Florida Staycation - Salt and Steele

"The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea."  ~ Isak Denisen

My Florida Staycation took a swanky turn recently, when I was invited to attend a Winemaker's Dinner at the Ritz-Carlton resort at Amelia Island's flagship restaurant, SALT, featuring Jed Steele of the Steele Winery in California's Lake County. They didn't have to ask twice. I was so there...

Crossing the intracoastal waterway and winding my way through the hammock of Live Oaks, I handed Charlotte the Prius over to a valet and soaked in the effortlessly elegant ambiance of the oceanfront resort. 

It's always a pleasure to dine at the Ritz-Carlton. Earlier this year my food-loving friends Jodi from Eat Jax, Cari from  Intuition Ale Works and I were invited to a Meet The Farmers Dinner at their Cafe 4750, and we enjoyed every single detail of the evening. 
A savory creme brulee 
This dinner would also begin with delicate appetizers and pleasant conversation, and end with me following the moon and stars home to my own little stretch of beach. 

The food and wine were superb, and the service impeccable, but it was the company that elevated the evening into one of the most pleasant experiences I've had in some time. 
A whimsical note was struck early in the evening with an appetizer you in part squirted into your mouth through what the server described as a syringe. A lovely counterpoint to the fresh seafood, the little vial of chilled soup took playing with your food to a new level. My host and I shared a  laugh at the concept of "injecting" food into our mouths, and my mood was elevated along with my palate. 

With the Hors d' Oeuvres we tasted two lovely wines. The Steele Cabernet Franc Rose (Lake County, 2009) paired perfectly with a savory-sweet bite of steak, strawberry and asparagus spear. 

The crisp, clean, tart and sweet Shooting Star Aligote (Washington State, 2009) has become a favorite since an earlier tasting I attended in Ponte Vedra, during which Mr. Steele explained that the little-known Aligote is actually the fourth most planted wine grape variety in the world. In America it usually ends up blended into Chardonnay, which is why we don't hear much about it here. I'm glad he decided to bottle it by itself. Under the Shooting Star label, Steele produces their lighter, "everyday" wines, and showcases a few fun, lesser known varietals. The booming popularity of Chardonnay has long overpowered Aligote, but we are seeing it on more local wine lists, and during a recent visit to Indochine I discovered it pairs nicely with spicy sweet Thai food. It's my new summer wine obsession, one that I expect will stretch well into fall.

Custom Blended Salts - a Fume, cold smoked using
Steele Winery's oak barrels, a Citrus Blend and one
infusing the lees of Steele wine grapes.
As my host and I arrived at our table, Salt's excellent Maitre’ D, Isabelle, introduced each guest by name, a lovely and gracious custom. I was privileged to enjoy the company of a sweet-natured local coffee shop owner and her beautiful daughter, a wine distributor and his lovely wife, my charming host, and Mr. Jed Steele himself. The dining room was full, but our little group settled in at one quiet end, where the sun streamed pleasantly across the table and the surf seemed close enough to lap  at the window.

Salt is probably the only restaurant on the First Coast with its own Salt Sommelier.  Our server explained the custom blended salts for the evening. We sampled each on its own, and they were all amazing, but the dishes were all so expertly seasoned they were rarely called into play. The fume and grape lees infused salts were both lovely parting gifts, and have been gracing my table, enhancing steaks and salads ever since.

An early triumph of the evening was the first course of Georgia Quail, cooked sous-vide for ten hours and plated with hard boiled quail egg, shaved summer truffle, a cherry, tart creamy goat cheese, marcona almond crumbles, pickled celery, and garnished with a tuft of micro-greens. I checked into the clean-platers club, and sipped the accompanying Steele Pinot Noir, Carneros, 2008.

The fish course was one of the most beautiful and impressive dishes I've had all year, and it has been a good year for food. Striped Bass rested on bright, tender pillows of Basil Gnocchi and Chanterelle mushrooms in a Steele Chardonnay reduction, napped with an impossibly creamy lemon zabaglione, and topped with a salty-sweet Serrano ham chip and fresh basil. 

I fear I may have outright guzzled the Steele, California Cuvee Chardonnay (2009) at this point as I became the the foursquare mayor of the Salt clean-platers club. At some point in the evening's festivities, our wine-merchant friends also busted out some private stock of Steele Durell Vinyard Chardonnay (Carneros, 2006), made with grapes grown in a vinyard Steele had taken a liking to during his days at Kendall-Jackson. A glass or two of this sleek Chardonnay may have rolled around my tongue as I savored every bite of that fish dish. 

