FOR THE RECORD:
Napa restaurants: A July 8 review of Napa Valley restaurants misspelled the Carquinez Bridge as the Carquinas Bridge. —
Cruising across the Carquinas Bridge from the East Bay, I point the car north on Highway 29 past big box stores, American Canyon, a Burgundian cooper's warehouse and the iconic statue of a vineyard worker pressing grapes. Here it comes now, the deep wavering green of the vineyards in the golden late-afternoon light. I cut over to the Silverado Trail, where impatient locals driving trucks tailgate tourists meandering along, taking in the view, while a flock of bicyclists, legs churning, whiz by. Not much different from the last time I was here a couple of years ago. And from the time before that. And before that.
Only the vineyard names have changed as the latest wave of rich wine enthusiasts buy up a vineyard or estate and put their names on the gate and the label. El Bonita Motel now charges close to $200 for a room that used to cost $59, if I recall correctly. The picnic tables in front of Taylor's Refresher in St. Helena are still packed, and the Wine Train still rumbles by every once in a while with rapt faces at the windows.
I had just five or so days, not enough to take in everything that's new in terms of restaurants. And with just one visit each, the experience can be hit or miss. Keep in mind that summer and fall in Napa Valley are usually packed, so booking well in advance for any restaurants you plan to visit is mandatory.
This year the crop of new restaurants is mostly down valley, i.e. in Yountville and the town of Napa itself. It's hard to compete with Yountville just nine miles north, which sits in the midst of the vineyards and has a number of new and established places in which to stay, including the new high-end green project Bardessono. It also lays claim to the valley's most celebrated restaurant, the French Laundry. Not to mention Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery and Bistro Jeanty.
The restaurant at the new Bardessono luxury hotel was tops on my list to check out. I'd heard the inn described as amazing, gorgeous, luxe. Gourmet editor in chief Ruth Reichl had tweeted about her stay there. A friend called me up to rave about the dinner he had there. The lucky thing: Bardessono, which is built on part of the old Bardessono vineyard in what is now the center of Yountville, happened to be just across the street from where I was staying, a wonderful surprise after the 7 1/2 -hour drive from L.A. Staying there wasn't in my budget, but a dinner certainly was.
Though rooms can run into the high three figures, dinner prices are in the moderate-high range. The dining room is contemporary and spare, drenched in light, the only real note of color a mural of stylized olive branches that runs along one wall.
The chef is Sean O'Toole, who worked with Michael Mina in San Francisco and also with Alain Ducasse and Daniel Boulud. His menu is based on local ingredients, with much of the produce coming from the hotel's organic gardens and an orchard on the old Bardessono estate. His cooking is wonderfully elegant, without sacrificing flavor for looks. Gnocchi are so light they seem to float, heavenly with bluefoot mushrooms, asparagus and just a touch of Parmigiano. A medley of Monterey shellfish -- octopus, prawns and calamari cut in rings as thin as wedding bands -- cooked ala grecque with a scattering of beautiful spring vegetables makes a perfect first course. He has a light touch with lobster salad too, serving rosy poached lobster in a lovely coconut gazpacho flecked with coriander and cucumber. Fat asparagus spears are topped with crinkly morels sparked with a little ginger and set off with a lacey Parmigiano chip.
Alaskan halibut arrives so fresh its flesh is almost custardy, brilliant with porcini, pearl onions and a swirl of chicken jus. But the dish I'd love to eat again is Devil's Gulch pork loin with a swatch of incredible crispy pork belly and a single thick slice of potato that is so earthy in flavor it could stand in for all potatoes. With only two main courses over $30 and a wine list that offers interest and value, Bardessono's restaurant should be busier than it is, sad to say.
A hands-on chef
Over the last dozen or so years, Brix, just north of Yountville, has been through chefs and even a name change, but luckily in January, Anne Gingrass-Paik came in as executive chef, and what a profound difference. With her then-husband David Gingrass, she was opening chef at Wolfgang Puck's Postrio in San Francisco and later opened Hawthorne Lane there. She's definitely not the hands-off type but is always in the kitchen.
Brix is hidden from the road behind a screen of glorious flowering plants and is officially described as a "restaurant, gardens and wine shop." Why anyone would want to eat inside beats me, when you can have lunch outside on a broad, shady terrace looking onto a picture-perfect garden of raised beds planted with tomatoes, lettuces, herbs, flowers and a newly planted citrus grove. Beyond are vineyards and the green hills, an oasis of gentle calm right off Highway 29. This is definitely the place I would take a first-time Napa Valley visitor to give them a sense of the lushness of the valley. Start with apple carpaccio, thinly sliced raw apple strewn with walnuts and herbs with some crushed cocoa nibs for crunch. Or try a salad of heirloom beans tossed with wispy frisée, and matchsticks of carrot in a vibrant dressing. There's a juicy Niman Ranch cheeseburger and a terrific farm egg salad sandwich on fluffy toasted brioche. She also just reinstated a Sunday brunch buffet, which includes an al fresco seafood bar, egg dishes and sourdough pancakes, flatbreads and pizza from the wood oven, and fish and meats on the charcoal grill. Because Brix includes a wine shop, wine list prices are remarkably fair.
Big and brash
The big news this year is Michael Chiarello's new Italian restaurant, Bottega. The food-show star, cookbook author and lifestyle guru hasn't had a restaurant since he left Tra Vigne, so everyone wants to try it. Bottega, big and brash, is across from Bouchon in the vast old brick complex that houses shops and boutiques (and across from Chiarello's flagship NapaStyle store). Except for the wraparound veranda with two huge stone fireplaces and summery striped banquettes, it's not a particularly good-looking place, more Las Vegas than Napa Valley. I was never a big fan of his cooking at Tra Vigne, and like the food there, Bottega's is a little heavy-handed and clumsy. Oh, the portions are big and the place is boisterous and fun. But you'll do better if you focus on appetizers and first courses over the main courses.
I liked a salad of shaved Brussels sprouts and asparagus, and the polenta with caramelized wild mushrooms on top. But why serve it in a French canning jar? A plate of beautiful prosciutto comes with pasta fritta -- fried dough, something like focaccia nuggets. The idea is to wrap a piece in prosciutto (so far, delicious) and then dip it in a bowl of Lambrusco, the fizzy red wine from the Lombardy region. Whatever it's meant to be or do, it doesn't work. In the end, after stiff nettle and chard tortelli, heavy ricotta gnocchi and a fine roasted game hen, I came away feeling the food is pleasant but nothing special, and the more you know about Italian food, I suspect the less you'd like it. Service, though, is warm and professional, maybe the best thing about the restaurant.