As RJ and I toured Northern California, we often saw restaurants described as “California cuisine”. For us New England folk, that means avocados. A Californian sandwich in Boston could translate to any number of possible combinations but must include avocado and maybe sprouts but no red meat. A California sushi roll has crabstick and avocado and sometimes cucumber. Guess what lies in a fan atop a Californian salad? Yup. The Haas.
Though I didn’t think that every dish we ate in California would be avocado-based, my non-green-eating husband thought cuisine in California was suspect as best. I knew, however, that Napa would not disappoint. As you saw in my last post, I eased him into it with Calistoga barbecue. Then I hit him with the fine dining. Our first stop was Redd, which came highly recommended. I started with hamachi sashimi which was melt-in-your-mouth tender, with touch of a great gingery sauce. The fish sat on a rice, edamame, and seaweed salad mixture – tasted good but I could have done without the rice which seemed unnecessary. Our other starter was the gnocchi pancetta carbonara with poached egg which was out of this world – creamy, rich and decadent beyond compare! Neighbors had the tasting menu which looked so good – perfect portion sizes and a great variety.
Our dinners were the NY steak and the duck breast. I was blown away by the duck breast – perfectly cooked, with a wonderful vegetable accompaniment (chard and wild mushrooms, I think), over gizzard polenta. A couple bites of the steak were a bit chewy, but the fantastic sauce was redeeming and the fingerling potatoes were a treat. What really made the meal for us, however, was the wine pairings. Jason, the sommelier, was phenomenal. He hooked us up with wines from the by-the-glass list for each dish — certainly the way to go, given our diverse choices. I was really impressed with the Foxglove chardonnay with the gnocchi and the great Whetstone pinot that came with the duck. Highly recommended!!
The next day we stopped in at the Rutherford Grill for lunch. The fish sandwich was good, but we were both unhealthily infatuated with the Pont Reyes Blue Cheese covered potato chips. Unadulterated sinful goodness. When we had finished the chips there was still a good amount of the luxurious cheese left on the bottom of the bowl. As RJ and I were poised above the dish, both contemplating sticking our fingers in to swipe up the excess, our kind server came by and offered us more of the homemade potato chips. Accepted!
Though we had planned on going to Market restaurant in St. Helena that Sunday night, followed by fried chicken night at Ad Hoc, RJ convinced me that we did not have time on Monday to stop for dinner before proceeding to Tahoe. As I am mildly obsessed with the man, I was not about to leave Napa without having eaten at one of Thomas Keller‘s restaurants. Thus, we tramped over to Bouchon and demanded a reservation. Not really – but close! Thankfully, they had a last minute cancellation and we were in. The meal was spectacular. We began with bread served with a choice of butter or warm white bean puree. They also gave us some citrus-marinated olives to tide us over. I had the oysters, which ranged from piquant and briny to lucious and creamy.
For dinner, we ordered the pinnacle of bistro foods: a perfectly-cooked steak frites with maitre d’hotel butter for RJ and a roast chicken half au jus for me. I have never eaten chicken so good before in my life – sorry Gordon! I could have taken swigs of that jus out of a juice glass it was so delicious. It was resting on a pea and bacon mixture that perfectly summed up the character of the dish – rustic, flavorful and familiar. If I could have fit another ounce in my stomach, I would have had the profiteroles with chocolate sauce, but ’twas not to be. Even RJ was astounded when he saw a man stand up from a table behind me, walk to the kitchen, and return with a second basket of fries – who could eat that many?!? I turned to look and whom should I see but THOMAS KELLER! Wearing a jean shirt and carrying fries to his table, the Man himself was eating right behind me. I nearly kissed him but for the chicken-greasy mug I wore! Total satisfaction at Bouchon.
I cannot close this post without a mention of our San Francisco eats as well. We had our biggest splurge meal at Gary Danko – one of the most difficult reservations to obtain in SF, at least that’s what they tell me. RJ and I both ate four courses — for me: Dungeoness crab salad, branzini, bison filet and cheese. For RJ: rock shrimp and lobster risotto, porcini-dusted scallops with pea puree, filet mignon and a trio of creme brulees of considerable size (coffee, chocolate, vanilla bean). Great wine, port and scotch were imbibed by all… We also dined at Zuni Cafe — I had heard so many raves about the signature chicken that I simply had to partake! I am sorry to say that I was disappointed. The dish did not hold a candle to either Boston’s Hammersley’s Bistro or Napa’s Bouchon, plus we had to wait over an hour for it to arrive (stated on the menu, but really — is that necessary?). The meat was cooked perfectly, but the skin wasn’t all that crispy and we didn’t think there was any stand-out flavor to the chicken except perhaps salt. That being said, RJ’s cheese risotto was amazing and kept us satisfied for about 45 minutes of the chicken wait.
All in all, we left the state loving California Cuisine, whatever that is!