When Napa Rose opened its soaring Arts and Crafts-style doors almost 10 years ago, it single-handedly upgraded the way Orange County thinks of Disney cuisine. Before that, the park’s finest dining was hidden at the members-only Club 33. Napa Rose fast became the table to beat, serving sophisticated wine country fare complemented by an extraordinary cellar, all in warm, classy surroundings, no admission required.
Early praise from amazed diners (this writer included) typically included some variant of the compliment: “And it doesn’t taste or feel anything like Disney food.” Recent revisits to the now-seasoned restaurant show Napa Rose isn’t fading with time. In fact, it’s as vibrant as ever, though some of the players have changed.
The diligent and creative Andrew Sutton remains executive chef, though inaugural general manager-sommelier Michael Jordan is long gone, replaced by GM Philippe Tosques and sommelier Joy Cushing.
Meanwhile, Sutton pushes forward, leaning hard on seasonal inspiration while weaving nature’s finest into nuanced, imaginative fare such as grilled rabbit meatloaf patties crowned with a sunny-side-up quail egg served with fingerling potato planks and a “ketchup” of red bell peppers. It’s a quintessential wine country dish that is delicate, earthy, and comforting at once, yet pairs well with zesty riesling or a smoky tempranillo. An easy feat, since the restaurant’s by-the-glass list has grown steadily with time and now hovers at 50-plus.
Sutton and crew shift the menu slightly each week, but you can expect major swings once the weather changes. Which is why tonight’s diners will miss the astounding pheasant Bolognese, and Oregon truffles served in a teensy copper pot. Ditto for the twice-braised pork osso buco, boneless and luscious with roasted vegetables. June begins the parade of such summery players as squash blossoms, cherry tomatoes, Alaskan halibut, beef tri-tip or rib-eye, local strawberries, and cherries. Sutton’s connections and Napa Rose’s reputation effectively ensure the kitchen snags the best from elite purveyors, which can include a family farm in Tehachapi for potatoes, or a ranch in Northern California for extra virgin Arbequina olive oil.
Smiling Tiger Salad, a relatively new dish, is justly popular and destined for a long run. It’s a fun play on the Thai beef classic, Crying Tiger, but in this case made with sliced filet mignon and tempura-fried lobster chunks. Fluffy Asian greens and a sweet-tart lime vinaigrette splendidly balance the two rich proteins. Duck breast from Maple Leaf Farms is perfectly medium rare as requested, but with crispy skin—every forkful elevated when swiped through a puddle of blood-orange vinaigrette. But the plate’s real genius is the almond-flecked roasted cauliflower, grated to mimic the texture of couscous but delivering tons more character than the usual semolina pasta.
Even signature dishes are candidates for seasonal tweaks. Tubby seared diver scallops with lemony Tahitian lobster sauce are a crowd favorite. But when Sutton finds the quality of scallops plummeting, they’re off the menu—once for nearly a year. His weekly Vintner’s Table menu is the surest route to seasonally inspired thrills: four-plus courses of the kitchen’s current best dishes, paired with wines that are showing well, as an option. Go all out and enjoy the feast at the chef’s counter, a front-row seat to all the action and foodie chat.
Pastry chef Jorge Sotelo is, using Disneyspeak, an “imagineer” of desserts. Some are soulfully seasonal, including ripe pineapple, crisp-roasted to a gooey turn and paired with coconut sorbet. Others are seriously whimsical—to wit, a pee-wee banana split fashioned with a rich trio of house-churned ice creams atop fresh cheesecake, flanked with slices of fried miniature bananas. It’s excruciating to choose between sweets and a cheese course, as each is a premier effort. So, get both. If the gods are smiling, the day’s assortment will include Roth’s Reserve, a rich cow’s milk cheese from Monroe, Wis., teamed with apricot or pecan chutney.
Despite an aversion to theme parks and my strong immunity to Disney dazzle, it does seem fitting that Napa Rose is wondrously ageless and ever blooming. Which is not to say time has stood still. Rather, Sutton and crew are quietly keeping a brisk pace set by Mother Nature. It’s comforting to know culinary magic is performed nightly, as brilliant and dependable as the fireworks in the summer sky.
Smiling Tiger Salad, rabbit meatloaf, pork osso buco, duck breast, multicourse Vintner’s Table menu, cheese platter.
Chef’s counter; No. 57 near the patio for privacy; Nos. 72 and 74 for larger groups.
Starters, $15 to $45; entrees, $36 to $45.
Free, validated valet parking at hotel entrance.
Grand Californian Hotel
1600 S. Disneyland Drive
Photograph by John Cizmas
This article originally appeared in the June 2011 issue.