I know you think that if anyone is going to write anything about Napa Valley in California that they would make it a point to immediately highlight what Napa is best known for: wine. I promise I have that coming, but that which is closest to my foodie heart is the agricultural community here which goes beyond spirits and demonstrates its equal commitment to food, specifically that which serves to celebrate the farm to table traditions.
I was in Napa for a short three days, not even remotely enough time to give you an overview of all you can experience here. But, as a guest of the Wine Sisterhood, I was introduced to the best of the best and that is what I want to start with as I share my adventures through Napa.
Located in the lovely Oxbow Public Market in downtown Napa, chefs Todd Humphries and Christopher Litts offer a variety of tasty dishes with a bit of an ethnic flair, while staying true to the local and seasonal products of their region. Everything is fresh and flavorful, yet surprisingly non-complex and very familiar to the diner. There is nothing more exciting than eating a dish so delicious that you are inspired to try it at home, and then realize that all you need is right there in your local market. Service is quick and friendly, but take your time to enjoy the food, the gorgeous space, and all the busy action going on behind the counter and near the brick oven.
Before I proceed with fabulous food shots, I want to thank all my dining companions who patiently waited till I got the right shot to feature here. While we were there, some of us enjoyed the following dishes:
Shaved Celery Salad with candied pecans, dates, gorgonzola creamy white balsamic vinaigrette
Walking through the Oxbow Public Market, I felt like a kid in a candy store – an artisanal candy store. From spice shops to coffee shops, baked goods and more, the market displays an endless supply of treats offered by merchants dedicated to the concept of sustainable agriculture and local harvest making this an experience worth having when in Napa. Whether you choose to dine in, out, or even carry away, I would allot a good chunk of time to this market – and yes, you can even purchase your favorite local wines here as well.
Chef John Sorenson’s Lobster Feed
This traditional and festive dining experience is one that is often celebrated in the region, and the expert behind it all is Chef John Sorenson – also known as “The Lobster King” – who travels all over to bring the Napa Valley Lobster Feeds to many high-profile events. On this particular evening, our group was the recipient of this wonderful feast.
I confess, I have never been to a lobster feed before and was quite surprised to see our lovely table, in the exquisite Barrel Room at the Black Stallion Winery (which is available for private events) suddenly covered with Maine lobster, prawns, corn, assorted fresh vegetables, and sourdough bread. The supply of butter for dipping was endless as was the serving of wine.
Not ever having to crack open my lobster, this was something I needed some assistance with. I’ve never seen a bunch of women dig in to lobster with such passion and tenacity in my life! It was so fun and so unique, not to mention – once I was able to get to the lobster meat – delicious! I would definitely look out for a lobster feed, often hosted in various places throughout Napa. Needless to say, the lobster didn’t stand a chance.
This was one of my morning breakfast spots, and I have to say I immediately loved it because it was so similar in feel to any one of my many favorite brunch spots in NYC. But unlike NYC, don’t expect the service to be fast especially with larger crowds. I don’t think this is a fault of the restaurant as much as it is the nature of things in Napa in general – slow and laid back.
Speed in service aside, the food was a great way to start my morning. The Mediterranean influence in every dish, along with the fresh fruits were delightful. I found the small sunny space welcoming in the morning light and had I not been on a schedule I could have easily enjoyed some more time there. The bar had an endless supply of wines which leads me to believe that the night scene might be a tad more energetic than what I experienced and a fun night out in downtown Napa. Chef Gerardo Castro led the team the morning we were there and I can’t think of one dish that I didn’t want to try, but in the end I went with the Mediterranean Breakfast Platter, as well as with the fresh season fruit plate served with homemade cottage cheese (even if you don’t like cottage cheese, you will LOVE Chef Castro’s homemade version -so good).
Fresh fruit plate with homemade cottage cheese
Located in Yountville, this locale initially tends to draw visitors looking to get a glimpse of Emmy-winning Chef Michael Chiarello. I didn’t see him at all when I was there, but I wasn’t the least disappointed. It all started with the salad. I know, you’re wondering, “A salad, really?” Well, yes. The antipasto, in this case a salad, to every meal is a clear indication of what is most likely to follow. Get a generic, ordinary salad with no attention to detail or creativity, and chances are the same will follow in every dish. This salad, the Insalata del Bosco was so complex in flavors, I kept going for more and would have been more than satisfied had this, and the wine, been my lunch.
But it wasn’t. There was also a serving of creamy mozzarella burrata with walnut perso, house cured coppa, watercress and truffle vinaigrette, and Monterey calamari, crisped with Arborio rice flour and aioli nero.
The main dish that was every carnivore’s absolute favorite was the short ribs dish. I listened as people tried it and commented on it. The common compliment throughout was how tender the meat was and how it so easily fell off the bone, like butter.
Reservations at Bottega are a must.
I was able to sneak out a bit and get to check out a couple of other foodie favorites right in the area. Across the street from Bottega, is another very popular eatery, Bouchon Bistro. But instead of heading into the French bistro, I went right into their pastry shop, Bouchon Bakery. Pastry Chef Janine Weissman is a family friend of a twitter friend of mine (small world). Upon his suggestion I just had to check it out, and honestly now that I have seen, smelled, and tasted their variations of cookies, macaroons, quiches, brioche, and well so much more, I can only suggest you check it out too.
Not too far from that, is Napa Style, which is not so much an eatery as it is a purveyor of culinary items, whether they be cookbooks, utensils, cookware and gadgets to spices, oils, and wines. It’s a nice place to stop and shop for gifts to give that foodie in your life or just for yourself.
Last, but by no means least, I dined and wined at Farmstead in St. Helena, CA. This was my last evening in Napa and I decided against photographing my meal and instead just connect with my newly found friends over the satisfying dishes served here. Satisfying not only to the palate, but also to the consciousness as the very purpose of this eatery, headed by Chef Stephen Barber, is very much farm to table.
It is casual and comfortable, without loosing sight of elegance and sophistication in the experience it delivers those who dine there. The Southern-style dishes are prepared with ingredients sourced from local purveyors and features Long Meadow Ranch’s – the restaurants own farm – all-natural grass-fed beef, vegetables, extra virgin olive oil, and honey.
I was told that their absolute-all-time-must-have-best dish is fried chicken. I was also told that when they put it on the menu it sells out within the half hour. Bummer, but doesn’t it make you just want to try it?
And there you have it, a list of how I ate my way through Napa and how you can too while experiencing some of the best culinary spots the area has to offer. I was most impressed with how true the chefs and restaurants are to the agricultural community of the region. Yes, it’s wine, but they are proud to tell you it’s about a lot more than that as well and will happily showcase it in their food, all of which put Napa on my list of favorite spots.
Disclosure: I was a guest of the Wine Sisterhood Gathering 2012 and their sponsors during my visit to Napa, CA. I received no requirements or requests to review any particular experience. All the opinions expressed here are my own.