Sunday, September 4, 2011

Louie Vermeil Classic Sprint Car Races -- TONIGHT in Calistoga

I've never had a chance to check out the local sprint car races -- in fact, I've never been to a car race of any sort in person (except for one brief viewing of a leg of a rally race as it whipped through a Belgian town whose name I forget.)

So I figured I would come and check out the local Louie Vermeil Classic! The weather is fantastic, and it's a long weekend, no need to get up early in the morning...

Yesterday they had the first rounds, preceded by a wine tasting event from 1:00-4:00 (cars getting ready starting hot laps at 5:00; race is at 7:00) Today is the bigger-prize event, though the pre-race Beer Garden festivities are now wrapping up....

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The 3rd Annual Napa Chili Cookoff

This past Saturday downtown Napa hosted one of various special events they regularly host: the 3rd Annual Napa Chili Cookoff. I have never been to this event before, and in all honesty might not have even known about it if it hadn't been for a heads-up (and free admission!) from our real estate agent, Mike Bolen (who happened to be working the "Raging Donkey" chili booth).

There were 18 chilis being represented at the competition, which took place on main street between 2nd and 3rd streets and required a $20 donation to Napa Food Bank as admission/tastings of all chili and a token to vote on your favorite.

I'm a pretty big fan of chili, so this wasn't a bad bet... especially since every single one of them was pretty decent (some much better than others, of course) -- I just wish it had stayed nice and foggy/overcast and cool like it was in the morning, but alas the sun burned it off and it was another typical sunny 80 degree summer day in Napa (I know what you're thinking: "And you're complaining about that?!")

The deal is that you walk around to different booths, most of them held by local businesses, charities, etc. (so they also get a little bit of publicity out of the deal), and you try a little cup of their chili. After tasting as many as you'd like, you can drop a token into their bucket if it's your favorite; the winner of the most tokens takes the "People's Choice" award.

As for the main 1st, 2nd, and 3rd prizes, these are awarded by a panel of judges, which this year included James Aptakin, Food Network regular and executive chef for San Francisco’s Hilton Financial District Hotel; local artist Gordon Huether; Napa Fire Chief Tim Borman; Catherine Bergen, owner of C Casa in the Oxbow Market; and L. Pierce Carson from the Napa Valley Register.

We stuck around long enough to meander to every booth and try every chili possible; Sarah is not a big fan of "heat" so she steered clear of some of them, but I devoured everything in sight without hesitation, and by the end I'd had a fairly substantial meal! The great thing is that, like wine tasting, there's plenty of variety -- subtle (or not so subtle) variations of "the same thing", which really lets you appreciate the nuances of ingredients and flavors.

L. Pierce Carson made it very apparent in his writeup that he was disappointed by the lack of heat/chili-power in this year's entries, and although I do believe chili should have some kick, I believe that kick can come from flavors such as spices making it "spicy" without necessarily being "hot" (fyi, Mr. Carson: not all peppers are hot.) There was one chili (I forget which) which was rather bland and too tomato-based... it was pretty awful. But as for the rest, I disagree that they were lackluster. Also, apparently the panel (only 2 of the 6 who actually have any sort of food expertise) was looking for the best rendition of a typical/traditional chili, because those are the only ones that seemed to win anything.

I personally found it refreshing that there were some sweeter chilis in the mix, some with hints of brown sugar or molasses or syrup in them. I actually gave my token to Bolen's Raging Donkey chili (which won 3rd place last year) -- it had some great slow-cooked braised short ribs and other meats, the meat was excellent and the flavor was different; I couldn't decide between that one and the one by Billco's Billiards... which was the most unique of the day, in my opinion, and it had an intriguing blend of spices (described by the server as "mediterranean spices")... I picked up maybe cinnamon? Allspice? Coriander? Hard to tell, but it was something you don't normally get in chili, and yet it worked very nicely. Apparently not for the judges, though. (Raging Donkey tipped the scales because they got me into the event, otherwise I might have slightly favored Billco's, but it was a tough call)

Sarah's vote was for Downtown Joe's chili colorado which had a minimalist and traditional -- but nicely done -- Mexican flavor to it.

