A new restaurant recently opened in Napa Valley’s Saint Helena that we hope is around as long as its previous occupant. The Charter Oak opened a few weeks ago in the space that was occupied for nearly 30 years by Napa Valley restaurant icon Tra Vigne. In late 2015 Tra Vigne closed up and left behind decades of memories and a beautiful empty building. Fortunately, a rock star team saw the empty space and realized it was the perfect place to open The Charter Oak. The owners of this new restaurant are Christopher Kostow, the head chef at The Restaurant at Meadowood, a Michelin three-star-rated restaurant just a few miles away; and Nathaniel Dorn, who is in charge of the front-of-house operations at The Restaurant at Meadowood. To round out the team, the owners have brought Meadowood’s chef-de-cuisine, Katianna Hong.
With this top team at the helm we knew that we were in store for a special experience but we didn’t know exactly what to expect. We wondered if The Charter Oak was going to deliver a Meadowood-light experience or something different entirely. When we sat down with our friends Chris and Monica and perused the menu, we realized that the experience would be more casual with most dishes offered family style to encourage sharing. Over the course of brunch, though, we also realized that there were many similarities with Meadowood as well: commitment to fresh, seasonal and local ingredients; attentive but not intrusive service; and artfully creative dishes.
When we arrived at The Charter Oak the weather was still pleasantly cool so we opted to sit out on the patio, a wonderful setting with its ample space and cool decor. We sat under one of the many trees and strategized what to pick from the menu. Each of us picked a separate item and we added several side dishes as well to make sure we sampled as much of the menu as possible. Of all the places breakfast or brunch places in Napa Valley, this was by far the best. Each of the dishes was creatively designed and executed beautifully with just the right texture and unique flavors.
One of our favorite dishes was the Pork Posole which was served with handmade wheat tortillas.
All four of us shared the posole as it was a generous portion and all of us enjoyed it immensely and would order it again.
One person in our party ordered the bread pudding French toast, an item we passed over thinking it wouldn’t be our thing.
Boy were we wrong about this dish! Although we are not fans of bread pudding, the flavor and consistency of this dish were perfect and there was nothing left but an empty dish after it made its way around the table.
Another breakfast item that was ordered was the Danish rye bread served with a soft-boiled egg and topped with avocado and furikake (a Japanese seasoning). This, too, was incredibly tasty and was so good two were ordered and finished in their entirety.
When we first ordered we did not focus on the fact that the dishes were going to be large, family style portions and we loaded up on side dishes as well. Who could pass up the piloncillo bacon? Not us, for sure.
Nor could we pass up the sausages.
To balance out this protein we ordered The Charter Oak’s unique take on hash browns.
If this looks excessive …it was. Four main items and four sides for four people was too much food. When we say “too much,” by the way, we do not intend to suggest any of it remained uneaten. Rest assured that we ate all of it. But we could easily have ordered two mains and the sides and been satisfied.
We have not been to dinner (yet) at The Charter Oak but a fellow Napa blogger recently penned this post after her dinner there and the food and experience looks equally exquisite. The Wine Ho – Charter Oak Dinner Review
If you’re looking for a special place to brunch in Napa Valley, The Charter Oak has to be a top choice. Click here for reservations: Charter Oak Reservations
The wine-infused drive through Slovenia and into Zagreb all but assured that the post-Venice leg of our trip would be a positive one. What really had me worried was three nights in Zagreb, a city that neither my wife nor I had every visited. Of the many risks of planning a vacation without any input or knowledge of one’s “other half,” probably the biggest is picking the wrong hotel. After 11 hours on the road from Venice, our driver dropped us off on a side street in Zagreb, about a block from our hotel. She explained that our hotel was in the “pedestrian zone” and therefore she could not get us any closer to the hotel via car. Thus, we dragged our large suitcase, two backpacks, and an entire case of wine that we picked up in Venice from our new friends, the Abruzzo winemakers.
As we approached the hotel from the other side of the street, I couldn’t help but think it looked very unimpressive. Rather than having a grand entrance like many hotels, the Jägerhorn had a small archway stuck between two retail stores. Oh boy, I thought, this doesn’t look anything like the pictures on the website. Because it is “off-season” in Croatia, many of the places I planned for us during our trip are much lower than summer rates – in some cases a third of the cost. My first thought about the hotel was, maybe I played it too cute – did I get us too much of a bargain? Three days in a bargain hotel would be a great way to mess up the entire “surprise” nature of this entire trip.
I shouldn’t have worried. Once we passed the archway and entered the courtyard, I could see that the hotel was as nice as it looked online. Because we had not eaten for several hours, we had some coffee and tea and dessert in the hotel cafe before heading up to the room. “Oh my god!” said my wife as she pushed the door open. As any husband knows, “Oh my god!” can have several positive connotations and many negative ones as well. When uttered, it is often difficult to tell what the motivation behind the words are in that moment. I held my breath as the missus looked around the room. “Is this a suite?” she asked. “Why yes, of course it is,” I answered, as if I could have reserved nothing less.
