Napa, Calif.--AT dusk, a lone kayak slips around a bend in the river. Sitting on a restaurant terrace overlooking the water, sipping an aperitif of pastis dosed with grenadine syrop, we contentedly wait for friends to arrive. We watch as a chef in immaculate whites clambers down to the bank below to pick some wild fennel. Above us, the yellow and blue awning reads Angele. Lavender, roses and espaliered fruit trees fence in the terrace, and on our table is a tiny olive sapling.
Where are we? Clue: The river’s name is Napa.
In May, before the tourist season officially began in the Napa Valley, I spent a week checking in at old favorites and exploring some of the bright new restaurants that have opened in the wine country recently. After a long spell when little changed, and all anybody could talk about was the French Laundry, the dining scene is heating up again. In a way, it’s finally growing up. Pretension is peeling away, and a new informal spirit has taken over even some of the most staid dining rooms. Now there are more places to grab an informal delicious bite, even some of the same places that also serve multi-course extravaganzas. A number of restaurants are even open all through the afternoon, so you can find something between winery visits or after a bike ride.
The surprise for me this trip was the city of Napa itself. For most people planning a trip to the wine country, the city is barely on the radar. Most people heading to the Napa Valley drive right by Napa, intent on more glamorous locales such as St. Helena or Yountville. But since the arrival of Copia, the American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts that opened almost two years ago, more visitors are making a detour to the blue collar city. Copia, as part of a coordinated effort, has sparked the renewal of downtown Napa and its waterfront.
The pretty French bistro Angele anchors one corner of the Hatt Building, a former feed mill that now includes Napa River Inn, Sweetie Pie bakery, Napa General Store and the restaurant Celadon. Owned by the two Rouas sisters, Bettina and Claudia, whose family also owns Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford, Angele definitely shows the sensibility of a younger generation in its refreshing informality. The menu is rustic French bistro fare from young chef Christophe Gerard.
First courses include palourdes a la Provencale, a bowl of beautiful little steamed clams in a saffron broth swirled with cream. It’s a perfect dish for a minerally Chardonnay. An asparagus salad is garnished with vinegary white anchovies and a tangy Nicoise olive vinaigrette. That wild fennel shows up in a fine halibut dish. The snowy slab of fish is seared and presented with braised fennel and tomatoes in fragrant lemon vinaigrette. Also notable is the steak Bordelaise, which comes with terrific fries to make a classic steak frites. Don’t miss the eggplant ragout served with roasted spring lamb chops or, for dessert, the puckery lemon tart. Though the kitchen can occasionally stumble, dousing a diced beet salad in truffle oil or underseasoning a rabbit and prune terrine, the wine list is a pleasure that rounds up not only a savvy collection of Napa Valley wines, but also interesting bottles from France at sensible prices.
Angele is just one sign of a new mood in the Napa Valley. After a week of checking out new places and looking in on some old favorites, I found a new informality and welcome lack of pretense. It’s about time. It gets tiresome being treated like you may never have seen a tasting menu before or don’t know the difference between Merlot and Pinot Noir.
Just up the street from Angele is another local favorite, ZuZu, which a friend who lives in the Napa Valley raved to me about. I was immediately smitten. Set in an adorable little two-story building with dining rooms upstairs and down, it has a wonderful sense of style with an embossed copper ceiling from Mexico, Moroccan lanterns above the bar and tables covered with butcher paper. Chef Charles Weber’s menu is all tapas. Olives come in a decorative terracotta dish with a little lid to use for the pits. An endive salad hides silvery boquerones (marinated anchovies). I loved the escalivada of fire-roasted red and green peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant and prawns sizzling in pimiento-stained olive oil. Spanish tortilla with potatoes and green onion comes in an individual cast iron skillet. There’s delicious quail grilled in grape leaves with pomegranate molasses and a dark chocolate pot de creme perfumed with saffron, too. The memory of that lunch stayed with me the whole week.
During high season (roughly May through October) getting a reservation at the valley’s top tables -- or any reservation -- can be tough. That’s why a new St. Helena restaurant’s policy is so astonishing: no reservations. None. Everybody is a walk-in. And when we arrived at Market for lunch with Helen Turley and John Wetlaufer of Marcassin Vineyard, I heard someone standing out front tell her friend the news is bleak, a 45-minute wait. Fortunately, Helen and John were already ensconced at a table. It’s a good-looking place, which dates from 1890, with exposed brick walls, an ornate wood bar, and a communal table up front. The sole decorations are photographs of exotic market scenes from around the world. Market is owned by two former San Franciscans: Doug Keane, who was executive chef at Jardiniere, and Nick Peyton, former front-of-the-house manager at Gary Danko. The wine director is former French Laundry sommelier Bobby Stuckey. That’s quite a team. They’ve come up with a brilliant, easygoing restaurant so casual it still serves sandwiches at dinner, along with a handful of “home-style classics” such as buttermilk fried chicken and chicken pot pie. Simple food, but great ingredients, skillful cooking and a passion for the wine country make all the difference
Starters on a menu that changes frequently include a velvety chilled cucumber and avocado soup perked up with a splash of vinegar, a top-of-the-class chopped market salad strewn with Point Reyes blue cheese and Hobbs’ wonderful bacon. A ravishing plate of chilled spring vegetables -- baby carrots, fiddlehead ferns, golden beets, several kinds of radishes, asparagus and more -- with a little crock of green goddess dressing to dip them in made a perfect summer appetizer. The Champagne-battered fish ‘n’ chips is marvelously light, the slow-cooked pulled pork sandwich and Market burger with thick slabs of Hobbs bacon eminently satisfying. For dessert, there’s do-it-yourself s’mores on a table hibachi and divine soft vanilla ice cream that they pull from the freezer and “whip” to order. Eat it alone or order the parfait of passion fruit ice layered with that ice cream, so dreamy someone at our table ordered me to hand it over.
