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.
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. 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 main-course offerings, if we are to focus on the entrees rather than the fixed menus, come with great variety and sense of adventure. 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.