For most people, the letters “CIA” conjure up a plethora of images and ideas – clandestine meetings, skullduggery, espionage, exotic locations, and a fair amount of intrigue and danger. What probably does not come to mind is food, and world-class food at that. The reason for this is that our nation’s spy agency has co-opted those three letters: C – I – A; for those of us that live in wine country, they are more appropriately associated with the Culinary institute of America. And yes, we actually refer to the institute as the “CIA.” Twice in the past month, we visited the CIA’s St. Helena campus to try out their new Gatehouse Restaurant. Over the past 2-3 years, we have eaten several times at the CIA’s previous restaurant Greystone; like Greystone, at Gatehouse all of the restaurant “work” – cooking, food and wine service, hosting – is performed by students of the Culinary Institute.
There are a multitude of areas in life that we imagine being served by students or apprentices would not be ideal: medical care and haircuts come to mind. We can say with great enthusiasm, however, that fine cuisine made by the students at the CIA is top-notch and the equal of most restaurants in the Napa Valley. Indeed, many of the individuals that made or served our food, poured our wine, and removed our dishes after eating will some day soon be working in the Valley’s elite eateries. We enjoyed both the food and the ambience so much that we went twice, first with our intrepid Napa Valley food and wine connoisseurs Inna and Igor, and the second time just us for Valentine’s Day. We enjoyed both visits and were particularly impressed with the many new menu items the second time we visited.
Gatehouse serves a fixed-price menu with an option of three or four courses. For dinner, the cost of three courses is $39.00 and four courses is $49.00, while for lunch the courses are $32.00 and $42.00 for three and four courses, respectively. While these are not fast food prices, they are very reasonable for the quality and quantity of food provided. On our first visit, we opted for the three course tasting menu at $32.00 per person, an amount we easily could have exceeded most of the restaurants we tend to visit during a day of wine tasting. For Valentine’s Day we opted for the more decadent four-course dinner for $49.00, a screaming bargain compared to the tasting menus at many of the restaurants we considered going to, which ranged from $100 to $150 per person. In our humble opinions, Gatehouse delivers a superior overall culinary experience that will make us come back over and over again.
For our lunch visit, the four of us ordered a wide variety of options off of the menu to make sure that we were collectively able to evaluate the Gatehouse’s variety and range. Even before our first selection was served, our server brought out a complimentary amuse bouche from the chef.
Our first courses included beef consommé, a roasted acorn squash with good cheese and eggplant purée, and cured salmon with shaved fennel and potato crêpe.
As you can see, the dishes at Gatehouse are presented as beautifully as they would be at any high-end establishment. In terms of taste and texture, we each loved our starters as well as the rest of our meal, which included a delicate and flaky skate…
… braised short rib …
… pork tenderloin …
Our final course was, of course, dessert. We each ordered something different including a Moscato poached pear, Chai panna cotta, and a chocolate granache.
Our preferred version of the CIA makes a mean dessert as well – not surprising given that there is a pastry track that produces some very good pastry chefs as well.
When we returned for Valentine’s Day, the menu had almost all new items compared to just a couple of weeks before. We opted for the 4-course dinner and again had some very sophisticated and tasty dishes. One of our starters was Muscovy Duck Breast prosciutto, a definite first for us …
Our other starter was Pacific Rock Crab Risotto …
Additional dishes included Pancetta Wrapped Quail …
…Rolled Pasta with black truffles …
Dessert brought more decadence, including Warm Oatmeal Cake …
…and “White Chocolate-Peppermint “Cheesecake”
Of course this being Napa Valley, the restaurant has a very impressive list of premium wines. We opted to bring our own bottles of wine and were very pleasantly surprised when no corkage fee was added to our bill!
We will be back to Gatehouse Restaurant again to try the items we missed the first two times. If you are coming to Napa Valley, we strongly recommend you make the trip to St. Helena and check it out. You can make reservations here: Gatehouse
This is the sixth and final installment in the chronicle of the European vacation where I decided to plan the entire trip and not tell my wife where we are going. She has discovered each destination as we cross a border or enter a new city. In most cases she has been in the dark until almost the last minute. If you missed previous installments you can find them in our archives or here:
There is a scene in the famous movie “The Wizard of Oz” when Dorothy awakens in a strange and unfamiliar land and says to her dog: “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” We had a similar experience as we wrapped up our two-week adventure in Europe, which started in Italy, took us into Slovenia, and then into Croatia. Our final country was so different from any of the others that we visited – definitely different from Croatia (and Kansas!).
