Napa Valley's La Toque Should Lose its Michelin Star
Thanks to a friend (Bryan Bond), we recently read a scathing review by Jay Rayner of one of the most expensive restaurants in the world. Reading about how Mr. Rayner believes Le Cinq, at the George V Hotel in Paris, should lose its Michelin stars (it currently has 3) reminded us of a terrible dining experience we had a while back at another Michelin-starred restaurant--La Toque, in Napa. In case anyone is planning a summer excursion to Napa, we thought we'd share our experience.Our hopes were high when planning a visit to La Toque. We planned our trip too late to get reservations at The French Laundry, or at The Restaurant at the Meadowood Resort (which I've dined at, and which is excellent). Since the only three-star options in the valley were out, and there were no two-star options to turn to after the sudden closing of the impressive Cyrus a few years back, we decided to focus on the Valley's one-star offerings during our short trip. For those who haven't had the chance to try a one-star Michelin restaurant, the one-star designation is a little misleading. These are usually very solid choices worldwide, and generally provide memorable and delicious fine dining experiences that won't be quickly forgotten.
There are five Michelin one-star offerings in Napa Valley, and we chose to visit three of them. We made reservations at Bouchon (an absolutely fabulous experience), Auberge du Soleil (good food and ambiance, until the wedding reception next door began in earnest), and La Toque. We were especially excited about La Toque, because its website promised a multi-course black truffle tasting menu which was not available elsewhere in the Valley. If you know either of us, you know we are fans of black truffle anywhere and everywhere we can find it. We were told when we made our reservation that the black truffle tasting menu would be available, and we reserved a table with the understanding both of us would order that tasting menu.
Our problems began when we called the day before our visit to confirm our reservation. When we called to confirm, we were told there was no truffle menu available. When we protested, we were told a manager would call us back with a final decision. We were visiting at the height of truffle season, so it was a bit annoying to see La Toque try to stop us from spending hard-earned money on something that was, in fact, on the restaurant's menu.
While waiting for our return call, we happened to run into dear friends we didn't realize were in Napa Valley. In discussing our plans, they asked if they could accompany us to dinner the next night. We told them we were expecting a call back from the restaurant, and promised we'd ask when we spoke with the restaurant's manager.
One of La Toque's managers eventually called back to confirm that we could, in fact, order the truffle menu that was promised us all along. While on the phone, we asked if it was possible to add our two friends to our reservation. We were flatly told that the restaurant was completely booked, and that two last-minute additions would simply not be possible. Our friends were disappointed, as were we, but there simply wasn't a lot we could do. If La Toque was full for the evening, that was that. Or so we thought.
We arrived for our dinner reservations the next night promptly at 7:00. Walking into the restaurant, located inside the Westin Verasa Napa hotel, we were impressed. Clean lines, open kitchen, nice dark ambiance, soft candle and mood lighting throughout. We were greeted warmly at the door, and led to our table in an advantageous corner of the restaurant. What immediately struck us was how empty the restaurant actually was for a night when the restaurant was "completely booked." While a large restaurant, there were only 3 or 4 other tables seated sparsely throughout.
When we arrived at our table, we noticed it was a four-top---meaning our friends could have easily visited with us. And, within minutes of sitting down, we noticed a hotel guest asking if he could make last-minute reservations. He was summarily denied, with the statement that the restaurant was "at full capacity." We were a bit annoyed when it became clear no other diners would be visiting, and "full capacity" that night was less than ten guests. We thought our friends would have enjoyed the experience. It was very strange to see a mostly-empty restaurant turning away well-dressed, well-heeled guests.
Some other things we noticed about the restaurant, as we took our seats. The tables themselves had plastic tops, and were covered with faux brown leather that our wine glasses stuck to (see pic above for example). We thought a white tablecloth would appear at some point during the meal, but that simply didn't happen. We came close to spilling our wine multiple times, just by trying to move a glass out of the way of an incoming plate. That, and the water-spotted cheap silverware, were both pretty tacky. Did we mention the seeming endless-stream of Radiohead hits playing throughout the restaurant? There may be a time and a place for Karma Police or Creep, but La Toque should know it isn't during a $800 truffle dinner.
