Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Napa Valley Report

We were up in Napa on our traditional year-end visit to family and friends and had the chance to sample a number of dining establishments, fine and otherwise, in the area. Summary reports on these experiences follow, in roughly chronological order.

1. Rutherford Grill: We stopped there for lunch while doing errands in the upper part of the valley. Good as always. We both had the Thai noodle salad (me with steak, Michael with chicken) which was generous, filling, and quite spicy. A glass of wine each. Note that although we arrived rather late for lunch (1:30 or so) it was quite crowded with a 30 minute wait for a table...fortunately we managed to snag a couple of seats at the bar after a short wait which worked out perfectly. As always, a convivial place for delicious, unfussy food in the valley.

2. Cook: We had dinner with Michael's cousin Kirsten who has lived in Napa most of her life and now lives around the corner from this relatively new place in St Helena. Very plain interior and a limited menu with a choice of four apps, 3 salads, 3 or 4 pastas, and four mains. We were in sharing mode and the three of us split fried calamari, a coppa plate, followed by some risotto and short ribs. All delicious. We started with a bottle of prosecco and switched to individual wine...as you can imagine from a restaurant right in the heart of wine country the selection was outstanding although most of the labels were quite unfamiliar. The pours on the wine were very generous including a "top-up" (which basically amounted to another glass) as we sat chatting after dinner. The food is not cheap (mains in the mid-20 range) and the decor is minimal but the quality coming out of the tiny kitchen couldn't be faulted. A small and crowded place (we sat at the bar again) filled with locals, mostly. Very Italian in its focus on a small number of ingredient-driven dishes.

3. BarBer Q in Napa. We had been hoping to get to Ubuntu in Napa but it was not in the cards for this trip so our friends, with whom we were staying and who live around the corner, opted for this small place unfelicitously located in the most crowded strip shopping center in Napa (with the local Trader Joes a few doors away). Not much on atmosphere but the food was good. Once again we sat at the bar mostly to avoid the long wait for a table. Michael and I split the "taste of the Q" special which for $36 included a couple of half racks of ribs, some chicken, pulled pork, sausage, and coleslaw. All was good to very good (Michael especially liked the chicken), nothing was memorable. Good value for money as portions were reasonably generous. I thought the pulled pork was a bit underseasoned and a little dry but maybe that's the local style. Our friends had the fried chicken, a Sunday night special, which I tasted and found excellent. Michael nursed a glass of Roederer Estate Brut through dinner and the three of us had a very interesting "Bride" from Black Bart vineyards which was a mix of Marsanne, Viognier, and Chardonay ($39). The earthiness of the Marsanne dominated and was a good mix for the rather rich food (Michael did get a glass in at the end). The bill for this was $140 before tax which seemed expensive for the casual nature of the place and the food but then there were four of us and we did spend $50 on booze, so maybe not so bad in retrospect.

4. Lunch at the Oxbow: The Oxbow is an attractive food market/restaurant court newly built in downtown Napa. We were there partly to pick up an assortment of spices for Michael's mom but took the opportunity to stop for a snack. There is a branch of the Hog Island Oyster Co so I stopped in for a quick dozen, being unable to convince any of my 3 companions to join me. Well, it wasn't quick but they were certainly good. The local Tomales Bay and Kumamotos and Olympias were among the best I've had. There were actually 5 types on my mixed plate and the other two weren't so much to my taste, being less briny and sweet. The dozen was also expensive at $30, I thought, with no accompaniments except lemon and a very good mignonnette sauce. I then walked over to join my friends at the local outpost of Taylor's refresher for a very good burger and B-quality sweet potato fries. Michael had an ahi burger which was equally delicious. Long wait at the Taylor's both there and at the Ferry Building in San Francisco...the food is good but, frankly, not that good.

5. Celadon: For our last dinner in Napa, we took our friends out to this relatively "fancy" (for the valley) place in a newer mixed use development in Napa. Nice big room, high ceilings with the sense of a loft. It was a rainy and cold night and for some reason the restaurant has gone with hanging plastic strips in lieu of a front door, which is neither attractive nor effective as the occasional cold draft buffeted our table from time to time. We had decided to go more or less at the last minute but they were able to fit us in at 8:15, which suited us fine. We had a couple of small plates to start, the steamed buns with pork belly (a kind of pork belly slider) and Maine crab cake, both of which were excellent. For mains, we had a sampler. In order of increasing success, Michael had a daily special pasta with crab which was misnamed (sold as papperdelle, but actually more like tagliatelle) which lacked any distinct flavor. My Moroccan spiced lamb shank looked like a huge portion but was mostly bone. Flavorful, not as tender as it could have been but with tasty couscous on the side. Gerry had a special skirt steak which I thought was very good, perfectly medium rare, but with a little bit of a funky taste typical of dry aged beef which he wasn't expecting. Keith's heritage pork T bone was one of the tastiest pieces of meat I've had in a long time. With a bottle of Rombauer Chardonnay ($59), dinner came to $220 before tip. Good but not memorable.

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