Eating Napa from the Inside Out
For most foodies, a pilgrimage to experience the culinary mastery of chef Thomas Keller at Napa’s French Laundry is an at-least-once-in-a-lifetime necessity. But for many, at a minimum of $300 per head, once is about all they can afford. But while the French Laundry may be the penultimate in fine dining, not having the opportunity to dine there doesn’t have to diminish your ability to experience all that Napa’s culinary scene has to offer. In fact, the region offers a multitude of flavours, cuisines and styles united by a common theme of fresh ingredients.
On a recent expedition, I decided to focus on both where the locals eat and where you can get a great meal without having to take out a second mortgage on your home … what better way to get a true sense of a region’s food culture? I surveyed winemakers, winery owners, tasting-room staff, vineyard workers, restaurant and retail staff, as well as a few random pedestrians. The resulting list would have taken the better part of several weeks of uninterrupted eating (see “Eating Kansas City,” Tidings May/June 2006) to get a taste of the restaurants, eateries, wine bars and hole-in-the-wall joints recommended. But I randomly, in a methodic sort of way, selected several venues that my unsuspecting travel companions and I would check out. (They had no idea what they were in for, nor were they aware of my consumption abilities — but then, I am a professional).
First stop, perhaps inspired by my Kansas City barbecue foray, was BarBerQ in the town of Napa. Located in a shopping plaza, the restaurant has an open-air feel as the large doors open wide onto a patio overlooking the parking lot. Unlike most of the BBQ joints in KC, BarBerQ has much more of an upper-middle-class, suburban feel to it. Not quite the character or traditional barbecue of an Arthur Bryant’s or Snead’s, but some pretty fine California-style BBQ nonetheless.
The special of the day was a brisket sandwich ($13.50), which proved to be worthy of any true barbecue afficionado’s palate. The meat was succulent and tender, topped with wonderfully crispy fried onions and served with crunchy and refreshing, fresh-made coleslaw. The CK Sonoma Mini Lamb Burgers ($12.95) were served two to a plate and were a tasty two and a half bites each. Leave it to the Californians to come up with an upscale slider (for those readers who have never eaten multiple little burgers, aka “sliders,” at a White Castle at 2 a.m. after a night of excess — I don’t recommend it unless you’re in your twenties, when your body can still metabolize them).
The cornbread ($3.50) was moist and flavourful with the perfect corn texture, and the collard greens ($4.95) would have satisfied any southerner. I’d love to go back to try the whole roasted vinegar chicken, pulled-pork sandwich and the chipotle-braised short ribs. If you’re looking for “authentic” barbecue, this may not be your thing. But if you’re looking for great flavours with the spirit of true barbecue, BarBerQ will be sure to satisfy.
An interesting concept implemented by owner Kelly Sherman is the “Wine List To Go.” For take-out orders only, you can purchase any bottle of wine “to go” for a fraction of the price on the regular wine list. Feeling like a nice bubbly with your grilled West Coast oysters? Then take home a bottle of Roederer Estate Brut for $23.40 ($39 on the eat-in wine list). Or how about a nice Zin with your braised short ribs? Frog’s Leap will run you $49 in the restaurant, but take it home for only $29.40. As far as Sherman knows, BarBerQ is the only restaurant in Napa currently using a Wine List To Go. Let’s all raise a baby back rib to Sherman for introducing this wine-friendly concept.
The next stop may seem somewhat touristy, but it really is a must for foodies. Just north of St. Helena, the Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant in the Culinary Institute of America allows you to sample the creations of both culinary professionals and students. Located in the former Christian Brothers winery, the massive stone-walled building, completed in 1889, serves as a rustic, historical setting for the culinary school and restaurant.
And what a great buzz the dining room has with its open kitchen allowing everyone to watch the performance. We started with the temptations of the day ($9.95 per person) and were treated to a selection of tasty bite-size morsels including celery-root soup; salmon tartare; goat cheese, watercress and walnuts on an endive leaf; pork terrine on brioche; and foie gras topped with an apple relish. All were well executed with a myriad of flavours keeping our palates quite happy, but also anticipating the next bite.
