While food and wine always make for an irresistible combination, the duo gets even more enticing as part of a carefully crafted multi-course feast, where each dish is a seasonal surprise served with an expertly selected vino to complement it.
It’s then that a mix of hotel guests, locals, and desert visitors sit down at a communal table for a leisurely meal consisting of four or five courses of Van Loon’s signature fare along with a sampling of wines all sourced from a single winery.
The dinners now typically average around 30 attendees, but can accommodate up to 40 people. “It’s been progressively growing,” says Van Loon of the wine series, which she increased to once a month after taking on the Executive Chef position last fall. “Everyone sits at the same table. We’re putting people next to each other who have never met, so it’s a really social environment.”
There’s a representative from the vineyard at the table, too. “They’ll talk a lot about the wine and then I come between each course and talk about the pairing and the food,” she explains. “So it’s really interactive and a lot of fun.”
Van Loon focuses on the same principles at the wine dinners as she always does at Essense: highlighting locally sourced, seasonal ingredients and focusing on clean, well-balanced fare that mirrors the cuisine of the Mediterranean through healthful, nourishing recipes, some created in collaboration with the resort’s nutritionist. But rarely does she serve anything from the restaurant’s regular menu. “I want to do things at the wine dinners that you wouldn’t get if you came in any other night,” she explains. “I’ll usually bring in ingredients that a lot of people aren’t as familiar with.” The July dinner, for example, which highlighted Rodney Strong wines from Sonoma, included soft shell crab, rabbit, and bone marrow dishes.
The evening usually kicks off with a one-bite amuse-bouche paired with a sparkling wine followed by an appetizer course often created with shellfish and then a seasonal salad (ripe summer peaches and creamy burrata stole the show recently). After that, Van Loon may serve a soup in cooler months and a heartier protein that can range from steak to seafood as the final savory course. And, of course, the meal always ends with something sweet.
Over the last several months, the chef has created whimsical items like a foie gras beignet topped with an apricot-and-saffron chutney paired with a Rosé; a pickled rhubarb salad served with a Sauvignon Blanc; and Moroccan lamb done with minted grains to complement a Russian River Pinot Noir.
Van Loon says she tries to select wineries with interesting stories behind them – often family-owned and from California – then sits down with someone from the winery to get inspiration for the menu. “It’s a really fun process. You taste some wine, you come up with some dishes, and you hope that it works,” she laughs. And Van Loon always does a full-on test run so that if a certain pairing doesn’t feel quite right, she can go back to the drawing board and tweak it before showtime. “It’s the most exciting part of my job. You get to create new things every time.”
This month, Two Bunch Palms will welcome Pine Ridge Vineyards from Napa on August 25th. After a September hiatus, French label Gérard Bertrand will be the focus on October 18th, followed by Rombauer Vineyards out of St. Helena, California, on November 15th.
And it’s worth noting that, in a culinary world that increasingly bristles at substitutions, Van Loon is (courageously) happy to accommodate dietary restrictions with a little notice, even whipping up an entirely vegan menu for a patron who comes to nearly every wine dinner. “People want to participate and break bread with other people even though they may not eat meat,” she says. “I like to make sure I provide the same amazing pairing experience for them no matter what.”
*Featured Photo Credit: Desert Sun
- Story by Lizbeth Scordo