An old friend from my Toronto days, Josh Josephson, breezed through Napa Valley a few weeks ago.
I was out of town, so I asked Josh, who fancies himself a fulltime restaurant critic, when he isn’t researching neurosurgical drug matters, to send me a list of where he ate, what he ate, and what he liked while in Napa Valley.
The guy ate at all the places listed below in TWO days, took all these photos, and posted all these comments on his own site, https://cookbookstoreblog.blogspot.com/2011/09/napa-restaurants-french-laundry-tra.html
I append Josh’s review in full. It is unedited and does not necessarily carry my full endorsement or agreement. But this guy pretty much knows what he’s talking about; for one thing, Josh has a serious passion for food, cooking and cuisine, In fact, he opened, with Alison Fryer and Barbara Caffery, Canada’s first cookbook store. Called "The Cookbook Store," in Toronto, it's still running strong 30 years later.
As well as being an optometrist actively involved with research. Josh is chairman of the Standards Council of Canada, Ophthalmic Committees (spectacle lens, contact lens, contact lens care, product standards, etc.). He is Canada's sole voting representative at all ISO meetings.
Most recently, working with a research neurosurgeon, Josh founded a pharmaceutical company that has developed a stroke drug, which prevents complications from a stroke; at present, it is in FDA clinical trials.
All the while, Josh still owns and operates Josephson Opticians, Canada's first high fashion optical chain, established in 1935, by his dad, David, who outfitted me with my earliest glasses.
Anyway, have a look at where Josh ate in Napa Valley, and what he had to say about each course. It’s like a condensed visual Zagat trip through the entire valley.
One more thing: those aren't misspellings below. Those are quaint Canadian spellings: "flavour, colour, etc." Hey, Blame it on Canada!
The French Laundry, Yountville, California
Cornet filled with salmon tartar, red onion, creme fraiche.
Medjule date puree, chopped roasted cashew and cilantro in advance of the carrot soup to be poured.
The carrot puree soup with a touch of peanut butter in the puree. The sublime sweetness of the carrot puree went so well with the sweet date flavour. I do not eat mellons. The carrot soup was the chef's menu substitution.
My friend's choice of compressed summer melons with crystallized ginger, lemon verbena and garden mint.
Salted and sweet butter for the bread. The butters were redolent of field flavours.
Jardiniere de legumes d'ete with Australian black truffle coulis. A marvellous, memory provoking range of bright flavours and textures.
The presentation of the gazpacho ingredients before an emulsion of tomato essence is poured: toybox tomatoes, cucumber, garlic, cilantro and Manni extra virgin olive oil sorbet.
The gazpacho complete. Certainly one of the best gazpachos that I have enjoyed, with a bright tomato flavour complemented by the Manni oil sorbet.
My friend's choice of chawanmushi, dungeness crab, current tomatoes, bonito, tosaka seaweed and strips of nori.
Salad of black mission figs with petite onions, Piedmont hazelnuts, arugula, and smoked soubise. The figs added a heavenly dimension to this dish and worked well with smokey flavour of the soubise.
Degustation de pommes de terres, fingerling potatoes, red radish, petite lettuces and Australian black truffle. This was a sensational dish of earthy, complementary flavours.
Cranberry bean agnolotti with brentwood corn, filet beans and bean blossoms awaiting the bouillon.
The mangalitsa ham bouillon is added. Fabulous contrasting flavours from the bouillon and the perfectly cooked, delicate pasta of the cranberry bean filled agnolotti.
My friend ordered the hand cut farfalle with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, eggplant, Spanish capers, meyer lemon, pine nuts and parmesan "nuage". He felt that the pasta was not cooked adequately, left the pasta over and ate the rest.
"Burrata" consisting of "pain de campagne" croutons, baby squash, Greek basil and charred padron pepper vinaigrette. Again, wonderful layers of flavours that worked so well together with the nicely contrastng textures.
Persian lime sorbet with mascarpone "panna cotta", graham cracker and toasted marshmallows. After this great dessert I was so satisfied and yet there was more!
Dark chocolate "marquise", malt "anglaise", raison puree, cocoa "financiere" and muscovado sugar ice cream.
My friend's selection.
Fabulous mignardises with various fillings.
"Coffee and donuts!" A coffee, chocolate pudding like consistency on the bottom layer with a thick rich milk foam on the top, accompanied by chocolate coated macadamias and the best "timbits" (for you Tim Horton people) you have ever tasted, sugar dusted crispy skinned dough balls with a soft interior...addictive!
Another crisp and well flavoured hit, the rosemary pizzetta with roasted head of garlic, cambozola cheese and Dickson Ranch "Regina" olive oil. The pizzas at Tra Vigne were the very best that I tasted in the Napa region.
The best wood oven roasted padron peppers I experienced in Napa and almost every resto offered some version of these peppers! Perfectly cooked, tossed with Napa's taggiasca olive oil, pleasantly crispy skinned and not over oily. The gold standard for me.
A perfectly rendered rigatoni alla carbonara made with guanciale bacon, onions, organic eggs, cracked pepper and parmesan. This was a very rich tasting dish for which the critical elements were the richness of the egg and the properly reduced sauce.
Our wine of the night. Pardon the side view as I tried to rotate the image: A fabulous Whitehall Lane Reserve vintage 2003.
The rare steak, served with crispy skinned, roasted potatoes and perfectly sauteed spinach with olive oil and chopped garlic. This steak was as good as the best bistecca fiorentina I have ever enjoyed in Florence. Great flavour, texture and juiciness. A "beef boys" ranking of 8/8 1/2/ 8 1/2 (all out of 10).
