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Napa Valley

22 Mar

One thing I noticed in San Francisco was that people were willing to line up for good food. Each time we lined up for a food experience, whether it was Blue Bottle, Delfina, or Flour + Water, we were not disappointed. So I feel fairly confident that if you were to randomly find a queue of people outside of a food establishment, you should take a chance and join that line. More than likely you will not be disappointed. I discovered that lining up for good food was also common in Napa.

B and I made a fairly early trip into Yountville the morning after our trip to The French Laundry yet we already found a fairly hefty line of people outside of Bouchon Bakery. When we joined the small queue, I remember thinking “This isn’t so bad”. But we were the lucky ones. By the time we had reached the front door, the queue had grown behind us quite substantially. By the time we had collected our baked goods and eaten them, the line had grown ridiculously long. I had to laugh that it was mostly women in the line-up – I suppose men don’t see the value in lining up for baked goods.

Bouchon Bakery is yet another Thomas Keller establishment and, as the name suggests, it sells baked goods (that should have been obvious). Loaves of freshly baked bread, scones, cupcakes, macarons, cookies, tarts, and pastries line the walls and fill the baskets of the small bakery. Everything, from the bakery decor to the baked goods, is well-presented.

Whilst the food was fabulous, I’m disappointed to say that the service was not on par. I think they were just far too busy. I had ordered a number of items but didn’t get charged for one of them so they had to ring me through twice and then when I checked on one of the sandwiches that was meant to be warming, they hadn’t put it under the grill, which meant even more waiting. The coffee was ok but not at the same quality as the food.

The raspberry macaron was, without a doubt, the best macaron that I’ve ever had. They were much bigger than the ones that I’ve seen anywhere else (they were cookie sized), which weirded me out at first as I think of them as being petite treats, but it didn’t take me long to get over that. I also tried their bacon and cheddar scone which was really good and had a sweet finish.

They were very generous with the chocolate in the pain au chocolate that I ordered, which I appreciate, but I found it just too much. I guess that comes down to personal taste.

In hindsight, I would like to have gone to Bouchon Bakery with my sister so that I could have ordered waaay more than what I really needed (I do have some self-restraint around B…some). All of the food looked tempting but items that particularly caught my eye are the oreo-type cookies that are meant to be Keller’s favourite, the chocolate bouchon (a brownie-like treat), the pain au raisin, and the chocolate tart. Damn. I am kicking myself now, especially after looking back on photos. Next time, GG, next time.

Here are some tips for when you visit Bouchon Bakery:

1/ Get there first thing in the morning or be prepared to wait and,

2/ Take a bigger budget and a looser belt than you think you’ll need.

We had limited time in Napa so we only spent an afternoon exploring the wineries. We dropped into Rubicon Estates as I had remembered that we had enjoyed a drop from there at the Big Guns Dinner at Araxi back in November.

As luck would have it they had paid tastings of the Rubicon 2008 available for $15 for 2oz or $30 for 4oz, which I admit is pretty pricey for a small glass of wine but I decided to treat myself and ordered the small. It was just as lovely as I remembered. I wanted to splurge and buy a bottle but at $175 a bottle, I couldn’t do it. The estate itself is worth a visit as it is quite beautiful.

Next stop was Peju, a winery that we popped into on a whim. We did a tasting and enjoyed the wines that we tried, so much so that B bought a bottle of their Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 Reserve. We will save that for a special occasion. Their Fifty/Fifty was also quite nice.

Napa Valley was a little disappointing scenery-wise for me, but I have lived in South Australia for about 3 years where there are some spectacular wine-producing areas (the Adelaide Hills, Clare Valley, Barossa and the Coonawarra, to name only a few) so that’s probably not fair to compare. When I return to Napa (which I hope to do), I will try to stay in Yountville itself. That town is just so damn cute that I’d love to spend a few days there. I highly recommend Napa as a romantic getaway.

Bouchon Bakery on Urbanspoon


The French Laundry

14 Mar

6640 Washington Street
Yountville, CA

Get ready for some superlatives! What do you expect from a review of a restaurant that has previously been named “The Best Restaurant in the World“? Twice.

The French Laundry is located in the pretty little town of Yountville in Napa Valley. The name was inspired by the cute old building that it resides in that was a French steam laundry back in the early 1900’s. Acclaimed chef, Thomas Keller, took over the space in 1994 and The French Laundry was born. The restaurant is a two-story stone building surrounded by a welcoming garden and the dining room is decorated in a sophisticated and classic style.

Getting a reservation at the French Laundry is no easy feat. It took two people, phoning constantly for an hour and half, just to get through to the reservations department. We were fortunate to get our preferred date immediately, although I’ve heard that this is unusual. You can only make a reservation 2 months prior to the day of your intended visit and with only very limited seating (between 60 and 70 seats, I believe) it can be a challenge.

