YOUNTVILLE: THREE DAYS, FIVE RESTAURANTS, LOTS OF WINE AND A BAKERY
It has taken me nearly three weeks to get around to writing this post. But then, it has taken me nearly as long to digest all the food I consumed on our three day binge in Yountville. So, I guess that’s fair enough.
The moment we decided to spend a long celebratory weekend away from LA, there was only one restaurant reservation that Sybil would accept, The French Laundry in Yountville. We were able to secure a coveted table at this legendary Napa Valley restaurant with the help of our good friends, Liz & John Haskell. They have eaten at the place dozens of times and offered to pull a few strings. The moment we knew it was in the bag, Sybil set to work organising our weekend with her usual prowess and, before I had had chance to say “all Napa wine tastes like melted cough sweets”, we had a fistful of reservations and somewhere to stay.
After an early morning start, with only a necessary stop off at In N Out for a Double Double to sustain us, we pulled up at our chosen guesthouse, The Bordeaux Inn and immediately dumped our bags so we could head out for a drink. We found ourselves propping up the bar at the rather swish Bardessono Hotel, slurping on some excellent martinis and eating warm almonds and olives.
It was just enough to keep us going before the first meal proper of our trip at Redd. The ingredients used were terrific and the execution of all the dishes we tried, excellent, I did have a problem with the composition of some of the dishes. A shared “crispy” (ugh) chicken thigh appetiser benefited little from the companionship of rings of squid, even if they had been cooked perfectly. But, it is a minor quibble and Sybil is still raving three weeks later, about the trio of light foie gras meatballs that came with her main dish of duck confit. All in all a very enjoyable way to begin our weekend and enough to send us back to our guesthouse both happy and full.
After a quick visit to the city of Napa the next morning, we rushed back to Yountville just in time to claim our table on the outside terrace of Bistro Jeanty, the casual French inspired dining space of Philippe Jeanty. If I announce that our meal here was my favourite memory of the whole trip, even though the weekend also included dinner at one of the world’s most famous restaurants, it should tell you all you need to know. This was as close to a perfect meal as I can recall.
The atmosphere on the sunlight dappled terrace was lively, but still perfect for two people on a celebratory trip. The service was spot on, friendly and efficient. The wine on a short list were well priced and well chosen and, of course, the food hit all the appropriate bistro buttons.
All too often, dishes at self styled bistros feel ersatz and apologetic, reeking of cut corners and second rate ingredients. There was not a trace of that here. Thick and meaty snails, served in their shells, came with garlic enriched butter flowing freely into the bowl and foie gras pate was flecked with a crack of black pepper and managed to be rich and light in the same bite. Steak frites proved to be a perfect exemplar of the genre and came served with the best bearnaise sauce I can recall eating for a very long time. Pride of place, however, has to go to an exemplary Coq Au Vin, the sauce smoky from the presence of lardons and the chicken still juicy even though it had been cooked long and slow.
While a dessert of ice cream, almost inevitably, did not live up to the standards rest of the meal, we still felt that a bill of $180 including tip, a bottle of Sancerre and a large Poire William represented great value for one of my most enjoyable meals of the year so far.
Unfortunately, our meal at Étoile, the restaurant of the winery Domain Chandon, that evening brought us down to earth with a solid thump. After a much needed post lunch nap and a stroll, we drove across the highway to the winery and threaded our way through dimly lit stone paths to the hugely impressive restaurant building. The front of house was painfully slow, which gave us a chance to take in the rather identikit “fine dining” room while we waited to be seated.
The menu, prepared by chef Perry Hoffman, was also painfully identikit and while the cooking was competent enough, we both used the word “dreary” more times than should ever be uttered when you are spending such a large amount on a meal. A dish of sweetbreads and calves liver was the perfect example. It sounded promising, but the reality was pieces of slightly overcooked liver and gland served in an over reduced sauce.
Oh, and for the benefit of any chef who might be judged by me in the future, on any television cookery show, if I ever hear you mention the words “roasted grape” you will be on the first bus home.
Other dishes may not have not killed us, but were little better and, while this sort of cooking might pass muster for visitors from Boise, it left us stifling a series of yawns and calling for the bill from our harried server before he could even ask us if we wanted dessert.
Thankfully, breakfast the next morning restored our good humour back to its normal levels. Sunday brunch at Keller run Ad Hoc is a set meal affair. As I found out during a wretched meal at Chez Panisse in 2008, this can be a double edged sword. If you are going to decide what your customers will eat while they are with you, you had better make sure that both ingredients and preparation are spot on. You have nowhere to hide. At CP, they failed miserably and produced one of the worst meals of the whole Eat My Globe trip.
I am delighted to say that, at Ad Hoc, they did not. Our morning meal, taken on their small terrace, was simple and made with few ingredients, of excellent provenance (many from the FL gardens) all prepared to show off their natural flavours to stunning effect. If any breakfast can ever claim to be a triumph, the Sunday Brunch at Ad Hoc deserves a shout out. A light chicken salad served on butter lettuce was followed by a huge family style plate of steak & eggs, potatoes, peas and toast made from brioche made at the nearby Bouchon Bakery. Five ingredients, well sourced, perfectly prepared and served in a straightforward manner. I loved it.
Which takes us on to The Big One. We spent our afternoon wine tasting and, while I still hold firm to my view that most Californian wine tastes like micro waved jam, we did manage to spend $300 on bottles that will sit in our cooler until a day when I have no Spanish wine to turn to. After smartening (who said sobering?) up back at the ranch, we walked the fifty paces from our guesthouse to the entrance of The French Laundry making sure to take in the glorious views of their gardens, glowing in the rays of the declining Sun.
In 2005 (I think) I was lucky enough to be invited by Jay Rayner, who was writing a piece about Thomas Keller, to join him for a meal at Per Se. When asked the next day by a friend, to describe my meal, I replied with six words, “Not bad, some brilliance, lousy cheese”. It is amusing that, more than half a decade later, those are almost exactly the words I would use to sum up our meal at the Keller mother ship.
I am not going to give you a weighty blow by blow of the whole affair. There are hundreds of blogs out there that have already done that. If you really want the opinion of someone you can trust, I point you towards a post on “Refined Palate” the blog of my chum, Liz Haskell.
Instead, let me tell you about some my own particular highs, like Royal Osetra Caviar served with Dungeness crab and candied Meyer Lemons, a beautiful Tartare of Earshell clam served with compressed cucumber and a memorable dessert of “Ile Flottante”. All of which would have been worth the trek to sample in Yountville if we were eating nowhere and nothing else.
There were low points, of course. Almost inevitably the case with restaurants of this level, these came with the meat dishes. They featured fabulous quality lamb and squab, but somehow the preparation lacked the verve of the earlier courses and seemed, quite frankly, a little more workaday.
The highs, however, and there were plenty of them, proved that Sybil had been correct to make this the cornerstone of our weekend and worth the $750 expenditure. That included a delicious bottle of Vina Todonia from R. Lopez De Heredia in Rioja and an extra gratuity for top quality service on top of the charge already added to the bill.
It was an memorable if expensive way to round off a significant milestone in the Sybil/Simon story. However, if we are going to top this next year, Sybil had better get planning already and I better start filling my piggy bank with quarters.