Tag: foodies

A great place to break a fast

A great place to break a fast

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.

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Pork Posole at The Charter Oak, Saint Helena

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.

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Bread Pudding French Toast with Preserved Pears

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.

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Yum

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.

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Now that’s what we call bacon

Nor could we pass up the sausages.

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Homemade maple syrup breakfast sausages

To balance out this protein we ordered The Charter Oak’s unique take on hash browns.

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So good we ordered 4 more

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

John & Irene

July 14, 2017

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Why we love the CIA? For the food!

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Maybe you thought we meant this “CIA”?

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.

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A nice way to start

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.

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Beef consomme with custard royale and vegetable pearls
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Cured salmon with shaved fennel, green apple, potato crepe, tarragon green sauce
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Roasted acorn squash with goat cheese, eggplant puree, lentil salad, maple-cider dressing

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…

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… braised short rib …

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Beautifully prepared in five spices

… pork tenderloin …

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Don’t you love that pork can be served “medium” these days?

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 …

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Who knew you could make prosciutto from duck breast?

Our other starter was Pacific Rock Crab Risotto …

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Risotto al dente

Additional dishes included Pancetta Wrapped Quail …

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A great mix of flavors

…Rolled Pasta with black truffles …

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Pasta is not always boring

Dessert brought more decadence, including Warm Oatmeal Cake …

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Not your ordinary oatmeal

…and “White Chocolate-Peppermint “Cheesecake”

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Not your ordinary 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

The current menus are available here:  Gatehouse Menu

John & Irene Ingersoll

February 28, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

Sneaking The Wife Across An International Border

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Italy-Slovenia Border

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.

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Kabaj estate vineyards directly behind the winery

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.

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Irene enjoying some Kabaj Zeleni Sauvignon

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.

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Leek omelette with thin slices of Slovenian bacon
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Sauerkraut soup
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Barley and bacon in a pumpkin seed oil
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Steak Slovenian style
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Traditional Slovenian dessert

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.

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Kabaj red blend

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.

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View of Ljublana from the castle

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.

John Ingersoll

October 25, 2016

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Sign hanging over the door at Kabaj winery in Slovenia

 

Two Birds. One Stone. Many Plates.

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Executive Chef Jake Rand at Two Birds/One Stone in Napa Valley

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.

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Decor at Two Birds/One Stone in Napa Valley

 

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.

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Menu at Two Birds/One Stone in Napa Valley

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.

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Radishes and Butter at Two Birds/One Stone
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Salad with Black Kale, Black Garlic and Black Rice
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Eggplant

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.

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Crispy  Wings at Two Birds/One Stone

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.  

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Savory Japanese Pancake at Two Birds/One Stone

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.

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Remnants of the Stick Rice at Two Birds/One Stone
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Forbidden Black Rice
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The Last Piece of Wagyu Short Rib

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.

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Nice Peyton Does It All – Even Serves 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.

John & Irene Ingersoll

September 5, 2016

You don’t have to swim upstream to eat here

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Sunset backdrop to the union of the Russian River and the Pacific Ocean

One of our favorite destinations in California is the town of Jenner, a spot known as the “River’s End” where the Russian River meets the Pacific Ocean. There is something majestic about two bodies of water coming together and this particular location is no exception.  On top of a bluff overlooking this amazing spot sits a fantastic restaurant called …River’s End.  We wonder if they considered “Ocean’s Beginning?  That would have been more optimistic, we think; more of a “glass half full” way of describing the meeting point of river and ocean. But we have to admit that “River’s End” does have a poetic ring to it.

We have been to River’s End (both the restaurant and the location) several times in the past and chose it as the place to culminate a special 80th birthday weekend for the father (and father-in-law) of the authors of this blog.  We had family coming from across the country for the occasion and wanted to share one of our favorite spots with them.  There were seven of us in total and we made the hour-and-a-half drive from our home in Napa Valley to the Sonoma Coast.  For the birthday boy, the drive ended up being half of the fun, as the trip started in Carneros and cut through the heart of Sonoma wine country, past dairy farms and horse ranges, and, for the final stretch, through Bodega Bay and up the coast along Highway 1.

When we finally arrived at the restaurant, it was about 3:30 in the afternoon and the heat and sun of Napa seemed far away. The temperature on the coast was 20-25 degrees lower than when we started and there was a fair amount of fog shrouding the last part of the river and the entrance to the Pacific Ocean.

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View of the Russian River from the wrap-around deck at River’s End
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Taking a break from kayaking
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River, meet ocean; ocean, meet river.
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River’s End wrap-around deck
After finally getting everyone out of the caravan of cars and into the restaurant, we were very pleased to see that the restaurant staff set us up with a long table against the window with amazing views of the river and ocean.  Every visit to River’s End restaurant should be structured with ample time to hang out on the deck and just take in the sights.  For 2016, Open Table named River’s End one of the 100 Most Scenic Restaurants in America.

