Saturday, December 17, 2011

My 30th Birthday Celebration

For my 30th birthday, Dan and I went to Napa for a short weekend birthday trip.  Our plan was to have dinner on Friday, stay for 1 night, and then have a spa day on Saturday.

30 is the new 20! :)

The first thing we did was to book a table for dinner at French Laundry. Once we were able to confirm the date, we booked our stay at the Hyatt Avia Napa.

When I was researching for spas, I saw a deal on Travelzoo for a spa package at the Napa Valley Marriott-- the deal was pretty good and that was the last missing piece I needed for our trip :)

After booking and confirming, we were set to go!

This Trip Report is broken into three separate separate sections:

1. Our accommodation: Hyatt Avia Napa
2. French Laundry Dinner
3. Spa Day at the Napa Valley Marriott

Enjoy and feel free to drop a note if you have any questions!

Hyatt Avia Napa

Hotel sign

I heard about this hotel from a friend of mine who stayed there and raved about it. As usual,  I checked out the pictures and reviews on Trip Advisor, and this hotel got really good ratings! The price was quite reasonable (around $160-$250) for the Napa area, and I LOVED the modern style of the hotel. This hotel had just recently been acquired by Hyatt, previously the name was just "Avia Napa." Even though this hotel was now technically a Hyatt hotel, we didn't really feel like we were staying in a chain hotel. The hotel still retained a lot of its "boutique" feel which we liked.

Avia Hotel - Napa

The hotel is located in downtown Napa. We have been to Napa a number of times, but surprisingly haven't been to this area of town. The hotel is on a quiet street area, across shops and restaurants. It was nice to be able to walk around and check out downtown Napa from our hotel.

Quiet street in downtown Napa, across from the hotel

One thing to note, we thought that the parking was valet only ($15/night). We had a lot of luggage for our 1 night stay :p so decided to valet. On the second day did we realize that we could have actually self parked at the parking garage in the back for free.

The lobby area was quite small but the design was very nice: rustic and modern.

Hotel Lobby
Breakfast area

We booked the hotel via and after reading many reviews on Trip Advisor, we splurged and booked the Master Tub Suite. The Master Tub Suite had a separate living room area, as well as a HUGE tub. :) The room was quite spacious, and there were actually 2 flat screen TVs (one in the living room and another one in the bedroom).

Living Room seating area
Second flatscreen TV and the fireplace

The bedroom area was beautiful! There was a HUGE tub to the side of the room, which was very unique and so lovely!

Beautiful bedroom with HUGE tub

The tub was GIGANTIC! If we ever build our own house, I would want a tub like that! The bathroom area was also really spacious, with a separate shower area and dual his/her sinks.

Clean, modern bathroom

There wasn't a swimming pool in this hotel, which I thought was a little surprising. But we didn't mind since we only stayed for one night. Their evening turndown service was a nice touch, which included 2 free bottled waters and mini chocolates.

The hotel also provided free drinks/appetizers in the lobby area from 5:30-7:00 PM nightly as well as free chair massages. How awesome is that? Unfortunately, we were not able to participate since we had early dinner reservations at 5:30 PM.

Overall we LOVED this hotel and would definitely consider staying here again in the future.

French Laundry

It was finally time for our long awaited dinner at The French Laundry! I can't tell you how excited I was to finally be here, and I hope you are able to catch a glimpse of our wonderful night here at The French Laundry.

French Laundry Sign

Our dinner reservation was at 5:30 PM. We left our hotel around 4:45 PM just to give ourselves enough time to drive from Napa to Yountville. Turns out there was hardly any traffic, and we arrived pretty early. There was plenty of parking on the street. My heart started beating harder and faster when I finally saw the restaurant building!

French Laundry restaurant in Yountville, CA

We took a couple pictures outside and heard a family also taking pictures who were talking in Indonesian. Turns out it was actually a friend of mine who just finished lunch with her family.  How coincidental and funny!

We went inside around 5:25 PM and were so relieved when they did in fact have our reservation! For some reason both Dan and I were paranoid that our reservation didn't actually go through...ha, ha. The hostess took my jacket and seated us promptly.  5:30 PM was the first dinner seating, so the restaurant was still very empty when we came. The dining area was pretty small, there was probably around 6 tables in our area, and another 3 tables in a separate room area. There was also a whole second floor also with a number of tables.

