Dining at Napa Rose’s Chef’s Counter

If you’re celebrating a special occasion in Disneyland, the Napa Rose restaurant at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel is the best place to do it.  For my birthday, Danny and I had the opportunity to dine at the restaurant’s Chef’s Counter.  To make a reservation for this seating, one must call the restaurant directly.  Napa Rose takes reservations up to three months in advance.  There are two seating times for the Chef’s Counter each night: 5:30 PM or 8:30 PM.  This should give you an idea of the kind of leisurely meal you can expect when you dine at Napa Rose.  We chose the later seating when we made our reservation.

We got to the restaurant a little early and decided to have a drink in the lounge (Woodford neat for Danny, pomegranate martini for me).  At 8:30 exactly, a hostess came to our table in the lounge and told us that the earlier seating was running a bit long, apologized for any inconvenience,  but said that our table would be ready shortly.  We weren’t inconvenienced at all, but we were impressed with the restaurant’s impeccable attention to timing and their guests’ schedules.  It’s a far cry from many Disney restaurants, where daily waits of 20 minutes or more are to be expected and are seldom acknowledged by the staff, let alone apologized for.  It was only a few minutes later that the same hostess came back to escort us to our seats.

The Chef’s Counter Experience

The Chef’s Counter at Napa Rose is actually two counters with four seats each.  You face away from the dining room and have a great view of the action going on in the kitchen.  When we were seated at the counter, our waiter introduced himself and explained how the menu would work.  Patrons at Napa Rose can order from the a la carte menu or choose “The Vitner’s Table”, a $90 four-course prix fixe menu ($135 with wine pairing).  Sitting at the Chef’s Counter offered us a third option: for the same price as the Vitner’s Table, we could have the Chef’s Tasting Menu, a special experience in which the chef talks to each guest directly and comes up with a personalized tasting menu based on the diner’s tastes.  Danny and I both chose that option, as we knew we would do months in advance.

At this point I should apologize for the lack of photos in this post.  I didn’t bring a purse with me to the restaurant and thus didn’t have my camera with me.  I thought about taking pictures with my phone, but truthfully, felt like it would be rude to pull my phone out in this environment.  Watching the chefs work was so entertaining and fascinating.  I didn’t want to give any impression to the contrary by pulling out my phone every few minutes.  Besides, my phone doesn’t take the greatest photos.  I don’t know that they’d be worth sharing in the first place.  Lessons learned.  Next time I won’t go to Napa Rose without a camera, and I will definitely be back!

After our server brought us water and our bread basket, the chef came over and introduced himself.  Chef Ronnie Arnold was brand new to Napa Rose and to the Disney company.  Before starting at Napa Rose, he was the executive chef at K’ya Street Fare in the Hotel Ménage.  He’s also worked at Hush in Laguna Beach, which has since closed, Motif at the St. Regis Monarch Beach, and many other admirable locations in and around Orange County.  With the chef’s background in world cuisine, we knew we were in for a treat.  Chef Ronnie told us that he had been at Napa Rose for about two weeks and that we were the first people to order the Chef’s Tasting Menu while he was there.  This shocked us.  There are up to 16 people sitting at the Chef’s Counter each night, and nobody in two weeks had bothered to experience this special menu?  It seems almost insulting to the chef to have such an opportunity but choose to order from the standard menu instead.

Chef Ronnie explained how the dinner would work.  He’d ask us a few questions about our preferences, then he’d essentially decide what to serve us.  He did ask us a little, but we didn’t give him much to go on.  He asked if we had any allergies (no), if we had any strong likes (I said that I’d love to try the Copper River salmon that was currently on the menu, Danny gave no guidelines whatsoever), any strong dislikes (Danny and I both agreed that anything we thought we disliked, Chef Ronnie could probably prove us wrong).  Lastly, he asked us if we had preferences on how our meat should be cooked.  We said the same thing we always say: that we’d like our meat to be cooked however the chef recommended.  Our meal was entirely in Chef Ronnie’s hands.

The Food

Before the first course, we were served an amuse-bouche of rabbit rillette with cherries.  This small taste of rabbit with its rich, pâté-like preparation combined with tart, sweet cherries was brilliant.  It was also the perfect preview to the menu we’d be experiencing that night.  It was a meal full of delicious fish, game and seasonal fruits and vegetables.

