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Sunday, August 9, 2009

Napa Birthday Trip - Part One

Tuesday morning found Jim and I up bright and early, stopping for a quick breakfast and then hitting the I-5 to head up to Napa. The drive was long and uneventful - no traffic! We made it to downtown Napa in the early afternoon, stopped for a light lunch at Taylor's Automatic Refresher (pretty good, but not as amazing as we hoped for) and then did a little light shopping at the outlets. By around 5pm, we headed to Yountville to check in to our hotel, The Villagio Inn.

Our room on the second floor at the front of the hotel was great. Quiet and just steps away from the pool on one side and the spa facilities on the other.

We still had some time before dinner, so we explored the area a bit and then headed back to the room to get ready. We also broke into the complimentary bottle of wine left for us. :)
This was around the time that I hit a photo slump. I think I must have been tired from the drive and still recovering from the weekend. All I could think about was finding a place for dinner and just sitting down to relax and eat. Unfortunately, we hadn't made dinner reservations for Tuesday night and Bottega and Bouchon were both fully booked for the evening. (Lesson of the day - Always make your dinner reservations in advance!)

Instead, we settled for Hurley's Restaurant, just down the street from our hotel. Knowing nothing about it beforehand, it was actually a really pleasant dinner. We split the crabcakes, I had roast chicken with mac and cheese w/bacon while Jim opted for the steak and potatoes. For dessert, creme brulee and chocolate gelato. And all of it topped off with a couple of glasses of wine. The service and food were both quite good and it was a great end to a long day.

We had a big night ahead of us, so we specifically opted for a really mellow day and early evening. A full breakfast buffet is one of the many amenities of the hotel and we took advantage of it each morning. Again, still on a bit of a picture strike for some reason, but trust me when I tell you our omelets were cooked to perfection and the breakfast pastries were heavenly. After breakfast, Jim had to squeeze in a few hours of work, so I sat by the pool and read, while drinking copious amounts of fancy flavored water they had poolside and receiving some very sweet birthday wishes via text and email.

Jim was done with work by early afternoon so we walked down the street for a quick bite at Pacific Blues Cafe. My burger and his club sandwich were fine, but nothing out of this world. A nice solid meal though. We briefly explored the V Marketplace after lunch before heading back to the hotel for more pool time. Around 3ish, the hotel puts out an afternoon spread of sweet and savory goodies for its guests, so of course, we had to poke our noses in and see what it was all about. We each had a few cookies and some decaf coffee while sitting outside enjoying the view of the grapevines on property. [You'd think I would have taken some pictures of all of this, right? Yeah, not so much. :/]

Since our dinner reservation wasn't until 9pm (practically my bed time on most other nights - ha!) we used the discount coupon that came with our welcome package to each get a deep tissue massage before dinner. Because, you know, the evening wasn't going to be nearly decadent enough as it was. ;) My masseuse was just okay, but hey, it was still a massage.

And then it was time to get ready for, as Jim was calling it, our "super fancy" dinner. I'm not gonna lie, I was totally nervous. I mean, really though, it's pretty ridiculous to be nervous to go somewhere to pay to eat, but I was. Jim and I gussied ourselves up and about quarter to 9pm, we headed down the street to The French Laundry. EEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!

Since we were walking to the restaurant in the dark, it took us a few false starts to finally find it. Once we did, we stepped through that lovely deep blue door into a small foyer, where we were greeted by the staff... and had some icy glances shot our way by some of the others waiting for their 9pm reservations. Okay, now look. I realize we were some of the youngest ones there (with the exception of the two kids upstairs, but that's a whole other issue), but come on. Why some of the other guests felt the need to shoot us the evil eye is beyond me. It's not like we showed up looking like ragamuffins. I tell ya. Some people just baffle me.

After about 15 minutes, everyone else had been seated at their table... but we were still there waiting. You gotta hand it to TFL, though. They sent the sommelier out, with two champagne flutes and a bottle of some lovely champagne, he explained to us that our table was taking longer to leave than they had expected and to please have a glass of bubbly on the house. Why, thank you, I think we will. :) The sommelier was very nice and personable and stayed to chat with us for a bit, then left us to enjoy the compliments of the house. No more than a few minutes later, we were led back to a quiet table in the corner of the restaurant, seated next to another couple who were a couple of courses ahead of us. Please note, we were the absolute last table to be seated for the evening. That'll come up a bit later.

