I think I’ve found my Peter Pan happy place.
Yountville welcomes us with a wink, its trees and buildings sparkling under a solid spray of fairy lights. The gentle curves of Washington Street come lined with restaurants; appropriate ornamentation for the Napa Valley’s culinary capital.
We’ve come here for some serious R and R; rest and restaurants. Welcome to Thomas’ town. Thomas Keller’s presence in Yountville is undeniable- the restaurant advisor to Ratatouille has four stellar establishments within four hundred metres here. It’s a food tragic’s mecca.
A gentle stroll on our first night takes us from his provincial palace French Laundry, ranked fifth best restaurant in the world, to his gilded bistro Bouchon, where a special side of truffle speckled frites is a whirl of innocence lost and paradise found. The scent of sweet yeast and warm dough eking past gastro-pilgrims urges us on to Bouchon Bakery. The bakery is the last stop before Ad Hoc- the set menu diner Thomas opened as a stop- gap for three months, two years ago. No one has let him close it. We now understand why.
In three days we dine at all. There is no way to justify the excess, except to say that the days of the 27th- 29th of December; exactly a year before this venture weren’t our easiest days. The menu this year is firmly set for distraction and delight.
We’re staying at the Vintage Inn. We get a feeling we’re going to like it when we arrive to see cane sculptures of reindeer as a welcoming party- one has a red blinking light affixed jauntily to its nose. In the lobby there’s a fire blistering and a local wine tasting, with platters of prosciutto and cheese left out for casual grazing. A short wander past their fountains and manicured garden beds provides glimpses of the Domain Chandon vineyards. Our room is pretty with florals and festooned with cushions, a day bed, and a fireplace of our very own.
Between the flames, the food channel, free wifi and the spa twirling in the bathroom it’s going to be hard to tear ourselves away from this little haven.
The first meal we need to extricate ourselves for is at Bouchon. Despite the heat lamps, the 5 degree Celsius temperature means the tables beneath the brick red awning outside are empty. But at 8.45 pm on a Friday evening every table inside is full and the bar is stacked with friendly locals drinking bubbles and beer. Its a buzzing fantasy of what a French bistro should be.
Except we’re in California. There’s Billy Holiday as a soundtrack and you can order California pinot by the 500ml carafe. To start there are escargots ($16.50) twirling in garlic butter, individually nestled a in metallic muffin pan, jaunty with puff pastry hats. The snails are supposed to be shared and we have a fork fight over the last one. I should have taken up fencing. Luckily there are baguette batons styled like a fern frond on the table to dip in the last glugs lof garlic butter.
When it comes to mains, Thomas Keller said that his final supper would be his poulet roti. Roast chicken has never particularly excited me, but if someone like Thomas rates it that highly, it’s hard to go past it. A round white plate the size of a bowling bag comes bearing a hefty breast, wing and joint, joined by a cabbage roll stuffed with onion, lardons and mushrooms. There’s a little lick of mushroom jus slicking the plate. It’s good. Pulling the crispy skin off the plump skin brings the same kind of indulgent pleasure as peeling dried glue off your hands. A butter lettuce salad of simple leaves flecked with shards of herbs is dressed in a light vinaigrette. Its subtle and delicate. A pile of frites, stacked like kindling for a rough winter comes dusted with black truffle shavings.
It would take a feat of will that we don’t possess for someone not to eat every single one and then lick the plate. The first few are greeted with the silence The Hungry One saves for when something is very very good. Can’t talk. Eating; is the general, unspoken sentiment.
There’s no room for dessert. The candles on the table burn low and we leave behind the Christmas tree, poinsettias, fine stemware and collective nostalgia for nights in Paris for a much needed walk in the cold air.
We wake up to breakfast at the Vintage Inn; which is something that we’ve needed two weeks of holiday training to prepare our stomachs for. You can help yourself to Domaine Chandon; so we do. You can also help yourself to bloody marys, but our better angels stop us breaking out the vodka at 10 am. Instead we devote our energies to fresh berries, red wine poached pears, squishy squares of bread and butter pudding, berry compote and crème anglaise spattered with real vanilla bean.
The Hungry One makes a beeline for the omelettes, but I can’t bear to leave the embarrassment of riches and the fresh raspberries. There are muffins and pastries and porridge and bagels. Considering where we’re heading for dinner, we eat too much.