Apparently others didn't agree, as they chose some of the most typical representations of chili to be the winners. I can't entirely blame them, though -- it was all surprisingly good (except for that one bland, stewed-tomato flavored one which shall remain nameless because it was completely forgettable).

Monday, July 4, 2011

4th of July in Napa Valley

It's been a long time, no writing... which is not to say I haven't been exploring. But there have been extenuating circumstances (mostly having to do with Internet access), so we'll see if I can get this blog in gear again.

Over the course of 4 years, I have not once spent 4th of July in Napa Valley. As I have done often in the past, we have gone to San Francisco to see the fireworks over the water... and other times I have been out of state (or out of country) altogether.

However, I have heard several times about some festivities that happen in Calistoga on 4th of July weekend: The Napa County Fair

The annual Napa County Fair occurs over the 4th of July weekend, including a 4th of July Parade (I was considering attending this today, but to make it for the 11:00 am parade and then stay for the 9:30 pm fireworks makes for a very long day) and culminating in 4th of July fireworks.

It sounds like a more-or-less typical county fair atmosphere at the fairgrounds: rides, junk food, etc. There are a few special events -- an antique tractor display, a BBQ cookoff, an olive oil competition... yesterday hosted blues bands and the day before had a junior bull riding rodeo.

I do plan to make it tonight to take in the sights and, at the very least, the fireworks! Been a long time since I've been to a fair...

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

California Mille

It's been a while since posting a blog (a few in the works, but I also just returned from a trip to Italy -- Naples, Pompeii, Amalfi, Sorrento, and Capri), but I just saw some wonderful Italian-style racing cars circa 1930 or so, filling up with gas in Calistoga, so I had to investigate what that was all about.

They had numbered labels on the sides of the cars that said "California Mille" (mille means "one thousand" in Italian), so I looked it up and... sure enough, this week Calistoga is the hub of the 21st California Mille driving tour. As their press release notes, "The Mille (MILL-leh) honors Italy’s famed Mille Miglia (thousand mile) race that ran from Brescia to Rome to Brescia from 1927-1957. Only cars that could have qualified for the Italian event may participate in the California tour--not a race but a demanding drive."


[Sadly, I didn't get a photo but will keep my eye out for them tomorrow!]

Monday, March 28, 2011

World of Outlaws Sprint Car Races

I won't be in Napa Valley this weekend... I've decided to finally get up to Tahoe for some spring skiing, after a ridiculous amount of rain whipped through here and dumped several feet of powder there. Of course, all this rain has really put a damper on doing all the new thing I wanted to do this year (obviously, I have not been doing something new every day. I still plan to have 365 new experiences in Napa Valley this year, though. Just going to have to really load up during the summer! Sounds good to me!) Apparently, all I needed to do to make the rain go away was to book a trip to the mountains and hope for snow! Because as soon as I did that, the forecast called for 60 degree sunny says in Tahoe! Great! >:( I just thought I would mention that had I not booked a weekend in Tahoe (which is, by the way, just a 2.5 hour drive from Napa), I would probably have headed to Calistoga on Saturday, April 2 for the World of Outlaws Sprint Car Races. For the first couple of years I worked in Calistoga, I never even knew they had a car racing track! I've never been to a live car race (of any sort) and would be curious to see what it's like, so I plan to attend one this year. Looks like I will miss the World of Outlaws event, but plan on hitting one of the others, perhaps the Louie Vermeil Classic in September.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Etude Wines

In my recent excursions down Cuttings Wharf Rd, to the riverfront homes of the Carneros region just southwest of Napa, I passed a winery called "Etude" which I was always curious about, but always too late to visit.

Then I was reminded when a coworker mentioned that "Etude has some good Carneros pinot, you should try them if you like pinot..." The name rang a bell, but I couldn't place it. Then suddenly I remembered, and just in time to check out another home for sale (maybe -- it's a weird situation, short-sale temporarily off-market trying to get a loan modification to avoid foreclosure), and decided it was time to pay Etude a visit.

