For a place with a superb chef, a savvy and opinionated owner with a propensity for blogging, and a retail wine shop with an excellent inventory of hard-to-obtain bottles at easy-to-like prices, Carpe Vino does not generate nearly as much buzz as it should.
Sure, it’s respected and has grown in stature since it opened in 2002 as a wine shop with modest ambitions.
Have you heard of Eric Alexander? Probably not. Have you tried his food? Unlikely. Were you aware that this restaurant sells wine at retail prices instead of those double and triple mark-ups you might encounter at many upscale restaurants?
Sure, Alexander is a hero to the serious food-and-wine cognoscenti in and around Auburn, and the restaurant is often packed and replete with lively banter on Friday and Saturday nights. Certain discerning diners from Sacramento know all this, too.
But here’s a chef, so talented and committed to his craft, whose name really should be on the tip of every serious epicurean’s tongue. And the restaurant itself – a breeze to enjoy as a drop-by spot for a glass of wine and a snack or for an involved multicourse dinner – deserves to be considered right up there among the handful of the best in the region.
In a charming building dating back to the mid-19th century with 15-foot ceilings and exposed interior brick, Alexander goes about his business in low-key fashion. He changes menus according to what’s available and what his imagination conjures up. He also creates a prix fixe menu that Carpe Vino features for one week each month. His largely New American cuisine shows a great command of technique, and the food has the kind of animated, deep flavors that are eminently wine-friendly.
While the business is owned by Gary Moffat and his son Drew, the restaurant proper is largely the work of Alexander. It’s his vision. It’s his menu. Even the farm that supplies many of the vegetables and fruit is his – last year, he and his wife, Courtney, the pastry chef, bought a 51/2-acre working farm.
When it comes to farm-to-fork dining, Alexander and Carpe Vino are leaders.
Alexander’s way of expressing ingredients both familiar and esoteric, his preference for complementary and contrasting textures, his sense of color and balance on the plate, his notion to both reassure and challenge the palate, and, more than anything, his ability to build layer upon layer of flavor using time-honored techniques, are apparent throughout his repertoire.
“I have a Caesar salad on the menu,” the chef said. “I always have steak with a potato preparation. I always have at least several dishes that are very approachable. But I also like to have those items that are very unique.”
With one unfortunate exception – the acoustics in one section of the divided dining area may be the worst I’ve ever encountered at a serious restaurant – Carpe Vino is a beautiful, intimate and laid-back place where the quest to pair wonderful wine with beautiful food can keep you busy, entertained and inspired for years.
Though I was occasionally plucked out of this dream by noise – be it a burst of nearby laughter or sustained conversation that sometimes rattles and rumbles off the walls – I could not help but focus on the food. When I considered holding back half a star on the overall rating because the noise can be so intrusive, I kept coming back to a rebuttal argument: the greatness of the food. If you’re truly bothered, there are solutions, ranging from earplugs to Xanax. It would be a shame to miss out on the chef’s cooking.
Alexander’s braised beef cheeks were extraordinary, a dish prepared to a reddish-brown intensity that’s nearly black at the surface. The mouthfeel alone is a home run, this marriage of melty collagen and marbled beef. Pairing it with a big cabernet sauvignon or Amador County zinfandel is certainly fitting, but this dish had enough subtlety to work with a North Coast pinot noir, too. Alexander likes to cook with wine, of course, and he jokes that the wine in his kitchen might be among the priciest going.
To create a signature dish of this caliber, with such nuanced flavors, a chef must first seek out the proper cut of beef. Never mind those tender, pricey cuts like filet mignon or rib eye. Here, Alexander was looking for something with plenty of collagen, or connective tissue. Since cows are constantly chewing, those cheeks are fierce with tough tissue. The secret ingredient for toughness is time.