At 4.30pm it’s time to get dressed. The fact that the hotel could get us a booking at French Laundry is so wondrous that we didn’t blink when told it was for 5.30pm. I would have taken anything. The only person who has more Michelin stars than Thomas Keller is Alain Ducasse. That’s not bad company to be playing in.
The dress code at French Laundry is both specific and vague. The instruction that comes is jackets for gentlemen. There’s nothing for women. I take a punt on a black cocktail dress, cardigan, heels and a sparkly broach. The Hungry One’s in a suit, with an open neck French cuff white shirt.
For the fifth best restaurant in the world there’s no obvious bells and whistles from the outside. It’s an unassuming little country house, with quaint gardens, shutters on the windows and across the road from garden plots growing herbs and green leafy vegetables to supplement the kitchen.
In the main dining room downstairs there’s a fire burning. Once the room starts to fill it borders on uncomfortably warm. There are two choices of menus, one brimming with ‘luxury’ ingredients and one primarily made up of vegetables, with a rogue dish including Iberico jamon. There are some choices to be made; once you’ve selected your path then there’s the choice whether you want to supplement the menu (and the bill) with more luxury; foie gras terrine instead of a salad of beets and horseradish, and an additional course to showcase white truffles; ‘the rarest and most prestigious food product in the world’ is how they upsell. The Hungry One is hooked. It’s going to have to be yes to everything.
I don’t quite know how to summarise French Laundry. There are moments of quiet, lyrical splendour, where the food makes you close your eyes and mentally shop for adjectives. Then there for us there are moments where things grind to a stop; this largely comes from the staff.
Choosing wines is slightly awkward. It becomes obvious that they don’t like to pair wines by the glass to the courses; preferring you to purchase by the bottle. Compared to the incredibly deft, playful pairings of distillations and juice, wine and hilarity we had at Mugaritz in Spain, or even the relative ease we had explaining our comparatively meagre budget at Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas, here it was a slightly uncomfortable negotiation. (Our explanation on this trip goes something along the lines of “It’s probably worth saying upfront that the Australian dollar isn’t doing so well since the financial wobbles. If you could bear that in mind when you suggest your pairings, we’d be very grateful. We’re also happy to share glasses”).
Then there’s the shuddering moment when glowing under the warmth of the room The Hungry One dares to take off his jacket, revealing a very nice white shirt ( his wedding shirt, in fact). Within 30 seconds someone is dispatched to his side to scold that ‘They would prefer it if he kept his jacket on throughout the meal’. It feels like we’re the naughty children who have got in trouble. The jacket goes back on, but there’s a sour taste in our mouths that’s hard to dislodge.
Though it is a hard task to have anything but pleasure trotting on your tongue when you eat Keller’s ‘oysters and pearls’.
A glass of champagne helps ease our discomfort, and is also perfect partner for this edible essay on bubbles and spheres; pearls of tapioca are bound in sabayon, hosting the neatly trimmed centres of two oysters and a big whack of caviar. It’s rich, salty, squishy and smooth. It’s one of the sexiest things I’ve eaten, but it’s hard to be swept away when you feel like someone’s watching your every move.
There are soaring moments that follow; the terrine of foie gras comes smoother than microsuede, with three different salts to scatter over so you can experiment with the flavours. The simple fleur de sel from France works best for us. Mid way through devouring the chunk of engorged liver our hunk of toasted brioche is replaced with another, to ensure it remains warm. It seems important to them.
Other highlights amid our efforts to sit up straight and keep our cutlery aligned include the blanket of white truffles which are shaved over risotto bianco. Warm brown butter is ladled over the truffles to help release the aroma. All together the truffles are feminine and subtle, giving slightly at your teeth like al dente pasta.
Then there’s a tail of lobster poached in butter, its richness cut with a scattering of lurid pink pomegranate seeds, and green floating curls of brussel sprout leaves.
There’s a course of snake farm beef, as pink as a sunburnt bottom, with carrots, parsnips, onion and veal jus. There is a saddle of rabbit, stuffed with sweetbreads, served with prune; dense, meaty. There’s a quenelle of buttermilk sherbet with sour cherries and pecan. Dessert for me is a concoction of caramel, pumpkin and chocolate; a holiday merry go round of a course stopping off at Thanksgiving and Christmas on its way. For The Hungry One it’s the yogurt bavois with huckleberry puree and molasses, sweet but nippily tart in turn. The talents in these dishes are undeniable.
