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The Napa Valley restaurant scene
Every couple of years I feel that siren call to go up and spend some time in Napa Valley. For most of us, this was our first wine country experience, as exotic as anything discovered later in Burgundy or Piedmont. Who can forget the smudged violet of the hills, the rows of vines with mustard blooming bright yellow at their feet? The cool dark of the cellars or the view from Auberge du Soleil or Domaine Chandon?
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.
For lunch one day I headed to the new Oxbow Public Market to see what Napa's answer to San Francisco's Ferry Building Marketplace was like. Midweek, it seems a bit forlorn -- and precious. The roomy warehouse includes two wine-tasting venues, a French cookware antiques shop, an excellent butcher with grass-fed beef, a high-quality fish market and a produce and gourmet grocery store. Rotisario roasts free-range chicken and other meats on a rotisserie to eat there or take out. Hog Island Oyster has an offshoot of its Ferry Plaza restaurant here where you can sit out on the deck in the shade (with a view of the slightly forlorn, now-shuttered great experiment in food and wine education center, Copia) and down exquisite Sweetwater and Kumamoto oysters to your heart's content -- or as long as your pocketbook will allow. Add some local grilled artichoke hearts, some hummus and flatbread, and it's a perfect lunch. For dessert, step over to the Three Twins Ice Cream stand for artisanal ice cream -- a pistachio absolutely stuffed with nuts, luscious vanilla laced with aceto balsamico (odd, but quite interesting, I thought). And a "strawberry je ne sais quoi" to die for. Their card reads "inconceivably delicious ice cream produced in a sustainable manner" and that's not far from the truth.
Next door is a cluster of smaller buildings housing a Taylor's Automatic Refresher (the most crowded venue when I was there), an outpost of St. Helena's Model Bakery (which also sells sandwiches) and a superb charcuterie and butcher shop called the Fatted Calf where you can drool over the house-made sausages, pâtés and terrines, goose and duck rillettes, jambon persillé and on the weekends, porchetta and more (and order sandwiches thereof). I couldn't resist stopping by before I left town to pick up a beautiful piece of heritage pork belly to cure as pancetta when I got home.
The classic wine country resort Meadowood has a new chef too. He's Christopher Kostow, who got raves at Chez TJ in Mountain View. In the bar one night, a couple of well-heeled foodies from Arizona were reminding the chef about the last time he cooked for them as if he would remember every detail. Instead of going straight in to dinner, I had an aperitif on the veranda overlooking the croquet lawn and putting green, and the mountains beyond. Meadowood exudes a sense of seclusion and privilege and after Bottega's grandiose space, I was struck by the restaurant's intimate, low-key elegance. You can go for the nine-course tasting menu or opt for the four-course summer menu (with two choices in each course). A cheese course makes it five, so ordering is easy and allows Kostow to show what he can do.
His cooking is beautifully crafted and precise, refined as opposed to rustic or gutsy. Poached pullet egg with glazed morels, peas and Parmesan was wonderful with a Chardonnay. Pristine turbot was topped with a sliver of Serrano ham and presented with miniature crispy pig's trotter and velvety porcini in a little corn milk. Poached and roasted squab, served very rare, with wild rice, foie gras and the sweet lusciousness of apricot was perfect for a Pinot Noir. And who wouldn't love pain perdu (French toast) with cherries and a bitter almond ice cream? I could do with a bit less theater in the service, such as the sommelier pouring wine from a decanter shaped like a giant snake. Or dishes shaped like helmets. But what are you going to do?
There's nothing new about Ad Hoc, I know, but I still hadn't eaten there and so I jumped at the chance to sign up for a Monday night fried chicken menu. Thomas Keller's super-casual restaurant serves a different prix-fixe menu each night. The sign outside the old Yountville diner reads "For Temporary Relief From Hunger." Aha. When the six of us arrived, every seat at the bar was taken. And more people waited outside, and inside, in hopes of a table. Here, it's essential to reserve ahead, especially for fried chicken night. First course: a platter of slender poached leeks with three kinds of wild mushrooms -- morels, fresh porcini and abalone mushrooms -- and handfuls of fresh garden peas with breakfast radishes shaved over the top. Spectacular. Then came an oval two-handled tray of the shaggy, deep gold buttermilk-fried chicken piled high. There must have been at least half a chicken per person or more. The sidekicks were Yukon gold potatoes cooked sous vide and whipped with butter, and a platter of yellow and green pole beans cooked with tomatoes. Then came cheese with homemade crackers followed by pretty little ice cream sundaes in traditional sundae glasses. Oh, yes, and coffee. A deal at $49 per person and, hands down, my favorite meal of the trip.
After the French Laundry, Ubuntu, the vegetarian restaurant in downtown Napa, may be the toughest reservation in the valley. Set in an old stone building that's huge and loft-like, it features a crowded bar with handcrafted cocktails, a long communal table and on the night we were there, live music. In short, instead of the usual pokey cafe, it's a trendy restaurant that just happens to be vegetarian. Chef Jeremy Fox's menu is all small plates -- and I mean small. For some items the four of us had to order two dishes in order to get more than a bite or two. Dishes quickly became a blur, so many were garnished so similarly with feathery little leaves and edible flowers. When a bowl of "yellow eye" bean stew came out, we fell on it like ravenous wolves. Now this was real. This had some taste. But the rest of what we ordered seemed so, well, ethereal, like food that fairies in the woods would nibble on. The vegetables I had at Ad Hoc or Bardessono had more flavor than anything I ate here.
The most recent addition to the lineup of restaurants at PlumpJack's Carneros Inn is the Farm, the more ambitious offering from the owners of local favorite Boon Fly Café. Go early, play some bocce in the court in front, or even better, have a draft beer or a glass of wine under the huge free-standing veranda outfitted with a glassed-in fire pit and revel in the wine country lifestyle with other runaways from the city. If the wind hasn't picked up, try to get one of the outdoor tables with their comfy sofas, romantic lanterns and candlelight. The dining room is built on a very large scale too. If Vegas did "farm," this would be it. The menu is straightforward California cuisine, not thrilling, but well-executed -- a salad of Little Gem lettuce with pickled spring onions, flatbread topped with satiny leeks, pancetta and fontina cheese, wild mushroom risotto (unfortunately embellished with truffle oil). Sonoma chicken with olive oil-crushed potatoes is simple and good. Niman Ranch pork chop comes with an appealing creamy polenta and baby artichokes and peas. And if you enjoyed what you ate, you can pick up the PlumpJack cookbook over in the market and store, which also looks to be a good place to pick up a picnic lunch if you're in the area.