“Canning is the new cupcake!” exclaims the woman next to me.
Our conversation meanders here after a friendly arm-wrestling match to determine who would get the last lamb slider (featuring house-made pickled red onions) of the cocktail hour, a not-so-brief history of flamenco (with dance lessons, of course) by host Julia Russell, and a lively debate about the ethics of foie gras. We’re definitely having fun.
The crowd of 30 who are gathered for the 25th installment of La Porte Brune underground dinner-club in Walla Walla have come together for an evening of culinary delight at the historic Waldheim Mansion.
La Porte Brune is Walla Walla’s one and only underground dining-club, and has grown in both notoriety and exclusivity over the last several years.
The West Coast, it seems, has gone mad for secret dining-societies over the past decade, and arguably being the epicenter of the Washington wine industry, Walla Walla certainly couldn’t be without such an institution.
La Porte Brune, founded by renowned Chef Andrae Bopp, sprang out of a desire to create something different in the midst of the rapidly evolving food scene in the Walla Walla Valley.
Prior to relocating to Walla Walla in the late 2000s, Bopp and his wife, Michelle, owned a critically acclaimed restaurant, “Andrae’s,” in Boise. Following a trip to Walla Walla, where he was introduced to numerous heavy hitters in the wine industry, Bopp developed a passion for Washington wine, and his restaurant started a robust winemaker-dinner program that featured dozens of events over the course of six years, in Boise and Walla Walla.
As the lease for their space in Boise came up, the Bopps decided it was time to move on to something new — in Seattle. The plan was to open a gastropub, but after some strong-arming by Bopp’s friends in the wine industry, Walla Walla became his next port of call.
The move was somewhat ill-timed, as the economy began to crash just as the family moved west with plans to open their new establishment. Given the uncertainty of the economy, Bopp took a job as an assistant winemaker with Dusted Valley and started a catering company.
Success quickly followed the catering business, which led Bopp to re-examine his culinary options. Noting the burgeoning food-truck craze taking hold in cities across the country, Bopp decided to invest in a truck of his own.
Soon, Andrae’s Kitchen was serving up New American fare all over the Valley, and it quickly gained the attention of gourmands throughout the Pacific Northwest. La Porte Brune and a bricks-and-mortar location for Andrae’s Kitchen at the Walla Walla Farmers Co-op, AK’s at the Co-op, followed soon thereafter.
The 1896 Waldheim Mansion provides the perfect mise-en-scène for this evening’s soiree. Guests sit around three large tables on the expansive patio overlooking the impeccably manicured grounds and enjoy witty banter with homeowner Julia Russell, known to friends and strangers alike as “Mama Julia” (pronounced HOO-lee-ah), as the feast got under way. This pint-sized Spaniard packs an incredible amount of spark and charm into such a small package and possesses an uncanny ability to entertain. Her lavish parties at the Waldheim are unrivaled in the region.
The meal on this warm September evening begins with a refreshing glass of the 2012 Waldheim White (a blend of Chardonnay, Viognier and Roussane) from Russell’s winery, Mansion Creek Cellars, alongside a delightful avocado-mango salad with smoked salmon, queso fresco and pepitas.
Enamored with wine from a young age while growing up in the Galicia region of Spain, Russell honed her winemaking and blending skills over the decades with twice-yearly trips back to her pied-à-terre in Marbella to work with Spanish winemakers.
Upon retiring and moving to Walla Walla in 2005, Julia and her husband, Roger, knew a boutique winery was in the cards for them. Starting out with a négociant (wine merchant) model, the Russells partnered with their friends at Forgeron Cellars and Walla Walla Vintners to produce their first few wines as they began to dabble in the industry.
Today, Mansion Creek Cellars produces roughly 750 cases of wine annually and features six to eight different wines in its lineup from year to year.
Following the salad course, the meal moves on to a beautiful grilled quail dish featuring grilled Klicker’s corn, caramelized Castoldi Walla Walla sweet onions, applewood-smoked bacon and miso alongside a glass of the 2011 Walla Walla Vintners Columbia Valley Sangiovese.
At my table are several heavy hitters from the Washington wine industry, including Michael and Lauri Corliss of Corliss Estates and Tranche Cellars, and Jerry and Sandy Solomon of Sleight of Hand Cellars. We all agree that this Sangiovese is a perfect choice for the delicate quail preparation.
