Chopstick Cinema

Celeste Heiter's Adventures in Asian Food & Film

An Anniversary Celebration

On Friday, Rene and I celebrated the 10th anniversary of our first date. Since we're not married, we commemorate that event each year instead. With all the work and family obligations going on in both our lives, it took some finagling to steal a night to ourselves, but somehow we managed to make it happen.

Ever the Type A, micromanaging planner that I am, just for a change of habit, I decided to leave all the arrangements to Rene (although I did a little planning of my own for later in the evening). Rene arranged for my son Will to spend the night with his nephew Jovan. They both attend the same high school and have been unofficial 'cousins' for ten years now. Rene arrived to pick us up, wearing an olive green shirt and tie, topped by my favorite black cashmere jacket, looking as handsome as the day I first laid eyes on him. Mmmmm.

Once we'd dropped off Will, we headed upvalley just at twilight, although I still had no idea where we were going. The ride up to the north end of the Napa Valley is always a treat, past mile after mile of flourishing vineyards and their adjacent wineries, and untold numbers of new restaurants, not to mention old favorites like Tra Vigne, Mustard's, and Brix. But I was quite unprepared for such a surprise when Rene turned left into the steeply banked and very crowded parking lot of the Culinary Institute of America.

The facility is located in the historic Greystone building, an imposing stone structure that used to be the Christian Brothers winery. It's one of my favorite buildings in the Napa Valley, if not the world, as I have such fond memories of seeing it each day from the opposite side of the valley as I descended from my little hillside cabin in Deer Park, down to the valley floor, on my way to work at the St. George Restaurant in St. Helena.

A few years ago, the Christian Brothers vacated the premises, and after an extensive retrofitting project to make the building earthquake safe, it was reinvented as the Culinary Institute of America, which includes a restaurant where they serve the same dishes that aspiring chefs learn to prepare in the kitchen classrooms every day.

The dining room is spacious, yet warm and inviting, with a visible kitchen and a bar for tasting and sampling. After a few minutes' wait by the fireplace in the lobby, we were seated at a cozy table for two. Our server, a fresh-faced and polished young woman, soon greeted us with an explanation of the wine list and first course menu. Being the milestone that it was, Rene ordered a bottle of 1995 Gloria Ferrer Royal Cuvee Brut Vintage Reserve, and since I was wearing my contact lenses and had left my reading glasses at home, I also asked him to order dinner for the both of us.

We started with a popular and highly recommended item called 'Temptations', a sampler of five tiny appetizers, just a few bites of each, which included a prawn and chorizo brochette, a sip of pear-pumpkin soup served in tiny sake cups, a petite salad of frisee with carmelized onions in an Asian-inspired vinaigrette, a plate of about a half-dozen golden fried smelt with tartar sauce, and two delicate sourdough croutons topped with creamy duck liver pate garnished with a single chervil leaf. It was a perfect way to begin the meal... a true 'appetizer'.

For the main course, Rene ordered Grilled Hanger Steak with tartine of button mushrooms, baby arugula and a fingerling potato in sauce poivrade for me, and Potato Crusted Halibut with braised icicle radishes, butterball potatoes and green garlic sauce for himself. Both were perfectly prepared, absolutely delicious, and exactly the right amount of food. We shared bites of everything, and as always, I relied on Rene to help me get through the main course. And when all was said and done, there wasn't a single bite left on either plate.

The Meyer Lemon Pound Cake with lemon curd, lavender meringue, confit lemon and huckleberry coulis, or the Roasted Pineapple with coconut tapioca, tropical sorbet and passion fruit sauce, looked almost irresistably tempting, but we decided to forego dessert, as I already had something special waiting for us at home. We promised ourselves instead to come back one night to the CIA for champagne and dessert only.

After a call to check that all was well with Will, we headed south for the return trip to Napa, where a bottle of Korbel Chardonnay Champagne and a tiny double fudge cake for two, sprinkled with real gold dust, awaited us. We also exchanged gifts. Since the anniversary of our first date happens to fall on the birthday of the Buddha, I gave Rene a tiny statue of Buddha to bring prosperity and good fortune to his art studio, and to my unexpected delight and surprise, he gave me a gold anklet to replace the one I regrettably lost a few weeks ago.

Our tenth anniversary was a truly memorable evening from start to finish, and since I never kiss and tell, the rest I will leave to the imagination...