March 02, 2009

Mining for Edible Gold

I think I might very well have had the best meal of my life tonight. If not, it was damned close to it. I certainly can’t remember one that I enjoyed, end to end, any better. And it was in one of the last places you’d expect to have a life-altering meal.

OK, life-altering might be a slight exaggeration, but it inspired me to do two things I don’t normally do: write about it on a weekend (note: I can’t post it tonight, but I’m writing this on Saturday) and go back the next day for another meal.

I’m spending this weekend in California’s Gold Country, which, if you’ve never been here, I highly recommend you visit the next time you have a chance, especially in the spring. I’m a little early for the riot of flowers that pop up here every year, but their promise is in the air already and the daffodils are poking their heads up.

I’m staying in Angels Camp, which is famous for being the setting of the Mark Twain story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Nearby is the town of Murphys, which I’ve been to a number of times and I always enjoy coming back for both the familiar and the new. It’s a small town, so the landscape of shops and restaurants does change each time I visit, which can be both a blessing and a curse. This time, it was a blessing.

I strolled up one side of the main street and down the other, popping into various shops, window shopping and helping the economy a bit. It was too early for dinner, but I wanted to scope out where I would be eating because, hey, you just can’t leave these things to chance. As I came out of a neat tea shop, I noticed that there was a new (to me) restaurant called Mineral right next door. It was set back off the street a little, with patio seating in front, but they had a sign out front with a review from the paper of a nearby city that gave it five stars; not something you see every day. It said that it was a vegetarian restaurant, but not entirely vegan, and that it didn’t limit the deliciousness. I was intrigued, but a little disappointed that there wasn’t a menu out there to peruse. But five stars? Yeah, I’d consider it.

When I was ready for dinner, nothing else I’d seen had interested me as much as the promise of Mineral, so back I went. It was still pretty early and I was the only person there, which was fine because it’s a really small place and who doesn’t love a little personal attention when indulging in a good meal? I checked out the wine list first, and was happy to see that they had Prosecco by the glass, as it’s my preferred wine with bubbles.

When I opened the menu I was surprised to see it was really pretty short: a half dozen small plates, two salads and three large plates. As there are a lot of things I can’t or won't eat (and, okay, some people might call me “picky”), I was a little concerned that I wouldn’t find something I’d want. When I really looked, though, I saw that while I wouldn’t be in to everything on the menu, what I was into looked promising.

I started with a small plate of white bean hummus that had just the right amount of olive oil and paprika around the edges, with olive "dust" sprinkled on top, and was served with a trio of things to scoop it up, each one better than the next; sourdough baguette slices, thin toasted croutons and even thinner, super-crispy, almost translucent potato chips. The hummus was smooth and just garlicky enough, with a little kick from the paprika. The chips were nothing short of amazing and combined with the hummus they were divine. I’m not ashamed to admit that I ate almost every smidge of that hummus (that I could get to without picking up the dish and licking it clean) and then wished there were more.

It was probably a good thing there wasn’t, though, because next up was an entrée from the heavens. Now, I will be the first to tell you that I am not a mac n’ cheese girl. It wasn’t something I ate growing up and I’ve never had a taste for that fake cheesy taste of the stuff out of the box. But in the last few weeks, I’d heard a bunch of people talking about wanting to have that when the weather has been so cold and it made me wish I liked it. So when I saw it on the menu, I figured this was as good a place as I was ever going to find to try it…and I was right. This is what macaroni and cheese should be. It was made fresh with aged white cheddar and garlic butter, then topped with just enough toasted bread crumbs. I swear, it melted in my mouth and I believe I whimpered just a little bit when the cheese hit my tongue. I got a half order (a really nice thing for them to have available) and while I really wanted more of that, too, it was actually just the right amount for a single serving. It was incredibly satisfying and not the least bit heavy, and it felt really decadent to enjoy it with the Prosecco.

I was glad to see during my entrée that some other people were filtering in to the restaurant. This is a place that should be filled every night. Since there was no rush, however, and I wasn’t stuffed because the portions were just right, I decided to go ahead and get dessert. Perhaps not surprisingly, on such a spare menu, there was only one dessert selection but it sounded fascinating: Indian Spiced Fried Chocolate. I know! Fried. Chocolate. I had no idea what to expect but there was no way I could resist it. What came to the table was a small plate of four small, golden spheres, resting on an espresso port reduction and sprinkled with a touch of gray sea salt. The server, who is also one of the owners, said that the best way to eat them was to roll them in the sauce and pop them in your mouth. That was a little daunting because the “Indian Spiced” part gave me a little pause -- with something like that I usually want to taste a little first before going all in. But sometimes only the brave are rewarded, so I did exactly what she suggested and went for it.

Oh. My. God. The fried exterior was just thick enough to contain the chocolate, a little crisp and not at all greasy, and when my teeth broke it open there was this luscious ooze of almost bitter chocolate, with just a hint of spice and sea salt, that mixed with the espresso sauce and made love to my mouth. Four times. I then had a food-induced “little death” and passed out. The End.