Monday, July 5, 2010

How to Eat with All Your Senses

On Saturday night, Sabrina and I decided to celebrate the second anniversary of our wedding with a special dinner out. An acquaintance had raved about the food and atmosphere at the Madrona Manor, located just outside of Healdsburg on Guerneville Road. I drive past its front gate every time I go to Russian River Zendo. I knew it was pricey, and an extravagance. But it seemed the perfect choice, and we managed to get last-minute reservations for 8 p.m.

Oh - we had no idea what we were in store for! The food was beyond anything we could have imagined. It is French cuisine, with local produce, and a Sonoma twist, prepared by chef Jesse Mallgren, born in San Francisco and raised in Sonoma County, but trained at some of the finest restaurants around. We chose from the "compose your own menu" selection, which allowed Sabrina to have seafood and meat for almost every course, while I had a rich selection of vegetarian entrees.

For Sabrina: scallop sashimi with borage, Meyer lemon, uni and fresh wasabi; Lobster "cuit sous vide" with carrot, fennel, pea and coriander; abalone; northern halibut with corn, miso, dashi and porcini; lamb. For me: beets with gorgonzola; haricots verts with burata, hazelnuts and truffle; potato gnocchi with peas, mint, pistachios and creme fraiche; and the Madrona Manor Signature Cheese Course, around the world in cheese.

But that is just a small piece of it. In between each course, we received little "palate ticklers," tiny taste tests to ready ourselves for the next bite. A slice of hollowed-out radish filled with butter, or a yogurty-drink beside a single ravioli. A dish of strawberry sorbet to freshen our mouths before moving on to the next taste.

Part of the beauty of it all was the presentation. Every course was brought in a plate or bowl especially designed to showcase what it was serving: a large, broad-brimmed bowl with only a small dip in the center to hold the food; a long, angular plate divided into four sections, each containing one small bite; tiny glasses; perfect little spoons.

And with this, another part of the beauty was the portion size. We were given just enough to enjoy the flavor, enough to appreciate what we were eating, not enough to sate ourselves. We ate, we tasted, we relished each bite, but we did not stuff ourselves. We were on a journey of exploration.

The dinner stretched out over three hours. The service was impeccable, and constant, but not stiff. We felt pampered, without feeling that we were about to make a grave misstep by picking up the wrong fork. We were served each course, had time to eat leisurely, then a few moments to ourselves to talk, and enjoy the ambience. We sat outside, on a covered porch, in the summer evening, looking out over lush gardens.

It was an absolutely luxurious experience of being in the now. I cannot remember the last time I was so present with my food. The newness of the tastes, the surprises, kept us continually open. I was aware of every plate, every wait person that approached and laid down a new fork, every shift in the room.

To cap the evening, it turned out that we had met one of the servers before at a friend's Thanksgiving dinner. She remembered that it was shortly after our wedding and mentioned that. We said yes, and told her we were celebrating our anniversary. Moments later, she reappeared with two large plates with tiny cups of creme brulee at their centers, and the words "Happy Anniversary" written in gorgeous script with chocolate sauce on the edge of the platters.

(We still had dessert coming, of course: Chocolate to the Fourth for Sabrina, with devils food, soft Gianduja ganache, sorbet and mousse, and Strawberries & Cream for me, with orange financier, lemon verbena and brown butter sable. Plus they sent us home with clear plastic bags of caramel corn, tied with brown ribbon.)

Oh, what a dinner! After, at home, I found myself wishing I had taken pictures of the food, captured each course. But then I had to smile at myself. No, no. It's better this way. It was exactly as it was supposed to be. Perfect for those three hours.


  1. Your meal sounds divine, and perfectly enjoyed. Happy, happy anniversary!

  2. I just found your blog. Looking forward to more posts. Best, Nathan

  3. Welcome, Nathan! Glad to have you on board. Where do you hail from?