The famous "blue" door

There were only two menu options: 9-course Chef's Tasting menu or the Vegetable's Tasting Menu. They were both $270 per person (included service charge, but not tax). The price was very steep and was definitely a splurge for us. It helped that we came with an expectation of the price, otherwise we would have been sticker shocked and would probably not enjoy the dinner as much.

Their wine list was actually on an iPad, which was pretty cool. Wine prices was pretty astronomical, too; Dan got a glass of one of the cheaper wines (Sherrer Pinot Noir) for $25!

Our waitress was amazing! She recited almost everything on the menu from memory and was very articulate in describing the dishes. Considering how many courses there were, we were quite impressed.

We both decided on the Chef's Tasting Menu. They were pretty flexible with changing some of the entrees if you have allergies or do not like certain item. For example, for the meat entree, the choice was either the lamb rib-eye or the dry aged beef which had a $100 supplement. I don't eat lamb, but I didn't want to pay an extra $100 for a small beef entree. I asked the waitress for other options, and she said they can prepare another beef entree without the $100 supplement, which was greatly appreciated.

What a way to celebrate my 30th!

Customary to other fine dining restaurants, we were given several amuse bouches. The first one was this light crispy puff-pastries filled with gruyere cream. It was served slightly warm and was delicious! We both really enjoyed it and agreed we were off to a great start!

We noticed the service at The French Laundry was probably the best service we have had anywhere. Everyone was very polite and courteous, and whoever brought the dishes to serve would take 1-2 minute describing the dish to us.

Gruyere puffs

The second amuse bouche was the Salmon Cornets. It's shaped like an ice cream cone which was very whimsical and creative. The salmon tartare was refreshing and was a perfect combination with the cream cheese filling and the crunchy cone. We both really enjoyed this dish and wished we could have a couple more. :)

Salmon Cornets

The Oysters & Pearls was technically the 1st course. Having seen the pictures of this dish before, I was surprised to see how tiny it was in person. I took a small bite of the caviar with the creamy sabayon, and it was heavenly! The caviar was a little salty but it was perfectly balanced with the slightly cheesy custard and tapioca pearls. It was a very interesting use of tapioca pearls since I usually see tapioca pearls in bubble teas! Ha ha. Although, they used the white, smaller pearls instead of the big, black pearls used for bubble teas.

When I finally took a bite of the oysters, pearls and sabayon altogether, I remembered it being one of the best bites ever and both Dan and I gushed how good it was!!! This was definitely my favorite!

Oysters & Pearls
Sabayon of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar

We were then served the dinner roll, which again, was smaller in person. It was probably a good size though, since we really didn't want to eat too much bread. The dinner roll deserves a mention here, since it was so good! All the bread were baked fresh from Bouchon bakery. It was such a simple roll but it was probably one of the best dinner rolls I have ever had. It was flaky, doughy, buttery, soft, and served warm. What more could I ask for from a dinner roll?

Dinner roll

For the 2nd course, Dan and I ordered different things. Dan had the roasted sunchoke soup while I ordered the foie gras. The soup was lukewarm, rich, and creamy.  The bits of dates, yogurt, and cashews added nice texture to the creaminess.  Pretty good.

Roasted Sunchoke Soup
Medjool Dates, Toasted Cashews, Cilantro and Madras Curry Yogurt

The foie gras dish carried a $30 supplement. The foie gras was served cold yet very light - and was meant to be eaten with the warm toasted brioche. This dish was pretty good but not my favorite. The foie gras tasted almost like regular pates that you can get at a grocery store. :p Maybe it's just my palate though...he, he. I could only eat half and was not able to finish this dish. Looking back, I don't think it's worth to pay the $30 supplement for this dish, but we're glad we at least tried it.

We noticed that every time we left something on the plate that was not fuly eaten, the waitress would ask us if there was anything wrong with the dish. It seemed like they really cared about what the customer liked or didn't like and would give the feedback to the chef.

