The General’s Daughter (Sonoma, CA) – In the Right Direction
The General’s Daughter is a restaurant that is trying to stand above its Bay Area brethren. The restaurant’s web site and its reviewers promote its southern take on California cuisine but it’s the restaurant’s procurement philosophy that might be its greater point of distinction. In the land of fresh and organic ingredients prepared simply, The General’s Daughter (TDG) and its chef, Preston Dishman, want to take control of their supply chain and grow their own ingredients. This might be an early trend that a few iconic North American (and French) restaurants have started trailblazing with both philosophical and economic intentions.
Technically, TDG is not growing the vegetables themselves; they have partnered with Benziger Family Winery and “promise that 90 percent of the restaurant’s produce will come from Benziger’s biodynamic gardens.” Biodynamic farming is likened in many circles to voodoo and witchcraft but, despite the practices and philosophies behind it, a biodynamic farmer is likely to care for their land more so than the average farmer – respecting the inputs and outputs.
My main exposure to biodynamic vegetables, aside from that miracle bottle of 90 La Tache at Montrachet, is my (seemingly) monthly tasting menu at Manresa. While people will argue whether vegetables have terroir or not, there’s no denying the stunning achievements of those vegetables from the Love Apple Farm. Is it the land, the farmer, or the perfectionist chef? More likely, it’s a synthesis of the three but these are questions that will be asked as more restaurants try the model.
I’m unsure if TDG is where they want to be yet – I suspect they are early in the path they’ve chosen. Regardless, like any self-respecting Bay Area restaurant, they take their produce sourcing seriously. Here’s a video with their main forager.
Outside of philosophy, how was the meal and why was I there?
The Fork and Bottle duo, loyal readers, and I set a date at TDG. The bio-dynamic garden plans had certainly piqued my interest and earned TDG a spot on my Restaurants to Try list. Erroneously, I thought they had a great Burgundy selection but I had confused it with a different restaurant (whose name I have lost.) Regardless, it was a good excuse to take a drive up to Sonoma and the surrounding areas and enjoy the summer sun. Fork and Bottle had also reviewed the restaurant last year and they wanted to get an update.
Ragout of Summer Mushrooms w/ Smoked Duck Breast & Cheddar Grits
The “bacon” and grits show the chef’s southern influence – this dish was a good example of slightly refined comfort food. However, it was flawed by its execution (or conception.) The duck breast, tasting very much like bacon, dominated the flavor and drowned out most of the mushroom’s earthiness.
California Halibut w/ Tomato Gumbo, Corn Custard, & Herb Butter
This was a fine piece of fish, complete with crispy skin, but it was neither perfect nor unique. The outsides were a touch dry. The corn custard had a sweetness that helped give the dish a backbone of flavor. Nonetheless, you could find this dish anywhere – the “gumbo” and corn custard didn’t really distinguish it from the multitudes of halibut dishes being served in the Bay Area that night.
Herb Roasted Lamb Chops w/ Potato Puree, Local Greens, & Rosemary Jus
The meat was cooked medium rare but the quality of the meat was poor. It was grainy and slightly tough; possibly the result of not being aged long enough (as I learned at Eigensinn Farm last year.)
Trio of Sorbet
In the world of Coasian economics, a firm should only outsource production when a third party provides better value (be it economic or quality.) This is why we have an economy of small businesses instead of 300M+ single business owners. Should every restaurant attempt to vertically integrate their supply chains and develop an entire menu in-house? Should chefs add farmer to their multiple roles of manager and cook? Or is this domain that should be left to fanatical crazed perfectionists who will stop at nothing to develop the best? The intentions are laudable and, if nothing else, it might help chefs re-connect with their food as Daniel Patterson wrote in this blog post. Time will tell how this newest trend in fine dining (if it is) will pan out.
Philosophy aside, how does The General’s Daughter rate among other restaurants of its caliber? Within the Sonoma/Napa area, it plays second choice to Farmhouse Inn’s better ingredients and execution; and Pilar’s Mexican take on similar dishes. Nationally, I see similiarities with both Highlands in Birmingham and Blackberry Farm in Tennessee. Chef Dishman, who cooked in Florida before, was no doubt influenced greatly by both restaurants as they are iconic in Southeastern fine dining lore. Again, TDG plays second choice to slightly more refined and better executed takes on Southern cuisine.
The General’s Daughter may become a great restaurant in the wine country but it needs a few more years to develop and mature. Meanwhile, their goals of vertical integration and self-sustainability are laudable and I will be happy to return to see their progress.