We would be remiss if we failed to mention the patience and flexibility of the staff and the kitchen. Although we anticipated arriving by 2:30, because of traffic and other delays, we did not arrive until 3:30 – the exact time the kitchen closes to allow the chef and cooks to transition to the evening service.  Despite our tardiness, the staff helped us get our orders in and were very attentive and friendly throughout our meal.

Often, restaurants with great views have, well, great views and nothing else to recommend them.  River’s End is not one of those restaurants. They have an excellent menu, a superb chef in Martin Recoder, and sources its dishes locally from Sonoma farms and the Russian River itself.  We were lucky enough to be visiting during salmon season, when the King Salmon run along the Pacific coast and spawn in the rivers.  Several of us did order the Wild Pacific King Salmon entrée along a couple of salmon-inspired appetizers.  One of the best things about River’s End is that they change the menu frequently based on seasonal availability of vegetables and seafood.  The Wild Pacific King Salmon menu is available through October.  Everyone in our party had some type of salmon dish, all of them beautifully prepared and artistically presented.

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River’s End Salmon Crudo
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River’s End Vegetable Napoleon

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River’s End Technicolor Beet Salad

As you can see, the food at River’s End is fit for foodies. In addition to these culinary gems, we also recommend the Petaluma Duck Confit rolls, the tomato and watermelon soup, and the petrale sole. Everything was delicious and felt appropriately unique and special for a birthday as important as #80.  For those that enjoy quality wine with your meal, River’s End offers a comprehensive wine list with a strong representation of local wines from Sonoma County and Napa Valley.

Almost every time we go to River’s End, we plan a beach trip either before or after we eat.  Goat Rock Beach is across the river from the restaurant and is normally a must-visit.  Given the size of our caravan, and the advanced ages of some of the crew, we opted against a trek down to the beach. Because we were not ready to go home, though, we stopped off at our other favorite Jenner spot, Cafe Aquatica, which is just down the hill from River’s End.

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Cafe Aquatica in Jenner, California
Like the restaurant, Cafe Aquatica is right on the water – the Russian River.  However, unlike River’s End, which is on a bluff, Aquatica is at river level.  As a result, you can get your coffee, sit on the bank of the Russian River and enjoy the serenity and natural beauty.  If you fancy a bite, Cafe Aquatica serves organic sandwiches and salads that are also sourced from local ingredients.  A perfect day for us would be lunch at Cafe Aquatica, followed by a trip to Goat Rock Beach, and finished off with dinner at River’s End.  Next time!

John & Irene Ingersoll

August 26, 2016

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Kayak Launch right behind Cafe Aquatica
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Fog rolling into the Russian River from the Pacific Ocean
 

 

It’s All Greek To Me.

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The Meze Plate at Tarla Grill, Napa Valley

Tarla Mediterranean Bar & Grill in Napa is located on First Street in the heart of our town.  For the two-and-a-half years that we have lived here, we had been there exactly …zero times.  In our defense, while we have heard many good things about it, we just had not made it there.  What finally motivated us to go?  Serendipity.

We were in New York a couple of weeks ago, stumbling around town after having experienced the moving and overwhelming Ground Zero memorial and museum.  It was mid-afternoon and none of us (including several kids) had eaten since breakfast.  We accidentally found ourselves in front of the renowned Palm restaurant – not usually a good venue for sweaty, shorts-wearing tourists with kids.  But they didn’t complain, perhaps because the restaurant was empty, and we were just happy to sit down for a bit and get some food.  Our waiter, Murat, gave us great service and engaged us all in lively conversation throughout our meal.  At the end, he asked where we were from; when he heard that we were from Napa, he smiled and told us that one of his close friends, Ali, owned a restaurant in Napa.  “Have you heard of Tarla Grill,” he asked us.  We told him we had driven by literally dozens of times but had not been.  Of course, we promised to go right away when we returned.

We made good on this promise and headed to Tarla a few days after returning from the East Coast.  The food was so good, the service so friendly, and the atmosphere so lively that we made up for our 2 1/2 year absence by going again a week after the first visit.  The second time was for a special occasion – an 80th birthday party.  We did not meet Ali, as he is spending all of his time managing another restaurant, Napkins, down the street.  But we did meet Yusuf Topal, Ali’s partner, who is managing Tarla – and very well, we have to say.

