Happy Birthday to me! Where else was I going to celebrate my birthday but Disneyland, and where else but the best restaurant outside of Club 33: the Napa Rose inside the Grand Californian Hotel and Spa. We’ve eaten here before, and I figured it was time to go back for a special occasion. Joined by the ever game Busy Bumble and our parents, Busy Pops and Busy Mama, we had a consistently amazing dinner that showcases Disney customer service and commitment to quality.
The name refers to the fact that roses are often grown in vineyards. There are any number of stories as to why this practice started: roses and grapevines are susceptible to the same types of potentially damaging mildew, so they can act like a warning system before whole grapevines are hit; or that the draught-horses used in the old days used the scent of roses to tell where the end of the row was. Ask many a vintner and you’ll get a tale or two but no concrete, pragmatic reason why they’re still in vineyards all over the world.
The Napa Rose features fresh, seasonal Californian fare. I find nothing more amusing than going to Disney World and seeing every other high-end restaurant state they do California cuisine. The premise behind the food is simplicity, source-able ingredients, freshness, global influence, and a touch of inventiveness. Sounds like every other restaurant, right? It’s hard to accurately describe the cuisine of my home state, other than to say it has a far-reaching influence. Starting with the inimitable Alice Waters and the landmark restaurant Chez Panisse (been there, loved it!) California cuisine is now seen in every major city in the world and has become more than just a celebration of our state’s bounty.
Let’s be clear up front: the Napa Rose is not cheap. This is not a theme park quick service counter. You will feel it in your wallet. That being said there are few places that can truly compare with the level of service and the quality of the food you get here. The Blue Bayou is mostly about being inside Pirates of the Caribbean. The Carthay Circle is close in terms of fine dining atmosphere, but the fact that you’re inside the park means it can get a little frenetic, depending on the time of day. The best analog is probably Steakhouse 55, although the darker, steakhouse atmosphere is quite different for the bright and airy Napa Rose.
At 7pm the place was packed, but most people were there for special occasions or prepared for fine dining. The lounge had a number of people either trying to escape the park or having a few drinks before retiring to their rooms. While the restaurant can get a little noisy, you never had to raise your voice to be heard. If you want a quieter, more intimate dining experience I recommend getting a reservation around 5pm. We’ve dined then and been nearly the only people in the restaurant. The earlier time also affords a great view of the Golden State area of DCA, where you might catch a glimpse of Grizzly River Run beyond the pines.
The décor of the restaurant is simple and elegant, with nods to California’s natural beauty (a mural of vineyards, the cattails on the columns). The golden wood and earth tones of the room are timeless and soothing, bringing to mind peaceful afternoon picnics in St. Helena or Yountville. The enormous windows that look out onto DCA are wonderful in daylight, although in the evening there isn’t much to see.
The menu changes seasonally, especially the Chef’s Tasting Menu, a fixed price menu with seasonally inspired courses and the option of adding paired wine to each course. While we were sorely tempted by the Tasting Menu we decided to go a la carte with a bottle of one of my favorite wines: a Skywalker Ranch Pinot Noir.
Yes, the Skywalker in the name means that none other than George Lucas owns the winery. I’m a Pinot Noir girl and this particular wine is well-rounded with notes of blackberries, vanilla, and even a hint of something like pie crust if you squint. This is immensely drinkable and is not a cheap bottle, but definitely worth the splurge. Our waiter was very knowledgeable about the food and wine and offered up that the 2012 bottle we were drinking from was particularly flavorful due to a mix of previous year drought conditions and a prime growing season that year.
The bread service is wonderful and we had to remind ourselves not to fill up, especially Busy Mama who loves her restaurant bread service. The basket was filled with a number of different types of bread: a softly sweet butternut squash and herb roll, a hearty honey wheat berry roll, and crisp cheesy cracker bread. Each of them were delicious, although the cracker bread was my favorite. The bread is always served hot and fresh from the oven and servers will gladly refill your basket throughout your meal. We eventually told them to take it away as we were getting too carried away with just the bread.
We started the meal with two appetizers that might not be favorites of most people but we love them: bone marrow custard with short rib, toast and sweetbreads with shell pasta, and a literal cup of cream of mushroom soup for Busy Mama.