In the food science tome “On Food and Cooking,” author Harold McGee addresses the challenge of tough meat. To dissolve the collagen into flavorful, buttery gelatin, he writes, the meat must be cooked for hours just above 160 degrees. But that amount of time introduces the potential to dry out the meat. Alexander, of course, knows how to resolve this. He braises the beef cheeks in a liquid of veal stock, aromatics, herbs and red wine. It’s a classic technique that takes eight hours at 200 degrees, during which some juices escape the beef. The chef then lets the meat sit in the braising liquid overnight so the now-tender beef can reabsorb the liquid. He then reduces the remaining liquid to create a glaze, and the intensity of flavor builds as the liquid cooks down.
This is such a seasonally apt dish, as winter transitions into spring, when the nights are still crisp. The cheeks are served atop a potato purée, along with glazed root vegetables – baby turnips, baby carrots, parsnips – and a small salad to offset the overall richness.
The glistening bone-in pork chop, at nearly 2 inches thick and cooked medium-rare, was not only a stunning visual treat but showed the kind finesse with the tiny details that made the dish something special. Sadly, I witnessed a woman send her pork chop back to the kitchen because she considered it undercooked. Though there is certainly room for personal preference, this caliber of pork, which is brined in apple cider, herbs and garlic for eight hours and then roasted, is safe to eat and shows its best at medium-rare, according to the chef.
The pasta one night, agnolotti with sheep’s milk ricotta, was simply beautiful, a dish that makes the complex seem so simple. There are many wine pairing options for this, from a riesling with a touch of sweetness to highlight notes of browned butter, a crisp sauvignon blanc to cut the richness or, if you’re so inclined, a buttery Napa chardonnay that might impart an additional layer of luxurious mouthfeel.
There’s so much going on with this pasta dish, yet the eating experience comes together cohesively. The ricotta-filled pasta is poached, then glazed by tossing with a black truffle butter that had been browned, so there’s a nutty sweetness up front – first with the nose, then with the tongue – followed by the salty, tangy flavor of the Parmesan reggiano.
Alexander sets the pasta atop a sauce of creamed sunchokes, scatters around delicate, nickel-sized sunchoke chips, and then sets down an egg yolk. You’re invited to pierce the yolk and let it ooze to enhance the sauce and coat the pasta, adding another layer of creaminess. With its muted yellows and beiges and a contrasting smattering of arugula, this dish is beautiful to the eye, not to mention delicious.
So, can the same chef whose food is so refined and eye-catching also be witty and whimsical? We found that answer with the duck poutine. If you’re not familiar with poutine, it’s a traditional French-Canadian dish that no one is supposed to take seriously. It’s French fries and gravy and cheese curds – truck-stop grub for those who scoff at the food pyramid and bizarre concepts like balance and restraint. Yet, high-minded chefs latched onto poutine a few years ago. Thanks to the Food Network and maybe Anthony Bourdain, the dish soared across the border and onto menus everywhere. Now it’s a gastropub mainstay.
Alexander said he first tried poutine in Quebec City in 2008 and was captivated. He sought to refine the dish by adding duck and his sense of adventure. The duck legs (with the skin removed) are braised in chicken stock and a fortified wine (Madeira). The liquid is reduced to a gravy. The fries are set down, topped with the gravy and duck meat, along with crisped pieces of skin and Wisconsin cheese curds. Sure, it’s fun and over-the-top, but the intensity of flavor and those textural elements mark this dish for greatness.
The desserts, too, are part of the cohesive experience and fit the style of the rest of the menu. The pistachio-walnut cake with with blood orange sherbet and pistachio brittle was lovely. So was the more intense chocolate ganache cake with dulce-de-leche ice cream.
As for the acoustical challenges in the middle of three rooms at Carpe Vino, Drew Moffat tells me the solution is daunting. There is seating for 34 in that section, and to address the issue with wall panels and other engineering pencils out to $1,000 per seat. The potential noise reduction? Five percent. That’s a tough predicament with which fans of this restaurant can sympathize.
Given the rest of Carpe Vino’s strengths, it’s not enough to detract from the tremendous food or to keep the restaurant from being considered one of the area’s best.
Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. On Twitter, @Blarob.