Then there is the occasional yawn. The fish course of pan roasted Suzuki with bok choi and mushrooms is elegant but to me- timid. Goats ewe cheese triangles come with currants, almonds, watercress and cauliflower florets. While the flavours all sing in the same key, it’s slightly reminiscent of a bounty a squirrel might forage for. Then there’s vague infuriation at the silver stick that comes attached to the leg in the quail dish. Lesson learned. It’s ok to pick up the quail leg and chew, but not to take off your jacket.
We twiddle with the petit fours that come in three decker circular drawer, collect our coats and complimentary shortbread for the road and meander up the road at 9pm, to our hotel room where we can do whatever we like. It might be worth noting, this is the most expensive meal we’ve ever had.
The next night it’s time to give Thomas another spin, at Ad Hoc. It’s an interesting counterpoint to the lofty heights of French Laundry. Thomas says “The idea for Ad Hoc was simple – 5 days a week we’d offer a 4 course family style menu that changed each day, accompanied by a small, accessible wine list in a casual setting reminiscent of home.”
The restaurant is modern and warm, with accents in blonde wood, blues playing on the stereo, a small real tree in the corner and the menu placed on the table in a manila folder, like an office file.
There’s no choice and there’s something liberating about that. Two types of bread from the bakery come with butter, and we choose a glass of Etude Rose Carneros each t $9 a glass. It comes in a water glass, but it’s so elegantly crisp we almost don’t notice.
First is a winter vegetable fry; tempura style cooked pumpkin, green beans, broccoli rabe, mushrooms and pearl onions to dip in a little bowl of black pepper aioli. Then there’s slabs of roasted Elysian Fields lamb, rosy pink in the core like a teething toddlers cheeks, over potato and celeriac puree with rocket flicked around it.
We’re offered three different mini tastings of red wine so we can choose which one we like best by the glass. There’s rounds of chalky sheep cheese with blonde frisee, spiced almonds and segments of cara cara oranges. Some stickies are pulled out to go with. To finish there’s apple empanadas, stuffed with local heirloom apples, topped with rich caramel sauce and a dusting of salt flakes. Salted caramel is a revelation. It takes it back from the sickly and moves straight to adult.
The wait staff seem to gel with us. There’s a lot of booze being poured and travel tips being shared.
The signage outside Ad Hoc says ‘for the temporary relief of hunger’. The $48 four course set menu does more than that. The servings so generous, the staff so genial that we almost have to be pushed out at closing time. There’s an offer to join the team at a dive bar down the street. We know when to end an evening on a high note, so we stumble back to make a fire.
Our final homage to Thomas takes in the bakery in morning. We manage to push our way to the front of the queue and get bamboozled by choice. There are pastry concoctions with flakes like plucked fairy wings, sandwiches, salads, biscuits and breads. In the end it’s a bloated hazelnut macaroon; a skinny coffee éclair and a dense, squat, brownie like crown called a chocolate Bouchon that find their way with us in the car as we leave.
All in all – the sum of Yountville is greater than its parts.
There was the perfect black coat that we found on a whim for The Hungry One in the sheepskin store- at 50 % off. There was the olive oil that we got to blend as a present at Napa Style homewares emporium. There was a lunch at Bottega, a newly opened enoteca where we slid into leather banquets, drank a cortillon of red wine while cuddling up to the exposed brick walls and knocking back three puffed cumulus clouds of dough, dusted with parmesan and decorated with pomegranate seeds beside a bowl of sparkling lambrusco. A curious combination, but perfect collection of flavours, all in harmony. Then there was the risotto rice tart, rib stickingly warm from the wood fired oven and playing with huckleberries and marscapone.
There were vineyards to gaze at and cold cheeks to warm, and more quality food in a closer vicinity than I’ve ever seen in my life.
If we came back, it would be all about Bouchon, Ad Hoc and we’d make time to try Bistro Jeanty and Redd, which also line the street, but didn’t get time to play. We might also have had some room for the high tea that’s offered every day at the Vintage Inn
We leave Yountville elated, vowing to return and eternally grateful for elasticised pants.
A happy place indeed.