For many if not most people, the real revelation of a first visit to Napa is the food. An astounding, ever-burgeoning array of fabulous restaurants blankets the valley’s 30-mile axis, from still-semi-rustic Calistoga to that emerging star, the city of Napa.
Over several trips, I have managed to hit a couple dozen of the better ones. Alas, the French Laundry was not among them, but it almost doesn’t matter, so wondrous are the other options. And bounteous: I can’t imagine that even local residents can speak comprehensively about the scene. The best any of us can do is say, “here are my favorites”:
• My favorite meals on each of my last two sojourns have come at Redd (6480 Washington St. Yountville, 707-944-2222) – and both were lunches. Yountville might be a ways from the ocean, but chef Richard Reddington (left) has as deft a touch with seafood as I have encountered. Oh, and pork belly. And crepes. Can’t wait to try his newer place, Redd Wood.
• Tony eateries abound in this neck of the woods, which makes the homey-but-hardly-simple fare at Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen (1327 Railroad Av., St. Helena, 707-963-1200) shine all the more vividly. From fab sandwiches (duck burger!) and great entrees (meat loaf!) to whatever’s on special, you could throw a dart at this menu and end up blissed-out – even if you don’t partake of the splendid wine list. If you’re there when weather permits, reserve a table on the patio.
• On just about every bite I have taken of the black cod in shiso broth at Terra (1345 Railroad Dr., St. Helena, 707-963-8931), I have made Homer Simpson yummy sounds. It’s sweet/savory goodness makes it hard to order any other entree, but the nibbles I’ve had from elsewhere on the ever-revolving menu confirm the eatery’s swellness, courtesy of chef Hiro Sone’s fabulous melding of all good things Asian, Californian and Mediterranean.
• Speaking of fictional but very true-to-life utterances, my way-better half did a near-spot-on imitation of Meg Ryan’s “When Harry Met Sally” big-O scene while eating both the chocolate concoction and cheese course at Ad Hoc (6476 Washington St., 707-944-2487). Every customer gets the same four courses, so vegetarians might want to steer clear, but it provides a peek at Thomas Keller’s cooking for one-fifth the price of his French Laundry.
• Best I can tell, Michael Chiarello can do no wrong. He elevated Tra Vigne to great heights, hosted my favorite Food Network show of all time, and his eponymous winery produces fantastic juice concocted by the peerless Thomas Rivers Brown. Bottega (6525 Washington St., Yountville, 707-945-1050) finds the chef mining his family’s Italian roots. The food is somehow rustic and refined, and most of all regional (like all great Italian cuisine).
• Belly on up: I’m a big fan, especially when alone, of dining at the bar. You can meet interesting people (local vintners often favor these perches) or just enjoy the food and soak in the chatter. Mustards Grill (where the “Famous Mongolian pork chop” more than lives up to its name), Press (best steaks – and breadsticks – in the valley), Bistro Jeanty (moules frites!) and Hog Island (for slurpin’ fab oysters in Napa town) have provided first-rate all-around experiences. Tops on the list for atmosphere, though, is the downstairs bar at Goose & Gander, one of restaurant designer Pat Kuleto’s foremost achievements.
• When planning an upcoming trip, the first research I do is Googling “where the locals eat.” In northern Napa, that would be (beside Cindy’s) at Cook St. Helena (13509 Main St., St. Helena, 707-963-7088). The housemade pastas highlight Jude Wilmoth’s Northern Italian menu, and the antipasti, well, let’s just say it does not blow.
• Small bites will never be passé, especially in Wine Country, and Zuzu (829 Main St., Napa, 707-224-8555) has been ruling the roost in that regard for a dozen years now. There’s more than a little South American influence, but Zuzu is mostly about melding Iberian tapas with California-fresh ingredients. One of these years, I’m aiming to check out the paella, too.
• No visit to Napa is complete without a stop at Gott’s Roadside (933 Main St., St. Helena, 707-963-3486). The 1950s-style drive-in is no gimmick: Its burgers (beef or tuna) and not-to-be-missed sweet potato fries with chili spice are as good as those items get, and the list of wines and beers by the glass is short but stellar.
• It’s difficult to come to Napa and not be knocked out by the insanely good farm-fresh ingredients used at its restaurants. Two spots at each end of the valley showcase these choice offerings: Celadon (500 Main St., Napa, 707-254-9690) and Farmstead (738 Main St., St. Helena, 707-963-9181). The hard part will be paring down options from the mouth-watering menus.