The reservation was for the 5:30pm seating (for the counter seats, there are only two seatings per night, at 5:30pm and at 8:30pm), and I arrived just about at 5:30. She was already seated in the lounge waiting for me, and shortly after I got there, someone came over to escort us to our seats.
As we approached our seats, I was happy to see that Executive Chef Andrew Sutton was working on the other side of the counter directly across from our seats, and when I walked up, he saw me and greeted me and welcomed me back. I then introduced him to DC (who had previously eaten at the counter before but who didn't really know Andrew), and we took our seats. We had a server that I'd not previously had before, though I had seen him during prior visits to the restaurant.
At Napa Rose, they have a normal menu that you can order from, but they also have a four course prix fixe "Vintner's Menu" which changes weekly and includes seasonal ingredients. DC and another friend who had known about our visit that evening had tried to convince me to go with the chef's table - it's priced the same as the Vintner's Menu, but you tell the chef what your preferences and your dislikes are, and the chef constructs a personalized menu for you. Most of the time, I end up getting the Vintner's, and sometimes, there are specific things on the menu that I really want so I order those, and I've been hesitant to try the chef's table. That's partly because I'm not usually comfortable with not knowing at all what I'm going to get. The other trouble I was having was actually coming up with the things that I really don't like. On the drive down to the restaurant, I had been contemplating the chef's table, and I tried to come up with ingredients that I really don't like. What if I forgot something major, and horrors, that's exactly what I got as a main course? Well, as we were contemplating the menu, DC said that she was going to go with the chef's table. I hesitated for a minute but then decided to take the plunge and go with the chef's table as well. The server said that the chef would be by to discuss our likes and dislikes.
DC and I sat and enjoyed goodies from the bread basket as well as conversation between ourselves and observing all the goings-on in the kitchen. We sat there for quite a while, and it occurred to me that this was taking a lot longer than I had expected, even though I could see that the chefs were very busy with orders. After some more time had passed, our server came back and asked if the chef had come by to talk to us, and when we said no, he went away for a minute and then came back and said he would actually get our preferences and relay them to the chef.
DC told him the items that she did not want and the request that she specifically wanted the goose (that was the seasonal entree for the holidays, and as it turned out, our visit was on the last night that goose would be available) and that she wanted to pick her own dessert. I told him the items I'd come up with that I did not like (even the ones that I figured they wouldn't have but I told him anyway, just to be safe), as well as noting that I really wanted to try the cioppino and that I liked seafood and that I too wanted to pick my own dessert. The server asked both DC and myself how we normally like our meat cooked, which we answered, so I figured we'd probably be getting some during the course of our meal.
The first thing brought to us was the amuse bouche, which consisted of quince and apple, carmelized on top, with some pomegranates sprinkled on. I always love the little dishes that the amuse bouche usually comes on because they're small and cute. I was a little surprised at the ingredients only because it seemed more like a dessert item to start the evening since it was sweet, but it was still delicious.
Next up for me was the ahi starter, which I'd actually had on a visit with the husband and a friend several nights prior, but I was happy to have it again. The sampler version was almost the same size as the normal starter - when I'd had it previously, there were three slices of ahi rather than two. The ahi was very good quality, and I love sashimi, and the blue crab was very tasty too, so I enjoyed having this dish again.
For DC's starter, she got the tempura fried lobster and spicy asian beef salad. She had mentioned to me that she'd had the dish previously and really enjoyed it, but that she'd found the dish to be too spicy for her, so much so that she'd not been able to finish it. She mentioned that to the server, in case she was going to get that, and when she did get the dish, she noticed that there was less of the spicy sauce on it, and she very much enjoyed that it was not as spicy as she'd previously had it. I'd had the dish before, both as part of a Vintner's Menu and off the starters menu, and I too really like the dish.