Our wine, a very good example of regionally made pinot noir, Red Dog Vineyard's Ancien vintage 2007.
Blood sausage, caramelize apple on mashed potatoes. I love blood sausage and with the caramelized apples and mash, this well executed dish, with it's sweet earthy flavours, smooth but coarse texture, really hit the spot.
Leek and melted goat cheese tart. A melt in the mouth, intensely leek flavoured, thin crispy crusted delight. A perfect tart.
Bone marrow, sauce bordelais. Remarkable quality marrow, not too fatty/oily, perfectly cooked to be somewhat firm in texture. Wonderful flavour.
Pied de cochon, lightly breaded, deep fried, crispy skinned, perfectly spiced and accompanied by a whole grain mustard sauce and tasty, crispy frites.
Lemon meringue tart with a shortbread crust, accompanied by a lemon orange sauce !! Just look at this mile high piece of indulgent pleasure! It tasted as good as it looked.
Armagnac soaked prunes over rich vanilla ice cream. These liquor soaked prunes were as good as I have enjoyed anywhere.
Brentwood sweet corn, grape tomatoes and Blue Lake beans. This was a bland dish with no distinguishing element. The corn was sweet but not sweet enough.
These padrano peppers were strangely textured, rather oily and almost slimy. The aioli was spicy and had a nice creamy texture.
This was a good salad with Marin Roots mustard greens. roasted eggplant, Jimmy Nardello peppers, a slow cooked Tully Dolci egg and pecorino sardo. A very tasty salad with intriguing flavours. The wonderful tasting egg was perfectly cooked but did not seem a great complement for this dish.
Bucatini alla carbonara with pancetta, Tulli Dolci egg, coarsely ground black pepper and pecorino romano. The pasta was perfectly cooked and the black pepper a very good accent for the rich addition of the Tulli Dolci egg. However, the sauce was slightly too salty.
Wild nettle fidei pasta with wood oven roasted san marzano tomatoes, eggplant, Jimmy Nardello peppers and pesto Genovese. Again, the pasta was perfectly cooked and most of the flavours of this dish were good, especially the strong eggplant flavour. However, the dish may be too complicated with too many things happening. The pesto flavour component was a bit too salty and perhaps a bit overwhelming.
Perfectly cooked donuts had very good flavour and good texture with a crispy skin. The mascarpone sauce was a good tasty complement.
The burger arrived perfectly medium rare, as ordered. It was juicy, but too much of that juiciness was the fatty component. The fries were crispy and ok.
In the meantime, I enjoyed the artichoke grilled over a wood fire. The artichokes had been basted with garlic butter loaded with finely chopped garlic and served with an extraneous sauce resembling remoulade, which after tasting, I ignored. This dish was one of my 2 favourite dishes in the 2 meals at the Grill.
While I was waiting for my beef, I had oak grilled pork ribs which were sided with the house made BBQ sauce. The ribs were a bit too "fall off the bone" done, but they were tasty from the wood smoke. They arrived with very good crispy french fries and a very good, creamy dressed slaw made with chopped parsley and chopped cabbage
My Second serving of roast beef arrived. Remarkably, not to my liking, again: medium to medium rare, on the medium side. The beef was on the tough side and a bit dry tasting too! Clearly my server is no judge of what degrees of doneness should look like....and he should be as he is the quality controller of what is put in front of guests. The beef in this restaurant was a sincere disappointment. On the beef tasting scale we have established among our serious amateurs and professionals (the "beef boys") I would give it a rating of 53/4 /4 /4 (taste, texture and juiciness, on a scale out of 10). The horseradish sauce was not particularly enjoyable and the "au jus" a watery stock that a good piece of beef would make completely redundant. The potatoes were as I described before, for me, the only edible food on the plate!
Lightly breaded, crispy, very tasty onion rings were accompanied by a nice house made ketchup. They are great when they are fresh and hot.
The dungeness crab cakes were good but the salad dressing for the greens was really very enjoyable, a raspberry, canola oil, vinegar molasses vinaigrette. I have never had canola oil taste so good.
This was my half of the fabulous Don Watson lamb burger which arrived perfectly cooked as ordered, medium rare to rare, and what a great burger, my favourite item ordered. The burger was very juicy and had a light smokey flavour. The bun was also perfect, a crispy skin with a soft interior that did not fall apart as one ate the burger. Arugula and sliced onion were added to the burger. The fries were crispy and tasty but were over salted and frankly inedible.
I had high expectations of the wood smoke oven cooked Sonoma duck. Unfortunately, the smoke flavour was overly strong. I suspect that apple wood or pecan wood was not used but would have been preferable. The meat was a bit too dry. The duck was accompanied by local beans, grilled sweet potatoes and mustard fruits.
Dessert was a terrific, intensely flavoured plum orange sorbet and pleasingly not too sweet. There was a very nice lingering after taste, an experience often lost in the quality of most restaurant sorbets.
The best dish of the night was the lovely, crusted, savory onion tart, which contained caramelized onion with rosemary, applewood smoked bacon and goat cheese. Frisee lettuce and sliced cherry tomato were on the side.
The main was a tamarind and chipotle glazed portion of buffalo short ribs accompanied by a ginger and scallion risotto, and baby bok choy.
The patacones also looked so enticing, fried, crispy crusted plaintain tarts one filled with chopped avocado and chicken breast salad, another with spiced beans, chopped raw onion, chopped cilantro and chopped tomato and the third with shredded pork, avocado and chopped tomato. Despite the fact that by this time I was stuffed, I enjoyed finishing them all!