Seize the wine
Auburn, CA 95603
Up in the quiet hills of Auburn, where few Sacramentans dare to tread, lies a little wine shop and restaurant called Carpe Vino. Within its quaint space exist stacks and racks and boxes of bottles, each jostling for attention. These bottles—and their support staff—encourage you to “Sit down, relax, have a glass. Something to eat, perhaps?”
“Well, of course,” you answer before being escorted to a table and presented with the electronic wine list, a tablet device that lists wines by type, with awards, prices and tasting notes.
Of course, there is a printed menu. “Please note,” we’re informed, “the menu is different from online. I just printed out this new one a minute ago, as one of the sparkling wines is now out of stock.” We’re given a recommendation for a brut rose by Lucien Albrecht instead, which turns out to be more affordable and of even better flavor than our sold-out original selection.
Food arrives, and a trio of dips prove enlightening: A white-bean hummus smoother than a straight-razor shave, whereas the smoked-eggplant dip’s softness contradicts the robust flavor. A piquant creamed feta with cucumber balances the two. The house-made flatbread is warm, chewy and sigh-inducing.
The musque de Provence pumpkin soup is lighter than your wallet will be when you leave, but one bite and wallet be damned. The flavor is exquisite with whispers of vanilla and pops of pumpkin seed. Between this and the hummus, I imagine some poor extern chained to a food mill to achieve such textures.
A quartet of lamb meatballs arrive, looking like a contemporary-art sculpture. It sits corseted in harissa, mint sauce and yogurt. Surely the dish to convert anyone who (confusedly) refuses lamb.
For the main course, a cider-brined pork chop bejeweled in bacon and prune sits atop savoy cabbage, defying expectations. “Try this!” my husband hurls toward the rest of us bites of meat dripping in a red-wine sauce. All of us at the table blush a medium-rare at the taste.
The kitchen had just run out of the roasted duck breast on our visit. “But we can sous-vide a chicken breast wrapped in seared bacon, instead.”
It arrived perfectly cooked among a medley of chanterelles, melon-ball scoops of kabocha, wheat berries, Brussels sprouts and pomegranate arils. The flavors were rapturous.
The dessert menu is eclectic and covers all the bases: fruit, cake, custard and chocolate. A sour-cream apple cake is soft with crispy edges, but it’s the caramel-apple ice cream that takes it over the top. Not to be edged out of the spotlight, the chocolate budino (an Italian custard cake) with crispy cocoa-nib brittle and fall-fruit conserve is the stuff of dreams for chocoholics. A port ice cream induced much lip quivering and bosom heaving around the table.
Our only letdown was the timid coffee served afterward. Honestly, I’ve brewed stronger cups of Folgers Instant over a campfire.
An interesting kicker: The restaurant—being primarily a wine bar—does not serve anyone under the age of 21. Those of a legal drinking age, rejoice, for there will be no parent cooing to a child to settle down.
The service is impeccable and brings to mind Mrs. Wilson from the film Gosford Park. Not the murder, but the gift of anticipation and knowing what diners want before they do.
The Cirque du Soleil of food is a set of arousing feats performed with incredible strength and artistic direction. In addition, the menu is changed more often than a newborn in order to reflect whatever is in season that week, ensuring no visit will ever be like the last.