Today we are leaving on a two-week trip to Europe. Normally, my wife and I plan our trips together and work through the intricate details of itinerary: where to visit, how much time to spend in each place, what sites we should go to, where to find the best food and wine. This trip, I decided to do things differently. I told my wife how long we would be gone and the general weather conditions in the locations we would be going. She had a couple of follow-up questions to help with clothes and shoe packing. Fancy or casual? Any outdoor activities such as hiking? Any cultural restrictions or considerations on clothing?
She has tried to get me to divulge the secret a couple of times – I think more to test my resolve in keeping the secret than because she wants to know ahead of time. Miraculously, I have managed to purchase airfare, book hotels and rental cars, and line up a dozen activities without her figuring out where we are going. This trip will either be the best ever …or it is going to suck. But it surely will not be boring.
The only thing my wife knows is that we are flying from San Francisco to Istanbul this evening. What she does not know is that after a short layover we will be flying to Venice, Italy to spend a couple of days there. You may wonder why we are flying SF-Istanbul-Venice? The easiest answer is that the fare on Turkish Air was almost half of what other airlines were charging into any European destination. Another good reason is that Turkish Air was the most flexible option for flying into one European city and flying out of a different city in a different country.
I wish I could say where we are going after Venice, but it would spoil the surprise. We will be in the air when this blog posts, so mentioning Venice is safe because she won’t see it until …she is in Venice. But I will have a post for every country we visit – at least five, but I’m hoping to squeeze in a sixth country toward the end of our trip.
Wish us luck, and stay tuned for updates!
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.