There is nothing like a perfect afternoon in Napa Valley, but the bonus was a farm-to-table view of the provisioning for Thomas Keller's restaurants. How remarkable that the individual regarded as the "Number 1 chef in America" would have an acreage of vegetables and herbs across from his French Laundry restaurant (Relais et Chateaux) in Yountville (pictured here) and up the street from Bouchon, his upscale, though less formal, bistro. And it was like a park that we could respectfully walk through.
It's not unusual for chefs to grow their own gardens, as my brother Chef Steve does at Rendezvous Central Square in Cambridge, Mass., a hip and welcoming resto near MIT and Harvard. (His herbs and vegetables grow in boxes on his urban roof.) But seeing this expanse that invited us in added an unexpected dimension to Keller's serious efforts at integrating the environment with the dining experience, not simply building a culinary experience from products trucked in.
Having the visual background and context -- kale, fava beans, savory and dozens more -- established a grounding context for the elegant Bouchon lunch.
Oddly enough for Napa Valley, we were temporarily transported into a recreated French bistro. Napa chic and busy (where a famous LA chef sat comfortably like any patron at the bar). While most dining spaces favor the California style, Bouchon is intentionally Left Bank Paris.
Reading the French titles on the menu, I opted for the Salade de Betteraves (beets) with poached rhubarb greens and hazelnuts in rhubarb vinaigrette (and thin slices of Tomme Dolce cheese, one of my favorites), while Steve chose Salade de Porc et Asperges Blanc (glazed pork belly with white asparagus, pickled cherries and egg yolk with warm bacon vinaigrette). You could call it an elegant eggs and bacon salad. We could have stopped there with no complaints, but the main courses approached -- roasted leg of lamb in a ragout of fresh chick peas, merguez sausage, garden carrots, green garlic and preserved Meyer lemon) for Steve, and I selected my occasional beef splurge -- Poitrine de Boeuf Grillee (grilled richly laden beef brisket) with braised radishes, fava bean and potato confit and tongue vinaigrette. I am still savoring the incredible flavors -- why would I eat anything else today? As we strolled back to our car, we couldn't resist another view of Keller's ample gardens and the July East Coast skies of this extraordinary California day.