A Meeting of Mountains and Grapevines

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Disclaimer: The writer, Katy Niner, daughter of the Niner Wine Estates owners, is predisposed to gush about this meal.

Idaho trout brined overnight in sauvignon blanc before smoking over a kitchen campfire of dried grapevines. Such creativity laced every dish Jeff Drew and Kyle Nicholson of Snake River Grill created for a harvest dinner last month at Niner Wine Estates in Paso Robles, Calif.

Nicholson, left, and Drew

Drew and Nicholson — SRG executive chef and chef de cuisine, respectively — traveled to the central coast wine country for harvest weekend, an annual October event that draws visitors from across the country (Tim Sapp, who shared his photographs with Dishing, traveled from Texas). A crew even journeyed from Jackson, including Ali and Kevin Cohane of Persephone Bakery and Cecilia and Frank Bellinghiere. (Niner Wine Estates’ owners, Dick and Pam Niner, as well as daughter Katy, all live in Jackson.)

Drew designed the menu as a meeting of mountains and vineyard, best represented by the grapevine-smoked trout. Dishes signature of the Grill – like buffalo carpaccio – shared the spotlight with the bountiful produce of central California. First in line at the Thursday evening farmers’ market in nearby San Luis Obispo, Drew scoured every stand for ripe persimmons, even persuading one farmer to pull from her personal stash.

Months of planning made for meticulous details throughout. Weeks before the Oct. 19 dinner, Drew asked Heather Lane, hospitality manager at Niner, to trim grapevines for the trout campfire. The dried vines lent a subtle, sweet smokiness to the tender filets.

Grapevine-smoked trout

Drew created each course with a Niner varietal in mind — a synergy applauded by winemaker Amanda Cramer. “It makes both the food and the wine shine,” she said. Drew introduced each course, sharing his inspirations, and Cramer followed with her insights on the wines.

The evening began on the patio, overlooking rose bushes and olive trees, with a passed hors d’oeuvres — petite potato pancakes topped by American caviar and chive crème fraiche — paired with pours of 2009 sauvignon blanc. Just as the sun fell into the ocean — nearby as the crow flies — the milling guests migrated inside the stone barn tasting room where the smoked trout — paired with local greens and fingerling potatoes (more market finds) — and the 2010 sauvignon blanc awaited each of the 38 guests.

Drew designed the second course as an introduction to the Western world of game. The fan of buffalo carpaccio, nearly translucent and oh-so tender, was topped with the hard-won persimmons, toasted mustard seeds and toasted fenugreek. The delicate, fruity taste of the 2009 sangiovese complemented the clean citrus flavors of the carpaccio.

Chef Jeff Drew using Niner wine in a dish.

The third course felt like fall incarnate: a roasted pumpkin soup poured over duck confit and cracklings made from the duck skin, topped with fresh local organic apples and served with crouton strips made from Persephone Bakery rye bread. The warm richness of the soup and duck drew out the 2008 syrah’s bold, toasty notes.

Moving on to the entrée, Drew continued his lesson on game by serving wild boar tenderloin from Canada, a meat he described as a cross between pork and beef. For those needing further convincing, he wrapped the tenderloins in bacon and served the succulent slices atop a bed of roasted chanterelles, corn, kale, lemon and sage jus. The hearty dish stood up to the brambly, berry boldness of the 2007 Fog Catcher — a Bordeaux blend named after the advantageous phenomenon when fog gets caught in the vines, thereby extending the growing season.

Wild boar tenderloin

For the finale, Drew plated the signature dessert of Snake River Grill — Eskimo Bars — which Drew invented 11 years ago. Touted by the Food Network, the Eskimo Bars coat “piano keys” of housemade brownie and vanilla bean ice cream in melted Scharffen Berger chocolate from San Francisco, dipped tableside in warm caramel sauce. The bars were overnighted in tackle boxes packed in dry ice; each plastic slot fit one bar so perfectly you would think the manufacturer designed them with the frozen delicacies, not fishing gear, in mind. The bars brought out the dark sweetness of the 2008 Petite Sirah, “our answer to Zinfandel,” Cramer said.

The acclaimed Eskimo Bars

The next day, Drew and Nicholson beelined for the Bay Area … to eat. Before their Sunday flight back to Jackson, they visited Zuni Café, Slanted Door, Blue Bottle coffee, Michael Mina, Yank Sing (for dim sum), Aziza (for Moroccan), the Ferry Building (for the farmers market and porchetta sandwiches), Katana-ya (for ramen) and Chinatown to stock stone bowls for SRG. “And this was all within 36 hours!!” Drew wrote.


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About Author

Also originally from the South, Cara Rank discovered cooking was a creative outlet that helped her relax after long days writing magazine and newspaper articles during the past eight years in Jackson. Really, she just missed Southern food. A lot. During a 12-year career as a journalist, Cara has won numerous awards for her work and has written about everything from rodeo queens to Dolly Parton tomatoes. She spends her weekends making jars of pickles and jam and amazing dinners for friends. She loves shishito peppers, Chicago-style hot dogs and elderflower-spiked cocktails.

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