The grounds are sprawling and so flat; the flat, marshy wetlands of Carneros are such a contrast compared to the hills and crags upvalley. The tasting room itself was large and had a vibe like a minimalist modern art gallery, with racks of wine mounted in front of a panel-lit wall and -- what's this that looks like wine but glows a strange amber color? Well, it turns out the place used to be a distillery that made brandy, and when Etude winery took over they decided to bottle and sell some of the brandy (limited production, no more being made), one of which is 100% pinot and the other is a blend of grapes, but neither available for tasting and both of them expensive ($150/bottle)!

The average age in here seemed to be about 60, with the ladies pouring being at least that or older. It wouldn't bother me except that, like some of the other older servers around here, they weren't too personable. Tastings are $20 each (we decided to share) and it included a chardonnay, two pinot noirs (a blend and the Deer Camp single vineyard), a "GBR Red" blend (85% merlot, 15% malbec), and a cabernet sauvignon.

All of the wines were definitely good with delicate, balanced flavors and smooth mouthfeel (I've come to realize the mouthfeel is so important to me); the pinots are somewhat typical for Carneros, in the sense that they are a somewhat ruby color which accurately represents a decent level of fruit in the wine. However, these Etude ones have a great deal of musky spice to them, and not too tart/sour like some pinot can be. Overall they had hints of black tea and cloves, a flavor profile I could definitely appreciate.

The darker reds -- both the GRB and cabernet -- were full-bodied but well-rounded, with very smooth tannins. I got sort of a yeasty, vanilla potpourri aroma from the GBR which, personally, I found very appealing; the cabernet was more licorice and cocoa. Like I said, everything was good... but none of it was cheap. The estate pinot is $42 and everything else is $60+, so at those prices I couldn't justify buying any bottles right now, though I'll definitely keep them in mind if I want something special in the future. They got bonus points for ending up waiving our tasting fee, as well, since we are locals -- I didn't know they are part of the Napa Neighbor program, but sure enough when I checked the website it lists free tasting for up to 4 people, plus a 15% discount.

Okay, that settles it... I'll be back!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Casa Nuestra

"Casa Nuestra" means "our house" and, true to the name, this family-owned winery goes for a casual, comfortable feel. I first tasted their wine a week ago at the Mustard, Mud, and Music festival and I liked both the Symphony (a varietal you don't see often around here, despite the fact that it was created at UC Davis. This is only the third one I've tried, the other two being at Volcano Winery at Volcano N.P. in Hawaii, and at Maple Creek / Artevino Wines in Anderson Valley) and the Tinto (a "field blend" of various varietals grown on the same field and harvested and processed at the same time together). I've also passed the winery, located on Silverado Trail north of Deer Park Road, on various occasions, but have never visited.

After dealing with the utterly unfriendly pretentiousness of Cade Winery up on Howell Mountain, the laid-back vibe here is a welcome change -- their flyer says you can "bring your dogs... or your goats!" and, indeed, they have two goats on the property, Nava (a total ham, as long as you're feeding) and A.P. (who has started to catch on and learn from Nava). This was also the site where the opening scene of the Elvis movie Wild in the Country was filmed in 1961. The owner of the property is a big Elvis fan, but didn't know this little piece of trivia when he bought the grounds, so he's pretty excited about that and you can find all sorts of little Elvis memorabilia and kitsch in the tasting room.

As for the wines themselves, they are pretty decent. They do not try to be anything they are not, and the pricetags are accordingly reasonable -- most are in the $20-$30 range, with a few in the $30-$40 range. As far as I know, there's no tasting fee, and we got a discount (10 or 15 percent... I never actually checked) for being local Napa Neighbors.

The reds are very drinkable, but personally I find them a little bit sour or acidic for my tastes (but Sarah is more into that); we did end up buying a 100% Carignan ($32) because that is a grape you don't see every day and it had a nice inky, berry-filled flavor to it, sort of like a halfway point between merlot and syrah. It was also from Contra Costa county, which is another thing you don't see every day (maybe because it doesn't have the brand-name cache that putting "Napa" on the label does).