For our next course, we both got a taste of the cioppino. The dish came with a very nice piece of wild stripe bass and two snow crab claws, as well as a piece of toasted herb/cheese bread. I loved the taste of everything, and I'll admit that I loved it so much that the small taste made me lament that I hadn't actually just ordered the entree itself so that I could have had more to enjoy. Everything was so tasty, and the broth was just delicious. DC enjoyed the dish very much as well, particularly the bread accompaniment.
Between courses, DC and I had been watching everything that had been going on in the kitchen and all the dishes that were being made and brought to the pass. We were also looking at the various preparations that the other chefs were making, some of which were for the evening's dinner service and some of which were for the following night's New Year's Eve dinner service. Executive Chef Andrew Sutton had come by periodically to check on us, and at one point, DC had asked him about the fennel she had seen at the back of the kitchen. He mentioned that he used fennel a lot, pretty much a little bit in just about everything they make, which made DC happy because she likes fennel a lot. Later in the evening, they actually brought the fennel to the counter across from us because they needed to do some prep work with it.
One of the chefs cut all the fronds off and saved the bulb parts for use, though I don't think we ever saw what they actually did with them. DC lamented that all the fronds went to waste by just going in the trash when there was so much that she could have done with them if they were hers. She also extolled the many uses and virtues of fennel, so that was interesting to learn about.
For my next course, it was the second course of the current Vintner's menu - pheasant and dumplings. The dish has actually been quite popular at Napa Rose and has been on the regular menu as a starter on many occasions. I have some friends who particularly enjoy the dish. On our prior visit, the husband had asked and was able to have the dish as his own starter without actually ordering the Vintner's Menu, which they will sometimes allow if they have enough extra of a dish, and he'd enjoyed the dish. I'd never had the dish before, and while I'd told the server that I did not eat squab (I just can't get over the fact that it's just a fancy way of saying pigeon), he asked if I liked quail or pheasant, both of which were items on the current menu, and I'd said yes. But I think I'd forgotten about that exchange because I didn't expect to actually receive the pheasant. I've always liked the presentation of the dish in a little copper pot, but since I'd never had the dish before, I'd never known that its cute presentation was only outdone by how amazingly delicious it was. There was a nice mixture of textures with the pheasant, the dumplings, the mushrooms and the truffles. And the sauce was really delicious. Having now tried the dish and loved it, I'll be very tempted to order it again if it's put on the regular menu again in the future. Since DC had never had the dish either, I insisted that she have a taste, and she liked it as well.
For DC's next course, she received a sampler-sized portion of the goose. I'd noticed that the goose had been quite popular that evening as I'd seen quite a number of them brought to the pass, and I'd pointed them out to DC, who was surprised at the presentation. She had seen a picture I'd taken of the dish when I'd had it several nights prior, but it was hard to tell from the picture how the dish actually looked. I'd tried to describe it, that it wasn't a breast or a filet or other solid piece of meat but was rather shredded and looked more like a terrine. I'd remembered seeing a smaller size of the goose being prepared, so I was happy that was what they'd ended up bringing her. She was quite happy with her dish, and she said she was glad that it was actually a smaller serving than the normal entree because goose can sometimes be very filling and heavy.
In speaking with Chef Andrew earlier, we had specifically mentioned the goose since that was what DC had wanted and since I had enjoyed it so much on my prior visit. I asked Andrew why more restaurants didn't serve goose, and he said that it was really a lot of work and a bit tricky to work with, but that he didn't mind doing it during the holiday season, which is when Napa Rose has it on the menu. He said that the goose is very fat on the outside but very dry on the inside, so the trick is to try to get some of the outside fat to mix in with the meat inside to tenderize it. He described what they needed to do to make the goose dish, and it's a very time-consuming process. They start with boiling the goose in a brine (I can't remember exactly what kind) for several hours and also cut the outside of the goose to drain a lot of the fat. It's then put on the rotisserie (which you can see at the back of the kitchen) for about 8 hours, and he pointed to the empty rotisserie and said you wouldn't see any there now because it had to be made hours ago. There was then more preparation that needed to be done, which I don't remember, but as I mentioned, it was a very long and involved process.
