or six, I was on my way to my people.

BACK TO THE CIGAR PART OF THE STORY

About 20 miles south, back in the town of Napa, progress has not taken away everything. In addition to BakerStreet Tobacconist, Napa Valley Wine & Cigar has a small room with a TV where you can puff, but it's a little bit out of the way, next to a tire store. I was early and stopped in. The lounge was full of sheriff's deputies watching something like Aussie-rules football and smoking cigars. Not a chair to be had. So I bought a Rocky Patel corona and drove into town, parked and walked around.

I've visited this part of California for three decades and was always disappointed that the town of Napa had relatively little to offer. That is changing quickly. There are world-class restaurants now. The opera house is open. There's shopping.

And there's BakerStreet, with three tables on a small, cigar-friendly patio outside the front door, all the reason one needs to stay in Napa next time there's a visit to the wine country. Did I mention that they also sell double-nine dominoes?

About 25 cigar lovers were at the Davidoff night at the BakerStreet event. Brenda Roberts greeted everyone. There was a lot of laughing. Wines were served and so were Venezuelan arepas. I smoked a Winston Churchill robusto and relished just being able to get off my feet and sit in a big leather chair and watch everyone delight in the hospitality.

Alejandro Benes is a partner in a group of award-winning restaurants in Southern California.

BakerStreet Tobacconist, Clocks & Unique Gifts
1018 1st Street
Napa, CA
(707) 255-4434

Napa Valley Wine & Cigar
161 Silverado Trail
Napa, CA
(707) 253-8696

Louis M. Martini Winery
254 South St. Helena Highway
St. Helena, CA
(707) 963-2736, ask about tastings

Wine Spectator Restaurant
The Culinary Institute of
America at Greystone
2555 Main Street
St. Helena, CA
(707) 967-1010 for reservations

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