It doesn’t stop there – once you finally have that reservation (gasp!), you must be sure not to lose it. You need to confirm again 72 hours before your reservation. I was so nervous, I phoned a week out and again at 72 hours. Some people might think that it seems like a lot of effort to go to for a meal but I feel that the “work” it took to dine on the best meal I’ve eaten, was the least I could do. The dress code is also quite strict – no jeans, t-shirts or shorts, and jackets are needed for men. The way I see it, is that if you are going to drop a small fortune on a meal, you may as well look good whilst doing it!

The format is always the same at The French Laundry. All guests select from the two unique nine-course tasting menus created for that day; one is the chef’s tasting and the other a tasting of vegetables. Both menus are $270 each, tip is included, but supplements are extra. Personally, I wouldn’t pay $270 for a tasting menu of vegetables, but that’s just me. I was told that there was no set wine pairing to go with the menu as they prefer to offer suggestions based on your wine preferences. Thankfully they assisted us with making our choices as the iPad wine menu (very cool) was a large and intimidating list.

Service from the beginning, right to the very end, was impeccable. We were constantly tended to without feeling overwhelmed and, for a place so highly regarded, I didn’t feel a sense of arrogance from the staff. In fact, we found them all to be very friendly whilst remaining professional and streamlined in their service.

Sitting at our table and we were instantly provided with the menu for the day and the wine menu. We placed our order and before we knew it the canapés started arriving. The canapés were salmon tartare coronets (cones filled with red onion creme fraiche and topped with salmon tartare) and gruyere gougères (French cheese puffs). Throughout our meal, baskets of fresh bread would show up, tempting us to fill ourselves even more. Salted and unsalted butters were provided to pair with the bread.

1st Course: “Oysters and Pearls” – “Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar.

2nd Course: Moulard Duck Foie Gras En Terrine – Celery branch, cara cara orange, juniper yogurt, almond sablé and red ribbon sorrel, served with three different “finishing salts” to sprinkle on the terrine.

3rd Course: Alaskan king crab “sandwich” – San Marzano tomato marmalade, Parmesan, cornichons, romaine lettuce and Haas avocado.

4th Course: Georges Bank Sea Scallops “Confit” – Fava beans, piquillo peppers, braised pine nuts and Serrano ham vinaigrette.

5th Course: Liberty Farm Pekin Duck – Cornbread, cavolo nero, bean purée and barrel-aged maple.

6th Course: Elysian fields farm lamb – “Ribettes”, medjool dates, cauliflower, toasted cashews and madras curry jus.

7th Course: Andante Dairy “Partita” – Royal Blenheim apricot “Membrillo”, fennel and saba vinegar.

8th Course: Cream Yogurt Sherbet – Toasted oats, pomegranate, oxalis and osmanthus “nuage”  (tea foam).

9th Course: My dessert: Meyer Lemon “Parfait” – Oregon Huckleberries, Sicilian pistachios and poppy-seed ice-cream

9th Course: B’s dessert: “Marjolaine” – Praline mousse, dacquoise, and roasted banana sorbet.

After the menu had been served, the extras just kept coming (and coming!); freshly fried doughnut holes, espresso semi-freddo, cappuccinos, house-made chocolates, and roasted macadamia nuts rolled in caramel and chocolate. We also received a final gift of freshly baked shortbread cookies to take home. Sadly, I just couldn’t fit these exquisite treats in. I had reached my limit. Thankfully, they beautifully packaged these delights for us to take home to enjoy later. We were also provided with a copy of the menu in its very own folder (a foodie keepsake). The meal finished extremely strong because of all of these thoughtful touches.

All of the dishes were outstanding but my favourite was the 2nd course of foie gras terrine. It was creamy, rich, and glossy as it spread on to the warm, freshly baked brioche accompaniment. I also loved that they replaced the cooled brioche with warm toast. I thoroughly enjoyed my first taste of caviar with the 1st course of “Pearls and Oysters” – the sweetness of the oysters paired well with the creaminess of this dish. The duck and the lamb were superbly cooked. I am still perplexed how they got the duck skin so crispy but the flesh so tender. I wasn’t too fond of the curry cauliflower with the lamb, nor the sheep cheese course. That is a personal taste however, and I did eat some of it but remain firm on my dislike of the “tang” of goat and sheep cheese.

Final Thoughts: Yes, the price is expensive. Like really expensive. But the way I see it is that this was one of my bucket-list items – an experience I wanted to have before I die so I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to do this. I don’t spend my money on expensive “stuff” like bags, shoes, gadgets, or a car, so this is my splurge. For me, the anticipation, the experience, and the memories, all make the price worth it to me.

Would I do it again? Absolutely. Was the food spectacular? Yes. Some dishes were more memorable than others but overall the menu was well structured and all of the added extras such as canapés, fresh bread, delectable desserts and baked gifts, made the meal truly indulgent. If the thought of spending a lot of money on food freaks you out, do not go to The French Laundry. As amazing as the food and the experience is, if you can’t get over the price then it won’t matter how great the food is, you will not enjoy it and it won’t be worth it for you. But if food is your passion and the experience of eating out and getting spoilt excites you, then try to get there once in your life time. It is an experience that you will remember forever.

French Laundry on Urbanspoon