Recently I attended a birthday party at John Bentley's Redwood City location. For an 8pm reservation, our party of 10 was seated in the semi-private area in the back partially partitioned off from the rest of the room. By the time it took us to assemble, visit, and have a round of toasts with some Champagne, it was nearly 9:30pm before we placed our orders. The wait staff didn't seem concerned at all about moving us along any faster. We'd brought our own wines and the staff were good about decanting the young ones for aeration. We managed to deplete the stock of stemware with three red wine glasses per person.
I chose one of the specials of the day to start, the fresh softshell crab with aioli. Greaseless and lightly breaded, the meat was sweet and juicy. So often softshells are frozen, even when in season, and starting with a fresh crab made a big difference. The drizzle of aioli had a big kick of lemon. I had a taste of Samir's foie gras terrine. This was arrange haphazardly on the plate and didn't look very appealing. Served with hard toasted slices of baguette that did nothing for it, the sour cherry compote served with it had been oversweetened. The foie itself had not been trimmed well of stringy veins. Neither of us were impressed with it.
My entree was the rack of lamb with zinfandel mint sauce. With some arm-twisting, I was able to get our server to ask the kitchen the origin of the lamb, which turned out to be from Colorado. The rack itself was roasted beautifully and medium-rare as ordered. However, the zinfandel sauce was disgustingly sugary. I was tempted to send this dish back to the kitchen to be replated without it. This was a shame as I had chosen this main dish to marry with the evening's program of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah wines. I managed to push most of the pool of sticky sweet sauce aside building up a dam with the lumpy and bland mashed potatoes and wiped it off the meat. The accompanying green beans were undercooked and unpleasant (see green bean rant - [BROKEN LINK REMOVED]). I sampled the sweetbreads that were overcooked making them stiff and gritty instead of creamy and tender. The grain mustard sauce with it was ill-conceived. I also had a taste of one of the specials, a veal porterhouse (or chop?) with truffle cream sauce, a combination that was flat and bland.
Where the kitchen really shined was with the desserts. The desserts were less sweet than the sauces on the appetizers and entrees! I was impressed by my baked Alaska with lemon curd gelato and blueberry sauce. The meringue cap was well-browned and the gelato was brimming with lemon tang. One of the specials, a chocolate souffle cake with espresso creme anglaise was even better. Moist with a flowing lava core, the warm bittersweet chocolate cake managed to rise above the cliché. The espresso sauce was so intense, we didn't need after dinner coffee. We enjoyed these with a glass of 1974 Quinta do Noval Colheita ($20) from the wine list.
Our team of servers were enthusiastic but unpolished, auctioning off our plates and getting orders mixed up. Despite being the last party in the house, we had to ask for refills of water more than once.
We provided dinner wines described here. Our aperitif was Samir and Arushi's 1995 Dom Perignon Champagne. True, there are better champagnes for the money, but I'm always happy to swill Dom. Courtesy of Malik, we'd tried this vintage last year for my own birthday, and the extra year of aging has deepened the wine quite a bit. With the softshell crab appetizer, the bubbly married well with the lemony aioli and cut through the fried heaviness.
The 1993 A. Rafanelli Dry Creek Zinfandel from Vince's cellar was a sentimental favorite, as our relationship had begun with a debate about the merits of Dave's zin. 1993 was an average to good year in the appellation and I did not have high hopes for the condition of this wine. But it surprised us all by being very much alive with a velvety texture and warm, mellow personality. My own contribution was the 1995 Robert Biale "Monte Rosso" Sonoma County Zinfandel, which I had grabbed from the garage stash just because I was headed to a "New American" restaurant. Tasting it side-by-side with the Raf, this wine seemed even younger than just the two-year difference. While the berriness and black stone fruit were still very fresh, tertiary character had begun to come forward with anise, cedar, and sweet pipe tobacco. With great focus, complexity and length, this was a sophisticated style of zin. IMO, this was the wine of the night.
Vince provided a flight of newly released 2003 Petite Sirah wines. In the new style, these were approachable now, though would certainly benefit from time in the cellar. Friendly with all three winemakers, I hope that any possible bias would be equalized. The Christopher Creek Russian River Valley Estate had the most exuberant fruit expression at this stage, yet was "arms and legs" and not well-knit yet. Robert Biale "Thomann Station" Napa Valley was the spiciest with thick, velvety tannins, but was submerged under too much new oak at this point. Hopefully this will integrate more with age. JC Cellars "Frediani Vineyard" Napa Valley showed fabulous extraction of black fruit and minerals, and I think I liked this the most for its depth and carriage.