For my entree, I received the filet of angus beef. I don't remember seeing how big a portion the regular entree size was, but the several slices I received were perfect to have a good idea of what it tasted like without being too filling because of the other courses we'd already enjoyed. The meat (which I'd ordered medium rare) was quite tender and tasty, and the smoked bacon pieces added a nice flavor to it as well. I noted to DC and to Chef Andrew when he came by to check on us that I didn't think I'd ever really had beef at Napa Rose, and Chef Andrew agreed that I normally ordered other things. As much as I like beef, I am lucky to have other places where I can get good steaks, so I usually prefer to have something at Napa Rose that isn't readily available in other restaurants. And I have told other people that while I know Napa Rose is great at making "fancy food", I'm sure that they also make terrific steak for those who prefer something a bit simpler, and now, I can say that with absolute certainty and personal knowledge.
For DC's entree, she received the lamb, which came with a chop as well as a serving of the shank. That was also another popular dish that evening, and I'd seen many of them plated and taken to other tables. The normal entree portion comes with two lamb chops and probably a larger portion of the shank, but again, given that we'd already had several courses, it was nice that they made a smaller portion for the entree. DC seemed to love her entree.
What's the best way to top off an already amazing meal? Why, with amazing desserts, of course!
We talked to Chef Andrew about his dessert recommendations, and the one he liked most was something that DC had already decided she wanted and that I'd already had on my last visit, so I decided on the "best hot chocolate ever". Unfortunately, I didn't get a copy or picture of the dessert menu, so I can't remember exactly what everything was, but there was a nice-sized glass of very delicious hot chocolate, very rich and thick and almost "sludgy", but in a good way, with crushed hazelnuts sprinkled on top. Accompanying the hot chocolate were two donuts, and one of them had a cream filling inside, but I can't remember what it was. Everything was delicious though. I don't have donuts very often, so it was a nice splurge.
One of the things that I rave about at Napa Rose is their strawberry ice cream. Now, I'm not particularly fond of strawberry ice cream generally because it's usually fairly bland. For some reason, on a particular occasion, I had a trio of ice creams for dessert at Napa Rose, who make all their own ice creams, and the strawberry was so delicious and flavorful, partly because it had bits of strawberry in the ice cream. If all strawberry ice cream tasted like that, I would be a huge fan of strawberry ice cream. Whenever I've gone with someone who's never had it before, I always order a dish so that the person can try it. I was surprised that in this case, the presentation was quite different - usually, a scoop of ice cream just comes in a little dish by itself - not so this time. I did notice that the strawberry flavor wasn't quite as rich as I was used to, and I'm not sure I noticed the same bits of strawberry as previously, but it was still pretty delicious, and DC seemed to enjoy her tastes of it.
For her dessert, DC had wanted to try the ginger ice cream, which came with an apple tart and a cinnamon-spiced glass of cider. I'd had that particular dessert on my prior visit, and while I'd liked the ginger ice cream, it was actually the apple tart that I found really amazing. I usually find them to be too gooey and have too much sauce for my preference, but their tart was crispy but not dry, letting you really taste the apple, and the crust was flaky. I'm also not generally too enamoured of cider, but theirs was very tasty as well.
