Eating My Way Through Napa Valley

A few weeks ago I took a vacation in Napa Valley and man is there some good food (not to mention wine) to be tasted in that California region. If you are one who seeks out high quality food and self proclaim yourself a “foodie” this is definitely an area that should be on your bucket list. I spent the better part of my week trying to hit all the highlights, but there is so much to get through that there was no way I could do it all all in six days. … not to mention I spent a fair bit of my time scoping out the vineyards. … minor distraction. So, below is a synopsis of each of the restaurants/food establishments I visited on my trip. I tried to keep each somewhat brief (keyword: TRIED). If you have traveled to the region and have suggestions of places I should have visited please share them with me. I can guarantee there will be another trip in the near future. Enjoy my food journal through the Napa Valley…

Dean&Deluca

This was my first stop after driving up to Napa Valley from San Francisco. I typically do not go on vacation to try things I can get in New York, but this was the original Dean&Deluca and I felt it necessary to drop in. No offense to the New York City locations, but the Dean&Deluca just south of St. Helena a notch (or two) above. You are not going for a sit-down meal, but it’s a great place to just stop in and pick up lunch. Great picnic material in there. If you are renting a house or staying somewhere in Napa Valley where there is access to a full kitchen, Dean&Deluca would also be a great place to go and pick up things to stock up the fridge. It will not be a cheap excursion though. There are great salads (both prepared and make-your-own), hearty sandwiches, a coffee bar, an ample sweet selection and a great wine section. So basically everything you could possibly need for a perfect picnic lunch. There is also some space outside of the shop to leisurely sit and nibble as well.

Press

Press is owned by the same people that brought us Dean&Deluca, and conveniently located next door. It’s best known for its steaks, but Press will not initially strike you as a traditional steakhouse. This will not hit you until you begin perusing the menu.  There’s plenty in store, however, for those (like myself) who do not eat red meat. The restaurant has a lively ambiance with a dining room that’s not too formal and austere, a great bar for drinks or a meal and, additionally, great outdoor space to enjoy the vineyard setting. Like many restaurants in Napa Valley, Press has an extensive wine list with a nice variety of local selections. If you’re a steak lover Press has a cut of almost any thinkable variety and beef is really their specialty. I enjoyed a nice piece of Walu fish with a side dish of summer corn. The side dish was big enough to be a main course and I definitely needed a partner in crime to even make a dent in the serving of corn that arrived at my place setting. I also started the meal with a simple salad of mere butter lettuces with a light mustard vinaigrette. I generally tend to find salads of just lettuce boring and unoriginal, but this understated salad did the trick that night and tasted garden fresh. The meal thus far sounds tame and healthy but I have not yet mentioned the bacon bar menu, which upon spotting I could not help but indulge. If you sit at Press’s bar to eat you can order off either the main menu or abbreviated bar menu (even both if that’s what suits you. …it was certainly the way I went). The bar menu is where the bacon goods reside and there are seven varietals to choose from. You could also go big and just go for the whole bacon sampler.  I would highly suggest having at least one other person with you before embarking down that road. There is anything from the standard applewood smoked to double cut and even wild boar bacon. I thought it was a great idea since many steakhouses I go to do have a bacon offering on the menu, but I had yet to see a separate bacon menu with this many options be. I was stuffed after all this, but that did not stop me from partaking in the grand finale. … dessert. I ordered a strawberry shortcake piled high with fresh whipped cream and strawberries. Embarrassingly enough I devoured almost the entire thing. See the picture for yourself and you will realized that was quite the feat.

