If you're seeking the most romantic dining spot in Northern California, it very well may be Auberge de Soleil in Napa Valley. It's hidden away between the towns of Rutherford and St. Helena, on the slopes of Rutherford Hill. The restaurant is part of an inn nestled within a 33-acre olive grove in the Napa wine country. This award winning locale has the best view of any restaurant in the area with views of Rutherford and its vineyards.
It's best to dine in the evening when you can see, not only the landscape prior to sunset, but also the verdant hills at dusk. It's difficult to fully focus on your meal, but it's worth it.
Auberge du Soleil opened in 1981 as a restaurant and added the 52-room inn four years later. It's open seven days a week, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. You're welcome to dine indoors with its casually elegant décor.
But the interior ambience is nothing compared to dining al fresco under the vine covered pergola.
The first thing you notice when you're seated, aside from the view, is the service. There's someone to take your drink order, the sommelier to acquaint you with the wine list, the waiter to help choose your selections from the menu, the server and busboy.
The staff is not pretentious, just helpful and attentive. We were informed that many of the staff have been there for over a decade. Just remember this is not a place to dine if you're in a hurry. We were there a good three hours, sampling their six-course tasting meal. Anyone counting calories? Faggetaboutit! The food is not low calorie, although it definitely is organic. Auberge takes pride in using locally harvested produce and humanely raised meat.
You can select from a four course dinner for $98, a five course meal for $112 or a 6 course extravaganza, in which we indulged, for $124 per person. Or you can order a la carte. Should you partake of the prix fixe menu you'll start out with lighter dishes which get progressively richer. And with each course, the sommelier will suggest an appropriate wine.
Among my favorite appetizers are the artichoke beignets served with crunchy vegetables, and an olive tapenade. These tender morsels of artichokes are deep fried but not oily with a hint of vinegar.
The next item brought to our table was poached Maine lobster tail served with avocado, mango, and watercress. A hint of vanilla in the sauce was unexpected yet delightful.
Possibly the best item on the menu: the seared foie gras with rhubarb and pistachios served on a bed of bittersweet melted chocolate. It may sound like an odd concoction, but the juxtaposition of the crisp foie gras and silky chocolate....what can I say? It's something to experience.
With nearly every dish it's important to taste the variety of items on the plate together for a complete adventure. Executive Chef Robert Curry knows what he's doing, even though it may not seem so on reading the various ingredients of which each dish is composed. Let's face it, what's bittersweet chocolate doing with goose liver? Only your taste buds will tell you to rest assured.
The main course includes several meat and fish selections, including a tender roasted lamb accompanied by fava beans, gnocchi prepard al dente, and a goat cheese stuffed squash blossom. The lamb has no hint of gaminess, and its garlic flavor combined with the lemony squash blossom are a perfect combo.
Just when you thought you couldn't eat another bite comes dessert, and, as I said earlier, the richest items come at the end of the meal. And the most decadent choice is the crisp filo wrapped chocolate dumplings served with tarragon ice cream atop swirls of chocolate and Arbequina olive oil. Again, it may sound bizarre, but dipping the filo balls in both the chocolate and oil creates an amazing taste sensation. No wonder it's their signature dessert!
For those patrons who don't eat meat, there's also a vegetarian prix fixe menu. Just ask to see what they have to offer. There's also an extensive wine list, if you prefer selecting your own bottle. You can find a moderately priced Raymond Reserve Chardonnay for $44 or go for broke with a $105 bottle of Jaffe Estate Metamorphosis Cabernet.
Reservations are a must at Auberge, and you'll have to make them several weeks in advance, especially in the summer when folks from around the world descend on the northern California wine country.
You may even want to stay at the inn, but more on that later......
Auberge du Soleil
180 Rutherford Hill Road
Rutherford, CA 94573