If you crave cuisine from Spain in an environment that feels authentically Spanish, head to downtown Napa where you will find not just one, but two, high-quality restaurants that bring a slice of Spain to Napa. Mick Salyer is the proprietor of Zuzu and La Taberna, both of which are on Main Street literally separated by a few feet. Today, the Napa Valley is known far and wide as a center of culinary excellence, with seven Michelin-star restaurants, including one with the coveted three stars. However, twelve years ago when Salyer first opened Zuzu, he must have been a visionary. While the more northern Napa towns (Calistoga, St. Helena, Yountville) were already food meccas in the early 2000’s, the city of Napa certainly was not, and downtown was not the sophisticated destination that it is today. Opening a restaurant featuring Spanish cuisine was by no means a slam dunk proposition. I guess you would have to say Salyer is a double visionary, as he opened his second Spain-themed restaurant two years ago. This new restaurant, named La Taberna, continues to ignite Napa’s passion for great Spanish food. La Taberna is frequented by locals and is a great place to have a glass of wine or beer with a friend or a quick business meeting in the early afternoon, when it is quiet and welcoming.
Zuzu offers a more traditional, sit-down experience with a broader selection of cold and hot appetizers and, usually, a paella dish. The newer restaurant, La Taberna, has a more tavern look and feel (hence the name) and a menu to match. The space was inspired by the pinxto bars of Northern Spain, particularly the Basque region.
This past Saturday night we were celebrating a friend’s birthday and were interested in having a casual evening – a few drinks, some small plates to share. We opted for La Taberna’s unique ambience, which is casual but also lively with an energetic crowd and a friendly wait staff.
We arrived at La Taberna around 5:30 to beat the inevitable Saturday night dinner rush. Reservations are not accepted, and more than once we’ve arrived too late and been unable to find a place to sit, or even stand. There are only 30 seats (all at high-top bar tables) and perhaps another 15 or 20 seats at the long bar which runs almost the entire length of the restaurant. Since there were four of us, we opted for a table where we could eat, drink and talk together. Luckily, at 5:30 we were only the second or third group in the restaurant and were able to get our pick of tables.
One of the most enjoyable things about stopping in at La Taberna is that you never know what the menu will be that day as the food options change frequently. Like a real Spanish tavern, the list of the day’s pinxtos are not printed on a paper menu, but instead written in chalk on a board by the bar and another board closer to the kitchen.
While perhaps not as often as the food, the beverage menu changes quite frequently as well. We have been to La Taberna about a half-dozen times and the wine selections were different on almost every visit. As you would expect, there are multiple Spanish wines on the list, including an impressive selection of Spanish sherry, which can be ordered by the glass; for the more ambitious sherry drinker, a flight is also available. La Taberna also boasts French and Portuguese wines, along with an offering of California varietals. There are also numerous beers and ciders on the menu. I should mention that the wine list is atypical for Napa in that the focus seems to be on more affordable and approachable wines than you might find at other restaurants in town. The most expensive bottle on the menu is a $65 bottle of Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon. Most bottles are in the $30-50 range, which is quite a change from what we see most often in the Valley, with bottles, especially cabernet, starting in the triple-digits. Also, where most Napa wine lists typically offer multiple options for each varietal (Cab, Pinot, Merlot, etc.), La Taberna’s list had a single Cabernet Sauvignon (this visit it was a good quality Freemark Abbey).
Not wanting to be wine gluttons, John and Irene ordered a glass of wine each and our friends ordered beer and cider for themselves. One of us had three more glasses of wine before the evening was through, so ordering the whole bottle might have been more efficient, not to mention cost-effective. Once we had our drinks on the table, we were ready to start with the pinxtos. Last night we were celebrating a birthday and really looking forward to some of the outstanding and unique house specials. I am pretty sure that every time we see grilled octopus on a restaurant menu, we order it. Yesterday was no exception. La Taberna’s grilled octopus version is one of the best and unique we have tasted. In addition to the octopus, we selected gambas a la plancha (grilled shrimp) and a double order of pig ears. Yes, I said pig ears. We have tried pig ears at other restaurants, but none better than the ones at La Taberna. Sliced very thinly and fried to a crispy finish, with sweet and spicy flavors, they are a total treat and show off the chef’s expertise with a traditional Basque dish.
The four of us devoured the octopus, and the shrimp, and the pig ears …and still wanted more pinxtos. We then ordered mussels escabeche, where the mussels are poached in a vinaigrette and served in a tin – a very traditional Basque dish. Following the mussels, we ordered the lamb trio, which featured three different cuts of lamb, only two of which I can recall – loin and belly. Although I don’t recall the third cut, it was delicious and we devoured it as well.
All four of us are torturing ourselves by not eating carbohydrates, but we felt like having some kind of dessert before ending the evening. Fortunately, La Taberna had a cheese plate on the board, which we selected to cap off the meal. By the time we were leaving, the restaurant was packed, there were people waiting outside to get in, and the bar was triple-stacked with people. Just like it would be in San Sebastian or Bilbao.
John and Irene
May 22, 2016