One of the best restaurants in Napa, hands down, is Torc, located on Main Street just north of 1st Street. Torc is a perfect place for locals (like us) but also a uniquely Napa experience that caters perfectly to out-of-town visitors as well. We made a reservation to eat at Torc Friday night, but it was not our first time. Not by a long shot. Although we have not gone back and counted visits, it is probably the restaurant we have dined at the most in all of Napa Valley. For a variety of reasons, we had not been there in a few months – our longest gap between visits.
When we were seated, we looked around for our favorite waiter, Milton, who had guided us through the food and wine choices almost every time we had previously visited. We learned that Milton was no longer working there and had a moment of crisis, wondering if our experience would suffer without his guidance. However, we had the fortune to have Timothy attending to our needs, who was fantastic in helping us track all of the changes to the menu since our last visit.
The menu at Torc changes frequently as ingredients come in and out of season. Their chef, Sean O’Toole, favors fresh local ingredients and sources both vegetables as well as meat, poultry and pork from local farms. Because of his background working in restaurants all over the United States and in Europe, Sean’s cooking cannot be shoe-horned into a single culinary category: “continental,” or “European” or “California.” There is no attempt to be subtle with his cooking; he prefers bold flavors that really bring the dishes to life. In nearly all of his dishes, there are unique combinations of spices, herbs, oils, and ingredients that other chefs might not think to add. There was a period of time when he was experimenting with sriracha, the spicy hot Thai sauce. Many of his dishes also feature classic Indian and Asian spices.
In addition to the food menu, Torc also boasts an impressive wine list with offerings from local wine regions (Napa and Sonoma) as well as wines from around the world. Many of their best wines are available by the glass as a result of their “Coravin system.” If you haven’t seem a Coravin before, you’re missing out! The Coravin is a device that has a needle-like component that pierces the cork, enters the bottle, and draws out wine. When the needle is removed, the cork closes back up again and the wine can be put back on the shelf – it does not need to be poured within hours. Because of this device, high-end restaurants have been able to provide by-the-glass options on wines that customers could normally taste only if they purchased the entire bottle. We brought our own bottle of wine on Friday night and did not order anything off of Torc’s menu this visit.
As we scanned the menu Friday night, we saw mostly new items. Torc’s menu is structured in three basic sections: dishes that are on the smaller side, basically appetizers; larger dishes that can be shared with others; and then the entrees. We started with one of the smaller items, an octopus salad, which turned out to be a classic “Chef Sean” dish: the octopus was wonderfully prepared, very soft and flavorful. Consistent with his global approach to flavors, the octopus salad had a decidedly Asian flair, with a yuzu vinaigrette and togarashi, a blend of Asian spices. At the same time as the salad we ordered a cold vegetable soup with peas, fava beans and pistou, a Provencal sauce similar to a pesto. While simple, the soup had great flavor, accentuated by the mushrooms.
After the salad and soup we ventured into the “middle” section of the menu, selecting the tempura softshell crab. The tempura was light and did not overwhelm the flavor of the crab. To complement the tempura crab, we also ordered the squash blossoms, which are breaded and deep-fried but also very light. The blossoms were served with an olive aioli that was a perfect partner for the crunchy blossoms. When we finished the crab and blossoms, we encountered our first moment of truth: do we proceed to the entrees or continue ordering small and medium plates? We decided to split an entrée, hoping we might have room for dessert. At Torc, there are some great entrée options, including fine cuisine classics like scallops and short ribs. But the two most impressive entrée options are a whole chicken for two and a dry-aged New York strip steak, also for two. Both of these entrees take a while to prepare and should be ordered soon after being seated. We were already too deep into the meal to contemplate such large entrees and settled for the halibut shown above.
The other moment of truth came after the halibut was consumed: the “do we or don’t we?” decision around dessert. We concluded that we deserved dessert and ordered the panna cotta, which we loved. When one of us went to the bathroom (Irene) the other decided to keep the fun going by ordering an after dinner drink. We were intrigued by the selection of the Italian digestif amaro, a drink we have had a few places but is not on many restaurant’s drink list. It turns out that Timothy was an expert in amaro and gave us the run-down on the eight different amaros on their list. He recommended the Fernet Branca, which one of us ordered (twice!) while the other of us had the Meletti. Along with espresso and cappuccino, it was a fantastic way to end another amazing meal at Torc. As we were leaving, we promised ourselves that we would be back very soon. Father’s Day?
John and Irene, June 5, 2016