Dustin Valette is on a cosmic quest for delicious. The chef-owner of Valette restaurant in Healdsburg, Calif., develops each dish by mentally mapping a solar system in which every element on the plate is a planet with a gravitational pull. In the case of his lamb loin with currant sauce, caramelized onions and lamb’s lettuce, shown here, “Lamb is like the sun—that’s the driver, the main force,” he explains. “You have Jupiter, which would be the currants, and you have Mars, which is the cipollini onions. All these different elements are intertwined with that main flavor, and they’re all connected with these little invisible strings.”
The goal of the visual is to find balance. Add more butter in Venus and its richness could tip the whole system out of orbit; to reimpose harmony, Valette might dial up the currants in Jupiter, letting tart berry cut through mellow fat until the stars realign.
An affable guy with a booming laugh, Valette is well aware of how kooky his process may sound, and he’s completely OK with that. “So much of this comes from trying to design that perfect bite,” he reflects.
Valette and his brother, co-owner and general manager Aaron Garzini, both Healdsburg natives, built the restaurant on their dream of showcasing Sonoma’s wine and food community. A recipient of Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence, the restaurant spotlights small, boutique California wineries, and the brothers’ long history in the area has helped them develop strong relationships with nearby farmers such as Myrna Fincher of Early Bird’s Place farm, who babysat Valette when he was 2 years old. Today, she provides an array of vegetables to the restaurant.
Valette created the lamb dish as a pairing for one of his favorite expressions of Sonoma Coast: Benovia’s juicy, berry-driven Tilton Hill Pinot Noir, made from grapes grown on sandy loam soils in a very cool microclimate of the appellation. “It has great acid to it,” he says. “The structure is fantastic, and I wanted to play with [a dish] that had acid but also had depth of flavor.” The zingy currant sauce is the key: “It’s that little fresh textural snap that hits the highlight of the wine.”
It’s hard to argue with Valette’s planet-twiddling when you take in the results. A perfectly tuned plate is a sight he says he never tires of: “So much of food comes right before you take that first bite.”
Fresh red currants add a tart burst of summertime to this otherwise savory, roasty herbed lamb dish. With a big splash of red wine and a pat of butter, the berries cook down to become a jamlike sauce literally made for pairing with red wine. Here, Valette shares his tips on how to make the dish really shine.
To cook with the good wine, or not to cook with the good wine? On the ever-controversial topic of whether to cook with the wine you’re drinking or instead use a “lesser” bottle, Valette says the answer varies. He’d never cook with a rare or extremely costly bottle (holster that 1982 Mouton-Rothschild), but better-quality wine does sometimes beget better-quality food, particularly if the recipe calls for a fairly large quantity of it, or if the wine is not cooked (such as in oysters with a splash of Champagne), in which case the flavors and texture of the wine will be more apparent in the food.
Because this recipe calls for a good 3/4 cup wine, the tannins and acidity of a well-structured Pinot will actually help balance the sauce. But if you can’t bear to divert that much fine wine away from your glass and into the saucepan, that’s OK; it’s unlikely anyone will notice or care if you choose to use a middling-quality bottle instead. Just be sure it’s something you wouldn’t mind drinking. (If you do use a more modest wine for cooking, you can always freeze the leftover wine in ice cube trays for later cooking use—just don’t expect it to be drinkable on its own after freezing.)
This recipe is more hand-painted treasure map than architectural rendering. Except with baking, which requires precision, the truth is that most recipes are open to a measure of interpretation through the lenses of personal preference and market availability. Valette says this is definitely one of those recipes. “It’s a direction. It’s an idea. It’s like an old-school treasure map,” he says. “It doesn’t say longitude and latitude. It doesn’t say, ‘Go exactly 147.3 feet from this exact coordinate.’ Instead, it’s a dot-dot-dot around the tree, around the rock, by the beach, over here is the treasure.” This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t follow the recipe if you like doing that, but it’s also OK to feel it out.
Even so, know your True North. Valette believes in following the ingredients. Within reason, choose items at the market for their quality over their fidelity to the recipe. If your market’s cipollini onions look unappetizing but the pearl onions are smooth and fresh, get the pearl onions; they’re quite similar and more widely available. If you can’t find fresh currants, or the ones at the market aren’t great, a good alternative would be individually quick-frozen (IQF) ones in the freezer aisle. If you can’t find frozen currants, fresh tart cherries would work—just pit them before cooking. “You can’t take yourself super-serious,” Valette says. “End of day, it’s kind of all the same … -ish. It’s just, how many nuances do you want to stack to make it the most epic bite ever?”
The bright pop of fresh currant sauce and umami-rich seared lamb call for a medium-bodied red with fresh berry fruit, keen acidity and spicy or smoky undertones. An elegant California Pinot or richer Oregon version would make a fine match.
Chef’s Pick BENOVIA Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Tilton Hill 2016 (89, $62)
Wine Spectator Picks PATRICIA GREEN Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Reserve 2017 (93, $27)
FLOWERS Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Sea View Ridge 2016 (93, $75)
Butter-Roasted Lamb Loin with Cipollini Onions and Red Currant Sauce
Recipe courtesy of chef Dustin Valette and tested by Wine Spectator’s Julie Harans.
- 12–15 cipollini onions, unpeeled, rinsed and dried
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Sea salt
- Freshly cracked black pepper
- 1/2 bunch (about 15 sprigs) fresh thyme
- 2 pounds boneless lamb loin, sinew removed, fat scored 1/4-inch deep, rolled and tied with kitchen string, if needed for even cooking
- Leaves of 3 sprigs fresh rosemary, chopped
- 2 whole cloves garlic, peeled
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2/3 cup fresh red currants, stems removed (may substitute frozen, unthawed or thawed)
- 1 bottle red wine (3/4 cup is for cooking; the rest is for you to drink!)
- 8 pieces lamb’s lettuce (or purslane, mâche or butter lettuce)
1. Preheat oven to 350° F. In a small bowl, drizzle the onions with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, drizzle with 4 tablespoons water and add the thyme. Toss to combine. Place in a medium-size casserole dish or Dutch oven, cover tightly with aluminum foil and roast until tender, about 40 to 45 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool slightly. Remove the skin. Cut in half horizontally and set aside.
2. Drizzle both sides of the lamb with olive oil, and season with salt, pepper and rosemary.
3. Heat a large, heavy stainless-steel pan over high. When the pan is hot, add the lamb, fat side down. This will get smoky; be sure to have your vent fan on. Cook until golden-brown, about 3 minutes. Flip and sear the other side until golden-brown, about 3 minutes more. Add the garlic cloves and half the butter to the pan. Cook for about 10 minutes, flipping the meat halfway through and using a large spoon to baste the lamb frequently with the butter as the butter turns golden-brown. When the lamb is cooked through (an instant-read thermometer should register 130° F), remove from the heat and transfer to a platter. Reserve in a warm spot.
4. Drain the excess fat and the garlic from the pan and set over medium-high heat. Add the cooked onions, sautéing until golden-brown, about 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer to the warm platter with the lamb.
5. With the pan still over medium-high heat, add the currants and sauté until the berries start to pop. Add 3/4 cup wine and reduce with the currants until 80 percent of the liquid has evaporated, about 5 to 7 minutes. Slowly whisk in the remaining butter over the heat until fully incorporated. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
6. Slice the lamb into medallions. On each dinner plate, place some onions in the center. Put a couple pieces of lettuce on one side. Place a few lamb slices on top of the onions. Spoon the currant sauce on the lamb and around the plate. Serves 4.