A laid-back veteran
Of course, laid back has always been the style at Taylor’s Refresher, an old hamburger stand at the south end of St. Helena that dates from 1946 that’s still very much a local hangout. Winemaker Joel Gott bought it a few years ago, and has updated the basic burger with a grilled ahi burger and a handful of other dishes such as a duck confit taco with mango salsa on doubled soft tacos, or a Southwest chile. The ahi is nearly an inch and a half tall, blood rare and dosed with a ripsnorting wasabi mayonnaise and a gingery slaw on a yellow egg bun. It’s great. To drink, there’s a collection of draft beers and more than a dozen half bottles of local wine. Out back is a lawn sprinkled with oversized picnic tables and Chardonnay-colored market umbrellas. Locals like to commandeer a picnic table, and bring their own wine: the corkage is just $5.
Meanwhile Cindy Pawlcyn, who founded the perennially thronged Mustard’s Grill on Highway 29 and Fog City Diner in San Francisco, has recently retooled her St. Helena restaurant. It started out Latin, but when that didn’t go over big, she changed it to Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen with a menu that looks back to what she does best: American comfort food. It’s a cheerful, light-drenched space in an old two-story house with banquettes covered in black-and-white ticking, a zinc bar and a pocket patio. Despite the changeover, she’s still kept a few Latin-inspired dishes, including a delicious rabbit tostada with a dark complex chile sauce, crumbled fresh cheese and black beans. She makes a mean mixed fry, too, of okra, sweet pink onions, zucchini, and calamari. Mains, such as duck confit, tend to be heavy. And a rhubarb sorbet I tried was cloyingly sweet.
Practically next door, Terra Restaurant, in a beautiful old stone building, has always been popular. Chef Hiro Sone has the benefit of a Spago connection -- he cooked there way back when, and his wife, Lissa Doumani, grew up at Stags’ Leap and was a pastry chef at Spago. What I remember most about his cooking in previous years was the refined sauces, but what stood out this time were the Asian-inflected seafood dishes -- a sake-marinated black cod with shrimp dumplings in shiso broth, in particular. The service is lovely, but many dishes didn’t make that much of an impression. It could have just been an off night.
I’d heard good things about the new chef at Auberge du Soleil so I went back to this old-timer, one of the first high-end restaurants in the valley. After a recent renovation, it still looks like Big Sur with its redwood deck, but that view of the smudged blue hills at dusk is enchanting, despite the pretentious service. Chef Richard Reddington offers a wonderful tasting menu. That night it included perfect golden coins of fingerling potato heaped with creme fraiche and caviar, and dominoes of hamachi sashimi showered with pretty little shrimp and fava beans straight from the garden. Crisp, moist skate wing came in an ethereal morel fondue with halved white asparagus and a few morsels of lobster. A delicate, rare squab with cherries and foie gras was truly memorable, but rhubarb tart with white chocolate mousse missed the mark. Unfortunately, prices on the wine list are breathtakingly high. Not an especially good way to make wine country friends.
My experience at Martini House, which opened last year, was less than thrilling. The St. Helena restaurant has created a lot of buzz because the owner is restaurant design powerhouse Pat Kuleto and the chef is Todd Humphries, formerly of Campton Place in San Francisco. I didn’t enjoy the way the waiter arrived with a bottle of sparkling wine in either hand and offered us a glass without offering the price, so it seems as if it might be complimentary. Everybody in the Napa Valley has fallen for that -- once, one winemaker told me, only to be charged $16 a glass. The bread was stale and when we asked not one but two servers if they could rustle up something fresher, neither came back. The food (on a night when the chef was not there) is heavy-handed -- Sonoma duck in a swamp of spinach, a dull veal tenderloin with sweetbreads, a tough, dried out pork loin and a pale underbaked strawberry shortcake. Butter-poached lobster on singed asparagus had a lovely sauce, though. But when the waiter proposes a glass of Cabernet -- 1990 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard -- but didn’t reveal the $25 price tag until I asked because I knew it had to be expensive, you can’t help but feel like a mark.
