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Divine dining at Sante

  • The little gem salad at Sante. (JEFF KAN LEE / The Press Democrat)

Once in a great while, a chef will come along who hits on a flavor combination so profound that it's like great poetry, where simple words become rich with complex meaning. Literary examples include Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost and William Butler Yeats. A culinary example is given by Andrew Cain, the chef at Sante, the restaurant at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn in Sonoma.

The dish in question is Sonoma Foie Gras Two Ways ($17 ****). Cain has gone out of his way to gussy up some really good duck liver, first by creating a caramelized, liver-flavored custard with a creme brulee-like crackly sugared top that's completely beside the point. Second, he has seared a wonderful duck liver and topped it with a strawberry rhubarb compote. This topping is also unneeded and interferes with the core of the matter — the combination so interestingly delicious it should be enshrined in the culinary hall of fame, were there such a place.

And that is the pomegranate reduction sauce and the foie gras that sit side by side on the plate. Forget about the weird creme brulee thingy. Scrape the strawberry-rhubarb compote from the liver. Take a small piece of the seared foie gras, swoosh it through the pomegranate sauce, then taste it.

Ka-pow! Instant enlightenment.

Foie gras lovers know that the pre-eminent drink with this delicacy is French Sauternes because the dessert wine's strong acidity and focused sweetness cut through the liver's broad fattiness with a synergy that makes the two together better than each separately. The pomegranate reduction does the same thing but with more authority, deeper and richer fruitiness, and a bonding between the flavors so close and perfect it reminded me of the tsaheylu (bonding process) in the film “Avatar.”

Chef Cain learned his art in stints at Citronelle in Washington, the French Laundry in Yountville and Michael Mina in San Francisco. In his more than two and a half years as chef at Sante, his work has been rewarded with one star in the most recent Michelin guide to Bay Area restaurants. He's the chef de cuisine, and to give proper credit, he works for executive chef Bruno Tison, who came to Sante from the Plaza in Manhattan. Yet it's Cain's hands on the copper pans that are making the food come to life.

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