After ordering a bottle of local sparkling wine to start the meal (never fear, we Ubered), we ordered what we fought so hard for--two black truffle tasting menus, with full wine pairings. We noticed the Somm for the night was a Certified Sommelier--the second certification level in the four-part Master Sommelier program. As we have a couple of other friends in the same program, we asked her if / when she was planning to take her Advanced Somm exams. She said she was, but that she needed to "brush up" on some of the more esoteric wines on the market before scheduling her exam. While it seemed like a mundane comment at the time, we had no idea we'd be active participants in that task.
At this point, the Amuse-Bouche plate began to arrive. All-in-all, there were four separate amuses provided by the Chef, all on the same plate. While some dislike more than one or two being provided, we thought it was a nice touch for an expensive meal. We decided to drink our sparkling wine throughout these small courses, as no pairing was provided.
We tried the truffle potato chip with lobster and truffle ceviche first. It was a good start to the meal. The bite was fresh, briny and salty. There were notes of nori, and some truffle salt. The chip was admittedly a bit soggy, but overall the dish had a great flavor profile.
Next came a toast point topped with seared foie-gras (another favorite of ours) and sliced black truffle. Unfortunately, the toast point was simply too thick, and was also a bit burnt. Unfortunately, this burnt taste overpowered both the foie-gras as well as the truffle. We ended up only tasting an overly-thick chunk of burnt bread for this bite. Really disappointing, considering the potential of the ingredients provided.
Whipped potato with whipped cream cheese and truffle shavings stuffed inside a sauteed mushroom came next. Unfortunately, even though the dish desperately needed salt, the potato and cream cheese overpowered the truffle. Almost like the truffle that we could see on the plate wasn't even there. We'd quickly learn this was to be a common occurrence.
As our final amuse-bouche, celery root foam with truffle shavings was meant to prepare our palate for the main courses. While we could see the truffle shavings, the foam completely overpowered the truffle with massive raw celery flavor. A pretty presentation, but ultimately didn't work.
Spring Peas with Gnocchi and Truffles
With the amuse-bouches finished, we moved into the main part of the meal. This dish was visually appealing, with al dente peas, very flavorful cream sauce, and fluffy gnocchi. But, once again, no hints of truffle whatsoever, even though there was a lot of truffle shaved on top. We couldn't determine if the vegetal nature of the peas simply overpowered the truffle, if the truffle used was old and tired, or some combination of the two? Either way, it would have been a perfectly passable dish if it wasn't being served as part of a truffle dinner.
This was paired with Philipponnat Brut Royale Reserve NV champagne. It was a modest, yet tasty, Brut champagne. We'd give it 89-90 points. Paired well enough, and did cut through the richness of the cream sauce.
Black Truffle Cod and Truffled Asparagus
This was a visually stunning dish. Skinned asparagus stalk wrapped in black truffle rounds, next to a beautiful piece of buttery and flaky cod covered in a rich sabayon with truffle shavings. But, cooking the asparagus and cod in bacon fat and topping it with an overly-healthy amount of Meyer lemon completely overwhelmed the truffle. And, judging by the pliability of the truffle wrapped around the asparagus itself, it appears the chef actually cooked the truffle with the rest of the dish--meaning all flavor was lost long before the dish hit the table.
This was paired with a 2014 Chablis Premier Cru, Fourchaume, Daniel Dampt & Fils white Burgundy. While it is probably a modest 88-89 point wine on its own, it's heavy notes of grass and lemon really overpowered the delicate flavors the dish was supposed to impart--namely black truffle.
Tajarin Pasta Carbonara with Sliced Truffles
This was a beautifully-plated dish made even better by the disclosure that the chef had stored the kitchen's black truffles with the fresh farm eggs used to make the dish, so they would soak in extra flavor. The carbonara itself was excellent, but we only got a few seconds of truffle essence on the nose (none of the palate) before the dish lost all truffle flavor. Despite the fact there was a massive amount of truffle shaved on the plate. We were beginning to wonder if there was a problem with the freshness of the truffles they were using, because there was so little truffle taste to be had!
Also, the wine paired with this course--a 2013 Brick and Mortar Napa Valley Chardonnay--was utterly horrid. It had notes of petrol, was sharply acidic yet had flabby buttery notes. And, it had moments where it showed itself to be a massive fruit bomb. It was completely unbalanced, and made us both literally shutter after taking a sip following a bite of pasta.