Yountville, at the south end of the valley, the first town after Napa, is where it’s all happening now. That’s the French Laundry’s address and also Bistro Jeanty’s. Philippe Jeanty has another restaurant there under construction, and soon Thomas Keller will break ground on a small luxury hotel. Keller’s Bouchon Bakery is slated to open next week with an array of French breads and pastries. Before I left Helen Turley in front of Market, she called out, “and you do know that Gordon’s is the place for breakfast?” Got it.
At the north end of town, away from the throngs of tourists, Gordon’s Cafe & Wine Bar feels like a truly local place with pine farm tables and rush bottom chairs. I fell in love with their old-fashioned coffeecake laced with brown sugar and pecans, and the rich crumbly scones with pears and cherries. Cafe au lait comes in a bowl with a thick head of creamy foam. “The commuter” sandwich makes a great breakfast, too. It’s scrambled eggs, ham and white cheddar on a homemade bun.
Driving down Washington Boulevard, Yountville’s main drag, you can’t miss the burgundy awning and flowerboxes in front of Bouchon. Or the lucky few at the handful of coveted tables outside. Inside is a perfectly rendered Paris bistro, complete with zinc bar, a raw seafood bar and surrealist mural above plush red banquettes. Under chef Jeff Cerciello, Bouchon has come into its own as something entirely separate from the French Laundry. The seafood platter -- two tiers of four kinds of oysters, clams, tiny bouchet mussels, Dungeness crab and lobster -- makes a spectacular feast. There’s a textbook salad of watercress, red endive, and walnuts dressed in walnut oil with Roquefort crumbled over the top. Frisee salad features a sumptuous duck confit that could have come from your grandmother’s pantry in southwest France, but the best is quail stuffed with diced mushrooms and savory pork sausage. And oh my God, a small French canning jar of terrine de foie de canard with a layer of gold duck fat on top. Marvelously smooth, it comes with toasts cut stacked three deep -- a complete indulgence. We staggered toward dessert: a perfect creme caramel on a plain white plate and a lemon tart with buttery pine nut crust.
On my way out of town the next day, I stopped in at another longtime favorite, Bistro Jeanty, for a quick bite. Decorated with vintage posters, old photos and loads of French kitsch, it’s busy all day long with people coming by for Philippe Jeanty’s rustic French cooking: plump escargots, duck rillettes, sole meuniere and a soulful coq au vin. My favorites are his extraordinary lamb’s tongue and potato salad and his home-cured pork belly simmered with green lentils and a touch of foie gras. It was just as good as ever.
Where to dine
Angele, 540 Main St., Napa; (707) 252-8115; www .angele.us. Entrees, $12 to $24. Open for lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Auberge du Soleil, 180 Rutherford Hill Road, Rutherford; (707) 963-1211; www.aubergedusoleil .com. Prix fixe menu of four courses with choices, $78 per person. Tasting menu with wine pairings, $90 per person. Open for lunch 11:30 to 2:30 p.m. and for dinner 6 to 9:30 p.m. daily.
Bistro Jeanty, 6510 Washington St., Yountville; (707) 944-0103; www.bistrojeanty.com. Entrees, $14.50 to 24.50. Open for lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily.
Bouchon, 6534 Washington St., Yountville; (707) 944-8037. Entrees, $13.95 to $22.50. Open daily 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m.
Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, 1327 Railroad Ave., St. Helena; (707) 963-1200. Entrees, $13 to $20. Mondays through Thursdays 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Fridays 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturdays 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sundays 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Gordon’s Cafe & Wine Bar, 6770 Washington St., Yountville; (707) 944-8246. Breakfast items, $3.95 to $10.95. Open 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Market, 1347 Main St., St. Helena; (707) 963-3799. Entrees, $7 to $17.50. Open for lunch Wednesdays through Mondays, from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Open for dinner Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, 5:30 to 9 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays 5:30 to 10 p.m. Bar menu served until 11 p.m. Wednesdays through Mondays. Reservations required for six or more.
Martini House, 1245 Spring St., St. Helena; (707) 963-2233. Entrees, $18 to $26.50. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily and for dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. For those without reservations, the full menu is also served in the cellar and lounge on a first-come, first-served basis.
Taylor’s Refresher, 933 Main St., St. Helena (707) 963-3486; www.taylorsrefresher.com. Burgers, $4.50 to $6.99; ahi tuna burger, $9.99. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily in the summer.
Terra Restaurant, 1345 Railroad Ave., St. Helena; (707) 963-8931. Entrees, $18 to $29. Open Wednesdays through Mondays 6 to 9 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays 6 to 10 p.m.
ZuZu, 829 Main St., Napa; (707) 224-8555. Tapas, $3 to $11. Open Mondays through Thursdays 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Fridays 11:30 a.m. to midnight; Saturdays 4 p.m. to midnight; Sundays 4 to 10 p.m.