By Robert St. John
Almost every summer I travel into the redwoods of Northern California and camp along the Russian River. We eat well in camp, but we usually venture out one night into Yountville, Calif., to eat at one of Thomas Keller’s restaurants.
The first time my friends and I did this, we ate a 32-course meal at The French Laundry. The meal lasted five hours and 15 minutes, and is still – to this date – the only meal I have ever eaten that needed a halftime break. We have ventured back to The French Laundry several times and they have been some of the most memorable meals of my life.
Last year we tried Keller’s Ad Hoc and had a fun, casual meal, well prepared, but nothing to compare to The French Laundry.
Every year Keller closes for a week around New Year’s Day and a week during the summer. They give the staff time off and use the opportunity to do various housekeeping duties that need to be performed. Apparently no one from the Keller organization called me and asked which would be the best week to close this summer. Had they done so, I would have definitely told them, “Not this week.”
While talking to my friend at The French Laundry, I asked for other recommendations. He suggested Redd, just down the street. I knew the restaurant, as my friends and I had stopped by there last year before having dinner at Ad Hoc next door. So I made reservations for the usual table of four and kept my fingers crossed.
Redd surpassed expectations at every opportunity, from the initial point of contact, through the meal, to the last goodbyes by the staff and management.
The staff was accommodating over the phone as, en route, we had to change the time of our reservation twice. The young lady who was handling reservations was patient and courteous, and one time even took the initiative to reschedule the reservation when our phone conversation was interrupted by the spotty cellular service in the winding hills and roads of the Russian River Valley.
The restaurant itself is starkly minimal in design, and it works. When sitting in the unadorned dining room, what stands out most is the people. At one’s table, the focus is on the food. Good thing that, because the food is excellent, and at a fraction of the price of The French Laundry.
We ate six rounds and 14 courses from tuna tartare with Asian pear, chili oil, fried rice and cilantro – excellent, to caramelized diver scallops with cauliflower puree, almonds and golden raisins.
Chef/owner Richard Reddington, a veteran of several first-rate kitchens – Wolfgang Puck, Daniel Boulud, David Burke and the like – opened Redd six years ago and has excellent “touch” to go with his good taste. Hundreds of restaurants are serving lamb loin and Sonoma duck breast, but very few are doing it as well as Reddington and his staff at Redd.
I have been eating pork belly in restaurants for the past decade. The first time I had it in New York in the late 1990s, I came home and told my chefs that we had to start working up a dish using pork belly. We have been serving it for years, and everyone is serving it these days. It’s almost to the point to where it’s passé. Obsolete, or not, I like pork belly. I love Redd’s pork belly.
Reddington’s pork belly was perfectly cooked (again, touch), not too fatty (hard for pork belly), glazed and served with an apple puree, burdock (a rarely seen root vegetable), and soy caramel. Beautiful. Perfect. It is simply the best pork belly dish I have ever eaten. Period.
I stopped drinking alcohol over 29 years ago. My companions opted for the wine pairings and the sommelier offered to work with the bartender to create several non-alcoholic wine pairings for my meal. The first time this had been offered was at The French Laundry several years ago. The staff at Redd did an excellent job pairing handcrafted beverages such as Yuzu/blackberry puree/and ginger beer, lemon-basil/honey-syrup/and lemon soda, and tarragon/cherries/cherry jam/club soda.
Once out of the restaurant, and walking down the sidewalk to our waiting car, the manager rushed out of the door, tracked us down and said, “Thank you for dining with us tonight.” Again, at every point of contact, and at every opportunity, Redd surpassed all expectations.
At the end of the meal, I didn’t make the usual trek back into camp, seated beside my friends who are usually asleep before we exit the city limits of Yountville. I had a car lined up to take me into San Francisco to catch the red-eye flight back home.
As I sat on the late night flight thinking about my friends, and the week we had shared, one thing kept popping up in my mind – pork belly. Redd, you will see me again.
Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.