She breezed into the bedroom and I heard another “Oh my god!” “Yes?” I asked nervously. “I love it!” she exclaimed. “What a beautiful room!” An examination of the bathroom ensued, which also turned out to be more than acceptable and generated a final “oh my God!”
Everything about the hotel turned out to be ideal. The buffet breakfast each morning was cozy and well-stocked. The cafe/bar was a perfect spot to stop in every night before heading up to our room for the night. And the location could not have been better: we were right in the middle of the coolest part of town, about a quarter of a mile from the main square and no more than 10-15 minutes walking distance from all of the places we wanted to go. Our hotel was located in the “lower town” of Zagreb, but literally through the center of our hotel courtyard were stairs going to “Upper Town.”
One of the things I read while planning this trip is that Zagreb is a town for people who love coffee. According to many blogs and travel sites, there is a coffee shop almost every 50 meters in Zagreb. If this is an exaggeration, it is only a small one. We did in fact find coffee shops all over town. Most importantly, these coffee shops were authentic, local places serving really nice brews. I am happy to report that there is not a single Starbucks in Zagreb; in fact, there are zero Starbucks locations in the entire country of Croatia. There will also be no Starbucks locations in any of the countries remaining on our trip. Just real coffee made by genuine roasters of coffee beans and brewers of coffee. Okay, I will get off of my soap box now.
Needless to say, we consumed a lot of coffee in Zagreb, although it took us a while to learn how to order what we wanted. I started out ordering “coffee,” but that confused the people at the coffee shop, and they would reply “American?” Well, no, I don’t want “American” coffee – do I have to get back on my soapbox about Starbucks? What I realized is that “American” means coffee with milk, although I tend to think as “American” as black coffee. Eventually I figured it out and we made the most of the both “American” coffee, black coffee, and various Croatian takes on espresso, cappuccino, latte, and other coffee drinks.
What else did we do besides drink coffee? We walked around Zagreb quite a bit to soak up the ambiance of the city. Neither of us likes to go to a city and take the mandatory 25 pictures of monuments so that we can say we “saw” the city. We prefer to follow the rhythms and routine of the locals and go the places they go and do the things that they do. If we see some monuments along the way, that’s a bonus.
The first morning we left the hotel to get to know Zagreb better. A wonderful part of traveling so late in the year (“off-season” for sure in Croatia) is that there were almost no tourists in town. We were walking among Croatians, among the people who live and work every day in Zagreb. It was an amazingly lively city, very reminiscent of a place like Milan: everyone was dressed very stylishly and there were fancy stores and quaint squares on almost every block. Certainly, it was not what I was expecting, having visited Eastern Europe and Slavic countries in the past. Zagreb was much more cosmopolitan than I imagined and more reminiscent of a Western European capital.
The missus, who is originally from Russia, was delighted that she could understand quite a bit of the Croatian language being spoken. Apparently there are many words that are identical or very similar between Croatian and Russian. She did most of the talking when we were not speaking English. Right across the street from our hotel she ordered her favorite thing: chestnuts.
We then decided to walk to the main Zagreb Farmers Market. It is important to distinguish between the U.S. version of a farmers market and the Croatian version. In the United States, the farmers market is usually a weekly event where people pay too much money for small amounts of fruits, nuts, vegetables or other food items. No one (at least no one in their right mind) would do their weekly shopping at an American farmers market. In Zagreb, by contrast, the Dolac Farmers Market is the market – the place where locals of all income levels do their fruit, vegetable, fish, meat, eggs and other food shopping. The giant market has both an outdoor and an indoor section and covers several acres.
It would have been fun to buy some mushrooms, meat, pork or chicken and cook it up but this was not possible as we were staying in a hotel. We did, though, pick up some very tasty local fruits and hazelnuts for our walk around town. From the market we made our way to Zagreb’s Upper Town, perched on the hills overlooking the city. We were in search of another coffee shop, of course – Palainovka, which we had read about in a blog about Croatia. To get from Lower Town to Upper Town there are two ways: walk, or ride a funicular. We were feeling energetic so we walked up the stairs next to the funicular, which we were later told is the shortest one in the entire world.
We did pass some cool monuments along the way to the coffee shop and we dutifully took pictures of them.
But we mostly enjoyed blending into the city as much as two Americans can and living the live of Zagreb citizens. We went to a restaurant one evening that was recommended by locals – Lari I Penati. We ate some great Croatian dishes and had our first taste of Croatian wine.