Both times we ate at the restaurant, we started with a traditional Greek salad and a meze plate – a traditional mediterranean combination plate with pita bread, stuffed grape leaves, tzatziki (yogurt dip),  hummus, baba ganoush (eggplant-based dip), and zucchini cakes.  One of the people in our party told Yusuf that Tarla was “the best Greek restaurant” she had ever been to.  “Turkish,” replied Yusuf, maybe a bit tongue-in-cheek.  “What’s the difference,” she asked?  “Ah, it’s all the same,” he said. “The Ottoman Empire ruled Greece for almost 500 years so we all eat the same foods.”  Turkish, Greek, whatever – it was all delicious.  In addition to the Greek (Turkish?) Salad and Meze plate, we sampled the fried calamari, chicken skewers, steak, and short ribs.  Everything is done to perfection at Tarla:  the skewers were nicely charred on the outside but juicy on the inside (all white meat); the steak was juicy and flavorful; and the short ribs were as good as any we have had – anywhere.

As good as the food is, the service just might be better.  As soon as we were seated on our second visit, one of the waiters came by and said “long time  no see.”  The entire team works well together and pitches in.  At least four different people brought food to the table and everyone was willing to help with whatever was needed:  replacing a dropped fork; bringing more bottled water; opening another bottle of wine.  One feature of the restaurant that we really appreciated was the absence of corkage fees.  We had a couple of bottles of wine and, at most local places, the charge would have been $25 or more per bottle, which ends up making the meal feel really expensive.

Both nights we ate at Tarla, we finished off dinner with dessert, coffee and after-dinner drinks.  Given that we were in a mediterranean restaurant, we decided to order the authentic Turkish (Greek?) coffee.  Although it is served in an espresso-sized cup, it bears little relationship to the Italian specialty.  With Turkish coffee, finely-ground coffee beans are simmered (not boiled) in a special pot and then poured into the small cup for serving – along with the grounds, which settle to the bottom of the cup.  Turkish coffee can be served without sugar, lightly sweetened, or very sweet. We opted for the medium option and enjoyed the jolt of real coffee taste.  Out of respect for our the Turkish/Greek influence, we also ordered an ouzo and a raki.  Both are anise-based liqueurs that, according to our 80-year-old birthday boy, tastes like “bad medicine.”  This from a Russian who has consumed enough vodka in his day to fill the Olympic pool in Rio.  For the record, some of us enjoyed both the ouzo and raki and found it to be an excellent way to cap off a good meal.

When the bill came, we were pleasantly surprised with the total.  While I would not say Tarla is an inexpensive restaurant, the prices are reasonable for such high quality food in the heart of a wine country town.  We would stack the food up against many other places in town and encourage both locals and visitors to give Tarla a try.

John & Irene

August 15, 2016

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Lovely Marimar Russian River Pinot from home wine collection
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Irene holding birthday card waiting patiently for Dad
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Lots of empty plates

Like Nonna’s cooking. If Nonna was a world-class chef.

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Porchetta at Ciccio Napa Valley

The relatively tiny hamlet of Yountville in Napa Valley (population roughly 3,000) is home to some truly spectacular restaurants, including one with the coveted three Michelin stars and another with one Michelin star.  Among the remaining restaurants, there are several run by well-known celebrity chefs.  The San Francisco Chronicle’s well-regarded food critic included 6 Yountville restaurants among the top 100 for the entire San Francisco Bay Area.  One of those restaurants is Ciccio Napa Valley, literally the last establishment on the north end of Yountville, away from the relative bustle of the shops and restaurants in downtown.

Since moving to Napa, we have been trying to find a single place to call “our” restaurant.  You know, the place you go when you’ve had a really long week, or you have friends from out-of-town and want to share a special meal with them.  We had dinner at Ciccio this past Friday and finally decided that Ciccio will be “our” place.  When we first visited Ciccio nearly three years ago, as guests of some friends that live in Yountville and truly are “regulars” there, the restaurant could have been considered a “hidden gem.”  Today, though, word-of-mouth and inclusion in the Chronicle’s Top 100 list has made Ciccio a destination restaurant not only for those coming to Yountville, or even Napa Valley, but anywhere in the Bay Area.

If you’re planning a trip to Ciccio, know that they do not take reservations and that demand outpaces supply most nights, especially Friday through Sunday (they are closed Monday and Tuesday).  Ciccio opens at 5 p.m. sharp, so the best way to ensure seating is to arrive at 4:45 and get in line.  Yes, there is already a line when they open. That’s how good the place is.  This past Friday we arrived at 4:50 and there were about 15 people ahead of us.  All of us got seated, thankfully, but on other occasions we have seen the 5:00 rush completely fill up the available seats, which means that seating will not open up until at least 6:00 or 6:30.  If you are too cool to show up for a restaurant at 5:00 (we understand!) or have too many wineries to visit, just show up later and be patient and ready to sit for a bit.  Trust us, it’s worth the wait, and the team at Ciccio will make your time easier by pouring you a glass of wine or beer while you cool your heels.