Moulard Duck "Foie Gras au Torchon"
Cipollini Onion, Celery Branch, Oregon Huckleberries and Banana Sable

Dan's 3rd course was the cobia filet, which was excellent! Perfectly cooked--soft on the inside, slightly crispy on the outside. The cabbage, quince, walnuts, mustard complemented the fish extremely well. So good! This was Dan's favorite dish.

Sauteed Fillet of Gulf Coast Cobia
Red Wine Braised Cabbage, Flowering Quince, Walnuts and Dijon Mustard

My 3rd course was the bay scallops. This dish was just so-so for me. It was good, but none of the flavors really jumped out. It was interesting to eat the scallop with the blood orange though - definitely not something that I would do on my own. :)

Nantucket Bay Scallops
Cauliflower, Blood Orange, Sicilian Pistachios and Black Winter Truffle

In between 3rd and 4th course, they brought a selection of breads to choose. I chose the pretzel bread because I thought it would be interesting. Dan got the multigrain bread. Again, the size of this bread was quite small, but definitely more than enough for us since at this point, we were already quite full. The pretzel bread tasted like, a pretzel, a really good pretzel. :)

Pretzel Bread

Our 4th course was the Maine lobster. I thought it was interesting that it was served with a chocolate emulsion. This dish was solid, but not out-of-this-world like the cobia fillet or the oysters & pearls.

Sweet Butter Poached Maine Lobster Mitts
Missing Fig Compote, Baby Beet, Tardivo Radicchio, Watercress and Guiness-Chocolate Emulsion

The 5th course was rabbit sirloin. Looked like white lamb, but tasted more like chicken. The meat was on the tougher, chewier side. A good solid dish again, but by this point our stomachs were definitely on the fuller side.

Devil's Gulch Ranch Rabbit Sirloin
Hobb's Bacon, Chantrelle Mushrooms, Marble Potatoes and Tarragon

Dan's 6th course was the lamb rib eye.  This was a very nice dish.  Meat was juicy, prepared well, though a little tough and chewy (compared to beef). Dan couldn't finish this because he was so full.

Elysian Fields Farm Lamb Rib Eye
Panisse, Young Fennel, Piperade, and Nicoise Olive Jus

Since I didn't want to order the lamb, and didn't want to pay the $100 supplement for the beef dish (for my 6th course), I asked the waitress for an alternate beef dish. Surprisingly, when my 6th course came, it sounded very similar to the beef dish that carried the $100 supplement. I was worried that maybe we would be charged the extra amount, but I was pretty sure I asked for an alternate. Since I already took a couple bites, I decided to not bring it up and just see in the end if we got charged or not (turned up we didn't!).

This course was one of the best dishes of the night for me. The quality of the meat was just outrageous. I was able to taste the grain of the beef. The beef was super soft with a slight chew, and it was the perfect texture! The crispy bone marrow was very buttery and crispy on the outside; it really tasted like melted fat. :) So good!

49 Day Dry Aged Snake River Farms Beef
Crispy Bone Marrow, Nantes Carrots, Broccoli, Tokyo Turnips and "Sauce Bordelaise"

Our 7th course was a cheese dish. All the cheese were hard cheeses, they were all quite mild, and it was a nice change after the seafood and meat dishes that we had.

Comte Reserve
San Marzano Tomato Marmalade, Globe Artichoke, Spanish Capers, Garlic and Arugula

We were then offered coffee or tea, and I opted for the cappucino. Dan had green tea. By this time we were really full, but still looking forward to the desserts. :)


The 8th course was the sour cherry sorbet; this was a great palate cleanser. It was served with a coconut buttery cookie and a vanilla soda foam.

Sour Cherry Sorbet
Coconut Petite Beurre and Vanilla Soda

Our last course was the main dessert dish. Dan chose the Chocolate mousse and I chose the "Pommes Anna." Since it was my birthday, they also brought out a small cake with candle, which was a nice touch.


The chocolate mousse was good. Good quality...not super spectacular, but also not not good either.  Eating the mousse with the almond ice cream was the way to go, though Dan didn't care too much for the panna cota.

