Our recent anniversary trip to Napa, Calif., could just as easily be called the Thomas Keller Pilgrimage. After all, most people go to enjoy the wine—we were no exception—but we were just as excited to try out our favorite chef’s famous restaurants. But the real question is, did we do a better job of vacationing in Northern California than we did on the sunny beaches of Puerto Rico? Check out these stats and then decide:
- 2 of 3 Thomas Keller restaurants visited (+ the bakery for a third trip)
- More than 120 wines tasted
- 9.3 combined miles run through the pouring rain at Artesa Vineyards
- 30-minute 5K PR set by moi
- 16 combined miles mountain biking through wine country and the wetlands
- 2 cases + 2 bottles of wine shipped back to Texas
I definitely feel more relaxed after this vacation, which I would easily call my favorite vacation ever. And even though we chose to do a 5K/10K at Artesa Vineyards in the pouring rain as well as spend a day mountain biking to 3 different wineries, I assure you these activities did not so much as touch the calories we consumed each day dining on outrageously delicious food, including dessert with every meal (oh boy!), and car picnics with delicious cheeses. Oh and the wine. I’m sure it’s not good for keeping a slim figure either. I probably gained 25 lbs., each of them a delicious little souvenir.
Let’s see where those pounds came from, shall we? (Yes, this is a dissertation on food, not really a blog post. I apologize for the length.)
You know how sometimes you love something so much that you worry if you ever experience it in real life, it will suck (ah hem, surfing)? That’s kind of how Kevin and I felt when we entered Ad Hoc on our second night of the trip—filled with anticipation but somewhat leery. Did we want to ruin our love of Keller’s “Ad Hoc” cookbook by having a bad meal at the actual restaurant? We needn’t have worried. Ad Hoc lived up to the hype and then some.
The premise of this restaurant is an interesting one. When you are seated, you are given a file folder that contains the night’s menu. The menu is a 4-course prix fixe meal with an optional 5th course and wine pairing. As a vegetarian I was extremely nervous when I saw the main course: braised pork short ribs. When I asked if there was a vegetarian option, our server was more than happy to comply. Instead of the short ribs, I dined on a butter-braised cod filet (because I said I would eat fish). My entree was very good but didn’t hold a candle to the other 3 courses. First up was a salad of baby mixed greens served family style. The salad featured smoked trout (melt-in-your-mouth smokey) and a dill avocado dressing. This is one of the best salads I have ever eaten. I was pretty sure Kevin agreed because he just kept eating it. I was completely shocked—just like when he ate that banana after the half Ironman. What has gotten into him? Possibly it’s just that veggies taste so much better pulled directly from the garden, and California seems to be one giant farmer’s market.
After the server cleared the empty salad plate, she brought out the ribs and fish, which were served over wild rice, grilled lettuces and pickled peppers. Our third course was called “benedictine” and was an assortment of cheeses served with frisee, chopped pistachios and strawberries. Kevin and I opted to do the wine pairing, and this course was served with a sparkling rosé that paired perfectly with the sweet strawberries and creamy cheese. I was sitting there stuffed and thinking this had been one of the best meals ever when we got the last course: basque cake. I plead innocence on this one: I have no idea what a basque cake is or if Keller’s was on par with other basque cakes. But I have it on good authority that the recipe came straight from heaven. I love desserts, but I have never had one this good. The cake was served alongside—it’s hard to type this—creme fraiche whipped cream. There was also some kind of fruit, which I forget because I didn’t care for it, but the combo of cake and cream was so delightful. Overall, Kevin rated this his favorite meal of the trip. I would rate the dessert as the best of the trip and my life. We loved the casual atmosphere and the friendly, attentive service. If it weren’t so hard to get a reservation, we would have gone back every night.
But that was before our dinner at Bouchon, which we ate at on our actual wedding anniversary (6 years, woo-hoo!).
Keller’s restaurants are all located in Yountville, about a 15-minute drive from downtown Napa. And each of his 3 famous restaurants—Ad Hoc, Bouchon and The French Laundry—are positioned on the same street within blocks of each other. So, before our meal at Bouchon, Kevin and I walked down to The French Laundry just to see it. We were amazed by the restaurant’s garden (across the street) where they pull fresh produce for the dinner service. Now that is a garden. With high hopes, we headed back to Bouchon.
The ambiance in this little bistro—and I do not exaggerate on the size—was completely different from Bouchon. Where Ad Hoc felt minimalist and cozy, Bouchon was loud, ornate and white-table–clothed. The tables were so close together that it felt like we were actually having a family-style meal with 2 other tables, one of which was a creepy couple who stared at us the whole time. I would imagine this is exactly how a Parisian bistro feels. But if the restaurant feels somewhat cramped, give it a minute. I started the meal with the night’s featured soup: potato and fennel, whose perfect creaminess transported me to another world. I could’ve been eating in a box with a fox and I would not have known. I wish I could remember if I licked the bowl clean. Kevin ordered a smoked trout dip that came in a little glass jar with crunchy bread. It was also tasty, but I held out for the main course. I ordered sturgeon, which I have never tasted, surrounded by a creamy dill sauce with an assortment of baby vegetables, some of which were pickled. Please keep in mind that I have not had chicken in more than 10 years when I say this: The sturgeon, which presumably is fish, tasted like the most delicate chicken breast, actually sort of a cross between chicken and room-temperature butter. It melted in my mouth. I wish I could say that about more fish. By far, this was my favorite entree of the trip.
