Local Flavor: Tip your own hat at La Toque
California wine country’s venerable dining scene attracts hungry enthusiasts on the hunt for a seat in one of its famed Michelin-star restaurants from all parts of the world. Worth a stop in Napa Valley is Chef Ken Frank’s Gallic cooking at La Toque, a Michelin-star restaurant that stands toe to toe with the other two Napa Valley dining giants that have made the region a coveted destination for culinary finesse.
Its location inside the Westin Verasa Hotel can make it difficult to find for first-time visitors, but chef Frank made sure that it would be easy to find by hanging a giant, glowing chef’s hat (or toque) over the portico at the entrance.
When you walk into the restaurant, you’re immediately greeted by a stark white marble counter in front of a brightly lit open-air kitchen, giving off the impression that this won’t be a stuffy example of French dining.
Located in downtown Napa, the restaurant celebrated for its January all-truffle menus and exceptional attention to wine, stands as a bastion of refinement in the neighborhood’s laid back scene. One enormous flower arrangement to anchor the room, check. A roaring fireplace in one corner, check. It all adds up to a classic wining-and-dining experience.
Austere and elegant, La Toque seats up to 82 in the main dining room, 45 on the outdoor terrace, and six at the private chef’s table where chef Frank’s original chef’s hat is framed. The private chef’s table is not one to be missed and certainly worthy of a reservation via the chef’s six course tasting table menu for this truly exceptional experience where you can witness all the behind-the-scenes action.
All the wine country demographics come together under one roof: from vinters to hoteliers, families to honeymooners. Aim for smart casual attire (look polished but relaxed).
You can dine à la carte, but savvy gourmands opt for the choose-your-own adventure prix-fixe with three inspired nightly menus created from the region’s rich bounty of seasonal, fresh foods sourced from a network of local farms and purveyors. The core menu is recommended as it offers a substantial overview of the French-meets-wine country fare. Such offerings include Rosti Potato with Ossetra Caviar with a clean taste and rich finish that pairs divinely with the creamy potato. Shio Koji Marinated Quail, where the moist meat is delicately fried and picks up the flavor of other ingredients, like Nori jus, cherries and mushrooms. Chef Frank also adds an ingenious twist with his True Gulf Red Snapper in a savory Catalan seafood stew that’s light but hearty with Mediterranean heft.
Each dish was well executed and prepared classically over the modern techniques employed by some contemporaries.
Chef Frank is on property most evenings overseeing his kitchen and it shows (or can be tasted, rather) proving that a restaurant with its excellent chef in the kitchen often delivers a more exceptional experience than one overseeing multiple properties.
La Toque is one of only 87 restaurants in the world with a prestigious Wine Spectator Grand Award. The wine program features nearly 2,300 selections from renowned wine regions all over the world. With exceptional attention to wine, the wine pairing is spot on, unparalleled and delivers a truly worldly experience.
Sommeliers are always on the floor, personally pour the exquisite wines, and take time to explain the origin of each wine and why it’s paired with a particular dish.
Your evening begins with a waiter pouring a bit of hot water over a tiny cube of paper that transforms into a hot towel for you to wash your hands. It adds a nice classy touch and just enough cheek to keep things lively.
Even when it’s busy, the servers are on their game. They’re knowledgeable about the dishes—from the way the produce was tended to how it was prepared. Vested and evidently trained to cater to the individuality of their clientele, servers frequently interacted with you to keep the evening upbeat and fun in a pleasantly energetic matter.
The pace was smooth and well-timed for our four-course experience, leaving just enough time in between courses to comfortably but swiftly ease into the next dish.
About the chef
Chef Ken Frank’s cuisine has earned a Michelin Star every year since the famous guide has been ranking restaurants in the San Francisco Bay area. He is considered of the most knowledgeable truffle chefs in the world and holds the distinct honor of being the first American chef invited to cook at the Fiera Internazionale Tartufo Bianco D’Alba, the world-renowned Annual White Truffle Festival in Alba, Italy.