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[whitespace] La Toque
Photograph by Michael Amsler

A classic: Chef Ken Frank's elaborate wine-pairing menu has earned La Toque a reputation for excellence.

Polished Plates

La Toque presents a near-perfect dining experience

By Paula Harris

A CADRE of wait staff assembles in the wide corridor between the swanky exhibition kitchen and the gorgeous rustic dining room. Each holds a plate of food that resembles an oil painting rather than a towering sculpture. "Ready?" inquires the headwaiter. Grave nods all round. Then, with the precision of formation flyers, they swoop grandly into the dining room up to a table of eight where they simultaneously place a dish before each diner. The patrons swoon, the wait staff evaporate into the background. This is service and sustenance at its most polished.

This is La Toque.

The ultra-chichi French Laundry--a perennial entry on the North Bay's best-restaurant lists and boasting a three-month wait for reservations--may be just down the road, but this lesser-known restaurant tucked away in Rutherford's Rancho Caymus Inn is attracting gourmets with similar topnotch cuisine but slightly more accessible prices and reservation availability.

Set in a comfortable but elegantly rustic dining room reminiscent of a French country lodge, with a blazing stone fireplace and gardens glowing with golden lamps, La Toque makes for memorable special-occasion dining.

Chef Ken Frank's elaborate wine-pairing menus (which change daily) are chock full of riches--the food is largely French-inspired with occasional Asian and Mediterranean influences.

The fixed-price menu is $72, which includes five courses (with choices for each course), coffee, miniature cakes and bonbons, and unlimited San Pellegrino or Evian bottled water. Or you can splurge another $40 for wines specifically tailored to match each forkful.

Tonight's meal comprises seared Sonoma Muscovy foie gras with Fuji apple and mango; porcini-crusted dayboat scallops with lobster-crushed potatoes; roasted Oregon quail with rice beans, bacon, and red wine vinaigrette; Bodega Bay king salmon with roasted baby beets and merlot; and finally, cream cheese pound cake with crème fraîche sherbet, pineapple rum sauce, and broiled Mission figs.

Every course is carefully planned to be luxurious without being over-the-top. The touch is light, the portions moderate. The one quibble tonight is that the quail is overly salty.

Talking of the quail, a young blond woman in a red camisole is obviously not accustomed to such delicacies and eyes the small bird uncomfortably. Eventually she switches plates with her companion (he has ordered the even more unusual but more accessible-looking wild Scottish hare "au poivre.") Indeed, La Toque is a great place to try lesser-known fare. On another night, they were serving South Texas antelope with lentilles du Puy and cabernet foie gras sauce.

However, for balance, I take along a vegetarian companion, and the staff couldn't be happier. They laud the pleasant "challenge" for the chef and help pair wines. Everything, from a chilled tomato soup to a risotto studded with sweet corn and Canadian chanterelles, is equally delicious.

Lovers of black fungus should note that in January and February La Toque also features a $95 All-Truffle Menu, with fresh black truffles (not truffle oil) in every course.

While the food, wine list, service, and ambiance are all exceptional, it's the total experience that steals the show. Allow between two and a half and three hours for your feast.

La Toque Restaurant
Address: 1140 Rutherford Cross Road, Rutherford; 707/963-9770.
Hours: Dinner, Wednesday-Sunday, 5:30 to 9 p.m. or later
Food: French-inspired with occasional Asian and Mediterranean influences
Service: Expertly trained and solicitous
Ambiance: Serene rustic elegance
Price: Expensive
Wine list: Excellent selection
Overall: 3 3/4 stars (out of 4)

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From the September 13-19, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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