One of Washington state’s first wineries, Walla Walla Vintners is revered across the nation. Its limited-production red wines are of exceedingly high quality across the board and have extremely approachable price points.
One thing those unfamiliar with the underground dining scene may not be aware of is the small detail that guests do not get to decide what to eat.
“By removing some of the elements diners often find comfortable, such as the menu and private tables, we feel like we promote a greater appreciation of the food and wine guests enjoy,” says Chef Bopp.
Sure enough, as the next course is delivered to the table — tagliatelle with guanciale, arugula and pecorino — we are all ripe with excitement to see what will be placed in front of us. As our glasses are filled with the 2011 Mansion Creek Cellars Cuvée, everyone agrees about how perfect everything looks.
Those who know Chef Bopp recognize that no meal of his is complete without a healthy portion of pork, and this La Porte Brune is no exception. A lush 2011 Walla Walla Vintners Cabernet Franc is poured into our stemware as we are presented with a simple, yet elegant, plate of crispy pork belly with chickpeas, black mission figs and prosciutto.
Locally sourced pork and chickpeas make this dish a delight. In fact, much of what Bopp prepares is locally grown.
“Walla Walla is unique in that we truly can grow most everything we need for delicious meals year round. I love working with local ranchers, butchers, cheese makers, farmers and more, to source fresh, sustainable products for our operations whenever possible,” says Bopp.
The saltiness of the pork belly, along with the sweetness from the figs, brings out buttery and fruity components from the Cabernet Franc. Perfection achieved.
By the time the dessert course hits, my dining partner, Audra — who was not 100 percent convinced that eating at a table full of strangers, off a menu she knew nothing about, was her cup of tea — is sharing the latest hair tips from her recent business trips to Miami and New York City with all the guests at our table.
An elegant blue-cheese tart with a fig-and-pear compote is presented to the guests as we enjoy a healthy pour of the 2009 Mansion Creek Cellars Syrah (a stunning Yakima Valley Syrah that many were disappointed to learn is sold out).
The dessert, it seems, is a perfect homage to the end of another glorious Walla Walla Valley summer and a great transitional treat for the fall and winter seasons to come.
As we alternately enjoy bubbles and espresso, a guest who has been seated at another table asks me what I think is the highlight of the evening, and the only response I am able to muster is: “Everything.”
This stunning evening of wine, food, conversation and new friends has come to an end, and another Walla Walla weekend is ready for the record books.
BLUE-CHEESE TART WITH FIG-AND-PEAR COMPOTE
200 grams (1 cup) flour
100 grams (3.5 ounces) cold butter, cubed
60 milliliters (2 ounces) cold water
5 grams (1/2 teaspoon) salt
Preheat oven to 400 F. In a food processor, place the flour, butter and salt, and mix till butter is incorporated. Add water and continue processing until the dough comes together. Remove and knead dough until it forms a smooth ball. Shape into a disc and refrigerate for 2 hours.
Roll out dough to fit a 9-inch tart pan. Place dough in pan, and trim edges. Prick bottom of the dough with fork and place a piece of parchment paper inside. Fill with dried beans and bake for 12 minutes.
Remove tart shell from oven and reset oven to 375 F. Remove paper and beans, and bake tart shell for 8 more minutes. Remove and let cool.
200 milliliters (7 ounces) heavy cream
200 milliliters (7 ounces) sour cream
200 grams (7 ounces) blue cheese
100 grams (1/2 cup) caramelized Walla Walla sweet onions
Salt to taste
Pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 325 F. Whisk the eggs with the heavy cream and sour cream. Fold in the cheese and onions. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour into pre-baked tart shell and bake until set and top is golden-brown, about 25 to 30 minutes.
4 firm, ripe Bartlett pears
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup apple juice
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon allspice
6 dried figs, quartered lengthwise
8 ounces plain, low-fat yogurt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 tablespoons superfine sugar
Preheat oven to 425 F. Halve the pears lengthwise and core them, then cut each half lengthwise into 3 wedges.
In a large, nonstick, ovenproof skillet over moderate heat, cook the granulated sugar, apple juice and butter until the butter melts. Stir in the cinnamon and allspice. Stir in the pears and figs and cook for 5 minutes. Transfer the pears to the oven and roast for 25 minutes, or until tender.
In a small bowl, whisk the yogurt with the vanilla and superfine sugar. Spoon the compote on plates. Serve warm or at room temperature with the yogurt sauce.