Alpaco "Mousse au Chocolat"
Spice Pudding, Panna Cotta, Fuyu Persimmon and Macarona Almond Glacee

The Pommes Anna was a sophisticated version of a funnel cake. I really only ate the funnel cake and the salted caramel ice cream; everything else wasn't really my cup of tea. To tell you the truth, both Dan and I felt that we haven't had a really good dessert dish at a fine dining restaurant. It seems like most of the fine dining establishments try too hard to make desserts more complicated, and at least for me, I prefer my desserts simple.

Pommes Anna
Funnel Cake, Rum, Anglaise, and Salted Caramel Ice Cream

We were given three additional post desserts after we finished our main dessert. :) There was the semifreddo which was a semi-frozen coffee custard, beignet doughnut holes, and caramel & chocolate covered macadamia nuts.


Talk about finishing strong! This was what I was talking about when it comes to really good desserts. Both Dan and I thoroughly enjoyed the semifreddo, doughnut holes, and chocolate covered macadamia nuts much much more than the fancy chocolate mousse and pommes anna.

The semifreddo was refreshing, it tasted like a frozen milk coffee custard. We originally didn't know what it was and thought it was a hot cappucino. We tried drinking it but nothing really was drinkable, ha ha. We later realized we were supposed to use the small spoon given to scoop out the coffee custard. :)

The doughnut holes were very light, soft and slightly sweetened, served warm. Simple but solid!

The macadamia nuts were out of this world! They were covered with a caramel crunch layer, then a chocolate layer, then dusted with the confectioners sugar. There were probably 15-20 macadamia nuts in the bowl, and we almost finished it. I wished I had brought a ziplock to bring the rest home!

Chocolate covered macadamia nuts

Right when we thought we were finally done with everything, they had one more thing for us, which was the Mignardises. Mignardises are tiny, bite sized desserts served at the end of the meal. These particular mignardises were homemade chocolate truffles. I think the flavors were: caramel, pumpkin spice, meyer lemon, peanut butter & jelly, praline, and one more flavor that I can't remember (rum something?).


Similar to Gary Danko, we were given "treats" to take home. They consisted of shortbread cookies (the typical treats given to customers) and a packet of chocolates for my birthday.  We were also given copies of the menu for that day, which was a very nice touch.

Before we left, we asked for a tour of the kitchen and were given a very short look into the kitchen and chefs in action. It was quite interesting - there were different stations and everyone looked very busy and serious! :)

Our treats


This was definitely a splurge for us. Our total bill came out to a whopping $641, which is definitely our most expensive meal to date - by far! We justified this for a once in a lifetime experience since it is my 30th birthday :)

The experience was great though. Getting a reservation was a deal in itself and was an interesting task. Service was excellent - I daresay that this is probably the best service I've had anywhere.

I would describe the food as really good in general, with some dishes being exceptional and the rest being "good".

We felt that our dining experience was like a U shaped bell. Amazing appetizers, good entrees, and strong dessert finish.

The highlights of the meal for us were:

  • Salmon cornets
  • Oysters & Pearls
  • Sauteed Fillet of Gulf Coast Cobia
  • Dry Aged Snake River Farms Beef
  • Doughnut Holes
  • Chocolate Covered Macadamia Nuts

If the rest of the food had hit the spot like the ones mentioned above, then I would rate French Laundry as an exceptional restaurant. The tingling feeling that I had when eating the dishes above was quite sensational. However, the rest of the dish was just good, not exceptional - and can probably be had at other Michelin star restaurants around Bay Area for a fraction of the cost.

In summary, we're glad we tried it once, but we probably will not go back, mostly due to the exorbitant cost.

  • If you do want to make reservations - check out our tips on how to make reservations at French Laundry
  • Note that the prix fixe menu price already included service charge - but you are welcomed to leave additional tips if you like 
  • Ask for a tour of the kitchen
  • Don't hesitate to ask for substitute if you are either allergic or do not care for a particular item
  • They do allow pictures, but with no flash - that's why most of our pictures were dark :p 

Until next time!

Spa Day at the Napa Valley Marriott

For the second day of my 30th birthday celebration, I booked a spa day at the Napa Valley Marriott through a Travelzoo deal that I saw. It included a massage, scalp treatment, mini facial, and a picnic lunch for a pretty reasonable price.

The Napa Valley Marriott is located in Napa, right off Highway 29, and only about a 5 minute from from our hotel. The spa facility was actually a separate building from the rest of the hotel. Parking was free and plentiful.