Although I didn’t get the Copper River salmon that was the fish of the day, Chef Ronnie did assure that I got some variety of my favorite fish.  My first course was an appetizer from the regular menu: Citrus Cured Skuna Bay Salmon Carpaccio served with shaved endive, radish sprouts, lemon yoghurt and pumpernickel croutons.  The salmon was excellent, as was the lemon yoghurt.  I told Chef Ronnie that I loved it and was really enjoying all the great summer fruits he was utilizing in our food.  He kept them coming!

Danny’s first course was also one of the regular menu starters: Laughing Bird Shrimp and Tender Octopus Ceviche with red jalapeño, cucumber “crazy water” and avocado relish.  Danny loves octopus, so he was delighted with this dish.  The red jalapeño, which Chef Ronnie called a “Fresno pepper”, was roasted and stuffed with shrimp.  The pepper itself was pungent and mildly hot.  It had a great flavor that I’d love to be able to utilize in my home cooking.  Unfortunately, I doubt I’ll ever see them in our local grocery stores, and I haven’t had much luck in growing hot peppers here either.  The cucumber crazy water was an excellent complement to the pepper.  It was very cool and refreshing.  Danny and Chef Ronnie agreed that they could both drink it as a beverage.

Both of our second courses were adapted from the Vitner’s Table prix fixe menu.  Danny received a version of the first course, Pan Seared Sturgeon with Fava Bean Tapenade.  The accompaniments were slightly changed, though.  Danny’s was topped with caviar rather than the butter poached turnips and cippolini shoots that were listed on the Vitner’s Table menu.  Both also had a side of citrus caviar créme fraîche.  Danny loved this dish and says that it was the best course of the evening.

My second course, although a close call, was also my favorite of the night.  I was served the Crispy Braised Pork Belly, which was accompanied by upland cress and heirloom watermelon gazpacho.  I wish I had begged Chef Ronnie for the watermelon gazpacho recipe!  It was so sweet and fruity that it would have made a great summer appetizer.  I think it also would have been great in ice cube form in sangria or fruit-based cocktails.  It was also by far and away my prettiest dish of the night.  Pork belly doesn’t sound like something that would be nice to look at, but its crispy exterior was mouth-watering, and the pink, yellow and white melon balls (some of which were hollowed out and filled with rich, tangy balsamic reduction) were beautiful.  I told Chef Ronnie that there are very few foods I like more than fresh fruit and good balsamic vinegar (aside from perhaps great cheese), so he picked just the right thing for my second course.

For our next course, Chef Ronnie returned to the a la carte menu.  I was given the Rabbit Meatloaf normally found on the appetizer menu.  I’ve had the Wine Country Rabbit Meatloaf in the Napa Rose lounge before and liked it quite a lot.  Although the dish on the Chef’s Tasting Menu had many elements of the meatloaf served on the regular menu, the plating was entirely different.  It still a porcini mushroom ragout and carrot purée, but my dish was also “plussed” with a small amount of pear emulsion.

Remember when I said that Chef Ronnie could probably prove me wrong about foods I thought I disliked?  Mission accomplished.  I normally have a distaste for the earthy taste and chewy texture of mushrooms, but they were used to great effect underneath my rabbit meatloaf.  They and the carrot purée were both very rich.  If I have one complaint about the dish, it would be that I wish there had been more than just a small dab of the pear emulsion.  The fruit could have cut some of the richness of the other components.

Danny’s third course was an adaptation of an entrée that can currently be found on the menu at Napa Rose.  It was Duck à ‘l Orange: duck confit and blood orange – almond jus.  The full menu item also includes a duckling breast, but that was left out of the smaller tasting plate.  Danny loves duck confit, though, so Chef Ronnie chose the right preparation to highlight.  Although Danny liked this dish, he doesn’t think it was the most memorable.  At the end of our third course, we were still raving about how much we liked the second one.