Artichoke Truffle Soup
In no way should this soup ever have a truffle included in it. It really shouldn't even advertise itself as a plain artichoke soup. This tasted (either accidentally or on purpose) like baked potato and bacon soup. There was no taste of truffle, as the fatty bacon taste overwhelmed the entire experience. This soup didn't miss due to poor ingredients. It missed due to a chef failing to do his or her job. It failed because of poor execution. My goodness--throw cooked artichoke hearts and chicken stock in a Vitamix, and you'll probably get a much better result. Really.
The wine chosen for the soup--a very young and inexpensive Hungarian Tokaji from Demeter Zoltan--was equally poor, as if the Somm had never tasted the soup. It was far too light and sweetish yet still strangely buttery, with no acid to cut through any of the bacon fat permeating the soup. There were allegedly 2,200 wines on their list. Surely something could have paired better than this. Strange wine from a lower quality producer.
Breaded Veal Tenderloin with Brussels Sprouts
Served with great fanfare under a cloche, we nicknamed this dish the "Cloche of Disappointment." All we tasted was mozzarella, softened breadcrumbs, and undercooked brussels sprouts (which were seemingly shaved everywhere). The veal was horribly overcooked, and had no taste. While there was allegedly truffle included in the dish, none was evident or tasted. Essentially, this was a veal McNugget. But without the fun toy.
This was paired with a light, jammy, fruity and inexpensive ($32 average) Pinot Noir--2011 Domaine Pierre Gelin Fixin. The wine lacked any body that would stand up to the bitterness of the undercooked brussels sprouts, and the heft of the breadcrumbs. It merely tasted lightly acidic and slightly bubble-gummy. An 85-87 point wine on its own, it did nothing to heighten the qualities of this dish.
Brioche with Truffle Oil, Truffle Slices, and Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam Cheese
What a shame this was the only course the chef utilized truffle oil for (we normally don't want truffle oil at a truffle dinner, but at least this smelled like truffle). Unfortunately, the chef literally drowned the dish in oil, and the truffle slices were so weak and limp, it was no surprise they had no flavor whatsoever. The cheese was tasty enough (it is hard to mess up triple-cream cheese someone else made), but this cheese is available at our local grocery store, so wasn't exactly an inspiring choice.
The Somm paired this with 10 year old Blandy's Madeira. For those who may not know, this weighs in at a whopping $24 / bottle, and is one of the cheapest and lowest-quality Madeira producers on the market. We expected much more from a professional Somm at a high-end restaurant. This was akin to telling customers you're pouring fine single-malt scotch when you're, in fact, pouring Famous Grouse out of a plastic bottle, hoping no one will notice. We're not dumb. If you can't pour anything edible, just don't pour anything at all.
This was perhaps the best executed of all the dishes we'd been served since the first amuse-bouche came out a couple of hours before. There were actually subtle hints of truffle in the custard. The dish was light, fluffy, custardy. The quenelle of ice cream on top may have been slightly over-churned, as it didn't melt easily or quickly. But, the gold flecks were a nice touch, and there was an excellent cookie crumble included on the top and bottom of the dish. Fairly well executed, and tasty.
Unfortunately, the Somm brought out a Sardinian dessert wine to pair with the pannacotta. We'd never heard of Cantina Gallura 'Canayli' Superiore, Vermentino di Gallura DOCG, but from what we later learned, this Sardinian producer's wine trades for an average of $10 / bottle on Wine Searcher. It was a terrible pairing, and frankly a terrible wine. But we could rest well knowing that the Somm now knows exactly how Sardinian wine tastes like, should that ever crop up in her 3rd or 4th level Master Sommelier studies. Unfortunately, we now know too.
All in all, dinner at La Toque was one of the most expensive and least-satisfying meals we've ever eaten. It wasn't just that the chef and Somm periodically missed while daring greatly. Instead, the chef failed to reach with any portion of the evening's menu, and both the Chef and the Somm managed to fail in the basic skillsets they were employed to utilize. To say this was a disappointing meal would be an enormous understatement. The level of cooking, service, and the quality of the wine pairings was simply poor, and not worthy of any Michelin designation anytime soon. While we felt bad for him at the time, the gentleman that was turned away at the door dodged a huge bullet.