Cook

Cook is a small restaurant centrally located in downtown St. Helena. My mom was actually the one who first told me about it, and then there were some locals I met later who also told me it was definitely a place to check out for lunch so I did just that.  One of the first things that caught my eye was the decor. The space is not very big so the dining room is intimate, but the bar set up was very nicely done with a white marble top, very cool glass light fixtures and high shelves behind the bar with every inch lined with rows of wine bottles. I liked the feel of the place from the moment I stepped in and everyone who worked there was genuinely friendly. The menu is of Northern Italian influence with simple preparations that take advantage of local, seasonal ingredients. I stopped in for lunch and had a roasted red pepper and white bean soup and their hand made mozzarella. The soup was not a puree, but rather a very simple broth with whole white beans, slivers of roasted red peppers and an arugula garnish. It was light, not short of flavor and quite savory. The mozzarella was clearly fresh and served with grilled bread drizzled with olive oil. Simple, hearty and just what I needed. There were also a variety of salads, pastas, sandwiches and other entrees on the lunch menu so enough options to please most crowds. Great place to stop in if you’re bopping around the town of St. Helena or you’re taking a break between vineyard stops.

SolBar

SolBar is the restaurant attached to the Solage in Calistoga and a solid stop for foodies gallivanting around the Napa restaurant scene. I happened to be staying in the hotel so I was able to take advantage of the breakfast and dinner selections at SolBar. The restaurant received a Michelin star this year and the chef previously worked at San Francisco’s Gary Denko and Thomas Keller’s acclaimed French Laundry. The dining room itself is a bit formal, but if it’s a nice night and you are able to snag a table outside with the fire pits surrounding you and overhanging trees lined with stringed lights I definitely recommend doing that. The outdoor seating area had a great, relaxing feel to it. I, however, decided as a solo diner to just take my dinner at the bar since the menu was the same anyway. Maybe I should have done the outdoor route, but I may have gotten a little bored. As for the food, everything was delicious and beautifully prepared. I started with a great dish consisting of peaches, prosciutto, dollops of ricotta garnished with arugula. It may sound like a mis-matched assortment of flavors but it all came together very well. I followed that up with a soft-shell crab and a lemon cake with fresh blueberries. I will have to say the beginning and end of the meal were definitely the highlights. Choosing dessert from a menu of cheesecake with fresh local strawberries, lemon cake with fresh blueberries and “Chocolate Decadence” is no easy task. So I did not do it. I told the bartender to bring me his favorite and he did not disappoint. My gut usually leans into chocolate, but in this instance I would have missed out had had I followed my cravings. The lemon cake was perfectly moist with sinfully good blueberries, a toasted meringue that lined the bottom of the plate and verbena ice cream to top it off. The dessert was surprisingly light and impressive.  SolBar is great for dinner, but the restaurant has a killer breakfast too. If you’re staying at the hotel I strongly recommend taking advantage of it. It may cost $20 for an egg sandwich, but hey, you’re on vacation, right?

Tra Vigne

One word – Mozzarella. If you like this creamy cheesy delight you must stop by Tra Vigne in St. Helena during your trip in Napa Valley. I recommend stopping in for lunch and ordering the Mozzarella “Al Minuto.”  Ask if you can add a side of sliced heirloom tomatoes as well just to make it that much more complete. The mozzarella is house made and literally made the moment you order. When the mozzarella arrives at the table, your server will present it and carefully slice the warm goodness onto grilled bruschetta drizzled with olive oil. And yes, it does taste as amazing as it looks. Just make sure to enjoy it quickly since once the cheese starts to cool it’s not as tasty as the warm version. I honestly did not even view the rest of the menu because the mozzarella was the first thing to catch my eye. The restaurant’s ambiance could be improved as you kind of feel like you’re dining in an upscale Italian chain restaurant, but the high-quality food and outdoor dining space help ease the somewhat cheesy interior.

Oenotri

I was not overly impressed by downtown Napa, but someone from the area recommended I stop into Oenotri so I gave it a whirl. I went in for lunch, which probably was not a wise decision as the place was almost empty. I think too many people were out wine tasting and it probably becomes more lively around dinner time. The selling point – and the reason I made the trip in the first place – is the fact that Oenotri makes all of its charcuterie fresh in-house. The dining room is spacious with a large open kitchen, but the ambiance was nothing to really write home about. The charcuterie was definitely tasty though. I received a very generous plated portion of a variety of cured meats to try. There was no prosciutto which was a slight disappointment, but I couldn’t really complain with the other salami selections on my plate. There was a 38 month prosciutto on the menu, but it just did not happen to be on my sampling plate. The restaurant has a pretty extensive cured meats menu and from the flavors you could definitely tell everything was fresh. So if you happen to be in the downtown Napa area and are looking for a place to stop in for a light bite I would check out Oenotri and go right to the “Salumi Menu.”

