It must have been at least 90 degrees last Friday when a friend and I sat down to lunch at the Smokehouse Restaurant. With its all-outdoor seating, the Smokehouse runs misters on days like this, a much appreciated gesture. And once guests catch a glimpse of the unobstructed views of the mountains beyond the vineyards, they’re mighty glad they’re not sitting indoors. Far from feeling like we were in an air-conditioned dining room, my friend and I were nevertheless pretty comfortable.
As we sat and waited for our appetizer, we noshed on artisan rolls and the chef’s house-made scallion oil (worth the trip alone). The Smokehouse is one of the best places I’ve been to as far as keeping me happily munching away before the first course arrives; along with the bread came a small bowl of olives and cornichons that were marinated in olive oil and fresh herbs. Next, our waiter appeared with a tiny amuse-bouche of fried risotto cakes which were satisfyingly crisp and savory at the same time. It’s worth noting that the amuse-bouche is reserved for Ponte Wine Club Members only-a nice little perk if you ask me.
Next came the first food that we actually verbalized to the waiter-Stuffed Grape Leaves. Bursting with jasmine rice and ground lamb, the grape leaves are rolled into a stout little cigar shape and topped with balsamic red pepper relish and mint oil. The only problem I had with this dish was that I had to share them with my lunch date. They were magnificent-the perfect combination of sweet, savory and tangy. It took all my mental strength to not cancel my lunch order and request two more dishes of the Grape Leaves, but I’m glad I did not or I’d have missed the next two delicious dishes.
My friend and I both ordered the chef’s daily soup, a spicy fruit gazpacho and farmer’s market salad. Normally, I prefer a chunky gazpacho, but the Smokehouse’s gazpacho was pureed with a gorgeous strawberry and orange slice acting as the garnish. The first spoonful of soup was like a farmer’s market had exploded in my mouth: I was amazed at the complexity of a dish that had been blended so thoroughly. I tasted fruits and vegetables and the distinct brightness of cilantro-my favorite herb (Chef Steve Stawinski gets brownie points for that alone). As I swallowed, I felt a spiciness that just tickled the back of my throat, no doubt the result of some kind of chili pepper. The heat of the pepper was offset by the coolness of the soup. It was served chilled and acted like an instant cold pack on my soul, considering the temperature outside. Outstanding.
The farmer’s market salad is a dish in which the ingredients change daily according to whatever the chef finds at the local farms. As our waiter set down our salads, he informed us that some of the ingredients had come from a farm just one road over from the restaurant. On that afternoon, baby greens were tossed with cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, yellow wax beans and potatoes in a fat-free roasted red pepper Italian dressing. Eating this salad was like taking a drink of cool water: the components were utterly fresh and flavorful. The wax beans were crispy and tasted so…green. And the potatoes were a combination of yellow and purple and were the tiniest potatoes I’d ever seen, perfect for popping in your mouth and not filling up your stomach. The dressing, albeit fat free, was light and just coated the baby greens with a hint of flavor.
At the end of this lunch in the middle of summer, on a very hot day, I felt satisfied, not full, energized, not lethargic. The Smokehouse gets what seasonal eating is all about: great ingredients crafted into really cool dishes.
The Smokehouse Restaurant is located at Ponte Winery and serves the full Ponte Wine List. They are currently open for lunch daily and for dinner on Friday and Saturday. Sunday brunch and dinner is served on Sundays. Reservations can be made through Ponte Winery.