Incidentally, Steele Chardonnay was the wine of choice at my wedding reception at the not nearly so posh Myrtle Beach Yacht Club in 1996. Steele Wines had only been on the scene since 1991, and since we were tying the knot on the east coast and not California wine country, I credit Kiki, proprietress of Ruby Magnolia Vintage and Home, my San Francisco muse and MOH, for suggesting it. AND since most of the crowd were beer drinkers, she and I probably polished off most of it. Good times. 

Winemaker Jed Steele
But I digress. Fast forward fifteen years, and I'm sitting at the big kids table drinking their  private stash. Life is good. And strange. Good and strange. 

While I pondered what an odd trajectory my life has taken of late, Jed (he just seemed to down-to-earth to refer to as Mr. Steele at this point) shared a story about a recent excursion in which he had come across a colorfully woven bag of the sort that is used to carry salt in Afghanistan. To our surprise and delight, he pulled it out and explained that he bought it as a present for Isabelle, our Maitre 'D. It was a sweet and thoughtful gesture and she seemed genuinely charmed.

While the sun set, our next two courses made their way to the table. An Entree of Lamb in Variations - succulent braised lamb-filled ravioli and perfectly pan-seared rare lamb loin, served atop a deconstructed ratatouille of sorts - sweet and sour eggplant and heirloom tomato, a cool, subtle cucumber gremolata, olive, and bold mint pistou. The result was a study in contrasts of textures and temperatures,  somehow drawn together into an artful composition. (Forgive the photo quality here - due to darkness setting in I had to revert to flash.) 

At a certain point I was having trouble keeping up with
all this wine, but I'm pretty sure none of it went to waste.
The lamb was paired with not one but two wine selections - Steel Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Hills Vinyard (Lake County 2007), and the reason I jumped for joy on receiving the invitation to attend this event, the  Steele Stymie Merlot (Lake County, 2007). I usually leave the wine descriptions to Master Sommelier Kris Chislett at Blog Your Wine, but given my intense interest in this wine I will take it upon myself to cut and paste from the Steele Wines website to inform you that Stymie Merlot is a rich, well-structured wine with layers of ripe red currants, anise, chocolate-covered cherries, a peppery mid-palate, and just a hint of coffee. I couldn't have said it better myself. Especially with my nose thrust deep into my wineglass as I inhaled aromas of chocolate, jammy fruit, tobacco and pepper. OK that was another cut and paste, but seriously, I fear I couldn't do it justice. If Steele Chardonnay is sweet seduction, Stymie Merlot is steamy hot sex in a glass. I'm pretty sure we also sampled a bit of Stymie Syrah as well, but don't tell the others - it might just have been a dream. I was two-fisted drinking at this point, I'm pretty sure. 

AND then the desserts started rolling out of the kitchen. If you've eaten at Salt you know you're likely to be served not one or two, but a seemingly endless array of sweet little treats at the end of your meal. I think these are designed to get you to linger just a little longer at table, and quite possibly in this case, sober up with a cup of coffee at least. 

A deconstructed Peach Melba featured Tahitian Vanilla Panna Cotta with a deep red raspberry consomme, a Berry sorbet and "dots" made from a reduction of Steele Late Harvest Chardonnay, which was the pairing for that particular dish as well. A slice of deep chocolate served to intensify the Stymie Merlot, which I was still savoring at this point. Good luck finding the Steele Late Harvest Chardonnay, Sangiocomo Vinyard (Carneros,1997) anywhere. It is quite possible we drank the last of it. 

True story - as I was driving home it suddenly occurred to me that I had neglected to taste the "dots" which had been so carefully reduced down and placed on my dessert plate. It might have required licking said plate though, and I just couldn't see myself doing that - in public anyway. 

My thanks to everyone at Salt and the Ritz-Carlton for a truly memorable evening. I hope to return to in October for another of their Farmers dinners, and I will most likely savor more of Salt on an upcoming special occasion that shall remain nameless but may or may not be my birthday. 

Salt on Urbanspoon
4750 Amelia Island
Fernandina BeachFL 32034

(904) 277-1100

Full disclosure - my participation in this event was complimentary - and while this post is 
my personal and honest point of view - it is not meant to be a critical, unbiased review of the restaurant.

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