Farmstead

This place is great for lunch. The whole concept is pretty much everything you want from a Napa Valley food experience. Farmstead is part of Long Meadow Ranch so many of the items showcased on the menu come from there. Honey, eggs, fruits, vegetables and even the grass-fed beef. You name a dish on the menu and its highly likely the ingredients come locally from Long Meadow Ranch. So clearly, the theme is farm-to-table. I recommend the outdoor seating area, which is perfectly peaceful and surrounded by gardens. The interior of the restaurant is nice as well and the kitchen is open so you can view what’s going on “behind the scenes.” There is a great lunch menu with plenty to choose from and I wish I could have gone twice because there were so many things that looked appealing. I was on a big mozzarella binge this week, so I decided to keep the theme going and order an heirloom tomato salad with fresh mozzarella and garnished with sea salt. The tomatoes were of brilliant shades of red and yellow shade and very flavorful. I also started the meal with a grilled artichoke and cheddar biscuits served with honey butter. I am a sucker for a good artichoke when I have one and this one was just what the doctor ordered. Tasted straight off the grill, dripped with olive oil and had a great dipping sauce which Farmstead called “sauce gribiche.’ Definitely not the low-fat kind. The honey butter made the biscuits too. I am sure the honey was local and that sweetness mixed with the savory of the biscuit made for a delightful treat. Needless to say, I was stuffed, but fully satisfied by the end of this meal. Worth making the trip to Farmstead as I think it’s unique to the area and serves food that you will remember for your whole trip. You can also always visit the tasting room next door once the meal is complete as well.

Farm

Farm is the flagship restaurant at the Carneros Inn and a bit more of a “to-do” than the other places of which I have already spoken.The setting is lovely with lounge chairs outside encircling fire pits to keep you warm during the cool Napa nights. The dining room itself is elegant, but could use a bit more lighting to guests could actually read the menu or see clearly what they are eating. Farm’s menu is seasonal and changes frequently based upon what is locally available. Upon walking in the entrance I expected to have a lovely meal, but there were two odd occurrences that definitely jaded my experiences and took my focus away from the food itself. The first impression came when my server arrived at the table to take my drink order. I requested her recommendation from the Cabernet Sauvignon’s on the wine list offered by the glass. Instead of merely pointing out that the 2009 Faust was her preference and of the highest quality she felt the need to comment that she very much liked that wine but because of the price I may not want to order it. Now, maybe this was not meant maliciously or condescending in the slightest, but I prefer to not be sized up when dining out and can decide on my own whether a glass of wine is too expensive or not. I am not one to make a huge fuss at the table, however, so I ordered my glass and was prepared to move on to the rest of my meal. But then a second oddity happened. I had asked to keep the wine list at my table in case I decided to order something else. So after ordering my meal I began to leaf through it and see what else was on the list. A lot of this was out of genuine curiosity and interest about the make up of the Farm’s wine list. Instead of allowing me to be in my own peaceful bliss, another man who worked at the restaurant (he appeared to be the sommelier, but I cannot say for sure) felt the need to come over to the table only to say, “Should I grab you a magazine instead?” This really got me heated inside, but I again very politely laughed it off. I found it odd that he felt the need to swing by my table and point out that fact that I was alone and probably needed some entertainment. I was doing just fine. … I just wanted to look at the wine list. Maybe even buy a bottle and spend even more money. And I have now digressed a touch too far. … back to the food. The menu has two formats – a tasting or a la carte. I opted out of the tasting because the main menu looked more interesting. I will give Farm credit on this front. The dishes are creative and combine flavors I would not necessarily pick together on my own. I began with roasted baby beats served with grilled peaches, honey yogurt, red quinoa and wild arugula. The execution of this dish was well done and the different textures combined with distinct degrees of sweetness between the yogurt, beets and peaches made this appetizer a winner. I had the Jidori Chicken entree, which consisted of tender meat served with pole beans, basil aioli, slow egg, tomato jam and natural jus. Also delicious, but I did think there was too much going on with the plate in this case. The slow egg seemed misplaced and it was not clear what I was supposed to do with the tomato jam garnish. Dessert brought it all together though and was the highlight of the meal. When something is called “Mint Bliss” it’s probably a no-brainer. And this rendition was well worth the extra calories. Here are the ingredients: dark chocolate, graham pudding, whipped white chocolate and chocolate shortbread crumble. Oh yea, and there was a mint mousse and ice cream in there as well. The preparation is hard to picture (and the photo I have does not do it justice), but take my word for it and try it if you ever find yourself at Farm.

