California Dreaming

James Wellock reports back from his recent tour to California’s Napa Valley where he found his ‘happy’ in chef Thomas Keller’s extraordinary foodie capital.

We certainly had a treat in California where Jo and I met up with Mitch and Jack from True Foods to explore their “happy place”, the Napa Valley and namely Yountville. On entering the valley, we were stunned by the uniformity of the vine groves – not only the endless straight lines but also the identical heights of the foliage that on closer inspection you can see provides a protective canopy for huge bunches of grapes that make the spectacular wines that have made this valley world famous.

However it is not only wine that has made this area famous but the small town of Yountville where award-winning US chef Thomas Keller has built his empire. Yountville is a food lover’s dream and this tiny town boasts seven Michelin stars on its main street (three for Thomas’s The French Laundry and one for his Bouchon Bistro, plus one each for Bistro Jeanty, Redd and Domaine Chandon). Astonishing!

What really grabbed me though was Thomas’s vision and how well it works – there is something for every person and for every occasion. An early morning walk took us to his bakery where breads for all of his restaurants are baked 24 hours a day – and wow, what a selection of pastries to enjoy with your coffee!

Across the street from the bakery is his garden – a part of the town that everyone can enjoy. Here I saw varieties of product I’d never seen before – all growing outdoors taking in the California sunshine to make a truly idyllic picture. After talking to Aaron Keefer, Head Gardener, I was so impressed by how they work in synergy with the chefs who are designing dishes after dinner service to fit in with crops that are ready to harvest – the chefs request 40 potatoes for dish that they want to put on and the gardeners duly go and dig up 40 exactly. Any excess produce is either used at the Bouchon Bistro or in a truly revolutionary way and that was our first dinner experience in Thomas’s restaurant, Ad Hoc.

Ad Hoc was supposed to be open for a six-month period while Thomas’s first restaurant – the French Laundry – was refurbished. Ad Hoc celebrated its 10th Birthday this week. Its uniqueness comes from a four-course menu that is set each day and built around the excess produce from the garden and other seasonal produce. The menu is posted online each day prior to opening. There are no choices yet it was packed and tables were turning.

The simplicity of Ad Hoc’s menu is its triumph – it is all about the ingredients and no messing about. Just use the best ingredients and showcase them. We had crab and heirloom tomato salad served in big bowl for four of us to share. Wow. The tomatoes were the best I have ever tasted. I quote the chef: “They have never seen a fridge” and that certainly rang a bell with me! Why in Europe do we get hung up on the coolchain and fridges? This dish was followed with a veal chop – so simple but seriously the best fat I have ever tasted. I just about ate the bone! This was followed by a nice soft goat’s cheese and homemade bread and then olive oil cake. As I said, very simple but wonderful flavours and not a spare table in sight!

The next venue was the bucket list tick for all foodies – dinner at the French Laundry, Thomas’s iconic three Michelin-starred restaurant. It can only be described as a mesmerising whirl of experiences that never took the smile off my face.

We entered past the beautiful bronzed signage to the courtyard where we were met by effervescent staff instantly putting us at ease and the next thing we had a bottle of champagne opened by a sabre, what I didn’t realise was it was the actual bottle that was sliced through!

After the bubbles, we were taken through to a really quaint dining room where attention to detail again shone through, the lamp shades had washing symbols slightly embossed and the napkins were held in a wooden peg. The courses came thick and fast, each one beautiful to look at but the flavours and ingredients were just sublime. Picking a favourite would be harsh on the others but I did enjoy the beef, especially when Jack was struggling with hers because she was filling up and I had to help out. The meal finished with a crescendo as five different desserts arrived at once – we really had to find our separate sweet stomach – finished off with their famous donuts and cappuccino.

We then had a tour of the new kitchen being built, the inspiration coming from the Louvre Pyramid where old meets new with a glass facade which will look stunning against the old restaurant building. There has been no expense spared here and I can’t wait to go back to see it finished. A truly wonderful evening where Chef Keller’s mantra of putting a smile on the customer’s face really played out, it was a privilege to experience!

At a wine blending morning – just what you need at 10am after a massive evening – it was really eye opening to get an insight into the wine making and to learn again about “terroir” and how different soils and elevations impact on the flavour of the same grape. We will see how the “proper bob swift” wine turns out in a couple of months.

Feeling a little peckish now, we went to Addendum situated behind Ad Hoc. There are lots of outdoor tables and a couple of shacks where you could order a pulled pork sandwich or fried chicken and fries – a massive upgrade on McDonalds! Quick and very tasty, all washed down with a Thomas Keller beer or homemade lemonade.

I know it’s a shocker but we couldn’t leave without dining at Bouchon, Thomas’s French brasserie-styled offer which has one Michelin star. A menu full of French classics but always around the best ingredients, I really was torn as to what to choose but beef tartar and whole chicken with super crispy skin, mushrooms and velvety mash won the day. Another great meal and, as I said, a restaurant for every occasion pretty much all next door to each other.

Whatever your need and budget, it is fair to say Thomas has it boxed and you really cannot go wrong! I love to see somebody actually investing in a vision and seeing it flourish, a true inspiration! And it doesn’t stop there – he is opening an ice cream shop and chocolate factory and a recent purchase of a small hotel means the town is still developing and the passion to meet all requirements is still ongoing.

I hope you get a sense that I was blown away by our few days in Yountville and cannot thank Mitch and Jack enough for inviting us to join them, nothing better than good company, great food and wine – add in golf at Silverado and what a holiday!