Once inside, you’ll notice that there are three basic seating options – individual tables (2 or 4), booths, and one long communal table in the middle of the restaurant.  The kitchen is open and sits at the back of the restaurant; you can see the chefs working and view the flames from the Italian oven.  The decor is casual, decorated with kitschy art work including some throw-back Spaghetti Western posters and Italian cartoons.  The space feels homey, a big reason for which is that Ciccio is a family-owned restaurant – Frank and Karen Altamura (owners also of Altamura Vineyards and Winery) own and operate Ciccio along with their two sons, Frank Jr. and Giancarlo.  Emphasis on own and operate.  You’ll find Frank Altamura at the restaurant almost every night and often Giancarlo Altamura will be bartending.

If you are looking for a Cheesecake Factor-sized menu ….eat somewhere else.  And if you want to order chain restaurant Italian food … eat somewhere else.  That isn’t to say you won’t find spaghetti on there on occasion – the menu this past Friday featured Scampi Spaghetti.  It’s just that the chef, Polly Lappetito, is a wizard in the kitchen and conjures up very high-quality vegetable, meat, and fish dishes.  We don’t have a nonna (Italian grandmother), but if we did have one, we like to think that our nonna would make the kind of food that  Chef Polly makes at Ciccio. Chef Polly came to Ciccio from the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley and brings such an inventive flair to her cooking with the use of simple ingredients, many of them sourced from the Altamura’s vineyard property in nearby Wooden Valley.  The Ciccio menu fits all on one side of a single card and generally the smaller plates and entrees together (including pizzas) number less than 20 items.

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Ciccio Napa Valley Menu Friday July 1, 2016

This past Friday night, the menu (above) had some old favorites but also some new items that we expect will become classics (and new old favorites).  Because we are avoiding carbs lately, we skipped the crispy calamari, but cannot recommend them strongly enough for those of you that are more welcoming of carbs.  We ordered (and shared) the chopped salad, the green grape gazpacho (yes, gazpacho made from less-than-ripe green grapes – wonderful!), sweet summer corn and chanterelles, and the italian frying peppers.

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Sweet Summer Corn and Chanterelles
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Green Grape Gazpacho

After consuming all of these dishes, we were stuffed and could easily have stopped eating.  And maybe we should have. But one menu item in particular was calling our names:  the porchetta with fennel salad.  What is porchetta, you ask?  It is made from suckling pig; the pig is gutted, de-boned, and then stuffed with garlic and herbs and seasoning and roasted in the oven.  It may actually be better than bacon.  Really.

After consuming the porchetta, which came in a large portion as you can see from the picture at the beginning of  this article, we definitely should have stopped.  But the Ciccio cake was also beckoning and we had to order it to keep our coffee and after-dinner drinks company.

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Ciccio Cake + Ice cream

We would be remiss if we failed to mention the wonderful wines that we had with dinner.  Ciccio does not have an extensive wine menu, but the benefit of being owned by the Almatmura’s is that the menu is replete with Altamura wines (there are also a few non-Altamura wines on the menu from wineries that are favorites of theirs).  We enjoyed the Altamura Nebbiolo, and on other occasions have ordered their Sangiovese and Negroamaro.  The wines are as good as the food, and, unlike most restaurants, they are offered at retail price rather than the typical 2-times or 3-times markup.

If you are still in the mood for an adult beverage after dinner, Ciccio has an impressive offering of after-dinner drinks, including a large selection of the Italian herbal liqueur Amaro, which supposedly helps with digestion. After the porchetta and cake, I ordered two Amaro’s just to be on the safe side.  I think it helped.

We don’t believe you can find a restaurant with so much good food and wine and so little pretense.  From Kate at the front of the house to the wait staff and into the kitchen, everyone is friendly and focused on creating a great experience.  The service is responsive and everyone pitches in and serves every table.  We have never heard “I’ll let your server know you have a question.”  We are sure they have assigned tables, but everyone helps everyone and that adds to the whole experience.

John & Irene

July 5, 2016

Links:

Visit Ciccio’s website:  http://www.ciccionapavalley.com/

S.F. Chronicle excerpt from Top 100 List:  http://www.sfchronicle.com/food/top-100-2015/article/Ciccio-6206814.php

 

Dining at Torc. Again.

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Halibut Entrée at Torc Napa

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

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Meletti Amaro
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Fernet Branca Amaro
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Hamachi
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Iberico ham
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TorcDécor

A Slice of Spain in Napa

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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.IMG_0324

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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.IMG_0333

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.IMG_0337

John and Irene

May 22, 2016

 

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