If you could carve out a little dream for yourself, a romanticized life that revolved around beautiful food, a small town, an unhurried pace and simmering fanfare for the work you do, wouldn’t it be nice to have it look something like this?
High school sweethearts from Houston go off to college in Iowa because they both are into academic debating. They discover food and restaurants through part-time jobs, and little by little, the tug of the business proves inescapable. They move to New York for a taste of the big leagues. After six years as a line cook, he enrolls in the Culinary Institute of America to acquire the skills to match his vision. She works as a cheesemonger for renowned Murray’s Cheese in Greenwich Village. He apprentices at some of New York City’s best French restaurants, watches the masters in action, puts in grueling hours and then gets multiple offers to work full-time.
They get married and throw themselves into a dream that is one part solid business plan and one part improvisation: They’ll move from the Big Apple to unassuming Truckee. They’ll open a restaurant.
And they’ll do amazing, modernist things with food, working umpteen hours a day, starting from scratch, with no reputation in the area, no marketing budget. In the middle of it all, they’ll welcome a baby into the picture.
This is where I found myself, 75 minutes from home, stepping into a large, rustic-meets-elegant room on the main drag of Truckee, a quaint mountain town with little reputation for culinary wizardry. I was looking at a menu so enterprising – eclectic, forceful, rife with technique both classical and cutting edge – that the results would have to be a magnificent achievement or one very major mess.
A four-course, $80 prix fixe option offered a choice of dry-aged rib-eye steak or butter-poached lobster, but those dishes seemed too ordinary, too safe, in a place capable of a culinary tour de force. I was looking for something a little edgier.
At the other extreme was the 10-course chef’s tasting menu that costs $140 (with optional $90 wine pairings), will last the better part of three hours and will include an encyclopedic examination of ingredients, techniques, flavors and textures. Higher up the menu, I found a charcuterie plate that includes chicken liver mousse and a terrine of pressed pigs ears, and a brilliant-green soup featuring an ingredient I had never heard of – wild sylvetta – which is a kind of arugula; and a cucumber gazpacho made to display finesse and deep, bold flavors in a single bowl.
A selection of entrees that includes a Wagyu rib-eye with locally foraged mushrooms, a strip loin of lamb with crispy eggplant, and on and on – pork belly, black cod, wild boar, deep-fried rabbit and suckling pig. There’s cauliflower and sea urchin, roasted bone marrow with ultra-rich brioche toasts.
A wine list curated for balance in price point, nuance and pairings potential. A beer selection that could rival some serious craft beer bottle shops.
Even the coffee program – yes, coffee — is meticulously thought out and executed with great care.
This is Restaurant Trokay. It’s the dream – and the life – for young powerhouse couple John and Nyna Weatherson, who have come out of nowhere to stake a claim as one of the great up-and-coming restaurants in Northern California.
Those who unwittingly step off the well-traveled sidewalk and into this restaurant will be startled by what they find.
Even with a sense of what this new restaurant was all about, I found it exceeded my expectations. All the little details here and there, especially the pacing from course to course, add up to something special.
It started with that soup of wild sylvetta, and it was a beautiful thing. The bowl arrives with the parmigiano crisp and black pepper creme fraiche nestled at the bottom, and the hot soup is poured tableside. The soup was slightly bitter and mildly sweet, and had such lingering depth. The soup invoked a sense of the surrounding landscape.
I was not surprised to learn later that the owners had completed a culinary tour of Denmark, including a dinner at Noma, René Redzepi’s world-renowned and wildly original restaurant known for using foraged ingredients from the surrounding countryside. On the Trokay menu, I would find suggestions of that aesthetic, including foraged local mushrooms and a wide-ranging appreciation for local produce.
But Trokay doesn’t try to copy. The food is very modern, and sometimes avant garde, but not derivative or overbearing. Techniques and ingredients are used with great care to express flavors, take the diner on a journey and perhaps tell a story.
The roasted bone marrow, for instance, may seem overly trendy, but here it was simply done exceptionally well. Roasted with precision, the large femur was served on an oversized and rustic slate platter alongside slices of brioche, a style of bread in which butter – lots of it — is kneaded into the dough. Spoon some marrow onto toast, take a bite, take a sip of a dry white wine or a crisp, citrusy India pale ale, and you have one rich, extravagant indulgence that coats your palate and makes you eager to pursue the rest of the meal.
By contrast, the plate of baby heirloom beets with candied walnut vinaigrette and chevre cheese, had elegance, subtlety and beauty.
The main-course offerings, if we are to focus on the entrees rather than the fixed menus, come with great variety and sense of adventure. During my first visit, I focused on seafood and was impressed with the flavor and delicate texture of the black cod, served with bok choy, watermelon radish and a sauce of miso-garlic velouté.
The lamb, one of the more accessible items on the menu, was simply cooked and presented so well that the skill alone elevated the dish. The deep-fried rabbit, served with a savory mille-feuille pastry and braised mizuna (Japanese mustard greens) was a crispy delight we could eat with our hands like fried chicken.
We encountered only minor missteps, including a pork belly dish that was not as tender and rich as we expected, and an heirloom tomato salad that was plated in unexceptional if not clunky fashion. If anything, the chef’s plating skills do not quite match up to the excellent cooking, with an emphasis on dots and dabs of sauces and condiments that become repetitive –and a tad rudimentary – in the context of a long dinner event.
The desserts, too, are very good, including cute little sugary doughnuts served with a frozen latte, but the inventiveness and execution don’t quite match the excellence of the rest of the cooking.
Even so, the precise timing, the polished service and the warm surroundings all add up to a dream of a dining experience for adventurous and discerning dinner guests.