4 Days in Napa (Calistoga/St. Helena) review plus The French Laundry (long)
I was at the Calistoga Ranch for four days with my best friend last week and wanted to post a few recs. First, thanks to thirstyreader, Ruth and many of the other regular ‘hounds, who make planning a trip for foodies so easy. A little research and I didn’t have to make that plaintive plea for what we needed. I was traveling with someone who has been to Napa many more times than I have, but put in “dining charge”, so I wanted to try some places that would be new and new to her. This vacation was more R&R than packing in as much as possible (especially after seeing the resort and wandering around after check-in, plus the Lakehouse Restaurant/room service was wonderful, so we had a couple more meals on-site than planned).
For something new, we tried lunch at the Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch in St. Helena. It’s only been open less than 2 months and according to their website, highlights “ local, sustainable and organic ingredients at their peak freshness”. We had an early meal, right when they opened, since we had an afternoon reservation at our favorite winery, Schramsberg. Our table was next to French doors overlooking the attached nursery, with lots of blooming cherry trees-lovely. Décor was very “barn chic”-small kitchen towels as napkins and some kind of fur/hide on the back of the booths. We had the chicken and dumplings, which were perfect- clear, really tasty broth and nice dumplings. I’ve never had grits that I enjoyed, so of course I wanted to try them when I saw it on the menu. They were Ridgecut grits with roasted squash, honey and blood orange and some lightly-dressed greens on top. Excellent! The stand-out for us were the cheese biscuits, light as can be and addicting for sure. I could have eaten a basket of those. Service was top-notch, with everyone seeming to be excited to work there. On our way out, the chef (recognized his pic from the website) Sheamus Feeley, was standing outside the kitchen just beaming and introduced himself. BTW, they have a very affordable wine list and only a $2 corkage, which is donated to charity on a rotating basis. Lunch with 2 glasses of wine was $65 w/o tip.
New to us, dinner that night was The Martini House in St. Helena. My friend had always wanted to go and somehow never made it. I LOVED everything about this place. Ambience (an old house from the 20s), service and food were all fabulous (only a couple dud dishes). I can see why the owner was nominated for a James Beard award for his restaurants. I live in a touristy area, Laguna Beach, and this is the kind of place I would take a visitor. You can eat here for under $20 bucks, including a glass of wine or spend much more. Of course, wanting to try everything, we ordered like piglets! We chose to eat at a table by the kitchen, and it was amazing to watch-so quiet and hardly any talking amongst the line. The chef sent out 2 amuses-one was a tiny mushroom mousse, shaped like a mushroom, on a puff pastry and the other a savory onion pudding. We also had the chorizo empanadas with lime crème fraiche (tasty) and the crab spring rolls (kind of greasy and one of the two “duds”). The cream of mushroom soup, which the server insisted we order, was divine. Olive oil poached King Trumpet salad with mascarpone, artichokes and Meyer lemon was another winner, as was the Saffron Gnocchi with morel mushrooms and snow peas. I can cook Italian fairly well, but never quite get the gnocchi the way I want-this dish was heaven. Next, although we were full at this point, a perfectly cooked Salmon Creek Farms pork chop, with an apple coulis and a potato rosti and the only other dud, their Kobe beef burger. Burger was soggy (maybe the wine stewed onions on top). We were too full for dessert, but the chef sent out 2 “brownie bites”, which was the perfect ending with coffee. Dinner for 2 with a bottle of Mumm Brut Rose, was $150 w/o tip. I can’t wait to go back!
Finally, The French Laundry! It was my first visit (last trip we did Cyrus), but my friend was a vet, so during the day she said we needed to go by and check out the garden. I would highly recommend this to anyone going for dinner, since it’s so dark at night, you would miss it. Across the street from the restaurant, they are growing salad greens, vegetable and herbs- it’s pristine. Someone from TFL was out in his chef whites with the blue apron, picking away. I can only imagine the number of postings about the restaurant, so I’ll leave it to the more eloquent. I will say, we had a 9 o’clock reservation and the service and food were really outstanding. One of us chose the Chef’s Tasting and the other the Vegetables. Everything was just perfect and not at all snobby-the staff couldn’t have been nicer. Young crowd too, although maybe it was because of the late seating.
One final note for newcomers-if you are doing a “big dinner”, spend the extra money and get a car and driver. Even during the day (with GPS), it’s easy to get lost and hard to see some of the street signs. And it’s worse at night. I can’t imagine attempting to drive back to wherever I was staying after several hours of drinking/eating- down dark, twisting roads in the rain. When I used Open Table for TFL reservations, I got several limo email quotes. The best was only $120 including tip (guessing since business is down), well worth it for a nice 4 person limo-not a “prom-mobile”. Hope this helps someone out:)
The French Laundry
6640 Washington Street, Yountville, CA 94599
1245 Spring St., St. Helena, CA 94574
We ate an early dinner at Farmstead. I second the praise of the service -- my friend is from NY and was stunned by the friendly reception :). Our waitress was very knowledgeable about the wine and steered me to a wonderful rose, not usually a choice for me but fabulous as she promised. One loser on the menu: the potted pork (and I think our waitress was steering us away from it, but we missed the signal). Covered in fat (and we both love eating fat), not that tasty. But the arugula salad was delicious, more than big enough for the two of us to share. And we each had the brick chicken -- again,one order would have been big enough to split. Fantastic: a bit spicy, perfect vegetables, as good a version of this dish as I have ever had. Will definitely be back.
738 Main St, St Helena, CA 94574
Thanks for the reviews. I too have enjoyed Farmstead during my two visits. Wine list/prices are fabulous deals. Muffins are the only way to start.
Unfortunately, Michael Bauer, critic of the SF Chronicle, savaged the place two weeks ago. Cited unsophisticated and poorly done food mishandled by undertrained staff. 1 1/2 stars. Disaster!
Hope Farmstead can keep its heads up and keep getting better. I enjoy it.
Boy, you were right about the review! Obviously, we had different experiences. Really surprised about the service complaints, our servers were friendly and knew what they were talking about. Will say, at least with the chief critic for the LA Times- I tend to disagree more often than not. Especially when I go running to some new place that gets raves and it turns out to be a big zero. These days, I'm more apt to read CH and food blogs to get a wider range of opinions and usually am very happy with the results.