Monday, April 29, 2019

Where to Eat: A Three-Course MICHELIN Easter Brunch @ La Toque Napa Valley (Review)

The Eats: High end French cuisine served in multiple courses, with wine pairings available, too

The Location: Napa

The Vibes: Warm, classy, elegantly understated

Good for: Alone, Dates, Small Groups

When-To-Go: Daily dinner seatings, between 5:30 - 9:30 p.m.

The $$ Factor: Dinner, $120+ 

People Behind the Scenes: Executive Chef/Owner Ken Frank, Chef de Cuisine Scot Livingston, Pastry Chef Hayes Pickett and Sommelier Beki Miller

The 4-1-1: Once located in Los Angeles, La Toque has now been in Napa for over a decade and has received a MICHELIN rating each year for the past 12 consecutive years

Parking Situation: Complimentary valet parking 

I’ll Be Back…: For the mille feuille dessert!

My family and I are quite the brunchers. Whether it’s for a traditional holiday like Mother’s Day or simply another weekend, we’ll always find time for brunch.

So for this past Easter Sunday, I decided we must check out the special brunch at La Toque, a MICHELIN-rated French restaurant, in Napa Valley. I specifically chose this restaurant for two reasons: 1) it sounded absolutely wonderful to take a scenic drive into Napa and 2) it seemed like a steal to snag a three-course meal — for $48 — from a high end establishment where the multi-course dinners typically average $120 - $220. Bonus points as neither my mom or grandmother had ever visited Napa.

Located in The Westin, La Toque was nothing like I’d imagine a MICHELIN-rated restaurant. I was expecting a super stuffy, super extravagant ambiance, yet in reality, it's pretty modest. Yes, the one-room dining area is quite classy — with a beautiful oversized floral arrangement and softly bathed in muted browns, tans and whites — however, I’d say the decor overall is elegantly understated.

What’s not understated though, is the impeccable — and I do mean impeccable — service. You notice it right from the start, when offered piping hot towels to wipe your hands. You sense it in the delightful way menu options are explained, and you feel it throughout, like how your water glass never seems to get less than half full and how two servers silently make eye contact and nod before gracefully whisking away your plate. Executive Chef/Owner Ken Frank even stopped by to say hello, see how we were doing and patiently answer our thousands of questions we had. It's a rarity to see such attentiveness and effort in the little details in many other places, and La Toque remains memorable for that aspect, if nothing more.

But of course, there’s more! And that would be the food...

As shared, La Toque is MICHELIN-rated, which basically means that it’s received one of the most prestigious, globally renowned recognitions within the culinary world. There are three tiers — or stars — any given restaurant can receive. One star is like an entry level point and three is the most prestigious. Each year, a MICHELIN-rated restaurant may be judged unannounced by an incognito inspector, to determine if it will keep or lose its star, or even gain more. The criteria to receive a star comprises a variety of considerations, from quality to a chef's personality. You can read all about the MICHELIN assessment process here.

While La Toque typically offers multi-course meals, for two holidays in particular — Easter and Mother’s Day — it features what’s like an introduction into its course approach: a three-course meal with an optional wine pairing for an additional $24.

Here’s a peak of what was on the Easter menu.

To our pleasant surprise, we were treated to a traditional Easter dish: hot cross buns! Served warmed, this sweet bread is filled with raisins and currents. Our server shared that Pastry Chef Hayes Pickett had been perfecting the recipe for the past two years. I’d definitely say she got it right! 

First course
We had four appetizers to choose from: a Bibb lettuce salad, Dungeness Crab Cakes, Beet Cured Salmon and Asparagus. I appreciated our server for being honest that the Bibb salad was really an option for the less adventurous eaters, and the Beet Cured Salmon sounded like a fun trip on the wild side. I went for the Crab Cake, which was OK. I wish there had been more crab meat and less of the fried coating encasing it. Especially after having really tasty jumbo crab cakes the precious day, I was left wanting. An added nuance were pickled green strawberries and hints of dill.

Second Course
For the main course, there were five selections: Alaskan Halibut, a Grilled Hangar Steak, Tortellini filled with Spring Peas, a Lobster Omelet and Rancho Llano Seco Pork Cutlet Milanese. It was the pork's first time making an appearance on the menu and my choice. Pounded into a thin cut and then lightly fried, it came on a bed of Capperi di Pantelleria pasta that had been lightly tossed in brown butter. Lemon capers dressed in this same brown butter sauce was drizzled on top of everything. I enjoyed this tremendously, as it was bursting in flavors. I also sampled a bit of the omelet, pictured below, which is always featured on the Easter menu. It was indulgently rich, filled with hearty chunks of lobster, fontina cheese and soft breakfast potatoes. 