When planning the trip, my original hope was that we could make it to six countries during our stay. However, there was too much to see and we did not have as much time as I would have liked to country hop. But I did have one more country up my sleeve to round out the trip.
We started our trip in Venice, Italy, and our second-to-last city was Dubrovnik, which the missus enjoyed quite a bit. According to her, it was her second-favorite place after the incredible Plitvice Lakes National Park. So where to go from Dubrovnik for the last two days of our trip? I booked our last couple of nights in Sarajevo, which is the capital of Croatia’s neighbor, Bosnia & Herzegovina. Technically, we had already been in Bosnia during our trip. Why “technically?” Well, the only way to get from the center of Croatia to Dubrovnik on the coast is to travel through Bosnia. That’s right – the north-south freeway requires about a 15-20 minute detour through Bosnia before re-entering Croatia. So the missus had already been in Bosnia and thought that the brief pass-through would be our only stop there.
As we left Dubrovnik, she halfheartedly tried to get me to say where we were headed. “That way,” I told her, pointing north. After about an hour, we crossed the now-familiar Croatia/Bosnia border detour and soon were back in Croatia again to reconnect to the main freeway. We were not done with Bosnia, though, as about 30 minutes later we came to another Croatia/Bosnia border stop. “Again?” she asked. “How many times are we going to cross into and back from Bosnia?” “It’s the last time,” I assured her.
This time, the crossing was a more formal event. Unlike the “pass-through” crossing where they don’t even stop the car or require documentation, this time we had to show our passports for stamping. About 100 yards later we saw the first sign that Bosnia was going to be different than Croatia: the sign for Bosnia & Herzegovina was written in both the Roman (western) and Cyrillic alphabets.
For my wife, this was very comfortable as the Russian language also uses the Cyrillic alphabet. All navigational and street signs we passed in Bosnia were written in both alphabets.
The second hint came as we passed several mosques on our drive north towards Sarajevo. From my pre-trip research I was aware that there are three main ethnic groups in Bosnia: Serbs (generally of the Orthodox religion), Croats (generally Catholic) and Bosniaks (Muslim). As we drove further north, the prevalence of the Islamic faith in Bosnia became more obvious.
As we were leaving Dubrovnik in Croatia to head to Sarajevo I decided we would stop somewhere along the way for lunch. All of the people we met in Croatia told us that Mostar was a “must stop” destination, so we combined a “must stop” with a lunch stop. As we entered Mostar, the third and perhaps most compelling sign that we were no longer in Croatia became apparent: war damage. Certainly, the 1990’s Balkan war affected Croatia, including several of the places that we visited. In Bosnia, however, the duration, intensity and brutality of the war was on a scale that shocked and saddened us.
A Twitter “friend” of ours had given us the name of a restaurant in Mostar to stop for lunch. Attempting to follow the garbled pronunciations of our Garmin GPS, we made our way through Mostar towards “Stari Grad” – Old Town. From the car window the evidence of war was still visible: buildings with bullet holes in them and destroyed buildings waiting to be rebuilt. Finally, we found a parking space close to where she-Garmin was telling us the restaurant was located.
We stepped out of the car and in a few steps were in the Old Town part of Mostar. Within 50 meters we found the restaurant that we were looking for and we happily plopped down and ordered some water and traditional Bosnian food.
Yummy Bosnian food at TimaIrma in Mostar
In Europe, “old town” really means old: Mostar has been around since the 15th Century and there are structures in the city that remain from that time. Easily the most famous structure in Mostar is its bridge; in fact, “most” in Serbian means bridge. The mostari were the bridge keepers, which gave Mostar its name back in the Ottoman Empire. After lunch we walked through Stari Grad and crossed the old bridge (Stari Most) and checked out the shops in the narrow streets of the old shopping district.
Built in 1566, the bridge stood for 427 years until it was destroyed in 1993 by Croats during the Croat-Bosniak War, one of the many Balkan conflicts that erupted after Yugoslavia fell apart. It was not until 2004 that the bridge was re-opened to allow pedestrians to once again cross the Neretva River from one side of town to the other.
We only stayed in Mostar for a few hours, but the wife was really impressed by the feel of the old town, the bridge, and the connection to the culture of six centuries ago. It was also our first exposure to the importance of the Islamic faith in Bosnia, as we heard the mid-day “call to prayer” being broadcast over the loudspeaker from a local mosque.