While driving by Farmstead around during our exploration of the vineyards, we repeatedly saw and drooled over this quaint little farmstead restaurant attached to the Long Meadow Winery. So, on Sunday, we booked a table for two to have what we hoped was the best brunch of our lives. The restaurant smelled like bacon when we walked in and we were starving and eager to get started. We settled in our booth and then waited. Two tables filled up behind us and were each promptly brought drinks. We continued to wait. When those same tables started getting food and still no one had come by to take our drink order, we complained. Now, these servers seemed friendly enough—to everyone else—but they somehow couldn’t recover from the initial misstep. We wanted so much to love this place, but the service put us on edge. I was so upset that I really didn’t want to like the food at all. But that was B.A.R.—before asparagus risotto. Kevin ordered risotto that was beyond creamy. The dish boasted several varieties of mushrooms and grilled asparagus and must have been made with an asparagus stock because it had a light green hue. Does that not sound delicious? Well, hold your horses! The risotto was topped with a poached egg for even more creaminess. Kevin and I were blown away and started brainstorming all of the different dishes we should add an egg to. Why, oh why, had we never thought of this? So, despite our hatred of the wait staff, we actually have to rate this as one of our favorite restaurants. See there? Food is the solution to world peace.
We flew to San Francisco and rented a car to make the 2-hour drive to Napa Valley. But no way were we making that drive with an empty belly. First we drove to downtown San Fran and filled a bag with Ghirardelli chocolates. Next we walked down to Fisherman’s Wharf on a mission for some fresh seafood. It’s been about 10 years since I’ve been to Fisherman’s Wharf and it was not at all like I remembered it. It is very much a tourist trap, and I was concerned that our food would be awful. We each ordered a fish entree and selected lobster bisque for our starter. I have had lobster bisque by the bowl full, even the bread bowl full, and I have never tasted anything quite like this one. It was slightly sweet from the abundance of lobster that was actually pureed, instead of chunked, into the cream broth. This preparation allowed you to get that delightful lobster and butter taste in every mouthful. We left wishing we had just ordered 16 bowls of the bisque. If you go to the wharf, skip all of the fish dishes and just get the bisque, especially if you can also get a bread bowl.
One day we left our hotel in downtown Napa in search of some lunch before begginning the day’s wine-tasting journey. We first went to a kitchen store and looked at trinkets before engaging in conversation with the store owner, who’s sister lives in Plano. We felt pretty comfortable asking her for a recommendation, and we were so glad we did. Grace’s Table was around the corner from our hotel but off the main drag just enough to be beyond most tourists’ line of sight. I ordered a roasted beet salad with avocado, lemon vinaigrette, fat little chunks of farmstead blue cheese, mâche lettuce and maldon salt. After the first bite, I just stopped talking. I ate every bite while staring at my plate in silence. When I finally remembered I wasn’t dining alone, I was relieved to find Kevin equally impressed with his Eggs Benedict. If you are in Napa, do yourself a favor and eat at this restaurant. You will not be disappointed.
Unfortunately for dear old Iron Chef, Morimoto was a bit of a disappointment. The restaurant was extremely beautiful but our server was a dud. Isn’t it funny how that can affect your entire meal? I think I was expecting something more like traditional Japanese fare, but instead I got a strange Americanized fusion. Yeah, it’s Pei Wei for fine dining. For example, Kevin ordered a dish called Duck, Duck Goose that featured duck four ways plus a fried goose egg. Does that sound like Japanese food? I’m not saying Kevin didn’t fall madly in love with his dish of duck fried rice, duck foie gras and duck meatball soup, but I was expecting to have a more authentic experience. I was planning to order sushi, but then a dish called chirashi caught my eye. Basically, this dish is sort of like ordering several sushi rolls, unwrapping them and tossing the Nori, and then mixing up the fish and rice in a bowl. It’s like a burrito bowl with sushi. Wrap your mind around that. I ordered it spicy, which comes with a poached egg on top. If anyone has read the first issue of “Lucky Peach,” then you are probably familiar with the sous vide egg. Kevin has made that sous vide egg, and the texture is so disgusting that I could not eat it. It feels, and frankly looks, like the egg is still raw. Well that little sous vide egg was sitting right on my sushi. I had a hard time eating the dish, although it tasted pretty good, just because the texture was so off-putting.
Fortunately, the start to the meal was fantastic. We ordered hamachi toro, which is essentially raw hamachi that has been pressed flat into a little wooden screen. The screen is sitting in an ice bowl and it is accompanied by another screen that houses several toppings, such as wasabi, sour cream, puffed rice, etc. You get a little metal shovel and you scrape up some fish and then run it through as many toppings as you want. We had so much fun playing with the little shovel and created several unique bites with the toppings. I only wish there had been more of it.
And then Kevin wanted dessert. I was stuffed and a bit disgusted so I wasn’t in the mood for any dessert. He ordered a miso butterscotch pudding with chocolate black tea foam, but what we got was far from what we expected. The beautiful plate featured a series of mousses—butterscotch and chocolate—and lots of foam, none of which tasted like tea. These were each flavor bombs whose weight completely dissolved in your mouth. It was like eating dessert in flavor but not actually getting any food in your stomach. The dish was light and airy and the perfect finish to the meal. Now, Morimoto cannot touch that basque cake, but otherwise I would say this is one of the most perfect desserts I’ve ever had.
In case you are keeping track, here’s the food ranking:
- Basque cake from Ad hoc
- Sturgeon from Bochon
- Asparagus risotto from Farmstead
- Miso butterscotch pudding with chocolate black tea foam from Morimoto
- Beet salad from Grace’s Table
- Lobster bisque from the wharf
I’m sure Kevin would agree, although he is a huge fan of duck and not so much of beets.
Part II: Wine, Of Course!