However, I feel their whites shine even more -- as already mentioned, I like the Symphony which is a hybrid of Muscat and Grenache Gris varietals which tends to make a semi-sweet wine with hints of tropical passionfruit, honeysuckle, and pineapple tones. Casa Nuestra's (from Lodi grapes) is true to this, and is $20/bottle. Casa Nuestra also makes a good off-dry riesling; often, these types of rieslings have a biting acidity or tartness to them, but this one ($22/bottle) is just light, smooth, and refreshing. It goes down like water.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

New York Pizza Kitchen (Napa) Sucks

I've lived across from the Silverado Plaza shopping center (at Soscol and Trancas) for almost 4 years now, but had not yet tried all of the little restaurants there. Mainly because none of them are too special... they consist of:
  • Starbucks (of course)
  • Cold Stone Creamery (fun, but overpriced)
  • High Tech Burrito -- went there once, liked the Godzilla Burrito, went back to get it again... and they had removed it from the menu because it was the only burrito worth its price. Instead, I settled for one of their standard burritos which is $6 and has about two ounces of meat in it. Those cheap bastards will not get another dime from me.
  • Hop Hing Kitchen, a cheap fast-food chinese place (you know, the kind where you pick one or two dishes plus a rice or noodle side. Like Panda Express).
  • New York Pizza Kitchen, which I unfortunately decided to finally try tonight
Today I was suddenly in the mood for a nice, authentic pizza -- we often do Little Caesar's... they're just down the street and a pretty good deal for the $5 it costs for a large pizza and breadsticks on Mondays, and for what it is, it's pretty good... but I wanted something a little more "homemade" today, and after the nice experience at Pizzeria Tra Vigne (which is unfortunately too far to bother driving to at the moment), I figured I'd give New York Pizza Kitchen a try.

I showed up, took a photo, and perused the menu... lots of toppings, but pretty expensive: $14 for a small 12" pizza, $20 for an extra large 18", not including any toppings which are about $2 extra for 1-2 toppings. Most of the toppings are pretty standard, with a few additions like salami, chicken, bacon, fresh basil, and roasted garlic. Some of the more interesting toppings cost extra ($2.50 per topping), which is unfortunate because the thought of artichoke hearts, sundried tomatoes, and feta sounds pretty good.

I was really tempted to try chicken and fresh basil, but called Sarah because she has a weird hang-up about chicken on pizza (she loves chicken and loves pizza, doesn't like chicken on pizza). Sure enough, she told me to get a veggie option -- mushrooms and roasted garlic. Despite that I really do like chicken pizza, this option was fine by me because I have always loved mushroom pizza, and roasted garlic is a rare opportunity... slow-roasted cloves, all soft and sweet and somewhat caramelized.

Only... this wasn't the case. I sat at the front table for 20 minutes reading the newspaper and waiting for my pizza. When it finally arrived I took it and headed home (about 1 minute away)... as soon as I got in, I opened the cardboard box and saw what appeared to be minced raw garlic - the kind you can get in the big, bulk jars pre-chopped and drowning in garlic juice. Apparently what they do for their "roasted garlic" topping is to take minced RAW garlic, slap some spoonfuls on top, and throw it in the oven for 8 minutes so that it chars (but remains raw) while the crust cooks and cheese melts? Unacceptable. There was nothing "roasted" about this... their garlic is straight-up raw. I took a few pieces off with my finger and realized the pizza would be pretty much inedible (roasting garlic mellows out the flavor, allows you to eat large doses at a time).

Well, when I returned to say that I was returning the pizza and wouldn't be accepting it (I hadn't eaten a single bite, other than the slivers of garlic I picked off to test), the goofy young guy behind the counter said "What do you mean? It's roasted... see? It's dark. It went in the oven."