Marriott Spa

We checked in with the receptionist and presented our Travelzoo vouchers. We were then taken inside and given a brief overview of the facility. 

Spa Hallway

There was a separate area for men and women. There was a locker area, a small whirlpool, a steam room, and several shower stalls. The facility was pretty clean and nicely decorated, but the spa area was a bit small and did not have that "luxurious" feel--but still nice nonetheless.

Whirlpool and shower stall

The main room--a co-ed lounge, outside the separate men's/women's locker rooms--was a quiet waiting area with chairs, sofas, gas lit fireplace, coffee/tea/water, and magazines. From here the therapist called our names and took us to the treatment rooms.

Quiet Waiting Area

There was also a small seating area outdoors, but since it was a bit chilly, we waited inside.

Outdoor resting area

Our first treatment was a one hour massage. The massage room was clean, and the therapist was good.  It went by way too fast, and just as we were getting relaxed, the massage was over! We were taken back to the waiting area for our next treatment. After our facial, we took a quick shower, and then headed to the main hotel building to pick up our picnic lunch from the hotel's restaurant.

Marriott Napa Valley Lobby

We picked up our picnic food from the restaurant. We ordered the turkey sandwich, cheese platter, hummus, and couscous. For drinks, we opted for Izze sparkling sodas.

Our picnic lunch

Lunch was quite delicious, and we talked about how good of a deal this was and how much we enjoyed spa day!

What a fun day!

What a great way to end my 30th birthday celebration. It was quick 2 day/1 night trip filled with my most favorite activities: eating good food and spending time at the spa! Just how I like it. :)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

How To Book a Table at French Laundry

Signature Clothespin

We have had French Laundry on our list of restaurants to try for the longest time, and we finally found a reason to book a table there: my 30th birthday!

For those of you who are not familiar with French Laundry, it is one of the few 3 star Michelin restaurants in the US. We both love trying out Michelin rated restaurants for special occasions, and have only gone to 1 and 2 star restaurants.  This will be our first 3 star, and we are very excited!

There are a lot of blogs and forums online that discuss how to snag a table at French Laundry. One thing to keep in mind is that reservations open up exactly 2 months before. We did a similar thing for my 28th birthday at Gary Danko, but it was much easier getting a table there compared to what we had to go through to book a table at French Laundry.

Here were the methods that we read about (as suggested from online blogs/forums):

1. Call the reservation line exactly 2 months before at 10 AM Pacific Time. Use multiple phones if possible to increase your chance.

Verdict: We tried this but were not able to get through (we only used 1 phone though :p). After a couple times we gave up.

2. Stay up on midnight and try to book a reservation at Open Table exactly 2 months before. Supposedly French Laundry has 1 table for 2 and 1 table for 4 released each day.

Verdict: We tried this also, and as soon as the clock strike midnight, the tables were not available! We weren't sure if there could possibly be other people staying up at midnight who got those tables!

 3. IF you are able to get through the phone line, and your preferred date is not available, then put your name on the waiting list for as many days as possible and be flexible.

Verdict: We didn't try this route since we wanted to go on a specific day. Our friend tried this method, and it worked. They got a call back with a couple of viable dates.

4. If you booked a room at one of the really nice surrounding hotels in Yountville or Napa area, the hotel concierge might be able to get you a table.

Verdict: We didn't try this route either, but definitely something that you can look into.

5. If you have any kind of concierge service from your credit card (AMEX Platinum, Visa Signature concierge), contact them a couple weeks before the 2 months deadline and have them try to book you a table at French Laundry.

Verdict: Dan called our Visa Signature concierge about a week before the 2 months deadline to check whether they could book a table. They said that French Laundry is a very popular restaurant, and that there's no guarantee, but they will try. So we didn't think much about it.

How we finally snagged the highly coveted reservation at French Laundry:

We unsuccessfully tried methods 1 and 2 above. We were not able to get through, so we were pretty discouraged. Dan checked his email around 10:30 AM after we hung up from the reservation line, and miraculously got an email from the Visa signature concierge saying that they were able to secure us a reservation at French Laundry for my birthday!!! Yay :)