Tejal Rao, who became the New York Times’ first California restaurant critic last year, is back from a tour of Wine Country’s trio of three-Michelin-star restaurants — and it doesn’t sound like she’s heading back anytime soon. Couching the review as a “critic’s notebook” piece, Rao presents these Napa institutions as, while critically interesting, not to her personal taste. “What I knew about Napa was that it was someone else’s exorbitant fantasyland — yawny and pampering,” she writes. “It could be perfect, but in the way that falling asleep during a massage is perfect.”
Specifically, Rao visited the French Laundry, the Restaurant at Meadowood, and Single Thread, the newest member of the three-star group. “Few parts of the country have such a concentration of this nostalgic genre of fine dining: grand destination restaurants with big reputations, extravagant food and deep wine cellars,” she observes. And “more than ever, the dining rooms of Napa and Sonoma Counties reflect the region’s growing corporate wealth.”
That sort of opulence is clearly a source of discomfort for the critic, at least in a personal capacity. “You pay for a temporary escape into pleasure, the assurance that, even if you’ve done nothing all day but spit wine and sunburn, you’ll be treated like a business tycoon who just closed a deal... At times, overwhelmed by the opulence, I felt like a character in a sci-fi movie who had sneaked onto a spaceship for the 1 percent, now orbiting a burning planet.
More high- and low-lights of Rao’s adventure: A golden egg full of “absurdly delicious” mac and cheese at the French Laundry (though the egg struck her, in this moment, as Trumpian), and at the Restaurant at Meadowood, a server knocking over her my dining partner’s cane, and not placing it back back, but offering to “hide it” in the back. At Single Thread, which sounds like a highlight, “everything ... was assembled in a way that drew you to its natural, ephemeral beauty. In the spring, a spot prawn in cool dashi made me weepy.”
Driving back south to LA, Rao pondered the Michelin guide’s criteria for its three star designation: Worth a special journey, according to the tire company’s “handy little guide for chauffeurs in the French countryside — century-old branded content.” But for whom? “I had no plans to make a special journey back,” she concludes.
Maybe chef Keller should have slipped Rao that “bong course” he’s given out to critics before.