After nearly three years in Napa Valley we have gotten used to the big, bold flavor of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. The Croatian red wines have a much different aroma and flavor profile than anything we are used to drinking at home. The flavors are subtle and the wines are silky and fruity, although not overly so. We are planning on drinking more local wines during our trip including visiting some actual wineries when we get farther along on our trip.
Because we are not experts on Croatian wines (yet), we thought it would be fun to get a deeper understanding of them. While planning the surprise trip, I “met” Dario Drmac (through our blogging and Twitter), a real-live Croatian who lives in Zagreb. Not only does he live in Zagreb, but he runs an online wine export company focused exclusively on Croatian wines, and he owns a bar that serves only Croatian wine. As it turns out, this bar, Wine Bar Basement, was about 200 meters from our hotel. Before leaving the United States, I arranged to meet Dario at Basement for some charcuterie, cheese and, of course, Croatian wine. Dario and his partner spent nearly three hours with us taking us on a tasting tour of Croatian white and red wines, as well as our first ever “black” sparkling wine. Most sparkling wines are either white or pink; we had a Croatian sparkling wine that was very dark. Anyone visiting Zagreb must make time in their schedule to visit Wine Bar Basement and check out their assortment of well over 100 Croatian wines. One thing we liked the most about Basement’s wine selection is that Dario focuses on small-production family wineries that are generally not available in stores or restaurants. He is committed to supporting local Croatian producers. Ask for Dario and let him know that you are friends of ours.
Wednesday morning came and it was time to leave Zagreb. Our bags were even heavier than when we arrived a few days earlier as we purchased several bottles of Croatian wines from Basement the night before. But no worry, we were renting a car from Zagreb and heading ….well, you’ll have to wait until the next installment.
“Diner.” That’s all it says on the road sign. “Diner.” What else do you need to know, right? Situated along Highway 121 in the Carneros wine region that straddles Napa and Sonoma, the diner’s aromas waft across its parking lot and onto the Highway as cars drive by, either coming into or out of Napa Valley. It would be easy – and a mistake – to judge this book by its cover. The modest signage might lead you to conclude that the advertised joint is not worth any additional words, or a proper name. This “diner,” however, is simply too good to need to waste its time on fancy signs or worrying about getting its name out there.
For the record, the diner does have a name: the Fremont Diner. Open since 2009, it has become a virtual cult favorite for local Napa and Sonoma residents as well as visitors from the Bay Area and beyond. When we stopped by last week, there was a 40-minute wait to be seated. What’s the attraction? The Fremont diner meets all of the expectations of a place called “diner” – deep-fried foods on the menu, a dedication to a variety of pork dishes, and traditional Southern staples owner Chad Harris refers to as “Grandma” food. In other words, comfort food made the old-fashioned way, with little concern for low-calorie, low-carb, low-fat or, frankly, any other diet plan you might conjure up. Unlike many traditional diners, however, the Fremont diner also has a commitment to locally-sourced and seasonal ingredients. The result is delicious food that will make Southerners reminisce about their favorite hometown diner.
For the past 18 months or so, we have been on a mostly carb-free diet. For our visit to the Fremont Diner, we agreed to throw that out of the window and have one of our infrequent “cheat” meals. This menu is simply too tantalizing to attempt to work around carbs. It might be possible to just eat meat and veggies, but why? One of the first menu items that caught our eye was the Nashville Style Chicken, a fried chicken platter “so hot it’ll set a cheatin’ man straight.” We haven’t been able to validate this claim, but it was in fact very spicy and delicious. We opted to have the chicken served on a waffle for a classic chicken and waffle breakfast plate.
In addition, we ordered the chilaquiles plate, which comes with smoked pork, with a side of the house-made Fremont bacon. We opted to sit outside as it was a sunny day and were able to check out what people at the other picnic tables were ordering. The variety of food at Fremont Diner is impressive, ranging from traditional breakfast items such as pancakes and French toast to Southern staples like biscuits and gravy and shrimp and grits. Other menu items include a po-boy-style oyster sandwich, hush puppies, cracklin (fried pig skin) and the Hangtown Fry (scrambled eggs, fried oysters, arugula, potatoes with remoulade, and bacon). Now that the season has turned to Autumn, we’re looking forward to more brunches and lunches at the Fremont Diner’s outside patio.
For those that don’t have the time or desire to wait 40 minutes or more for a table, the Fremont Diner has a takeout option. At the far end of the patio, there is an airstream-style trailer where a range of drinks (beer ,wine, coffee, tea, juices, and horchata) can be ordered, along with food items from the regular menu. This was a popular option the day we visited due to the lengthy wait times.
Since our first trip to the Fremont diner, we have frequented it once more for takeout from the trailer, and ordered food to go twice more to feed an army of guests staying at our house. As a result, we’ve made our way through much of the menu. The verdict: a gourmet greasy spoon – and we mean that as a compliment.