The bone marrow custard might be a good way for folks who are curious about bone marrow but put off by the actual eating from a bone part to try it. The bone marrow was mixed with a savory custard and baked into a soft, spoonable consistency. This was topped with melt-in-your-mouth beef short rib, drippings from the short rib, and served with a side of toast for dipping and spreading. This was a decadent start to the meal and completely different from any way I’d had bone marrow before. Busy Bumble and I ate most of this dish, but Busy Pops and Mama also took a few bites to try. You could eat it on your own, but it’s a good idea to share since more food is coming.
Sweetbreads are a mystery to most people. No they aren’t the same as “Rocky Mountain Oysters,” but they are organ meat, thymus and pancreas to be specific. They are soft, with just a little resistance when cut into after cooking and have a creamy taste that is milder than an organ like liver. The Napa Rose prepared theirs with house-made shell pasta, fresh herbs, and a mild cream sauce that pulled it all together. The gentle flavors married well together. Again, this was not a preparation I had seen before for sweetbreads and I once again thought this would be a good introduction for diners who might want to try but weren’t ready for straight-up sweetbreads alone.
Busy Mama also saw they had a cream of mushroom soup as their soup du jour. This was charmingly served in an oversized coffee cup and could have passed for a cappuccino. The soup was thinner than most versions of cream of mushroom and had a delicate flavor. Big pieces of sliced wild mushroom provided the most flavor. The frothy crema at the top was a delightful addition that really made us think this was a fancy beverage. While she could have consumed it straight from the cup like coffee, they did give Busy Mama a spoon to eat with.
Each of us ordered different entrees so that we could try more of the menu. First up: Busy Pops and the special of the evening: sea bass in tomato sauce with assorted seafood.
Busy Pops is a stickler for properly prepared fish and his eyes nearly bugged out with his first bite. It was perfect! The fish was flaky but not overcooked. The same went for the other seafood in the dish: not rubbery, but tender and flavorful. The whole dish reminded me of a new take on classic San Francisco cioppino, which is a seafood stew in a tomato broth. This was a deconstructed version but using the same principle of whatever seafood was on hand that day. As a former marine bio student I was appreciative that the sea bass used was sourced through the Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program to ensure sustainability and low environmental impact. In fact the Napa Rose prides itself on adhering to Seafood Watch guidelines when sourcing all their seafood.
Busy Mama also opted for fish, but this one a freshwater variety. Her rainbow trout was glazed with a lightly sweet maple pecan sauce to coat the skin side and served atop braised Brussels sprouts with smoked ham. On the side was a rustic potato salad with trout roe. Busy Mama also agreed that the fish was incredibly well cooked. It was like the best campfire trout ever. The potato salad was a little unusual but fun, as it also made us think of campfire meals. Busy Mama especially loved the roe. While she normally loved Brussels sprouts she wasn’t as keen on the braised version. She usually likes hers fried whole or halved, so while the sprouts in her dish were tasty, they weren’t what she preferred.
Busy Bumble got her favorite: filet mignon (yeah, watch your bill when dining with her). The filet was cooked just to her liking, medium rare, with plenty of succulent juices when she cut into it. The meat was served with grilled delicata squash, a sweet squash that has a thin skin you can eat. We had this a few years back at Nick’s Cove up near Point Reyes National Seashore and we’ve been in love with it ever since. The flesh isn’t as cloyingly sweet as butternut can be and it isn’t as starchy either. It strikes a good balance between the soft, starchy squashes like butternut or kabocha and the firmer squashes like zucchini. There was also a pile of spinach and Cipollini onions in beef gravy that helped get a few more veggies into the meal. Busy Bumble was pleased, to say the least.
I had pot roast, but not just any pot roast. My so-tender-you-could-eat-it-with-a-spoon beef pot roast was served over a bed of buttery Yukon Gold potato mash with a side of roasted root vegetables and romanesco (a type of broccoli). The sauce was a rich beef gravy with some sweetness from the pomegranate glaze on my meat. This was comfort food elevated. The beef was well marbled before it was cooked so it fell apart with little resistance and just melted away in your mouth. The subtle, wine-like sweetness of the pomegranate was a pleasant surprise and went well with the heavier gravy. The veggies, especially the toothsome romanesco, were well cooked and provided a simple balance to the other elements, such as a the starchy potatoes.