Redd

Pork buns, Pork buns, Pork buns. I cannot tell you how many people I encountered during my trip that told me 1) I needed to experience Redd and 2) when I did I could not leave without trying the pork buns. I had heard about the restaurant prior to all this advice and knew it was a local favorite, but I had no idea about these highly esteemed pork buns. Could they really be that exciting? Well, I obviously had to go and try them out. I was unable to score a reservation at Redd, but luckily the restaurant has a lively bar that I was able to squeeze into on a busy Tuesday evening. If I had been able to get a table I would likely request outdoors as the setting on the patio looked quite charming and serene. The restaurant is located in the heart of Yountville, which is home to a number of other Napa foodie favorites as well. There was a great liveliness about the place and it was buzzing the Tuesday night I dropped in. I was able to squeeze myself into the last available seat at the bar, which was fortunate since not shortly after there was a decent wait time for people looking to sit at a coveted bar seat. The bar space is not very big but there are also a couple high-top table for two behind the bar that serve the same purpose. The restaurant is relaxed by nature but the food evokes elegance in its preparations. So I clearly ordered the pork buns. I had to. … there was too much hype to pass those up. And yes, they were good. The dish definitely has Asian influences and consists of two puff, doughy buns (not sure how else to describe them) topped with small chunks of pork smothered in a sweet glaze and garnished with a house-made slaw. Either order as a main course or to share as an appetizer. The pork buns are on the bar menu so if you’re sitting in the dining room you may have to ask very nicely to have a try. I also tasted a local heirloom tomato salad with corn, squash and two toasts topped with goat cheese and olive tapenade. The vegetables were fresh, flavorful and even the simplest salad was prepared in a way that that I was almost afraid to destroy the creation. Those toasts with the goat cheese and olive tapenade were also darn good. Dessert was chocolate, chocolate, chocolate. Chocolate mousse cake with peanut butter praline, caramel and milk sherbert. Need I say more? And again, the presentation was delicate and beautiful. My sweet tooth got the better of me though and I dug right in. In addition to the food, Redd has a great cocktail menu and extensive wine list. I will say, however, the bartender working that night was not the friendliest to me. While other guests received an amuse bouche or the recipients of other small hospitable gestures I was somewhat ignored in the corner and enjoyed my meal mostly in silence. The food was great but a little more attentiveness would have gone a long way.

Redd Wood

This is the more casual sister restaurant to Redd and is attached to the neighboring North Block Hotel. Since it is not located right in the center of Yountville, Redd Wood is in a more quiet and relaxed setting than other restaurants right on the main street of town. The restaurant has a sleek design with black leather banquets, a noteworthy giant steel door, numerous intriguing light fixtures and an impressive bar set up that has an old-fashioned feel to it. There is also al frescodining  for those who want to enjoy the scene on the near by Yountville streets.  Influenced by Italian cuisine, Redd Wood provides a menu that features wood-oven pizzas, pastas and house-made charcuterie, among many other things. I enjoyed a charcuterie plate and an heirloom tomato and burrata salad (I told you I was on a mozzarella binge). The charcuterie was a nice selection of cured meats that each had distinct flavor that tasted very fresh. The pizzas that I saw from other tables also looked intriguing and I probably should have given them a whirl. Would have been too much food for one person though. … save it for next time!

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