Third course
Last but certainly not least was dessert. We could pick between three: a blackberry ricotta crepe cake, a raspberry coconut mille feuille with toasted almond wafers and finally, a jar filled with layers of dark chocolate, milk chocolate for baking called CARAM√ČLIA and blood orange, all topped with toasted almonds. I opted for the mille feuille, pictured below, which was sooo delicious. Dollops of coconut cream were wedged between slightly sweet crispy wafers, with ripe raspberries added on the top. 

All in all, La Toque provided a fabulous over-the-top dining experience, a big part due to its spectacular service that exceeds expectations and also of course, because of the nuanced approach to fine dining. If you’re ever interested in exploring a multi-course meal, I say check out this Napa gem.

See you there soon!

For more information

Monday, April 22, 2019

Where to Drink: & New Spring Cocktails @ Alta Adams, Los Angeles (Part 2 of 2)

Last week, I wrote about the delicious avant-garde soul food at Alta Adams, and this week, I’m sharing a recent interview I had with the head bartender, AJ Goodrich, in honor of the brand new cocktail menu that the popular West Adams restaurant debuted, just in time for Spring.

As mentioned in my previous post, I’m a huge fan of one drink in particular here: the Bikini Bottom, pictured below. It’s a vibrantly sweet-and-spicy blend of pineapple, agave, cilantro, fresno chile, and not only tequila, but mescal, too. I love it so much, I’ve hard a time wanting to try anything else. But, hearing Goodrich’s explanation of the new program is definitely tempting me to branch out and try something different, sooner rather than later. 

Read on to hear more from Goodrich as he discusses the inspiration behind the new drinks, how he got into the bar business and his take on the L.A. cocktail scene in general!

Miss Wilson: What are the highlights of the new drink program?
Goodrich: The entire spring cocktail menu was inspired by the city of New Orleans — the drinks are all spins on classic Crescent City cocktails. This menu is our first huge overhaul of the cocktail program since Alta Adams opened last fall. We wanted the menu to be fun, a little flashy, herbaceous, spring-like, energetic and bold. I think what we came up with fits the bill!

We thought designing a drink menu around the Big Easy was a natural fit and perfect complement to our California-soul food. New Orleans’ culture and demographical blend are completely unique; there’s just nowhere like it anywhere else in the country. On a personal level, New Orleans also marks the halfway point of a cross-country trip I embarked on in 2011 while I was making a documentary about the way people talk about same-sex marriage and queer identity in America (this was before same-sex marriage was legalized). I’ve always been struck and am still drawn to the enormous cultural footprint of New Orleans: from music and jazz, to nightlife, festivals, parades and funerals, Louisiana voodoo and so on. New Orleans has a rich and influential history in the world of cocktails, from Peychaud Bitters to the Sazerac, the French 75 to a Vieux Carre and more.

Miss Wilson: What’s one cocktail everyone should try at least once and why?
Everyone should try the Black Magic Woman at least once (last photo at the bottom of this post). There aren’t too many bars where you can get a classic Absinthe drip as it’s traditionally done — and it’s a show-stopper. The cocktail is garnished with a dissolving sugar skull and burning sage. If you have any negative juju floating around, this will clear it out.

Otherwise, if you have a group of friends and are in the mood to get a little boozy, you should try our Gator Bowl punch (pictured below), which is meant to be shared. I like to think of it as stupidly delicious swamp juice.

Miss Wilson: What advice would you have for anyone interested in getting into the bar business?
Goodrich: Three years ago, I had zero experience in the bar business at all. I hadn’t worked in the service industry since I was a teenager; I had really only been working in film production since graduating from film school. It’s been a crazy few years since I’ve started (with zero experience) as a barback to now leading the bar program at Alta Adams as head bartender — and it has been a combination of luck, landing at the right place at the right time, having terrific mentors and working my ass off. I’ve also read everything I can (and still have a lot more reading to do), and have tried to dive deep into cocktail history and culture.

At the end of the day, foster good relationships: surround yourself with good people who have a heart, have your back, and take care of them in return. Soak up everything you can from everyone around you, learn everything you can on your own, and you’ll do fine!

Miss Wilson: What’s your take on the current local LA bar scene? How has it evolved in the past few years and where do you see it headed next?
Goodrich: Prior to a couple of years ago, I pretty much only set foot in gay bars — so much of my experience is based on the gay bars of East L.A., Silverlake and Downtown. If I’m going to go out somewhere beyond work (which I don’t do too often anymore!), that’s probably still where I’d be. However, since diving into the craft cocktail world, my view has expanded quite a bit, as has the craft cocktail world — it’s basically exploded over the last five years. While you used to only be able to get a decent drink at a handful of staple bars, now every restaurant and bar seems to be developing a craft bar program or has a resident mixologist (though I dislike that term — I’m just a bartender). It also shows no signs of stopping. 

This is both a good thing and a bad thing: it’s great that there’s more of a focus on cocktail culture, that people are interested and thinking about it more, and that more places offer great drinks, but I worry that sheer quantity may impact quality. Not everyone has the same level of training. In the end, like most things, I believe that what’s good will stay, and what’s not, won’t. My advice: stick to the good ones and the classics.

