We were invited to attend a recent wine dinner, sponsored by Napa Valley's Hunnicutt Winery. Hunnicutt is a boutique, family-owned and operated winery that focuses on Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay, and six of their wines were paired with Chef Simmons' creations.
We were seated in the private dining area of the Bistro with a charming group of foodies and oenophiles who were eagerly anticipating the first course. There wasn't an empty seat. Several of our dining companions were veterans of multiple Hubbell & Hudson wine dinners, and they assured us that this wouldn't be our last.
In short order the first course came out. Carpaccio always puts a smile on my face, and Chef Simmons' version was unique. Beautifully marbled angus beef was sliced paper thin and finished with a light peppercorn crust, Italian tapenade, and a crunchy crumble of crostini. Shaved Parmigiano Reggiano and a drizzle of tangy mustard oil complemented the rich, beefy flavor of the high-quality beef.
The carpaccio was paired with Hunnicutt's 2009 Napa Valley Zinfandel. This was a big, bright zin with fruity aromatics and plenty of tannins, an inspired choice.
Once we had devoured the carpaccio, the next course arrived. Stacked tall was a crispy preparation of Berkshire pork belly crowned with a gently seared diver scallop. Along side was a fresh salad of granny smith apple, celery hearts, jalapeno oil, and yuzu. The pork belly was one of the better renditions I have sampled; the rich, fatty meat was marbled with areas of leaner pork, and the diver scallop's smooth, almost creamy texture brought subtle aromas and flavors of the sea. The bright, tangy salad was a clever counterpoint, lightening up the rich pork and scallop profiles.
One of Hunnicutt's more playful wines, their 2008 Fearless Red, accompanied the dish. It is a varietal blend of 50% petite sirah, 32% zinfandel, 16% cab, and 2% petit verdot. This dark, lush red held up well to the powerful flavors of the course.
The third course was deceptively simple. A slow-poached organic egg, accented with shaved serrano ham, aged comte, a dab of Italian truffle oil, and basil. I'm usually not much of an egg guy, but the light, airy result of the slow poaching was seductive. The serrano and compte (similar to Gruyere), along with the appropriately used truffle oil resulted in a complex melding of flavors that I wasn't expecting from this simple dish. Looking around the table I don't think anyone left even the tiniest morsel on their plate.
The egg was paired with Hunnicutt's 2008 Cab, an interesting wine with complex flavors of vanilla, cinnamon, and black cherry. Heavy tannins kept it from being too sweet. It was a bold paring choice that I doubt I would have considered, but which worked extremely well. Kudos to sommelier Tanya Hinson for this inspired choice.
Next came the fourth course, a gently handled slab of hudson valley duck foie gras topping lightly seared sea bass, served over melted leeks in a pomegranate port butter. The foie gras was as rich as one would expect, and it offset the more muted flavor of the perfectly cooked sea bass. The leeks added both a nice texture counterpoint and a bit of tang, and the flavor of pomegranate brought a fruity punch to the very successful dish.
Tonight's only white was paired with this fish/fowl creation: Hunnicut's 2010 Chardonnay. I rarely order chardonnays, but this one was worthy. Complex aromas of lemon, pear and hazelnut were rounded with honey and caramel undertones, and several more fruity flavors I couldn't accurately describe. This was my bride's favorite wine of the night, and I cannot disagree with her choice.
The highest point of the evening, for me, was the next course. Deftly prepared with a combination of sous vide and oak grilling, a gorgeous slab of venison was presented atop a foundation of white cheddar grits, and topped with a gastrique based on chipotle infused bing cherries. Chef Simmons juggled the sweetness of the gastrique, the subtle heat of the chipotle, and the sourness of the cherries with the rich venison; the result was superb, with not even the slightest hint of gaminess. The hearty cheese grits stood up well to the powerful flavors above. I could have devoured three servings of this dish without hesitation.
An entree with that much punch demands a bold pairing, and again sommelier Tanya Hinson rose to the occasion. Hunnicutt's 9-3-5 Cabernet is a big, powerful red, delivering notes of raspberry, cherry, plum, and a hit of flint. Tannins are there to be sure, but balanced by the explosion of fruit. My favorite wine of the night, expertly paired with my favorite dish.
After indulging in this degustation, I wondered how Chef Simmons would wind down the meal. I didn't have to wonder long, because out came a jewel-like presentation. Rich dark chocolate pot de creme with hints of lavender was adorned with a meyer lemon/blueberry compote, and finished with tiny housemade tapioca-like spheres and a blast of citrus.
Paired with this lush dessert was a 2007 Hunnicutt Late Harvest Zinfandel, a rich, spicy, lush red redolent with plum and berry flavors. The resultant fruity, chocolatey, spicy, creamy combination was the stirring final movement of Chef Simmon's culinary sonata. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, savoring this experience that was unfortunately drawing to a close.
Our companions were correct. We'll be back. Kudos to Chef Austin Simmons, Sommelier Tanya Hinson, and the rest of the Hubbel & Hudson and Hunnicutt team on their splendid performance.