Visiting Hound: - nice weekend in Sonoma/Napa - two special meals, Pt II – La Toque.
Many years ago, Ken Frank was a young hot chef in Los Angeles. His food was fantastic, grounded in French tradition while using local ingredients and wines – the room was fantastic. It was a special occasion place where good food and drink combined with a lovely evening. It didn’t go the way of Mélisse and other temples of gastronomy where there’s a litany recited at every course of the provenance of every ingredient. Again, this isn’t something I dislike at all. However, if I’m celebrating a special occasion, it makes the evening all about the food and less about the occasion. It’s like going to the theater. I wouldn’t start singing happy birthday in the middle of the second act – it’s all about the play. But Ken Frank’s restaurant on Sunset Blvd, La Toque, had great food and yet wasn’t ALL about the food. Loved this place.
And the food was seriously good. At the time, I believe Thomas Keller was cooking at the restaurant in the Checkers Hotel downtown, and cooking wonderfully, but Ken Frank was a bigger star chef. Deservedly so, I’d say.
Ken Frank closed La Toque, moved up to the Napa area, long story short, opened a restaurant in Rutherford and a few years ago moved the restaurant into the Westin in the city of Napa. It’s a wonderful space. During the waning daylight hours I couldn’t have been happier. Once it got dark, the lighting kept up with American tastes patterned on British clubs, pity – would have really loved to have seen the colors in the wine, the arrangements on the plates to their best advantage. Some day.
Full disclosure: when I read six years ago that Ken Frank had opened a place in Napa, I emailed him and said how excited I was, how I’d loved La Toque on Sunset and he was kind enough to write back telling me to let him know when we were coming up. Six years later, I write him back – we’re coming. He writes back that he will be setting up that night, but will have to leave early for (good) family matters. So in we go, Monday night, and he’s there, looking younger than decade (or two) earlier, very charming, and we received a glass each of the Louis Roederer Premier Champagne…
which was delicious.
So – on to the meal.
The amuse was tasty and I’m sad I didn’t write it down, but I was too busy enjoying the room, the attentive service and just being quite relaxed and happy (also had decided to stay in the hotel so in case I drank, could just ride the elevator up and be “at home”).
After the tasting menu, decided to go more simply. I had the four savory dinner + dessert, dining companion, three + dessert.
First course, we both ordered his foie gras for the evening, which I later saw featured in the newspaper. Seared lobes, pistachio nitro bread, medjool dates, a bit of mango – again, not crazy about sweet fruit with my foie gras, but this worked beautifully. Photo here in Napa paper…
Then I had a soft shell crab that was exquisite. The shell wasn’t breaded at all, stayed thin, and somehow the sauce permeated into the crabmeat. It was served on “fregola sardo” with which I was unfamiliar – reminded me pretty much of Israeli couscous. Delicious. (shouldn’t it be sarda?)
My third was the ravioli with a chick pea filling. It Didn’t have a humus-like taste; was very good. I liked it as a palate-cleanser after the crab. I think if it had been my second savory, I’d have been disappointed. It was rich but a good selection between two fully flavored dishes.
My fourth was a buffalo buffalo buffalo etc: a good sized piece of buffalo meat (not sure of the cut) with a great texture grilled perfectly, accompanied by buffalo sausage, not really en croûte but surrounded (think of a cylinder with open ends) by phyllo pastry. I loved this food – I could eat it once a week and be completely happy. The kitchen is great.
(dining companion had the duck breast, with a cured duck croquette. I liked the croquette, the cured duck being a crazy-delicious ham; a bit salty for her. The accompanying cèpes/porcini and fava beans were my fave vegetable that weekend. I think her second savory was the asparagus and morels, but I didn’t get a chance to taste it).
Desserts: mastery. Mine… I remember a small cherry milkshake coming with it, which was tasty and refreshing. It was a cherry dessert. Yes. DC had a chocolate hazelnut extravaganza with a base of chocolate cake, a chocolate hazelnut cream or ganache in the middle (not a straight gianduja) and a think chocolate bar like topping.
Btw, service was impeccable at La Toque. Never felt it was oversolicitous. We had some nice discussions with the server and the sommelière(?). Again, would happily be a regular if I lived in the area.