From Mostar, we continued driving north until we arrived in Sarajevo, the last stop on our trip. We checked into the Hotel Bristol for two nights in the city that hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics. Or, as our guide the following day would say, “only the second communist city to host an Olympic games.” “And the only one that the United States attended,” I added, since the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. We were tired and hungry and appreciated the personal welcome when we got into our room.
The following morning, we woke up and had breakfast in the lobby of the Hotel Bristol. The previous ten days of our trip, we awoke to beautiful sunshine and blue skies . Our first morning in Sarajevo, there was no sun to be seen, only grey and black clouds. “Rain,” I brilliantly opined. Nevertheless, we decided that we were going to tour the town even if we got wet. After all, when would we get back to Sarajevo again?
My prediction of rain turned out to be wrong, and, unfortunately, optimistic. As I looked out of our hotel room window just before we ventured out, I realized that it was snowing! Here’s a cool video of the view from our hotel window.
Since we don’t see snow often, I didn’t want to drive my trusty VW Golf into Stari Grad (yes, every town seems to have an “Old Town”). Instead, we grabbed a cab and the driver dropped us off at the start of our tour. We spent two delightful hours with a Sarajevo native who took us all around town. Here are the things that we saw and learned:
Sarajevo is a majority-Muslim city, with about 80% of the residents identifying as Islamic; minority populations include the Serbs (about 4%) and Croats (5%). In the 1991 Census, Muslims made up only half of the population, with Serbs accounting for nearly 30% of the city’s population. The dramatic shift in the population between the 1991 and the 2013 census surveys is almost entirely accounted for by the drastic reduction in the population of Sarajevo’s Serbs, many of whom left during and after the war.
Even though Sarajevo is majority-Muslim, it defied our expectations of what such a city would look and feel like. Certainly, there were many mosques in town, especially in the Old Town. As we experienced in Mostar, we heard the “call to prayer” multiple times while we were walking around Sarajevo. What surprised us, though, is how modern and contemporary Sarajevo felt, even in the Old Town. Most men and women were dressed in typical European fashions and styles and all of the expected brand stores were represented in the shopping zone. Unlike other Muslim cities, it is less common for women to wear the hijab in Sarajevo. As the wife describes it, Sarajevo is an “East-meets-West” city; in fact, there is a spot in the Old Town that has been created to show the intersection of both East and West.
The pictures above depict a line in the Old Town of Sarajevo that dissects the town’s two personalities – Eastern and Western. On the Eastern side, you can see the mosque and the traditional Ottoman-style stores. On the Western side of the line are the European and American brand stores selling lingerie, sneakers, jeans, dresses and products that would be available in any Western city. While the East-West divide expresses part of the diversity of Sarajevo, there is also an impressive diversity of religion in the city with active houses of worship for four faiths: Islam, Judaism, Catholicism and Orthodox.
Within a 500 meter radius in Sarajevo you will find the mosque, synagogue, and churches (Catholic and Orthodox).
There is excellent food, wine and coffee in Sarajevo (did anyone doubt we would find it?). We got our first taste of the excellent Bosnian food when we were in Mostar; in Sarajevo we ate at several fine restaurants and sampled many different types of dishes. After our Sarajevo city tour on Day 1, we opted for a seafood restaurant just outside of the Old Town.
On our last day in Bosnia, we opted for something with traditional Bosnian food and found a place called Dveri that was mostly full of locals.
Since it was our last day, we decided to select some real Bosnian comfort food.
This fantastic meal was washed down with a carafe of the house Blatina.
At the end of most of our meals, we opted for a traditional Bosnian coffee which is served in a small copper container and poured into a small cup to drink. “Sort of like Turkish coffee,” the missus said the first time we saw it. “We like to call it Bosnian coffee,” the waiter replied. In fairness. though, the coffee is clearly one of the remnants of hundreds of years of Ottoman rule, so calling it “Turkish coffee” is not really incorrect. Just ill-advised.
Bosnia has an honest-to-goodness wine country! There are vineyards across Bosnia (most in the Herzegovina region) and we drove by thousands of acres of them on our drive up to Sarajevo.