Our fourth courses were both versions of current Napa Rose entrées.  I had a lamb chop with snap peas, root vegetables and Red Velvet apricot with apricot yoghurt.  It differed slightly from the lamb entrée on the regular menu, which was Mountain Lamb Rack Chop and Lamb Porterhouse, Braised Radish, Spring Vegetables, Red Velvet Apricot and Mustard.  I think that what I was served was excellent, and I preferred it to the sound of the original menu item.  I think Chef Ronnie knew how much I was enjoying the fruit-heavy meal and thus opted to play up the apricot instead of the heavier elements of the dish.

Chef Ronnie also sensed how well Danny was responding to the heat in some of his dishes, and so prepared for him a New York strip steak with cherry salsa fresca, green chickpea purée, and cherry ancho chili essence.  Chef Ronnie called it an homage to the wine regions of South America, and as with the rest of the night, the seasonal ingredients were top-notch.  As strip steaks can be, it was a little tough.  Danny would have liked a more tender cut of meat, but he still enjoyed it.  In fact, Danny and I both thought that each of us received the better dish, which just goes to show that the chef chose right for both of us.

At this point, we’d each been given four courses plus an amuse-bouche.  We thought that dessert was all that was left, but Chef Ronnie had a surprise for us.  He told us he had a special treat, then presented us with the full collection of Napa Rose’s “diligently selected cheeses.”  Nine pieces in all, we were given Saint André (cow’s milk, France), Bucheron, St. Saviol (goat’s milk, France), Goat Tome (goat’s milk, California), Lamb Chopper (sheep’s milk, California), Carmody (sheep’s milk, California), Bandage Cheddar (cow’s milk, California), Mine Shaft Bleu (cow’s milk, California) and Caveman Blue (cow’s milk, Oregon).  There wasn’t a single one in the bunch that we disliked, but the Caveman Blue, Bandage Cheddar and both goat cheeses were among the best we’ve ever tasted.

When Chef Ronnie put the cheese plate in front of us, I thought that it was our fifth and final course, but he told us that when we were done, the pastry chef would come by to take our dessert order.  He bid us good night but told us to come back and see him again.  He was going to take inventory and then head home to his wife and five kids.

To our surprise, dessert, like all the other courses that night, was chosen for us.  Based on other reports I’ve read of the Chef’s Tasting Menu, this was unusual.  Normally guests order their own desserts.  Napa Rose’s executive pastry chef, Jorge Sotelo, had some special creations for us, though.  Danny was given blackberry semifreddo on lemon cake topped with white nectarines and blackberry sauce.  It was divine, and I was incredibly jealous that didn’t get it instead of my dessert.

What I had was a special birthday treat, I was told.  The Chef Jorge called it his take on deconstructing tiramisu.  Coffee semifreddo was rolled in Oreo cookie crumbs and set atop chocolate cake.  Alongside the cake was a shot glass filled with Bailey’s mousse and vanilla sauce.  Coffee and chocolate are not my favorite flavors, so the cake and ice cream fell flat for me.  However, I adore vanilla and Irish creme, so the “shot” of mousse was an excellent way to end the evening.  I was too full to finish that cake anyway!

All in all, the meal lasted until right around 11:00 PM, so about two and a half hours.  We were some of the last guests to leave the restaurant.  The kitchen was in the final stages of cleanup when we finally left our seats.  It may seem like a long time for a meal, but dining at the Napa Rose Chef’s Counter is so much more than a meal: it’s a spectacular culinary experience.  The Chef’s Tasting Menu is a feast, entertainment, education and culture all in one.  We had great conversations with Chef Ronnie and several other people in the kitchen staff that night, and it was delightful to watch them work.

Working in the kitchen of a high-end restaurant is a fast paced, pressurized environment.  Nevertheless, the kitchen staff at Napa Rose makes it seem effortless to not only work together as if in a choreographed culinary ballet, but to do it all while interacting with an audience.  I expected to be mostly ignored at the Chef’s Counter, but that was far from the case.  Although the staff were incredibly busy, many were able to take time from their work to come talk to us and check in on our meal.  It’s admirable that they’re able to take the time to make each guest at the Chef’s Counter feel special every night.

As special as this was, I don’t think it will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us.  The price is very reasonable for a night on the town, considering the outstanding meal and entertainment offered.  I’m sure we can visit again on our next Disneyland vacation and have a completely different experience.  Chef Ronnie did encourage us to come see him again, after all.  We definitely will.

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  1. Pingback: It’s my birthday! | The Hyperion Papers

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