Even though we were getting close to being too full to go on we knew we had to make it to dessert. Busy Mama kicked it off with a pot of blooming jasmine tea.
The tea arrived in a clear glass teapot so you could see the tea “bloom.” If you haven’t seen these before you can find them in specialty stores or even your local Bed, Bath and Beyond sometimes. You don’t need to guess when the tea is ready: once it blooms you can start pouring. Busy Mama was delighted watching it unfold and said the tea was delicious. Our waiter was even thoughtful enough to ask if she wanted cream and sugar with her tea as well as offering honey and lemon.
Like with our entrees we each ordered a different dessert so we could try as many as we could. Busy Pops went with his usual dessert favorite: scoops of house-made ice cream. There were a few favors offered, but he decided on pumpkin and coconut. Each scoop was served over complimentary bases, in this case cubes of baked pumpkin and coconut gelee, and topped with corresponding tuille cookies, pumpkin spice for the pumpkin and toasted coconut flakes for the coconut. Busy Pops said the ice creams themselves were amazing but the bases and the cookies took these out of orbit and make what some dismiss as a lazy dessert option into something truly special.
Busy Mama may have bigger eyes than her stomach but she soldiered on and got the milk chocolate peanut butter mousse with banana caramel ice cream and banana sauce. This was actually lighter than the description would have you think and the flavors were terrific together. When Busy Mama tapped out and couldn’t finish I gladly helped clean this up. She did love the banana cookie at the top, a clever reminder that it isn’t all chocolate and peanut butter.
Busy Bumble got the S’mores soufflé, which takes a little longer to get to the table since it’s made to order, but is worth the wait. The soufflé was light in texture but rich in flavor. Busy Bumble especially loved the tiny fresh toasted marshmallows and the toasted marshmallow ice cream. The ice cream was able to capture that subtle hint of campfire smoke, more maybe that was all in our heads. Either way it was unexpected and amazing. The fresh cookies were a hit. Busy Bumble eventually tried to layer it all together like a true s’more, triumphant when it worked and they all tasted amazing together.
For me nothing says fall more than pumpkin and nothing is more Disney than a fairy tale. So how about a fairytale pumpkin tart? This tart consists of a shortbread tart shell filled with fairytale pumpkin puree (fairytale pumpkins are the squat, almost flat looking very red-orange pumpkins that you can find at farms and specialty grocers). The top of the tart has been covered with sugar and then fired into a crunchy brulee topping. Over that is some lightly sweet Chantilly cream. A pumpkin tuille crowns the whole thing. Because the waiter asked if we were celebrating anything and I confessed it was my birthday, the plate came out with a “Happy Birthday” message and candle. Thankfully the Napa Rose is too classy to have Cast Members burst into song, so I was okay with them knowing. The tart was not very sweet except for the brulee topping, allowing for the natural flavor of the pumpkin to shine. This isn’t the pumpkin pie you can get at Costco or even in the parks. This was stellar and a great way to celebrate the fall season.
At the end of the night we also found out that our waiter had given us our desserts for free in honor of my birthday! It’s pretty customary to give the celebrant a free dessert, but all four?! Needless to say we bumped his tip up for such a gesture at the end of an already wonderful meal.
Was the final tab horrendous? I’ve seen worse from some places in big cities, but when I considered that it was more than just food but a whole experience I feel the price was worth it. I can’t afford to do this every month, but it is a nice treat once a year. If you eliminate the bottled wine and go for glasses, do one appetizer or skip it, and share a dessert I think the Napa Rose can be affordable for a family on a budget. In fact there were a few families in the restaurant and it was great to see the families and Cast Members welcoming small children to what may have been their first fine dining experience. They were all well-behaved and seemed to enjoy their food.
If you plan to go to the Napa Rose, check out the menu online or in the Disneyland app before you go. Decide if the seasonal menu fits your tastes and budget and take it from there. The Napa Rose also does special menus and meals for holidays such as Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve. If you want to experience some of the best food and service to be found in Disneyland, you can count on the Napa Rose to deliver.