For more information: 

This interview has been condensed and edited for readability. Second and fourth photo, courtesy of Becca PR; third photo from Instagram

Monday, April 15, 2019

Where to Eat: Avant-garde Soul Food @ Alta Adams, Los Angeles (Part 1 of 2)

The Eats: Soul food with a modern, creative twist

The Location: West Adams

The Vibes: Soulful, cozy, earthy

Good for: Alone, dates, groups (small and large)

When-To-Go: Weekend brunches, 11 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.; daily dinner, 5 p.m. until close (Sunday closes at 9:00 p.m.; Monday – Saturday closes at 10:30 p.m.)

The $$ Factor: Snacks, $4 - $8; Starters, $10 - $18; Plates, $18 - $31; Sides, $6

The Names behind the scenes: Chef Keith Corbin

The 4-1-1: Alta Group, a restaurant management and consulting company based in the Bay Area, operates Alta Adams and six other dining / drinking establishments in Oakland and San Francisco: Aster, Besharam, Coi, Dyafa, Kaya and Plum Bar

Parking Situation: Limited street parking, valet parking

I’ll Be Back…: For the Collard Greens!

Alta Adams may have only been open for six months, but it’s already caught Los Angeles by storm. My sorority sister excitedly declared I had to check out this brand new restaurant. The bae, who always has a pulse on the latest and greatest, planned a surprise visit here. And girlfriends who have quite the high standards on restaurants gave me the ultimate praise after I suggested dinner and drinks here: “Job well done,” they coolly proclaimed.

What Alta Adams has done so well is that it’s brought a hip, high-end dining experience into an area that historically hasn’t this type of establishment for quite some time. With Delicious Pizza opening in 2015 nearby and construction for Cumulus off Jefferson Blvd. underway, I’m sure we’ll see another wave of upscale restaurants, but for the time being, there are only a handful — now including Alta Adams. In the meantime, the neighborhood has seemed to wholly embrace Alta Adams, its often-packed patio, bar and dining areas a testament to its popularity.

Personally, I love the vibes, which feel more New York than West Coast to me. Black walls and various shades of wooden browns and tans enwrap the space. Pillows adorned in colorful African prints elegantly grace benches. Photos of foodstuffs like vegetables and nuts, and black people proudly wearing funky hairstyles grace the walls. It feels so warm, so earthy and a lot like someone’s decked out Afro-centric home rather than a restaurant.

According to the website, Alta Adams brings a “distinct interpretation of soul food that draws the connection between traditional West African food and California cuisine.” From my perspective, it feels like Alta Adams is experimenting with a ritzy, boughie rendition of soul food. What you’ll find here is probably not what you’ll find at your uncle’s backyard cookout…unless of course, your uncle just so happens to be a renowned chef. My point is, don’t expect traditional soul food; instead, be prepared for more of a creative take on soul food.

Here’s a look at a few items that have caught my attention so far: 

The Black eye pea fritters aren’t how you’d typically find black-eyed peas traditionally cooked in many soul food recipes, i.e., accompanied by rice and infused with meats like ham hocks. Instead, these fritters comprise mashed black-eyed peas encased in batter and fried to a golden brown. They’re great to share, quite filling and vegetarian friendly, too.

The first time my friends saw the Collard Greens with vinegar and smoked oil, we were confused. We looked at each other like “what in the world is this?!” While these greens may very well not look like any collard greens you may be used to, they are truly special in their own right. Tightly wrapped together, they’re tender and bursting with tangy, rich flavors.

A unique take on traditional yams, the Candied yam gratin with spiced cashews are thinly sliced and all kinds of delicious sweetness, complemented by a smoky flavor from the charred edges. The crunchy cashews add a nice balance between sweet and savory. If I could change anything, I’d definitely make the portion larger; it feels like it’s gone in literally two bites!

The Grilled bone-in pork chop with chow chow hands down is my favorite from Alta Adams so far. The pork chop itself is perfectly tender and juicy, and oozing with all sorts of incredible spices. The chow chow, a blend of various peppers, onions, fresh herbs and spices, kicks it up a notch, as a simultaneously sweet and tangy topping.

And of course, we can’t forget about the cocktails. I’ve only enjoyed one drink — the Bikini Bottom so far (pictured below), because I seriously love it so much that I can’t seem to order anything else. It’s another item that has a sweet-and-spicy aura, fusing pineapple and agave with cilantro and fresno chile, and not only tequila, but mescal.

And lucky for you, I’ll actually have more to say about Alta Adams’ libations, as next week, I’ll share my interview with Head Bartender AJ Goodrich when we connected over the newest Spring Cocktail menu.

So the next time you’re looking for an elevated soul food experience, in a vibrant setting, head over to Alta Adams.

See you there soon and come back to the #WilsonsGuide blog next week for more on Alta Adams’ new spring cocktails!

For more information: