Napa Rose in the Grand Californian Hotel is the best restaurant at Disneyland Resort. Blue Bayou, Carthay Circle Restaurant, and even Club 33 all pale in comparison to Napa Rose. A big part of this is likely that Napa Rose is the only restaurant of those I’ve mentioned not located in a theme park. While it still has a bit of a captive audience in terms of tourists visiting Disneyland Resort, it’s not nearly to the degree of the in-park restaurants.
Given that the Orange County and Los Angeles culinary scene is among the best in the country, Napa Rose really has to bring its A game to attract locals who aren’t heading into the parks. I mean, this is an area with some of the finest Pop Tart culinary creations known to mankind. When restaurants throw down the Pop Tart gauntlet, you know it’s on. Although Napa Rose doesn’t have any gourmet Pop Tarts on its menu (yet), it has basically responded with the sage words of Barney Stinson, shouting “CHALLENGE ACCEPTED” with regard to the competitive Orange County food scene.
In so doing, Napa Rose has demonstrated that it can run with the big dogs, winning a variety of awards since first opening, and being recognized as one of the top restaurants in Orange County by the likes of Zagat and other restaurant critics. Interestingly, the restaurant only scores an 81% on crowd-sourced Urban Spoon, but in glancing through those reviews, many seem to focus either on price or are tourists used to large portion sizes. No question, Napa Rose is an expensive restaurant serving smaller portions–this is pretty much a universal truth among fine dining locales. In other news, the sky is blue and Snoop Dogg likes to party.
We’ve already covered the regular menu at Napa Rose in a separate review, so for this review we will focus solely on the Chef’s Counter experience…
I’ll start by saying that this review is a bit superfluous, for a couple of reasons. First, Napa Rose is an amazing restaurant, and anyone looking for a romantic meal or quality fine dining experience, especially those traveling on vacation to Disneyland Resort, should make reservations for Napa Rose. It’s expensive, but well worth the money.
It really doesn’t need my endorsement, because “real” food critics sing its praises all the time, and they know way more about this stuff than me, and also know fancy french terms to describe food and give more gravitas to their opinions. (Don’t worry, to up my street cred, I’ll be dropping some French bombes de langue throughout this post.)
Second, because the Napa Rose Chef’s Counter is a semi-unique experience that is not only tailored to your personal likes and dislikes as well as seasonal menus and whatever the chefs might want to test on any given night, my review of some of the particular items we tried is all but meaningless. You probably will have a totally different menu, so it doesn’t matter what made me say “yum” and “wow” during the course of our meal.
Given this, I’m going to try to focus this review as much on the overall experience of the Chef’s Counter as on the individual items consumed. In some cases, I might gloss over the food entirely if it was clearly a “limited engagement” type of item. Amazing food is an integral part of the Napa Rose experience (I don’t think anyone would pay that much money to just hang out with some chefs), but I think discussion of the experience should prove helpful in determining whether it’s worth your money to book this.
The Chef’s Counter at Napa Rose looks into the open prep kitchen, and there are a total of 12 seats at each sitting, with 2 sittings per evening. The seats are grouped into fours, with 8 seats in front of the final prep and approval station (this might not be its actual name, but functionally, that’s what it is) for entrees and another 4 seated by the dessert prep area. We were by dessert prep.
Initially, I was disappointed by the location as it wasn’t in the center of the action, but we dined with infamously-weak Astro Blaster Guy Selga and his wife who had done the Chef’s Counter before, and they said they thought the dessert area location offered a better view. This may have been true, but I still dreamed of the prospect of poaching a filet placed within reach at the entree counter.
Regardless of where you’re seated, the Napa Rose Chef’s Counter will cost you a cool $100/person. It’s even more if you get the wine pairings, but since we are relative débutants who couldn’t tell a ten-thousand dollar bottle from some Two-Buck Chuck, this seemed like a waste. (Pro tip from friends: order one wine pairing for 2 people and split it.) Let me know when you become truly progressive, Disney, and start doing a craft beer pairing. Actually, I should back up…
The “Tasting Menu” at the Chef’s Counter costs $100/person and is a 6-course tasting, including an entree. This is the experience where you are totally at the mercy of the chefs. They talk to you about your preferences and dislikes at the start of the meal, but what they ultimately prepare for you is totally up to them. You can also order from the regular menu at the Chef’s Counter (since seating is limited and this is a popular spot, do the rest of us a favor and go to the main dining room if you plan on doing this) or from the seasonal, 4-course Vitner’s Menu that changes on about a weekly basis. You will not be shunned by me (as if you care) if you order from the Vitner’s Menu, but really, the Tasting Menu is the way to go at the Chef’s Counter.
I’m sure other sites that want to appease and reassure parents are going to say that it’s absolutely fine to bring small children to the Chef’s Counter. I suppose this is true in the sense that there’s no explicit rule banning them. You’re going to do what you’re going to do, but keep in mind that this is a fine dining, foodie experience costing, at minimum $100/person in a locale where sport coats and dresses are not uncommon. I did not see any small children at the Chef’s Counter. Literally every other dining experience at Disneyland Resort caters to kids, so I would suggest opting for one of those or getting a babysitter if you want to do the Chef’s Counter.
For our visit, we were seated promptly at 5:30 pm, just when the action was getting started with preparations for the first wave of desserts about to be ordered for the evening. If you’ve never met Guy (lucky soul), he is a dessert fiend, and immediately upon sitting down, he “bonded with Chef Janae”, in his words (I’d use different ones) who was in charge of our desserts for the evening.
Sous Chef Gloria quickly came over to our spots at the counter after we were seated and gave us a rundown of the experience, some information about the kitchen, and then asked us a litany of questions, as if interrogating us regarding some sort of kitchen-related crime. Kidding, of course, but she did ask a few incisive questions that would prove useful in determining what to serve each of us.
Chef Gloria would drop in on us from time to time throughout the experience to discuss things with us, as would some of the other sous chefs in the kitchen, but the bulk of our interactions were with two of the dessert chefs. I’m guessing that the folks at the entree station had more face time with Chef Gloria, but I never saw the dessert chefs (who were both really fun and energetic) go over to the entree station.
I noticed that the elusive Andrew Sutton was not present the evening we were there. Chef Sutton is Disneyland Resort’s…I don’t really know what to call him…he’s not really a celebrity chef, but Disneyland talks him up a lot. I guess he’s the “name brand” chef that adds real world credibility to the Disneyland restaurants? Anyway, he now lords over Napa Rose, Carthay Circle Restaurant, and Club 33 as the Executive Chef of all three. I have not dined at Club 33 since he annexed that territory, but in my visits to Carthay Circle Restaurant and Napa Rose, I have never seen him.
Guy, who has also eaten at these restaurants a lot, has said the same. Perhaps Andrew Sutton is like a ghost who mysteriously floats from restaurant to restaurant, hiding in the shadows out of the view of guests as he dreams up these brilliant menus. Perhaps he creates some inventive dishes for each of these restaurants and then lets Disney use his name while he chills on his estate in Napa Valley. Perhaps he’s plotting his next move to wrest control of Blue Bayou from the pirates. I don’t know his actual level of involvement with any of these restaurants, but I am genuinely curious. If anyone knows the real story here or has seen him recently at Disneyland Resort, I’d love to hear about it.
About 20 minutes or so after we were seated, the first of the food was set down before us, a bacon amuse-bouche. Throwing down the bacon right off the bat like that? These chefs truly got me.
I’ve already interspersed some photos of the various items we had during the course of the meal, but now I want to highlight and briefly discuss some of the items served to us…
One of my early courses was the Bison Carpaccio, which was rich and beautifully presented. Words really don’t do it justice, but I believe the French would call this autre monde. With food this good, it’s difficult to say the presentation is “just as important” as the taste (it isn’t), but it was quite clear careful attention was paid to the presentation, too.
Our next courses consisted of seafood, and we all really hit the jackpot with this round. My swordfish (above) was incredibly tender and was the epitome of what a good fish steak could be.
The ladies both received diver scallops–I had a small bite of one of these, and it was far and away the best scallop I had ever tasted.
Guy had the trout, but he being a huge lobster fan, I was able to trade him part of my lobster claw for half of his incredible trout. Sucker!
One thing to prepare for when ordering the Tasting Menu and dining with others is envy over what they receive. The four of us typically shared, trying all of the dishes (I normally take borrow from the Joey Restaurant Philosophy and bark TOM DOESN’T SHARE FOOD when anyone asks, but I made a rare exception for this meal), which is a good way to sample a variety of flavors. However, this is also a great opportunity to expand your horizons.
For example, I received the above experimental dish while others received an amazing-looking pheasant meatloaf and duck breast, both of which I would have eagerly traded for…until I gave this a chance and tried it. It was bursting with flavor and was a very nice surprise.
My main course was the Herb Roasted Colorado Lamp Chop and Braised Lamp Brisket. Like I said, the chefs here really got me. The lamp chop was simply divine, but English words haven’t even been invented yet for how good that brisket was. This was most certainly tres délicieux with its many explosif saveurs. ZUT ALORS!!!
We all were winners with the entrees, too. Guy had the Grilled Eye of the Rib Eye and Cabernet Braised Top Cap, and it sounded like there weren’t enough superlatives to describe how he felt about it.
I just wish he wouldn’t have growled at us while guarding his dish before licking his plate when he was finished. C’mon, Guy, even our miniature dachshund behaves better in public. (At least Guy didn’t pee on the floor…this time.)
Guy’s efforts at “charming” the dessert chefs paid off, as he was presented with what looked like the greatest dessert of all time. On the far right is a brownie covered in house-made sea salt caramel ice cream.
At the end of the meal, the chefs asked if there was anything else we needed, and I jokingly responded, “some of that sea salt caramel ice cream.” Within moments, I had a bowl of it in front of me. Best. Ice cream. Ever.
My dessert was another item I would have never considered were I ordering from the menu, but it was shockingly good. Really, everything the chefs put before us had a new and intriguing flavor. It was like they were really coming at us with everything in the culinary bibliothèque.
Overall, I highly and without any reservations recommend the Napa Rose Chef’s Counter to those who can afford it. We have dined at the bar, in the lounge, in the main dining room, and even did Thanksgiving Dinner at Napa Rose, but the Chef’s Counter was far and away our best experience at Napa Rose and came close to Victoria & Albert’s as our best Disney culinary experience, ever. For a 3-hour meal (“dining experience” is the more proper term, really) we had some great interactions and left pleasantly full, making me feel like we had really gotten our money’s worth from the Chef’s Counter. Immediately after the meal, we started concocting plans for when our next “special occasion” might be so that we could make a return visit. Yes, the price is steep, but the experience is great and you get to sample a range of different foods, all while receiving personalized service and attention from the chefs. Even for those who wouldn’t self-define as foodies, the Napa Rose Chef’s Counter is a highly recommended experience.
As for figuring out the rest of your Disneyland trip, including how to save money on Disneyland tickets, our Disney packing tips, whether you should stay off-site or on-site in a Disney hotel, where to dine at Disneyland & Disney California Adventure, and a number of other things, check out our comprehensive Disneyland Trip Planning Guide!
Have you done the Napa Rose Chef’s Counter? Was your experience as positive as ours? Do you have any favorites at Napa Rose? Thinking of giving it a try? Share your thoughts and questions in the comments!