In fact, Mostar is well-known for its production of an indigenous white wine varietal, Zilavka, the most common white wine in Bosnia. We found extensive wine menus at all the restaurants we visited which included not only Bosnian wines but offerings from Croatia, Slovenia, and Serbia. On our next trip we will need to include more wineries in our itinerary. We strongly believe that Balkan wines have the depth, complexity, aromatic strength and flavor to compete with wines anywhere.
War and conflict is very much a part of the legacy of Bosnia in general and Sarajevo in particular. Our city tour started at the spot where a Serb assassinated Archduke Ferdinand in 1914, the catalyst that led to the First World War.
After World War II, the Balkan countries were united together into a single country, Yugoslavia, led by Communist leader Marshall Tito. When Tito died in 1980, the glue that held together the six separate Yugoslav republics (Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia) weakened. The rise of nationalist sentiment eventually led to the breakup of Yugoslavia and a series of wars across the Balkan region. The 1990’s conflicts are still very visible in Sarajevo, with buildings that still bear the scars of war and others that are waiting to be rebuilt. For Sarajevo, the destruction came during what is now known as the Siege of Sarajevo, a 1,425 day siege by Serbian forces that created a virtual blockade of the city. Controlling the hills around Sarajevo, Serb forces repeatedly shelled the city (an average of 300 per day for the nearly four-year siege) and snipers preyed on residents as they attempted to move around the besieged city. By the end of the siege, 13,000 people were killed and over 90% of buildings were damaged or destroyed. It was the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. These images are played out across Bosnia.
For us, the war stories were all sobering, but none more than the Srebrenica Exhibition in Sarajevo, which tells the tragic and devastating story of the fall of the town and the subsequent massacre of nearly all of the Muslim men and boys in the town. On July 11, 1995, Bosnian Serb forces conquered Srebrenica after an extended period shelling the town from the surrounding mountains. As the Serb forces came into the town, many boys and men attempted to flee through the forest, only to be killed by mortar attacks. Those that did not flee were rounded up and murdered and buried in mass graves. United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan referred to the Srebrenica event as the worst crime on European soil since World War II, and others have referred to the event as a genocide. In total, tens of thousands of Muslims were killed as a result of “ethnic cleansing” during the Balkan conflicts.
Our two days in Sarajevo were fast but productive; we saw many things and immersed ourselves as much as possible in the rhythm of the city and absorbed as much history as we could. Nevertheless, we need to go back as there is more to see, not just in Sarajevo but also in the rest of Bosnia. Without question, we need to visit the Bosnian wineries that we drove by on our way from Croatia to Sarajevo. Next visit, we would also like to make it to Montenegro and Serbia to learn more about those former Yugoslav republics.
The French have a word called terroir to describe the conditions in which a grape grows – conditions that subtly impact the aroma and flavor of the wine that grows in a particular region. While there are many definitions of terroir, the one that makes the most sense to me is “the place.” Nis the place the grapes are grown; everything about that place. The temperature, the rain, the wind, the soil type, the presence of other plants in the area, terrain (sloping hills vs. flat ground, elevation), the presence of trees or mountains that provide shelter from inclement weather. Beyond the natural elements, tradition and history can also be part of the terroir.
Having spent the last ten days or so in Croatia, we feel like there is a distinct “terroir” that makes up this place – not just for the grapes, but for the people who live here. Certainly, there is a distinct natural element that defines much of the Croatian experience – the sea, the rivers and lakes, the massive mountains, the rolling countryside. Adding to the terroir, though, are the history and traditions that contributed to the formation of the people who live in Croatia – their food, their daily routines, their culture. We have had so many wonderful experiences that it would take weeks to catalog them and chronicle them in our blog. We want to share them on a more real-time basis so we have divided our experiences into a few categories and we’ll lay them out as follows: Natural Beauty, Food & Wine, and the People.
1.Natural Beauty. In a previous blog (Travel Log: 16 Lakes, Countless Waterfalls, and Too Many U-Turns) we shared our trip to Plitvice Lakes, a definite “bucket list” place to visit and one of the most impressive national parks we have been to on any continent. It would be a mistake, though, to think that Croatia’s natural beauty is confined to this one park. We drove literally the length and width of the country and its beauty is astounding. Between the large cities are large swaths of lush, green countryside intersected by, in some instances, rolling hills, and in others dissected by huge mountain ranges. There are also many rivers and lakes in Croatia and, accidentally or otherwise, the primary route from major city to major city follows closely along the rivers.