I said "No. This is raw garlic. Sticking it in an oven for 8 minutes does not make it roasted garlic. You need to either take that off your menu or change the name to 'minced garlic', because this is not roasted garlic." He refused to accept that so finally I said "You know what, fine. I'll just dispute the charge on my card and tell the whole Internet how much you guys suck." Then he got quiet and found my receipt, handed me some cash back to leave.

I went to their website to try to send them an email with a link to a Google search for "roasted garlic" -- in which I don't see a single website showing a method where you take minced raw garlic and throw it on a pizza for a few minutes. Of course, their web skills are about as savvy as their pizza-making and garlic knowledge, so they have some crappy cookie cutter website provided by AT&T and, of course, no email address.

It really makes me wonder what their other toppings are like. Is the "fresh basil" actually dried basil? Is the "bacon" actually Baco-Bits?

Sad. There are only a few pizza places in Napa that I know of, but I think I'll stick to $5 pizzas from Little Caesar's (at least I know what I'm getting and it doesn't involve paying $20 for a bunch of attitude and crappy customer service) or maybe I'll try Browns Valley Pizza at some point...


Sorry for the delays in posting the daily excursions (as if anybody is reading this)... I canceled Comcast internet because they are horrible and I already had a mobile Verizon internet access via netbook. Which is great, but all of my photos are on my other computer and I had to wait for a new external HD to store and transfer my photos. That finally arrived, so I'm getting caught up on the posts.

Generally what I do is write the entries each day, typed in the computer but it doesn't feel right to post them without photos (a picture is worth 1000 words, right?) so I save the drafts and wait until I can get the photos added.

As it turns out, that was a time-consuming process and I still have about 18 days to post! But once I get caught up, I am going to try to stick to it on a daily basis. Shouldn't be impossible.

At the very worst, I will post them every few days...

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Howell Mountain, Angwin, and Cade Winery

I was drawn to a corner of Napa Valley I had not visited yet, due to an enticingly-low priced home in St. Helena -- but technically in Deer Park, near St. Helena Hospital which is up Deer Park Rd. to the northeast of Silverado Trail. This home was priced at $299k (extremely cheap for St. Helena, where average homes are $800k+) and was described as a fixer-upper, but I was curious to see what extent. Also, I figured even if the home was awful (it was -- horrible, horrible nightmare of a place, people clearly living in squalor there. And they still owe over $500k on the mortgage!!), I would make a day of it because, even though I turn onto Deer Park Rd. every time I drive to Calistoga, I am cutting west to 29, not northeast up into the hills.

It happens that this is the route up to the Howell Mountain AVA, an up-and-comer (like Atlas Peak) mostly known for some rich and fruit-forward examples of cabernet sauvignon. This is also the region of Angwin, a very small town known for Pacific Union College and a lot of Seventh Day Adventists. We drove around Angwin a bit, just to see what it was like, and to be honest it had a strange, eerie vibe to it... like a closed, conservative community that eyes strangers warily. I don't know. A very different, secluded, otherworldly feeling from Napa Valley; it felt like something out of a Stephen King novel.

On the way back down the mountain, we decided to try a winery we had passed: Cade Winery. The sign said Appointment Only, but we figured we'd give it a shot; a lot of the newer wineries post this "By appointment only" requirement but don't really stick to it. And isn't that a bit of a gray area, anyway?? What's to stop me from driving in, seeing if they have room for us, and saying "Hello, I'd like to make a reservation for a tasting 5 minutes from right now."?

Well, it turns out that Cade Winery takes the cold and pretentious stance when it comes to things. There were several overly pretentious visitors hanging out (all of them at least 50 years old), and when we announced that we did not have a reservation but were curious, if they had room, we got a very cold reception and were told "They are very strict about that here, it is part of the laws." To which I said "Well, can I make a reservation for just about right now?" Yes, she said, it was $20 per tasting, and were we okay with that.

No, no we're not okay with that. We're not okay with the pretentiousness of a new (3 years old), unestablished winery assuming they can charge $20 per tasting without having that fee applied to or waived with a purchase. Out of curiosity, I checked their wine list and noticed it was mostly cabs, with the cheapest being $60. So let me get this straight: I have to pay $20 for something which may or may not suck, and then if I like it I have to pay $60 more to get a bottle? No thanks.

