We’ve been plugging away at this business for a long time now—more than a dozen years for the wine shop and eight for the restaurant. We’ve seen many other businesses come and go, but there’s always a buzz when a new joint opens up. So the challenge for us is to continually evolve and refine Carpe Vino. . .to keep changing up the mix so that customers want to come back and see what is new.
Even the big guys worry about staying relevant. In a New York Times piece this weekend about the opening of an exclusive restaurant and luxury hotel in London, the owner, André Balazs, had this to say about the challenge of maintaining momentum: “There’s always the glow of newness and there’s the longevity of attentiveness. Keeping it good is not easy. It has to be freshened up all the time.”
That is exactly what we have sought to do with our prix-fixe dinner series that continues next week with Totally Tomatoes, a four-course tribute to the luscious red orbs that are currently headlining at the Auburn Farmers’ Market. Though we prefer to serve up all-new themes—such as last month’s Hot August Nights—this is not the first rodeo for our tomato-based extravaganza.
Chef Alexander has managed to amp up the tastiness in the fourth iteration of his tomato tribute with eight new and improved dishes. At the same time, he has not changed a thing about the dessert options, which he claims are as good as it gets.
Totally Tomatoes runs from September 23 to 28 starting a 5 p.m. each evening. There are 10 dishes total, with options for each of the four courses (plus vegetarian solution). Cost is $59 per person, plus tax and tip. Reservations are highly recommended for the weekend; call 530-823-0320 or go online to www.opentable.com.
Here’s an in-depth description of each course:
First Course (choice of one)
Heirloom Tomato and Watermelon Terrine (with whipped burrata, pine nut, purslane, saba): This is an immensely colorful and tasty dish. Chef selects a range of heirloom tomato varieties, flavors and colors, that are deseeded and cut into “petals.” These are layered in a terrine with yellow and red varieties of watermelon. He sets tomato juice in gelatin and pours over the layers to bind everything together. With the mold removed, purslane is arranged on top (this is a citrus flavored, leafy green weed from Eric and Courtney’s farm) with pine nuts, served with whipped burrata (a creamy cow’s milk cheese–Italian style but sourced in California) and saba, a grape must reduction produced in Italy. . .think old balsamic drizzled on the plate.
Tomato Risotto (with black truffle, rock shrimp, pancetta, tomato emulsion): Chef starts with Arborio rice (short grain rice, that cooks into a creamy, chewy delight) cooked in tomato water and stock (no white wine!). Then he folds in chopped, roasted tomatoes. Topped with the triumphant trilogy of black truffle, rock shrimp and pancetta, finished with a creamy tomato froth.
Fried Green Tomatoes (tomato jam, shaved country ham, pimiento cheese fondue): Here’s a seasonally featured dish at Carpe Vino that celebrates the classic best of southern regional cuisine. Green tomatoes are coated with an egg wash, and then dipped in a mixture of seasoned bread crumbs and corn meal before being pan fried. The “fondue” is warm sauce created from our house pimento cheese, served with a unique tomato jam. And here’s something very special: Chef is using Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Ham, smoked with hickory wood and aged 10 months. Benton’s has been making country ham since 1947 in Madisonville, TN.
Second Course (choice of one)
Slow-Roasted Shady Lady Tomato Soup (thyme brown butter, grilled cheese croutons): This is Chef’s take on everyone’s favorite. . .tomato soup with grilled cheese. He starts with red beefsteak tomatoes, peeled and seasoned with thyme, garlic and olive oil before slowing roasting. The tomatoes are blended with cream, stock, salt and pepper, creating a rich, warming soup. Grilled cheese sandwiches are sliced into crouton-shaped squares and floated in the soup. Thyme is cooked in butter until it is brown and nutty. . .then drizzled on top.
Toy Box Tomato Salad (Breakfast radish, sunflower, pickled onion, fromage blanc): The “toy box” reference is because of a virtual cornucopia of tomatoes—a riot of colors, shapes and sizes—are used as the platform for this dish. Chef prepares a “pesto” from radish tops and sunflowers (no pine nuts or basil) and completes the dish with shaved French breakfast radishes, sunflower greens and fromage blanc, a soft and creamy fresh white cheese made from cow’s milk.
Main Course (choice of one)
Seared Yellowfin Tuna (Green zebra tomato, butter bean salad, tonnato sauce): The tuna is pan-seared and the tomatoes are from Eric and Courtney’s garden. Butter beans are combined with caper berries and celery to form a salad. The tonnato is an Italian sauce created by blending tuna, capers, olive oil and lemon juice.
Braised Duroc Pork Cheeks (San Marzano tomato sugo, mascarpone polenta, farm egg, horseradish gremolata): “Duroc” is the breed, and the pork cheeks were sourced from Beeler’s Pork in Le Mars, Iowa (Ice Cream Capital of the World). Chef makes a tomato “sugo” (a rustic, hearty sauce) and braises the cheeks for up to four hours. The dish starts with a platform of polenta enriched with mascarpone (an Italian cream cheese) for the pork cheeks, topped with a poached egg and gremolata, a condiment made from chopped herbs, lemon zest and horseradish, the perfect addition to provide freshness and cut the richness of the dish. BTW, San Marzano is a region in Italy prized for succulent tomatoes.
Herb-Roasted Niman Ranch Lamb Sirloin (preserved tomato, artichoke, fennel puree, tomato leaf salsa verde): Niman Ranch lamb is cubed and then marinated in garlic, rosemary, parsley, thyme and olive oil. . .then skewered and pan roasted. The cheeks rest on a base of fennel puree, topped with a salsa verde with a twist. Chef picks, washes and blanches tomato leaves (not poisonous!) and then purees them with fresh herbs, garlic, chili flakes and olive oil. Served with preserved tomato and seared artichoke.
Dessert Course (choice of one)
Basil Panna Cotta (tomato marmalade, aged balsamic): This dish starts with cream infused with basil that is set in gelatin. Tomato marmalade is a jam made from grated tomatoes cooked with sugar. The dish is garnished with aged balsamic. Very sweet, very tasty and a finishing ode to tomatoes.
Tomato Tarte Tatin (olive oil ice cream): This is a tomato take on a classic. The bottom of a ramekin is coated with caramel, and then layered with roasted tomato and a puff pastry. . .baked and then inverted to create a beautiful mosaic that is served with house made ice cream on top, a delightful concoction of olive oil, cream, sugar and eggs.
Don’t delay. . .make your reservations now!