After our 5-hour trek through Plitvice Lakes we only needed a day of rest before our trek to another of Croatia’s famous parks, Krka National Park. Like Plitvice, Krka has some impressive waterfalls formed by the confluence of a number of creeks and the Krka River. Here is a brief video of the brilliant waterfall that greeted us as we started our hike around the park.
As we drove south towards Split, we also passed the lovely Cestina River, which was our companion as we traversed the mountainous region on the way to Split.
During the summer months the river would be full of paddlers and swimmers enjoying the refreshing relief from the hot summer sun. The region was much more tranquil for our visit, with most places closed for the season. We did stop for lunch, though, and had a very nice view of the river from our window table.
Rivers and lakes – what could be better? Well, how about hundreds of miles of the Dalmatian coast? Much of the north-south drive in Croatia runs along the cliffs overlooking the Dalmatian Sea, with breathtaking (and sometimes frightening) views. To recover from our national park treks, we scheduled stops in both Split and Dubrovnik, two coastal towns with picture-postcard views of the sea as well as the islands off of the coast. In Split, we found a hotel right on the water that had a very nice patio overlooking the marina, the Adriatic sea and, off to the right, the old town of Split.
During the “season” – which we understand runs most of the summer months – this view would have been priced way above our comfort level. For the period we were in Croatia, the room cost about as much as a Holiday Inn in the United States. When we went to Dubrovnik, we were again blown away by the beauty of the town, particularly its orientation to the Adriatic sea. As in Split, we stayed in a hotel with panoramic views of the sea, surrounding islands as well as the Old Town.
2. Food and Wine. The missus announced this morning that we are going to have to do some sort of detox when we get home. Optimist that I am …this must mean we have eaten very well. Certainly, we have eaten a great deal of food at every meal, starting with breakfast. In the United States, breakfast at a hotel or resort is generally the most boring meal of the day. It is almost guaranteed that breakfast will consist of some eggs, bacon, and fresh fruit. Our European vacation breakfasts have included so many different types of offerings: cheeses, meats, breads, eggs, seafood, shellfish, etc. As I have tried (and failed) to keep up with my no-carbs program, this is what a typical breakfast might look like. If you look closely, you can see the bread roll on the right.
Lunches and dinners have all been at traditional Croatian restaurants serving dishes with local and seasonal foods. We do not like to eat at restaurants similar to those at home, so we often research the best places for hours and walk around until we find the right one. In Croatia, fish and meat are prevalent in all dishes but the proximity to Italy has also contributed pasta dishes to the mix.
When we say we need a detox, the pictures above should provide some context for why we will need to recover when we get home. In addition to eating traditional food, we also prefer to drink the local wines when we are traveling. In Croatia, there are some fantastic wines made from grapes that only grow in this country. In total, there are dozens of indigenous grape varieties in Croatia. One of the most famous is Plavac Mali, a small dark berry that produces a high-tannin red wine. “Plavo” means blue in Croatian, and “mali” means small – so translated literally, “little blue” grape. It was once thought that Plavac Mali was the same as Zinfandel, but subsequent DNA testing has proven otherwise. Famous Napa Valley winemaker Miljenko “Mike” Grigich, a native of Croatia, worked with a grape geneticist at U.C. Davis to perform DNA testing on the grape. What this testing determined is that Plavac Mali is a descendant of Zinfandel and another indigenous Croatian grape (Dobricic).
Everywhere we ate (or drank), we ordered Plavac Mali. To honor our favorite Napa winemaker, we also visited the Grgic winery on the Peljesac Peninsula, where the best Plavac Mali grapes are grown.
We have become huge fans of Plavac Mali and we now have so much wine to take home that the missus has decreed that we need another suitcase just for the wine. One bottle that I will make sure we take home (if we don’t drink it before we go) is perhaps my favorite because it is truly a local wine. After our visit to Grgic Vina, we went to the town of Trpanj to visit a new friend, Drazan, that I “met” through our WordPress blogs. Drazan invited us to come to his house right by the water in Trpanj and share some cheese and bread. And wine. Here is what we went home with …
When Drazan gave us the wine it was full to the top; you may notice that there is now some space at the top of the bottle. Yes, we had some. Yes it was very nice. There is really something special about drinking young wine straight from the barrel made by real local wine makers.
