One of America’s most acclaimed chefs, Thomas Keller is known for innovative cuisine that marries French preparations with American ingredients. Keller is chef and owner of landmark French Laundry, Bouchon, and Bouchon Bakery, in the Napa Valley town of Yountville; Bouchon in Las Vegas; and Per Se and Bouchon Bakery at The Time Warner Center in New York City.
At the Food + Wine Classic in Aspen recently, Fodor’s caught up with the superstar chef to get the inside scoop on where to eat, stay, and play in Napa Valley.
Describe your ideal vacation day in Napa Valley.
A perfect day in the Valley is one where it’s pretty leisurely. Sleep late, have a wonderful but light breakfast, and get out to tour the wineries. Have a leisurely, light lunch somewhere. Maybe take a nap, get a massage, and then go to dinner at the French Laundry.
What wineries would you recommend visiting?
Certainly a wine tour is a must on any tour of Napa Valley. We have many, many wineries that are amazing to see. Some of them would be Opus One Winery, which is just a fantastic cellar to look at. There’s several others which I like a lot. Franciscan Oakville Estates and Quintessa are really wonderful places to go.
And for lunch?
When I think of lunch in Napa, I think of something quick that’s kind of comforting. And one of the places I like is Taylor’s Refresher. They have great hamburgers and fish tacos and you can sit outside in the beautiful weather because they have a big lawn right behind it.
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There are other wonderful places to have lunch as well. I think Mustards Grill is great. One of the things about Napa Valley, which is so unique, is that all of our restaurants are really good. There are very few bad restaurants in Napa Valley. People come to Napa Valley primarily to eat and drink, so we have great wine and great restaurants.
If someone can’t get a reservation at the French Laundry, where should they go for dinner?
We have Bouchon, which is one of our sister restaurants. The oyster bar there is fantastic. Certainly it’s a very leisurely place. It’s a classic French bistro in the pure sense of the word, with fantastic steak-frites, trout amandine, quiche, things like that which are very traditional. I’d recommend our profiteroles, crème caramel, or lemon tart for dessert.
Some of the other great restaurants in Yountville include Redd, which is Richard Reddington’s restaurant. He’s a colleague of ours, and he does a fantastic job. It’s his new restaurant, only a year old, and he’s doing wonderfully.
Bistro Jeanty, which is another classic bistro, is more like a country-style bistro whereas Bouchon is more of an urban environment. Those are some of the other great restaurants we have in Yountville.
Tell me about your newest restaurant in Yountville, Ad Hoc.
Ad Hoc is a single menu concept that changes every day. It’s got a prix fixe menu, $45 for four courses beginning with what’s fresh at the moment, in the season. We’re in summer so there are great things available — the tomatoes, zucchinis, and squashes are always wonderful in the summertime. Primarily we’re working off the garden, if you will, in the summer for the first courses.
For the second course, there’s a protein. Typically it’s based on food that we recognize from our heritage, from when we were children, like fried chicken and grilled steaks. We do a beef stroganoff very well. It’s all served family-style, so it’s a sharing moment. It’s a wonderful chance to sit with your friends and your family and have a meal like you would at home. It’s very unpretentious. The main course is followed by a cheese course, and then we have dessert.
What town in Napa would you recommend for shoppers?
St. Helena. It’s a wonderful town. St. Helena is one of the oldest towns in Napa Valley. It’s very quaint. It has a wonderful main street with great shops, clothes stores, and, obviously, wine shops.
What hotels would you suggest to a friend traveling to Napa?
There are several wonderful places to stay, including two Relais & Chateaux properties. One is Auberge du Soleil. It sits up on a terraced hilltop overlooking the Valley, and is just spectacular view. It has a great spa and a wonderful restaurant of its own. Robert Curry is the chef. He’s been in the Valley for quite some time.
The other Relais & Chateaux property is Meadowood Resort, which is more of a lush experience. You’re in a pine forest, if you will, almost as if you’re in summer camp. And it’s a wonderful experience there. They have a golf course. They have a country club. So you can spend time at the pool, or play tennis, things like that. Not that Auberge doesn’t have a pool or tennis, but Meadowood is a country-club style. Then we have some new places. Up in Calistoga, there’s a place called Calistoga Ranch, which is great. It’s in a wonderful part of the Valley. In Yountville itself we have several mid-range hotels that are wonderful. One is Vintage Inn, another is the Villagio Inn & Spa. We also have Yountville Inn and the Napa Valley Lodge.
If you’re planning a trip to Napa Valley, do you recommend staying in one property or moving around?
Napa Valley is small enough that you can navigate it pretty well. I think it’s best to find a home base where you can spend some time. Not having to check-in and check-out of hotels all the time makes for a more relaxing vacation. So whether it’s at Auberge on top of the mountain, or in Yountville where you can really have a wonderful time just walking around, it’s nice to have a home base. You can really spend your whole trip in Napa Valley just eating and drinking and wandering.