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the big iii napa dining experiences

by Monty Preiser

Affirmed vs. Alyidar. Frazier vs. Ali. FDR or Abraham Lincoln. Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, or Duke Snider. Ludlam, Follett, or Baldacci? Casablanca vs. Gone With the Wind.

Each and every person, horse, or film named above has at one time been at the pinnacle of their existence, and while sometimes circumstances allowed one to actually best the other in head to head competition, on other occasions that was never possible. Americans, however, when there is no criteria for a clear winner, love to debate who, or which, is better in the hypothetical - they hate ties and always look for number one. And if they can’t have a clear victor, they at least want to learn the pros and cons so they can comfort themselves that they understand the differences.

So it is today that we write about what we consider to be the three dining giants in the Napa Valley – French Laundry, La Toque, and the Restaurant at Meadowood. All are presently at the top of their games, though we have never seen a major critic or magazine analyze them as we will do below [Michelin uses some strange criteria and, as are too many of the noted food writers, seemingly over-swayed by reputations]. Of course, there are other outstanding places in the Valley, some that people will be surprised we have omitted from this discussion. However, we have covered most Napa restaurants of note in the past 6 months and believe the three mentioned, all things taken into consideration, are in a class by themselves.

A Chef on Property is Worth Two in New York
We are great believers in capitalism, and so if Thomas Keller can continue to fill every table at the Laundry and its New York sister restaurant Per Se (which we love and visit every other year or so), we have no qualms at all. That being said, the food at La Toque and Meadowood is at least the equal of that served at the French Laundry, and on some occasions better. And why shouldn’t that be so? Famed Chefs Ken Frank (owner of La Toque) and rising star Christopher Kostow (THE man at Meadowood) are on property most evenings overseeing their kitchens, while the Laundry is overseen on a nightly basis by a younger, less experienced chef. Thus, given the fact that there is no evidence that Chef Keller, a true innovator, is presently any more creative or technically superior than his contemporaries named above, it only makes sense, if one is truthful, that better food will more often be found at the other two establishments when Thomas is not present at his. Again, this does not mean the dishes at the Laundry are not exquisite – they are. But so they are at the other two restaurants as well.

[Comment: Our own experience, almost without exception, is that a restaurant with its excellent chef in the kitchen, even if s/he is perhaps not widely known, is quite often better than the famous establishment owned by big name chefs who are commonly on TV or overseeing multiple properties. It is difficult to logically dispute this]

Service in General Takes Many Forms
Service at the three great establishments in today’s spotlight is uniformly outstanding, yet different in formality and concept. Here, it is hard to say which is unequivocally best as diners prefer different approaches. At La Toque, the vested servers are trained to recognize and encourage the individuality of their clientele, all the while interacting to keep the evening upbeat and fun in a pleasantly energetic manner. At Meadowood and the Laundry the tuxedoed staff reflects a far more formal manner while they guide the diner through a semi-set degustation menu in a very quiet atmosphere. The latter is indeed very appealing to many diners, especially those who feel that a classically formal presentation is an integral part of fine dining.

Ambiance – The First Thing You Notice
Monty’s Dad used to say that you “dine with your eyes,” meaning, of course, that your surroundings (and plate presentation) influence your meal. This is even more so when you realize that the first thing one sees is vitally important in an overall evaluation. All three restaurants are beautiful, though in different ways. The room at Meadowood is stunning and could be out of a Gatsby style movie. The Laundry is in an impossibly beautiful setting, welcoming its diners to an old two story home reminiscent of a film about the Civil War. La Toque opts, as it often does, to be more modern, though the room is perfectly lit, comfortable in the extreme, and much like New York. No one would be disappointed spending three hours in any of these dining rooms.

Wine Service Can Set a Restaurant Apart – Especially in Napa
The wine program put in place by Chef Frank and Scott Tracy at La Toque many years ago is a tradition being carried on by the present sommeliers, who are always on the floor, personally pour the beautiful wines, and take time to explain why each wine is paired with a particular dish. Importantly, there are always enough somms on duty here to handle the night’s crowd, even if one has to be called in at the last minute. At Meadowood and the Laundry the sommeliers have top qualifications and will of course help with your selections, but they are not always so visible throughout the meal, nor do they always take time to interact as much with the diner as they do at La Toque.