3. The People, History and Culture. At some point during our stay in Croatia, the missus said to me: “I think I could live here.” Thinking she was making a casual comment, I replied “sure, it’s a nice place.” “No,”she said, “I mean it. I would like to live here.” We had a long conversation about what it would take to live in Croatia some day – when we are retired. My ego was happy to hear this because it meant that I had chosen wisely with my choice of trip, and everything was going well (so far). More than that, however, I appreciated how much she appreciated the people and the place. The terroir, as it were.
It is impossible to understand the Croatian people without understanding the history of this part of the world over the past century or so. World War I started with a famous assassination in the Balkans. During WWII, Croatia was occupied first by the Italians and later by the Germans. Most recently, the Croatians were swept up in the Balkans War in which thousands were killed and many sacred buildings and monuments were destroyed. In fact, as we drove from Zagreb south, we passed numerous small villages that were completely empty, abandoned by their former residents and left to decay over the past 20 years since the end of the war. Even larger cities such as Dubrovnik were not spared as the Old Town, with buildings dating back to medieval times, was shelled from the sea and the land. We had a nice coffee in old town overlooking the clock tower.
Here is a view of that same clock tower during the 1991-1995 war.On the European continent, war is largely confined to the distant memories of grandfathers and great-grandfathers. In Croatia and the other Balkan countries, nearly everyone has a memory of war, destruction, deprivation and hostility. Despite the recency of the war, though, we were impressed with the character and the resolve of the Croatians we met. At the risk of over-generalizing, we found them to be modest people, stoic yet confident, resilient and with an appreciation for their country, their nature, their land …their terroir. In every city we visited, war damage was mostly repaired and life has continued normally.
We are leaving Croatia today, but our trip is not at an end yet. We have one more country to go – the missus is still in the dark about where we are going. We’ll have our final post in a day or so and then we will be home!
We left Venice at 10:00 a.m. after a short stay in that magical city. Because it is impossible to rent a car in Italy and drop it off in our final country, I found a great service (Ondaytrip.com) to drive us to what i told my wife was “city 2 and City 3.” As we set out in the car, she thought we were going somewhere else in Italy. As we continued on the freeway, the signs pointed the way to the Italian cities of Udine and Trieste. Along the road there were miles and miles of grape vines, leading her to conclude we were visiting some northern Italian wineries. Cagey man that I am, I did not correct any of these impressions and merely grunted every time she made a guess.
She wasn’t wrong in terms of the direction we were traveling – north and east of Venice – and the famous wine regions that can be found in that direction. But before we arrived in Italian wine country, we veered due east and took some small roads through the beautiful countryside at the foot of the Dolomite mountains. One minute we were in Italy, the next minute we were in Slovenia. Twenty-five years ago, this crossing would have been much more momentous and could not have happened in such a sneaky manner. Back then, the trip would have been from Italy to Yugoslavia, which was one of the Soviet-bloc countries and had much stricter border control. Today, Slovenia is a member of the E.U. and the borders are open, unmanned and require no surrendering of passports or other documentation.
After we crossed the border, we meandered through the Slovenian countryside for a few miles before turning off on a small road and making our way a narrow mountain road. Halfway to the top we pulled into a parking lot for an establishment called Kabaj Morel. “What’s this?” asked the missus. “It’s where we’re having lunch,” I told her.
Two weeks before we left on our trip, Jean-Michel Morel, the winemaker at Kabaj Morel, was in San Francisco promoting his Slovenian wines to the California market. A friend met him and got one of his cards for me. I decided that it would be fun to visit since it was only about two hours from Venice and on the way to our next destination. “Where are we?” she asked. “Goriška Brda,” I offered, as if this was helpful information. “That doesn’t sound Italian,” she replied. “What a relief, since we are in Slovenia.”
Any possibility that she might be upset or shocked by being whisked to an obscure winery in Slovenia was erased by the views visible from the parking lot as soon as we got out of the car.
It was as if Napa Valley and Tuscany got together and produced the perfect offspring. Rolling hills covered in grape vines with beautiful houses and a church at the top of almost every hill. We went inside and were greeted by Jean-Michel Morel’s wife Katja Kabaj, whose family has been tending vines in the local area for many generations. Together, they have been bottling their own wine since 1993. Katja told us that lunch would ready in about a half hour and that we should take some wine with us to enjoy on the patio outside overlooking the vineyards. We found the perfect spot with the perfect view and enjoyed a glass of Zeleni Sauvignon, which translates to “Green Sauvignon” but we would call it Sauvignon Blanc in the United States.
