Destination: California Wine Country: Napa
Considered by many to be the best restaurant in the country, the French Laundry was awarded three Michelin stars in 2007. A meal here is more of a sensory experience, akin to going to the opera or touring the Louvre, than about simply eating. The two $240 nine-course menus are exquisite (expect a three-to-four-hour dining time), and reservations are hard to get. There’s a two-month advance reservation policy, so be sure to plan early. Chef Thomas Keller presides over the run-like-clockwork kitchen most nights, and his signature dishes, which make the most of seasonal produce, are revelations of taste. Where else can you discover that artichokes have a vast range of flavor and sweetness? But unlike his grand restaurant in New York, Per Se, here the atmosphere is true California, with no pretension permitted. The small dining rooms resemble those in a simple country house. Getting up between courses and wandering out to the pretty enclosed back garden by the kitchen is encouraged. You may spend hours and a small fortune, but it’s a dining experience you are unlikely to ever forget. The trick: book the semiprivate dining room, which seats ten and can be booked a year ahead of time for $3,600. There’s also the option of a canapé reception prior to the meal with personalized place cards, parting gifts and menus.
Read a member postcard about how spending a day cooking in a Relais and Chateaux restaurant kitchen.
UPDATE: The the shock and chagrin of the culinary community, Martini House closed in late 2010.
Chef Todd Humphries has an outstanding menu and works magic with mushrooms: the creamy mushroom soup is famous. The downstairs Wine Cellar Bar has an impressive 600-bottle international wine list.
The Iron Chef’s first foray into Napa opened in the summer of 2010 and was hailed as one of the major additions that is transforming Downtown Napa into its own bona fide destination. The large dining room is airy and sleek, the menu features Morimoto’s brilliantly detailed Asian-fusion cuisine, and the ambience is congenial, particularly since the restaurant is open until midnight (1 a.m. on the weekends), a true novelty in this region.
The Restaurant at Meadowood
The fine dining restaurant at Meadowood has long been one of the Napa Valley’s most renowned restaurants, but since the arrival of chef Christopher Kostow in 2008, the foodie temple has drawn new-found buzz. In 2010, Michelin awarded it the coveted three stars. One of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs for 2009, the thirty-four-year-old Kostow has a surprisingly mature grasp of how to strike the right balance in an haute setting. His food is serious but not pretentious; playful but not undisciplined; rooted in contemporary French cuisine but also quintessentially Californian and with an unshakable love of farm-to-table.
It’s worth splurging on the chef’s tasting menu here, especially if you also do wine pairings with the help of acclaimed sommerlier Rom Toulon. During my visit, the eight courses were perfectly sized and paced, leaving lots of time to discuss the brilliance and care behind each concoction. The meal kicked off with sliver-thin slices of Waguy beef cured in pine, as well as an appetizer of scallop, king crab and white asparagus, which was prepared two-ways. Next up was a sweetbread cannelloni covered in a flavorful black truffle broth, a tender piece of goat poached in whey (a by-product of strained milk), and a cube of perfectly cooked bavette steak, sprinkled with sea salt for some crunch and served served with morels and peas. An innovative Stilton “cheese cake” enlivened by dried cherries was the cheese course, and a green apple and ginger sherbet served as a break before the unctuous dessert: a white chocolate and foie gras ganache complemented by bananas, black walnut and passion fruit.
Says the chef about what inspires him: “I embrace food memories, traditional combinations that work together, and then distill those flavors into something that is very much different, and very much stands on its own.” That the food combinations and cooking techniques are perfectly mapped-out is evident in every deliciously precise bite, but Kostow’s joy for cooking and creating unique dining experiences shine equally bright. This was certainly recognized by San Francisco Chronicle’s food critic Michael Bauer, who awarded The Restaurant at Meadowood with four stars earlier in 2010 (the list of four-stars in the Bay Area is short and sweet, and also includes such long-established restaurants as Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, Alice Water’s Chez Panisse and Michael Mina).
The presence of this talented young chef makes a return trip to Meadowood the more enticing. Request a table at the window or, during the warm months, on the dining patio, overlooking the natural splendor that surrounds this special Napa resort.
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