We were no more seated, than our server came by with the menus and wine list for our perusal. He went through the evenings menu with us in detail, explaining the intricacies of the dishes and noting anything particularly special about an ingredient or a preparation and the courses where a choice between one of two items could be made. [For those unfamiliar with the restaurant, each night two 9-course menus are offered - one with meat, the other a tasting of vegetables. The courses are small, but as we found out, you do not walk out of there hungry. Like, at all.] After confirming that indeed, we were not vegetarians, he left us for a moment to finalize our order. We opted to each choose a different course for those in which there was more than more option, so we could sample the most courses. Our server helped us choose two half bottles of wine that would bridge us through the appetizers, fish and meat courses and then the real fun began. :D

At this point I still hadn't decided whether or not I was going to take pictures. But, seeing as how we were tucked back a bit from the main diningroom, I felt more comfortable snapping a quick pic of each course. And, I realized, that I really wanted a photographic timeline of the evening, so it worked out quite well.
Gruyere Cheese Gougeres (left) and "Cornets" - Salmon Tartare with Sweet Red Onion Creme Fraiche (center) As soon as your order has been taken and the wine has been decided, these little beauties are presented. I pretty much knew that both of these were coming as they are pretty iconic to the restaurant, but that didn't stop me from squealing a bit when we received them. The gougeres are wonderful little puff of pastry with the tiniest remnant of gruyere tucked inside. Lovely. The "cornets" are so cute and pack a wonderful punch of flavor.

White Truffle Oil-Infused Custards with Black Truffle Ragout I knew about this dish from reading through the cookbook a bit and from religously reading French Laundry at Home, but I was surprised to see it sitting in front of me. It was presented as "a gift from the kitchen" and my what a pretty and delicious little gift it was. I don't think I've ever had a savory custard before and this one was fabulous. Perfectly cooked custard and a rich truffle sauce on top. So so good.

So, the little goodies above? Yeah, we still haven't begun the actual tasting menu yet. Mmmm hmmmm.

Course 1:

"Oysters and Pearls" Sabayon of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar Confession time - I don't particularly care for oysters. Yet, I had read that this dish was amazing. So, I was intrigued, but still a bit wary. O. M. G. This might be one of the best things I've eaten ever. EVER! I wanted to march back to the kitchen and beg them to let me just sit back there and eat this until they closed for the evening. Truly unbelievable. I think at one point my eyes rolled back in my head. Yeah, I think I'm going to have to try and make this one at home because I'm not sure if my life will be complete if I don't have this again.

Course 2:

Gazpacho Tomato "Bavarois", English Cucumber, Toybox Tomatoes and French Laundry Garden Blossoms As a general rule, I've really grown to love gazpacho over the past few years. This, however, blew whatever I thought gazpacho was before, completely out of the water. I really think I could have this for lunch every day and be a perfectly content little lady. Guess who is raiding her local farmer's market next weekend and whipping up a batch of this at home?

Moulard Duck "Foie Gras en Terrine" Pink Apple Relish, Celery Branch, Toasted Oats and Ginger-Yogurt I made Jim order this option because I've had a real mixed experience with foie gras in the past. I've tried it twice - once I didn't care much for it and the other time it was just okay. So, while I wanted to try it, I didn't also want to be stuck feeling like I had to eat a plate of something that was just meh. As you saw from above, the gazpacho was truly amazing, but I think I might have chosen the wrong option here. THIS STUFF WAS OUT OF THIS WORLD!!! Those of you who think you've tasted foie gras before - nope. I beg to differ. The only way I can describe it is think of the best, creamiest, salted butter you've ever had. Then multiply it by 1000, put it on some homemade toasted brioche and maybe you'll get close to what this tastes like. Again, absolutely unreal. Jim had the first few bites and I definitely saw eyes roll back in his head. I have to try and find a recipe for this preparation because while I'm sure it's labor intensive, I really would like to eat this again. Very soon.

Course 3:

Island Creek Scallop and Santa Barbara Sea Urchin Belgian Endive, Green Grapes, Hazelnuts, Watercress and Black Truffles from Australia This dish sounded totally intriguing. Barely cooked scallop and urchin? Sure, I mean, when else will I get to try such things? I really liked the mostly raw scallop - it had an interesting texture that I quite liked, but the flavor was what you'd expect from a scallop. The urchin was different, and it took me a few bites to get used to it, but once I got over the initial texture issue, I enjoyed it. The server said this was "very heavy in flavor from the sea" and I think that was a great way to describe it.