When we were called in for lunch, Katja told us we could choose between a five-course lunch, with each course pairing a different Slovenian offering from their Kabaj label, or we could order any of the items from the course menu and have it a la carte. We chose the five-course menu, naturally, which turned out to be the absolute right decision. Each course was an authentic Slovenian dish made from locally-sourced, seasonal ingredients, but accentuated with a modern touch.
For each course, Katja brought a different wine and explained how it was produced, how long it was aged, in what type of barrel, etc. We were blown away by the uniqueness and quality of these wines. In terms of color, aroma and flavor, they were not at all similar to anything we are used to consuming in Napa Valley or other U.S. wine regions. Many of the white wines were, well, not so white – they had more orange and in some cases brown hues, a result of the process of “maceration” where the juice is left in contact with the skins for extended periods of time. Almost all of the Kabaj wines have long maceration periods to extract impressive colors and deep flavor.
The wines shown above are what we would traditionally think of as white wine. We also tasted one of their red wines, a blend, and it had a very nice balance of fruit, earthiness and minerality.
We stayed at Kabaj for 4 1/2 hours and left well fed and most definitely over the 0.08 alcholol limit, which made us very happy that our driver Barbara was at the wheel. We felt a little bit bad for her that she could not drink with us, but felt better about the decision as we headed east out of the wine region and across some windy roads to our intermediate destination, Ljublana, the capital of Slovenia. It was dark when we arrived so we asked Barbara, who lives in the town, to take us somewhere where we could see the city lights and enjoy a bit of the evening ambiance. We started at the castle, which sits high above Ljublana with near-360-degree views of the capital city.
We then went into town and walked along the river and down some of the streets where there were many bars and restaurants and people sitting on outside terraces.
We did not have enough time to enjoy Ljublana and will definitely go back on our next trip to this region. It looked like the kind of town where a two night stay would be very enjoyable. But we were on a mission – heading east again – and left the capital city after about an hour and a half. “Where are we going now?” asked the wife. “You’ll see soon,” I told her. It would have been nice to sneak her across another border, but this time we were traveling to a country with a traditional border control/passport inspection. After surrendering our passports for a few minutes, we were in Croatia and on the short drive to Zagreb. Despite the long day, the wife was still smiling and told me as we drove to the hotel: “You’re 2 for 2.” Let’s see how long I can keep that streak going.
For those who love modern, inventive cuisine, beautiful decor, and superior service, there is a new “must visit” destination in the Napa Valley: Two Birds/One Stone just north of St. Helena, on the grounds of the Freemark Abbey winery. TBOS had been on our list of places to visit since it opened in June of this year for several reasons. For starters, the two chefs that came together to start TBOS – Douglas Keane and Sang Yoon – are well-known to us from each of their prior restaurants. Keane was the chef at Cyrus in Healdsburg, a Michelin one-start restaurant that we visited our first time in Sonoma County. Yoon, meanwhile, comes to Napa from Los Angeles (a journey we made in 2013) where he was the chef at one of our favorite restaurants, Father’s Office. Following a stint together on Top Chef Masters, Keane and Yoon decided to partner with each other to start a yakitori-style restaurant with a small-plates approach.
Our other reason for having Two Birds/One Stone on our short list of restaurants to visit is that one of us works with the daughter of one of the partners in the restaurant. Well before the restaurant was open, she told us about the concept and the menu, and we were intrigued. The fact that her father, Nick Peyton, was also a partner with Douglas Keane at Cyrus made it even more compelling for us. With special out-of-town friends in tow, we decided it was time to made the trek to Two Birds/One Stone. Our friends are real foodies and we were hoping not to let them down. Since we devoured almost literally every offering on the menu, including dessert, we can say that the visit was a success.
When we entered the restaurant, right away it looked and felt like a special place. The interior design of the space is impressive, with lots of open space and huge ceilings.
While we were waiting for the hostess to pull up our reservation, we scanned the restaurant and saw someone who looked very familiar. “Is it our imagination, or is that Robert Parker sitting over there by the window?” “It is not your imagination,” she told us. “In fact, I’ll be seating you at the table just next to him.” We promised to behave and not interrupt his dinner, which we mostly did, except for the several photos that we took of him while pretending to take pictures of ourselves at the table.
