Friday, May 18, 2007

Redd is the New Black?

Last weekend, Karen and I headed to Napa Valley for a short getaway to celebrate her birthday. In addition to taking her on some wine tastings and indulging her fondness for massages, I wanted to take her out to a nice setting for a birthday dinner. I had heard good things about Redd (6480 Washington Street; 707-944-2222), a relative newcomer to the high-end dining scene in the town of Yountville. Named after executive chef Richard Reddington, Redd is located on the south end of Washington Street, just down the road from The French Laundry and Bouchon and next to Thomas Keller's latest venture, Ad Hoc, which we visited earlier this year.

Unfortunately, Karen's birthday fell on Mother's Day weekend this year, so all of the prime-time reservations had been booked well in advance. When I called a couple of weeks before her birthday, the only available slots were before very early (i.e. before 5:30) or quite late. Since we wanted to have a relaxing time and didn't want to be in a rush to drive up to Napa, we opted for the late time slot. Of course, this meant our dinner reservation was set for 9:30pm.

We arrived at the restaurant a few minutes early and were immediately seated at our table. We are both fond of tasting menus, but given the late hour, we were unsure about whether we should instead order a la carte this time, or if we would go with the five- or nine-course menu. Eventually, we settled on the five-course menu, though we felt a little boxed into this decision, something on which I will elaborate in a moment.

One of the interesting things about the tasting menu at Redd is that though everyone at the table is required to order the menu (just like at many other places), each diner gets a different dish for each course. So, for our five-course menu, we were going to get the opportunity to taste ten different dishes.

Our dinner started out with fish dishes: hamachi sashimi with sticky rice and edamame in a lime ginger sauce, and yellowfin tuna tartare with avocado, chili oil, and crispy fried rice.

I really liked both of these dishes. The tartare was especially good, highlighted by the contrast in textures between the tuna and the rice, which was very crispy. The sashimi was also quite tasty; the fish was very fresh and well-prepared.

The second course of the tasting menu consisted of two seafood courses. The first was a John Dory filet with creamy jasmine rice, mussels with chorizo in a saffron curry nage. The other plate was a caramelized diver scallop over cauliflower puree and almonds with a balsamic reduction. (Apologies for the washed out photos of these dishes; there's only so much that you can do with a little point-and-shoot digital camera with those lighting conditions.)

The fish, mussel, and chorizo dish sounded odd to me, but the flavors worked pretty well together. The scallop dish was also quite nice and had a nice contrast in textures with the shellfish, califlower puree, and nuts.

Our next courses were the glazed pork belly with apple puree, burdock root, and soy caramel and the quail with broccoli rabe, sausage, chili flakes, and white beans.

I thought these dishes were decent, but perhaps not quite as good as the other courses. As we were eating this course, Karen said that she thought that the dishes up to (and including these) were on the verge of being too salty. I too had noticed that while the first bite of each dish seemed to be bursting with flavor, there also appeared to be an increasing note of saltiness with each additional bite. Perhaps you could chalk this up to personal preference, as neither of us are heavy-handed with NaCl, but I suspect that others would have found the dishes to be saltier than the norm, if not too salty.

Next came the meat courses: The Napa Valley spring lamb, served two ways (braised and roasted) with spring vegetables over a bed of creamy mascarpone polenta, and the Prime New York steak and shortribs, with fingerling potatoes and creamy ramps.

Luckily for us, these dishes were not oversalted. The lamb was very tender and flavorful, with nary a hint of gaminess. Both preparations of the beef were also tasty as well, with the New York steak roasted to a near-perfect doneness. The portions on both plates were really quite substantial, especially for a tasting menu course. We asked our server about the portion sizing, and she said that the a la carte portions are substantially bigger.

For dessert, we had very different plates; the first dessert was a Meyer lemon flan with crème fraîche, accompanied by cream cheese ice cream with tapioca pearls and a homemade tangerine soda. The second dessert was a peanut honeycomb parfait with a chocolate peanut butter giandula.

Both the desserts were very good, though by this point in the dinner (and at this time in the evening), they were a touch on the heavy side.

Overall, despite what we perceived to be a heavy hand with the salt, we thought that the food was very good. There were a lot of interesting and innovative combinations of flavors and textures which worked well together. However, we were disappointed with one aspect of dinner, namely the service. We found that the wait staff, while courteous and friendly, was somewhat impersonal and seemed hurried. Even though our dinner took two and a half hours, both of us felt rushed by the staff. I know that five courses over 150 minutes can hardly constitute being a short and hurried dinner, but on the flip side, it does taken something unusual to make people feel rushed over that time frame.

Though, given the time, we were leaning towards going with the five-course menu instead of the nine-course one, our server came over and told us that the kitchen informed her that no nine-course menus would be served after 9:40pm, so we could only go with the five-course menu. What kind of rule is that??? We were seated at least fifteen minutes before that deadline, but we took a little bit of time to order our drinks and to peruse the menu, and hadn't gotten around to placing our order until a quarter to ten. As it appears that we were the last party of the evening, was that rule set up to exclude the last party (and only the last party) of the evening from ordering the nine-course menu? That rule simply doesn't make any sense to me. As I mentioned, we weren't leaning toward the nine-course menu anyway, but it would have been nice to have that option or at least be told in advance of this deadline, lest we want to have a three and a half hour dinner starting around 10pm. Don't get me wrong, I understand that the chefs and staff don't want to hang out all evening, but I just don't get why they would institute a rule to exclude a single party from going with that option. Though the food was quite good and worthy of a return visit, the flap in service takes them down a couple of notches in my book.