Sauteed Fillet of Australian Bluefin Tuna Navel Orange, Tokyo Turnips, Broccolini, Perilla Shoots and White Sesame (not pictured - oops!) Guess I forgot to photograph this one. The bite of tuna I had was perfectly cooked. I'm assuming it was excellent as Jim pretty much licked his plate at the end. ;)

Amidst all of this eating, I also made sure to have a full compliment of beverages going. What is that, like quadruple-fisting?!

Course 4:

Maine Lobster Tail "Pochee Au Beurre Doux" Hawaiian Hearts of Palm, Yellow Peaches, Pili Nuts, Cilantro and "Piment d'Espelette" Syrup So, what do you do to make a delectable Maine Lobster tail even more divine. Duh, poach that baby in butter! Perfectly cooked and beautifully paired with the hearts of palm and yellow peaches. Jim and I have both realized that we don't love lobster enough to eat it if it's mediocre, but bring it on if it's amazing. This was amazing.

Course 5:

Marcho Farms "Coeur de Veau" Almond Milk "Pain Perdu," Bing Cherry, Sunchokes, Frisee and Dijon Mustard Here is another one of these dishes that sounds super intriguing and doubtful that I'd have a chance to eat it elsewhere. Veal heart that I think had been perserved in duck fat and then thinly sliced into ribbons and served. I mean, really, they don't serve that at the local burger joint, you know? Surprisingly, I enjoyed this one! This may sound strange, but it reminded me a lot of a well-cured pastrami. It would have made a killer sandwich on some fresh bread with spicy deli mustard. The only downside to the dish was there was just too much of it for a tasting menu portion. I sadly left half of it on the plate and when the server voiced his concern, I let him know that the portion was just a bit too big. Although, maybe I should have asked for it to go.... That sandwich idea really could have been awesome. ;)

Bacon-Wrapped Sirloin of Devil's Gulch Ranch Rabbit Black-Eyed Peas, Golden Corn, Piquillo Peppers and Paprika Sauce I had a small bite of the bacon-wrapped sirloin and it was really delicious. Jim was a bit perplexed at the rabbit kidney that came with the dish, but seemed to enjoy it and found the mini-rack of rabbit pretty funny. His plate was pretty much licked clean, so I'm guessing it was all good.

Course 6:

Snake River Farms "Calotte de Boeuf Grillee" La Ratte Potato Confit, Red Radish, Alma Tierra Lettuce and Summer Truffle Creme FraicheI don't think I've ever seen a more perfectly cooked piece of beef in my life. Beautifully medium rare, but with no bloodly mess. This particular cut of beef is the cap of the ribeye. Why you don't usually see it served this way is because most people find it ludicrous to cut off the cap of a perfectly good ribeye - then what will you do with the rest of it? Thomas Keller's mother used to serve this cut, so he introduced it to the restaurant. They have a purveyor that sells them just this cut because the rest is used at another of his restaurants in a separate dish. The cow itself is a cross between a Japanese Waygu cow and an American beef cow. The result - the perfect blend of fatty Waygu marbling and American beef flavor. This was delicious, I'm only sad that it came this late in the meal when my poor stomach was starting to wave the white flag quite strongly. The potatoes served with it were great as was the truffle creme fraiche. Lovely.

Course 7:

"Cavatina" Mission Fig, Fennel Bulb, Cipollini Onions, Wild Arugula and Balsamic VinegarStrong goat cheese and I tend to have a tenous relationship as it is, but when I'm full to bursting? Yeah, it's just a bit too much for me. I had a few bites of this on some bread and I really think I would have liked it quite a bit had I not been so incredibly stuffed at this point. I would definitely try this particular cheese again, if I ever had the chance though.

Course 8:

Honeydew Melon Sorbet Compressed Watermelon and Basil "Nuage" Not a ton to this course, which was a blessing at this point in the meal. ;) The sorbet was light and the basil foam a nice compliment to the melon flavor.

Course 9:

"Gateau Saint Nizier au Manjari" Mango-Chili Relish, Valrhona Chocolate Cocoa Nibs, Lime Foam and Coconut Milk SorbetHappy Birthday to me! :) The chocolate cake was wonderful, but the real standouts for me were the lime foam and the coconut milk sorbet. So delicious! I really have no idea how I found room for this, but I'm a trooper and worked it out.

Lemon Verbena "Vacherin" Tellicherry Pepper Panna Cotta, Lemon Verbena Sherbet and Chilled Silverado Trail Strawberry ConsommeJim said this was good, but again, I think he was having spacing issues in his stomach. I did take a small bite of the strawberry consomme and it was so fresh and light.