Thankfully for all of us, Mr. Parker left shortly after we arrived, which enabled us to stop staring and focus on our company and our meal. Shortly after we were seated, a gentlemen came over to the table to welcome us. When we found out it was Nick Peyton, we let him know the work connection with his daughter and we spent a few minutes talking with him. Like his daughter, he is a genuinely nice person and we enjoyed our time with him.
Finally, it was time to tackle the menu – small plates of Asian-inspired dishes. When we first looked at the menu, we thought we would only be able to try a few of the options. By the end of the evening, though, we managed to make quite a dent in the menu.
To get things started, we ordered the eggplant; salad with black kale, black garlic, black rice and chicken; and the radishes and butter. When the food came out, it was clear that we were in for a treat. The eggplant had been simmered and then served chilled in a soy and ginger sauce, and it was cooked perfectly, not mushy but also not too underdone. The salad was also very flavorful as were the radishes, which were on a bed of “butter” made from nori, the Japanese seaweed.
With four of us sharing these plates, they seemed to go much too quickly. We realized that we would be ordering many more plates, so we went back to the menu to plan the rest of the meal. At this point, we were considering simply ordering one of every dish on the menu and making it easier for us and our server. Common sense took over and we did not order everything, but, looking back on the photographic evidence, we didn’t miss that much! When the first round was cleared, we ordered crispy wings, which are deep-fried and served in a chili-yuzu glaze. We loved them – the texture and consistency were perfect and the sweet-sour combination was well-balanced. Four people, four wings – needless to say, that plate was emptied in no time.
Next out of the kitchen was the savory Japanese pancake, more of an omelette than a pancake, flavored with green onions and duck ham. According to our server, this is the most popular dish in the restaurant and we understand why. For those that are more experienced with Japanese cuisine, this dish closely resembles okonomiyaki.
Before our stomachs could signal our brain that we might be getting full, we ordered a significant amount more: bamboo-aged sticky rice; forbidden black rice (served with a duck egg on top); pork tenderloin; and short ribs. We have been eating a mostly “paleo” (carb-free) diet for the past year or so, and as a result rice is generally not something we order. But we decided to give ourselves a break and allow a “cheat” meal so we could try the rice dishes, which we had seen delivered to all of the tables around us (including our famous neighbor at the next table). Simply put, both rice dishes were excellent, although with different flavors and textures. Next time we go, we’ll have to order both again because we can’t pick one over the other. The pork tenderloin was delicious and very well spiced, but the standout dish for us were the wagyu short ribs, which were served rare or medium rare and seasoned with a very nice Korean BBQ sauce.
Finally we came to our senses and stopped ordering food, although we were tempted to order one more short rib dish. However, not enough of us agreed to help eat it and we wanted to show some restraint. As the dishes were being cleared, Nick Peyton came by to check on us; we asked him if we could go visit the kitchen and say hello to Chef Jake, whom I “met” on Twitter. Gracious man that he is, Nick gave give us a tour of the restaurant and took us back into the kitchen. This may have been the our first visit to a restaurant kitchen since the summer of 1981 when one of us was a dreadful dishwasher at a forgettable restaurant near Sacramento. At the head of the kitchen was Chef Jake Rand, overseeing the dozens of order coming in and the dozens of orders going out. Surprisingly, it all seemed very organized, with none of the shouting, drama, and chaos that we are used to seeing on the televised food shows. We asked Nick Peyton if this level of calm and order was normal and he put it best: “Why would you want to come to work and get yelled at?” Food for thought, people. Food for thought.
While we were in the kitchen, Nick Peyton asked if we were planning to have dessert. Bravely, we said yes. Grabbing a small ceramic bowl, he went to the soft-serve ice cream machine and gave us a sample of the matcha soft serve ice cream.
Back at the table, we all agreed that we would order dessert for all of us to share. Even though two of us had just had the macha soft serve in the kitchen, we ordered another one. For good measure, we also ordered the coconut milk panna cotta, served with passionfruit curd. Together, these items would be plenty of dessert after that large meal. For some reason, however, we were talked into also getting the kikori whisky and chocolate custard as well, which we are not complaining about as it was exquisite. Finally, after the third dessert, we stopped eating, although one of us could not resist ordering cold-brewed coffee, which is the only coffee on the menu at the restaurant. Nick Peyton has explained, was an intentional choice, made to complement the balance and authenticity of the unique cuisine.
If you’re coming to Napa Valley, or are a local and you have a special occasion coming up, make the trip to Two Birds/One Stone. And come hungry.