Curiously, Meadowood’s procedure is to not offer a food menu before you dine – they want the meal to be a surprise. That of course is all well and good (and can be fun), yet they still offer you a pre dinner wine list. We ask you - How can one properly select a wine if s/he does not know what food is coming? Can’t be done by anyone but David Copperfield. We had a recent excellent experience at Meadowood, and we think it was enhanced because we asked for a run-down of the menu before we decided on wines. We suggest you consider requesting the same. At La Toque you select your meal from many options, so you control your own wine destiny if you desire. The Laundry does not offer so many food options, but you know what they will be so that you can decide how you want to have your wine service presented.
None of the above should be taken to mean that one of these Big III has a particularly better wine list than the other. They each have their strengths and know their clientele. All three have wonderfully balanced lists – mostly U.S. and French, but many other countries are represented. Something we love to see, and for which we give credit to all three establishments, is their seeking to pair your meal with the best wine for the job, regardless of place of origin.

Finally in this category, we have to talk about corkage fees for bringing your own bottles. La Toque charges a more-than-fair $25/bottle – they know you are in wine country and want you to enjoy the fruits of your exploration. The Laundry and Meadowood ask what is (and you can’t say it any other way) an outrageous $75/bottle, and the Laundry limits you to one per couple. It seems sadly obvious that both of these high-corkage-charging restaurants do what they can to discourage the diner from bringing a favorite, which we would criticize in any city, but which in wine country seems particularly out of place. “Bad form” comes to mind. More than once we have decided where we will dine based on the fairness of the corkage charge.

No Matter How Rich You Are, You Should Ask the Price
The price for your dinner at each restaurant is a fair consideration for comparison, given the fact that you will receive all you really want to eat at any of them (La Toque a bit heavier on savory dishes than Meadowood or the Laundry, while the Laundry serves more sweets than the other two). Before wines, the 9 course tasting menu at French Laundry costs $270 each, the 12 course tasting menu at Meadowood $225, while the 5 course menu at La Toque is $90 (don’t be deceived by “5” as you may select from a number of choices here and the servings are larger than at the other two). After wine pairings and tips at the two more expensive restaurants you will see a check in the neighborhood of $800/couple. At La Toque the bill will usually be a touch less than half that.

Can You Guess Our Conclusion?
So Affirmed nosed out Alyidar three times. Ali won the rubber match against Frazier. The best New York center fielder depends on which Borough was your home. The best modern author depends on who you read last. And the best movie depends on your mood when voting. What about the Big III (which wouldn’t be our Big III unless we thought the world of them)?
Setting records for its number of diners over the past 6 months, La Toque, for the reasons set out above, continues to be our choice* as the overall top fine dining experience in Napa. The more inexpensive price is just a bonus, as it is the equal of its more expensive cousins in most other respects.

We are aware that the still fabled French Laundry has sold out every meal for years, and is on every top ten list. We are also cognizant of Meadowood’s deserved popularity among the well-heeled. In fact, we dined at both restaurants not too long ago and were absolutely enthralled with each. They were practically perfect in every aspect, and there is nothing (other than the corkage charge) of which to be critical if you accept the prices as being consistent with world class dining rooms. At this juncture in our lives, however, we prefer our fabulous food in an atmosphere of collegiality as practiced at La Toque. Saving over $400 is never a bad thing either.

We can even go a bit farther. There are certainly restaurants throughout the world on a par with La Toque, Meadowood, and the Laundry, but almost universally the charges are in the range asked by the latter two. We believe that we have never dined better for $350 (everything in the world is relevant) than in Ken Frank’s place in downtown Napa. When you know that the Laundry and Meadowood each have 3 deserved Michelin stars, the one star for La Toque is a restaurant world travesty.**



Open Table Alert

We know that many of you make reservations using OpenTable. It is the smart thing to do. No charge, it is easy, there are restaurant menus to peruse, and you receive dining credit from them after a specified number of reservations are honored.

Sometimes, however, we all go to a restaurant Website for a more thorough picture of the establishment. Quite often (more common all the time) the restaurant invites you to make reservations through a link which is to OpenTable. All well and good, EXCEPT when you do that OpenTable does not reward you with any points. In other words, you have to make reservations through the OpenTable Website directly to be awarded dining points. We did not know that until this week. Did you?

Attorney Monty Preiser and his wife Sara Preiser reside full time in Palm Beach County, Florida, and spend their summers visiting wineries and studying wines on the west coast where they have a home in Napa. The Preisers publish the world’s most comprehensive guides to Napa Valley and Sonoma County wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley (circulation 250,000) and The Preiser Key to Sonoma County (circulation 150,000), in which they write the informational and educational articles. The guides have received accolades as the best (or indispensable) from, among others, famed writer Jancis Robinson of the Financial Times, Dine Magazine, msnbc.com, cnn.com, Tom Simoneau of KSRO Radio, and Frommer’s.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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