Assorted candies and hazelnuts dipped in caramel and chocolate and then dusted with powdered sugar. See what I'm saying about you not walking out hungry?! We each had a hazelnut and a candy and then asked for the rest to be boxed up. This was around the time that our server also came by with a tray of chocolates. Again, my eyes rolled back in my head from being so stuffed and he graciously added a few to our to go bag.

In addition to the goodies above, we also went home with a bag of shortbread cookies each and a small bag of wrapped chocolate bars for my birthday. Lastly, also took home a menu from the evening - especially cool in light of the fact that it's dated with my actual 30th birthday date at the top. :)

Needless to say, this was the best dinner I've ever had. I had such high expectations for this night and they were more than met, they were exceeded. For us, as I'm sure it is for most people, this was a once in a lifetime experience and I felt as though the staff treated it that way and really bent over backwards to make us feel welcome and at home. Our main server, in particular, was really wonderful and he gets a lot of the credit for making our time there so relaxed and comfortable. He even commented on my picture-taking and asked if we'd like one together. When I tried to explain what the pictures were for, he waved off my explanations and said "I totally understand, I do the same thing when I'm out." We found out from the couple sitting next to us (who were very nice, unlike the crazies that we came in with, and chatted with us now and again during the meal) that he had been at TFL since it opened 15 years prior. I must say, it definitely showed. :)

A huge thanks to my wonderful Jim for making our trip to Napa and most importantly, our night at TFL a reality. I love you so much and could not think of a more amazing way to leave my 20s behind. :)

Next up, wine tasting and Thomas Keller, take 2!


  1. i concur with you and jim re: lobster. i love it, but only when it's very good and fresh. otherwise, bring on other "taste[s] of the sea."

    so amazing. i can't wait to go. one day. one day.

  2. Wow! What an amazing birthday meal!

  3. Wow! What an amazing meal. I would looove to try just one of those courses. Ok, who am I kidding? I want them all. Some day.

  4. I'm so glad you had such a great time and wonderful meal! I kept checking to see your blog post about TFL. I love the breakfast spread at the hotel as well. Such a nice treat thrown in with the room!

  5. Bless you for taking photos of my dream dinner! <3 <3 <3

  6. Well holy SHIT, French Laundry Batman!

    I am dying of pure envy right now. The pictures? They slayed me. I am just stunned. Stunned, I tell you!

    I have lived vicariously and truly feel stuffed to near explosion right now. How can that be?

    What a beautiful way to spend your 30th birthday. Happiest of days to you, woman!

  7. Wow, what a beautiful hotel and an incredible dinner! Can't wait to hear more!

  8. so, you didn't enjoy the dinner much, did you? ;)

    I am green with envy! and it's funny how all of those little portions do add up - at least you were able to take the little goodies to go!

  9. I've had those shortbread cookies, so there ;P Everything looks divine, what an amazing birthday meal! I used to have pet rabbits, so the "bunny pic" kinda freaked me out. Your description of good foie gras had me drooling! Sorry about Taylor's!

  10. meal sounds amazing. but you looked even better!!!!!!!!!!!

  11. Firstly, Happy Belated! Secondly, I'm so happy you got to realize such a great dream! The pics are amazing...I'm hungry just from reading this post!!! Looks like you had a marvelous weekend, awesome way to ring in your 30th!

  12. i just food orgasmed in my pants.

    confession: i read this in the presence of the hub so i could "ooh" and "aah" and hopefully influence him for a similar experience someday.

    happy belated birthday again! that jim, he's a keeper :)

  13. As soon as I read "Napa birthday" I had a hunch that this was coming...exciting! I really want to go someday, but I don't think it'll be any time soon.

    A friend and her family cook an entire French Laundry meal from the cookbook every summer. It takes them 3 days, there are spreadsheets involved to keep timings, ingredients and who's doing what straight, and it always involves crazy stories about super detailed processes with unusual ingredients. I've been lucky enough to try some of the leftovers, and I agree that even when the dishes have featured things I don't like, the combinations are delicious. Happy belated birthday!

  14. As much as my picky self would have been freaked out in person, I found myself oohing and ahhing over all your courses. Everything looked so amazing, so I can just imagine how it all tasted :)

  15. I'm so intimidated by that dinner! It's a far cry from Olive Garden, that's for sure. You and J look so great in that last photo, btw. Happy belated birthday again A!

  16. So so glad you decided to take pictures. Wonderful!!!