Claiming that Yountville is a world class city for food and wine is as innovative as proclaiming that Paris is a world class city for art.
Yountville, really a small town instead of a city, boasts a population of barely over 3,000. It also boasts a population of six Michelin stars, three of which are owned by an up and comer restaurant called the French Laundry. Half way between Napa and St. Helena, about eight miles to either, Yountville is the charming small town that a premier wine region needs, and that the rest of the touristy, commercial Napa Valley towns are not.
Despite having the French Laundry and a staggering ratio of high caliber destination restaurant to population, Yountville remains essentially a humble, one street, Main Street USA town: Washington Street. From one end to the other of the business district of Yountville takes no more than 20 minutes to walk, running parallel to the nearby Highway 29. Not on Washington Street, but at the southern exit for Yountville on 29 resides Domaine Chandon, the famed sparkling wine house owned by Moet et Chandon. Chandon’s restaurant Étoile is excellent and the winery itself has some intriguing artistic touches such as the meadow of gigantic mushroom sculptures between the parking lot and tasting house. The sparkling wine isn’t too shabby either.
Cross 29 on California Drive, hang a left on Washington, and here comes restaurant after restaurant. The hits keep on coming. Starting with Ad Hoc, the formerly “temporary” restaurant of Thomas Keller’s that was supposed to become an haute burger restaurant. When I receive Ad Hoc’s single menu with no choices each day, I am always tempted to book my ticket to Yountville. Dave Cruz is the chef in charge of Ad Hoc day to day, crafting the four courses of salads with French Laundry produce, a hearty main course, a cheese, and a dessert that tends to be a comfort food type such as peanut butter bars or mini carrot cake cupcakes. Recently opened from a renovation, Ad Hoc now offers a fifth course add on, which seems to be always a pork belly the past two weeks. Mondays are the nights of choice at Ad Hoc, alternating between barbeque and the superb buttermilk fried chicken, easily the best I’ve ever had. With the spring and summer season upon us, the backyard of Ad Hoc has become a lunch take out spot, Addendum, serving exclusively the fried chicken and barbeque.
Next door to Ad Hoc is Redd, the most ambitious and cosmopolitan of Yountville’s restaurants other than the French Laundry. Redd is chic in a leisurely wine country style, with excellent creations by Richard Reddington, especially the glazed pork belly with burdock root, apple purée, and a soy caramel. Though pastry chef Nicole Plue has moved on to Cyrus in Healdsburg since my last visit, don’t skip dessert.
The high end hotel and spa Villagio resides across from Redd and next door is, this being wine country, the tasting room for Somerston, and the Yountville Deli for picnic items. Along Washington you’ll find also the Hill Family Estate tasting room, Page Wine Cellars, and Cornerstone Cellars. It’s all convenient, but remember, these are tasting rooms without the vineyards in the background. Bistro Jeanty, Phillippe Jeanty’s très français bôite, is an excellent stop for a lunch croque monsieur or steak tartare and escargots at dinner. Hurley’s is another popular spot for more straightforward California fare.
The central stretch of Yountville veers away from the California regional feel of Ad Hoc, French Laundry, and Redd, and somehow becomes part Paris and part Tuscany. Along with Bistro Jeanty, Thomas Keller’s Bouchon started what is now a mini-empire of brasseries striving to transport you to a bistro by Opéra Garnier. Bouchon’s moules frites are as good as any in Paris, so are the chocolate bouchons (wine corks) for dessert, served inside a belle époque setting that actually is more Parisian than almost any brasserie or bistro (except Benoît) I went to for six months living in Paris. Next door’s Bouchon Bakery, recently opened up from a fire, has some of the best muffins I’ve tried, those exquisite bouchons, and baguette sandwiches that draw lines a mile long at lunch. There are now Bouchon Bakeries and Bouchon Bistros in L.A., Las Vegas, and Time Warner Center in New York.
Across from Bouchon is the V Marketplace, with the charming Yountville Coffee Caboose and Michael Chiarello’s outstanding restaurant Bottega, along with its next door sibling food and wine shop Napa Styles. Both the shop and the restaurant strike you as oh so Italian with their rusticity, but have the sunshine purity of California wine country. Together, the two scream Napa Valley. At Napa Styles, a jar of the parmesan dip you receive with the fresh baked bread at Bottega is obligatory. At Bottega, the menu is epic in length and beautifully blends Chiarello’s Tuscan and Californian sensibilities better than any restaurant I can think of. Everything deserves to be ordered. The polenta under glass with aged balsamic and caramelized mushrooms, the smoked and braised short ribs with a quince paste and the greatest spaetzle ever made, a pasta such as roasted potato gnocchi with spring vegetables and English peas puree, and a bottle of a Chiarello Family vineyard wine make for as perfect a meal as I can imagine. Bottega represents the family importance of sharing and being together of Italy with the tweaked, but pure sensibilities of California dining.
Past Bottega, Yountville becomes more residential. Bed and breakfasts such as the Bordeaux House and one of my favorite tiny parks (Van de Lear Park) lie along the right side of Washington going north. There’s a garden then on the left with all sorts of produce for a certain restaurant and across from the garden is a tranquil former laundromat turned restaurant, also known as the French Laundry. Yours truly will dine there one day, but we have heard that it’s a pretty good restaurant. We’ve seen lots of pictures, heard stories, and spent hours and hours unsuccessfully on the reservations line.There’s no way to deny that the French Laundry is the most important restaurant, yes more than Chez Panisse, in this country’s culinary history.
Beyond the French Laundry are the Roots Run Deep and Jessup Cellars tasting rooms, along with Richard Reddington’s new pizzeria Redd Wood inside the North Block Hotel and the town’s Mexican dive taqueria, Pancha’s. At the end of Washington before it veers west towards Highway 29 resides Veteran’s Park, an excellent choice of picnicking with whatever you picked up at Bouchon Bakery.
It doesn’t get much better than Yountville. A charming small town with world class dining and the world’s greatest vineyards surrounding it, yet still incredibly down to earth and avoiding the rest of the commercialism that envelopes the Napa Valley. It could take only 20 minutes to walk from end to end of Yountville. It would take a week to eat all of the meals at the worthy restaurants in this town.