The French onion soup ($12) was topped with a light and airy soufflé to complement the exquisite broth — a nice change from the usual gooey-cheesy glob topping most versions of this dish. The tomato bread pudding ($19) was so flavourful with its grilled romaine and ripe yellow and red cherry tomatoes. The Greystone Restaurant at the CIA is a definite must for a leisurely afternoon or evening. Culinary theatre for your eyes and palate.
One of my favourite places was Wappo Bar Bistro in Calistoga. Not fancy, but everything about this place from the room to the service to the food exudes unpretentious comfort. I loved the tender root-vegetable skewers with mint bagna cauda ($9.50), and the wonderfully balanced flavours of Paella Valenciana ($25) with its perfectly cooked assortment of seafood and the great spiciness of the chorizo. The best for me was the Wappo cassoulet ($19.75). White beans with lamb sausages and duck confit flavoured with herbes de Provence … I might as well have been in the south of France. Highly recommended desserts include the luscious Tres Leches cake with dulce de leche and caramelized figs (a steal at $7.50), and the chocolate ice-cream sandwich with caramelized bananas and warm chocolate sauce ($8.50).
Top marks to our server who made some outstanding recommendations and had no problem at all portioning the plates to ensure that each of us at the table was able to sample everything. Wappo will without question be a regular stop for me on any return trip to Napa.
Mentioned often by the locals was Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen in St. Helena. A great room with a comfortable feel and a great-looking menu. But maybe we just caught them on an off-night. The food was good, but nowhere near the quality of many of the other places we had eaten and the service was rather slow and inattentive. I would definitely give it another try just based on the number of people that recommended it.
A great option is to stop by Dean & Deluca or the Oakville Grocery to pick up an assortment of meats, cheeses, antipasti, and a bottle of wine and plant yourself in the middle of a vineyard. It’s a picnic in a setting you won’t soon forget and you will long to duplicate it at your earliest opportunity.
Perhaps the most memorable food we had and the meal that I can still taste as I write this were the tacos at the Mi Familia Market. We in Canada, at least in Alberta, have no idea what real Mexican food is about. Fresh, with so much flavour, this is nothing like the processed pseudo-Mexican fare at the corporate fast-food joints up here. Located in a little Mexican grocery store, this is where the locals go. Mexicans make up a big part of the local population and they have contributed significantly to the culture and cuisine.
The tacos are served on small, soft, round tortillas and you are given your choice of steak (asada), chicken (pollo), spicy pork (al pastor), shredded pork (carnitas), beef tongue (lengua), pork stomach (buches), beef cheeks (capeza) or intestines (tripitas). All are topped with grilled scallions, a hot pepper and a lime to squeeze over the tacos to heighten the flavours and tie everything together. I couldn’t decide which not to try, so I had them all and at only $1.50 each (or $3 if you “supersize” it), this might have been my best-value meal of all time in North America (I’ve had some equivalently tasty and inexpensive street food in Asia). I only wish I had room for the chicharron (fried pork skins). I somehow did find room, though, to slip next door to the Taco Loco Market to sample the delicious corn and pork tamales ($3 each).
So Napa really can be done on a budget and you don’t have to sacrifice quality or flavour. I’ve eaten at the French Laundry and it was an unbelievable dining experience in every sense of the word. But with all due respect to Chef Keller, it’s the capeza and carnitas tacos that are making my taste buds cause me to book my flight back down there.
Where to go
BarBerQ, 3900 D Bel Aire Plaza, Napa; 707.224.6605
Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant, Culinary Institute Of America, 2555 Main Street, St Helena; 707.967.1010
Wappo Bistro Bar, 1226 B Washington Street, Calistoga; 707.942.4712
Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, 1327 Railroad Avenue, St Helena; 707.963.1200
Dean & Deluca, 607 South Street, St Helena; 707.967.9980
Mi Familia Market, 2565 Kilburn Avenue, Napa; 707.226.3954
Taco Loco Market, next door to the Napa Food Center; 707.252.1692