I'd just had water with my meal, but DC had added the wine flights to hers, so with each course that was delivered, a glass of a different kind of wine to accompany the course was brought as well. Since I'm not really a wine person (which led to an amusing exchange wherein I told DC that I loved moscato, which she hated, but she said that she liked some merlots, which a few of my friends absolutely hate), I didn't really pay that much attention to the wine she received, except that I did notice she wasn't keeping up with the wine they were giving her, so she often didn't finish a glass before moving on to the next one. The only wine I had paid attention to on the wine flight pairings on the Vintner's Menu was the dessert wine, and that's only because it was Magicale, something I particularly enjoy. For some reason, I had assumed they were bringing the same pairings for her as on the Vintner's, and I think that's because I had remembered the first wine being a dry riesling, which is what they'd brought her for her first course. When they brought the dessert wine, though, it was a sweet riesling, and I remember expressing surprise that it wasn't Magicale. Looking back on it now, it made sense that it wasn't Magicale because the dessert she had was different than the dessert on the Vintner's which was supposed to be paired with the Magicale. I didn't think I said it loud enough for anyone but DC to hear, but I was obviously wrong because a few minutes later, our server brought her a glass of the Magicale. She loves Magicale as well, but she'd already had the other wine pairings so said she wouldn't be able to finish the glass of Magicale. Well, no point in wasting perfectly good Magicale, so I asked if I could share it with her, to which she agreed. I asked the server for a glass so I could share hers, but he said he would just bring me another glass, which he did. That was very nice of him, and I was happy to be able to enjoy the Magicale as well.
As much as I've had amazing meals at Napa Rose, this was another amazing meal on several other levels. It was the first time I'd had the chef's table, which I thoroughly enjoyed and which I now don't find (quite) as intimidating.
It was the first time I wasn't dining at Napa Rose with the husband or a very close friend, so it was nice to have conversation and to get to know someone in such a nice environment, and our discussions of random and varied topics were interspersed with interruptions of delicious food being brought to us or other matters that one or the other of us would notice going on in the kitchen. We had a lot of laughs and fun with some of the things we saw.
At one point, we saw a chef pull out two hunks from an oven, and we tried to figure out what they were. They looked like poultry to us but we weren't able to pinpoint what exactly it was. When we asked Chef Andrew, he said they were actually lamb shoulders, for the following night's dinner menu. Well, who knew that lamb shoulder could look like roasted poultry?
Later in the meal, DC noticed a chef plating mashed potatoes and green beans and commented that it was such a simple dish for a place like Napa Rose and wondered what else would be plated with it. I noticed a nearby chef preparing something and pointed out that it was probably the chicken that he was cutting. She protested that it couldn't be chicken because there wasn't any chicken on the menu. Well, it was definitely not red meat, and it wasn't pork, and it didn't look like turkey. She wondered if it might be duck, but I said that I knew duck didn't look like that when cooked. I kept reiterating that it was chicken, but she remained skeptical. I then expressed the guess that it might be something from the kid's menu, but then when I saw the serving size of the entire dish, I wasn't sure because it was a fairly large serving for a child - it was a healthy serving even for an adult. The plate was brought to the pass, and I asked the expediter what the dish was, and she said it was the child's plate of broiled chicken, mashed potatoes and green beans. Ah ha! I'll admit that I did an "I told you so" to DC. We watched as the runner brought the plate to a table and placed it in front of a boy who looked to be about 7 or 8. No chicken nuggets for this little boy!
Because of the delay at the beginning of our meal, as well as the chef's table taking up a bit more time than a normal meal, our dinner actually ran late, so we didn't finish until just about 9:30pm, so I felt bad that the next seating was starting their meal late. However, even though the restaurant was a little busy, I enjoyed that we had a chance to chat a bit with Chef Andrew, and the other chefs were very forthcoming when we'd ask questions about other dishes they were preparing. I've always found that while the chefs are not intrusive, they are more than willing to answer questions when approached. I tend to not want to bother them as much when I know they're busy and will generally try to catch them during a lull. We were staring at the desserts for a while and could not for the life of us come up with what the ice cream was that was accompanying the chocolate cake, with guesses of blood orange, pomegranate and cherry, but we couldn't agree on what made sense for it to actually be. When we asked the dessert chef and she told us it was raspberry, we felt silly for not even thinking of that ourselves.
Our server was attentive without being intrusive, and our water glasses were regularly refilled, so the service was just as great as usual. Every time I think that an experience at Napa Rose couldn't possibly be better than before, I am (happily) proven wrong.