Saturday, September 5, 2009

Dinner at Laja

In the glow of the waning sun, we made our way through the rolling and twisting roads from our Inn to the main highway. Thankfully the one on this side of the valley is paved!

Laja is reputed to be one of the nicest restaurants in this area. Despite our empanadas a few hours earlier, I was pretty hungry and ready to enjoy food that some say rivals top restaurants in the Bay Area, namely, Chez Panisse.

Because of all of the road construction going on here, Laja's sign wasn't very visible from our side of the street. The man at the hotel said it was only about 4 minutes down the main highway, and after driving for 10, we decided to turn around and retrace our steps. Ahhh, there it was, tipped sideways and dusty from, well, you know. The house like structure had ample parking, but sadly no other car was in the lot as we pulled in. We entered the large beamed room with a small bar and peaked ceiling. It was 7pm and a macero (waiter) came right out and asked us to chose whatever table we liked. I instantly felt terrible that we may prove to be the only reason they opened that evening (as I had made a reservation several weeks ago).

He presented us with a prix fixe menu (written in perfect english) from which we would chose 3 courses plus dessert. I perused the local wine list, a few from each winery I had read about. Another, more experienced waiter motioned for me to come to the bar, as his wine by the glass list would have been verbal (if we spoke the same language), so instead we got to taste through the 8 or so wines he was offering that evening by the glass. I figured we could start with a glass of white and then get a bottle of red. The crisp Chenin Blanc we chose had some weightiness to it, but not as cloying as a chardonnay. It had a pleasant almond tone and was unfiltered.

After we returned to our seats, he helped me navigate the vinos tintos (red wines), and we chose a Syrah from Adobe Guadalupe, another local boutique inn that has a winery attached. I was happy to be chosing their wine, as I was sad to not have time to go there, and was very pleased with the robust richness of the dark red juice.

We both chose salads of "tender lettuces" which turned out to be baby arugula, surrounded by some beets and slices of local cheese. The leaves were very delicate, one step beyond a sprout, and slightly dressed.

For course number two, Joan had the bonito tartare and I chose the hand cut noodles with fresh vegetables. Both were amazing preparations. The raw bonito was even fresher than I had eaten in Japan, cut into cubes and mixed with preserved lemon, avocado, spicy radishes and cress.
My hand cut noodles had a hint of parmesan cheese and butter coating the soft yet toothsome noodles, with a small dice of local zucchini and asparagus.

By this time, a couple arrived (which also happened to be staying at our inn), and sat nearby. Our two tables proved to be their only ones that night. I kept wondering (being in the restaurant business myself) how a place such as this could survive and keep their food fresh and inspired with only a few customers a night. This was even more punctuated by the fact that the large room easily sat more than 50 guests. Hopefully they are busy on the weekends...

My main course was Oven Roasted Local Lamb with Peas, Rapini and Caramelized shallots. The lamb was prepared in two ways, the loin roasted, sliced and fanned out on the plate. The shoulder was braised and had a rich reduction that coated the rapini and caramelized shallots. Was their a pea on the plate? I don't think so, but the rapini was nicely bitter to balance the richness of the braise and I was quite happy with my selection. Joan had ordered the Pan Roasted White Fish over Zucchini and Swiss Chard with Pequillo Pepper and Calf's Feet Vinaigrette. I had to ask the waiter (in "spanish") if the chef could use a different vinaigrette, as although I would have loved to try the one listed on the menu, Joan would have nothing to do with it (being a "pescatarian"). Her fish tasted a lot like a striped bass, with crisped skin perched on top of the simply prepared vegetables. It was perfectly flakey and moist.

Almost sated, dessert arrived: Panna Cotta with Strawberry Sorbet for me; Viognier and Syrah Grape Sorbet for my sister. The panna cotta was perfectly done, smooth and creamy with a hint of yogurt tang to it. The three sorbets were also expertly prepared, providing a light finish to the rich meal.

It was a satisfying meal with very attentive, yet not intrusive, service. Had I more energy, I may have asked to see the kitchen and meet the chef. Was it on par with Chez Panisse? Well, yes and no. It is hard to compare when knowing the limitations of this restaurant with its almost non-existant clientele. The ingredients were very fresh and it was clear the kitchen knew what they were doing. A wonderful place that I am sure I will return to the next time I'm here.

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