So... we left. The view up on Howell Mountain is nice, and faces west overlooking the valley so it could be pretty spectacular at sunset. However, between the spooky reclusive communities and the pretentious and sparse wineries, I wouldn't see much of a reason to come back up here. Most of the wineries located up here either do not do tastings, or have tasting rooms down in the valley (like La Jota, which tastes in Oakville). And Howell Mountain cabs tend not to be as good as other local appellations (like Rutherford, Oakville, and Stag's Leap) anyway, so why shell out the dough?

Monday, March 7, 2011


Yes, that's right: Wal-Mart. This is not to say I am endorsing it or encouraging you to go there. Quite the contrary. But... that is the "special Napa location" I got to visit for today. It wasn't "new" to me, other than the fact that they have put in a grocery section and this makes it an even more horrible experience, waiting in line behind people standing there with 7 kids (yes, seven. I come from a big family of five kids, but I find seven pretty excessive) with not one but TWO shopping carts filled with things like 6 boxes of laundry detergent and 8 cartons of orange juice. Seriously?? That's not shopping for a family, that's hunting and gathering for a TRIBE.

I haven't been to Wal-Mart (located at the corner of Soscol and Lincoln, just in case you want to stop by and see what the Gates of Hell look like) in years, partly because I completely do not agree with their policies as a company (union-busting, gender discriminating) but also partly because I fear for my life sometimes. And when I can get over those two, I can't get over the depression that sets in when I walk in and start to be convinced that people probably don't really have souls. And many certainly don't have brains (as I watch a man gleefully wheel a brand new 40" flat panel TV to his beater of a car that looks like it barely runs... ah, priorities)

The only reason I was here is because, for some odd reason, it happens to be the only place in Napa I could manage to find some arts and crafts supplies for my students' projects. I hope to never return again. The only positive I can say is that this really encouraged me to be the best person I can be in life, because being stuck in line at Wal-Mart pretty much seemed like eternal damnation, and it was terrifying. Instead of door greeters, they should post Cerberus at the front entrance.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Checkers in Calistoga

I'll be honest -- this isn't something new I did today, but it was a new experience for me this weekend. To continue the honesty: there was no way I was doing a single damned thing today, because my body hates me for what I did to it yesterday (seemed like a good idea at the time. I don't have any regrets, except for not sticking to 10 tastings despite the technical ability to procure more...)

While I was waiting for the pourings to begin, I was actually pretty hungry and figured I'd be better off if I had some food in my system (little did I know about those big $1 hot dogs down at CalMart), so I decided to pop into Checkers, a restaurant on Lincoln Ave (the main street through Calistoga) which I had often walked past but never been to. Something about the whimsical, casual, "diner-like" appearance of it always made me skeptical. But I'm glad I gave it a shot!

The place was nicer inside than I expected, and the menu also more interesting than I had anticipated. The butternut squash ravioli with roasted chicken sounded interesting, but I was in the mood for a sandwich so I went with the leg of lamb sandwich and it was really a good choice! First of all, they brought out some bread and it turned out to be focaccia -- which is often hit-or-miss; focaccia seems to often suffer from being stale, or overcooked, too dense or too chewy or too dry. Not here! This focaccia was super light, fluffy, spongey, and delicious... it might just be the best focaccia bread I have ever had.

Luckily, that's also what they serve their sandwiches on! (Sorry, no photo -- in retrospect I wish I had taken one, if just to show the delicious juiciness of the meat and fresh, pillowy softness of the focaccia. But I was starving and it was just too enticing to bother with photography.) This was a great way to eat leg of lamb -- the meat pre-sliced and ready to go, all juicy and dripping like it should be, but neatly piled on the bread, along with sauteed mushrooms, caramelized onions, roasted garlic (so good), monterey jack cheese, mayonnaise, tomato, and lettuce. The sandwiches come with soup or salad, and I went with a basic salad which wasn't that great -- I have a feeling their soups are better -- but the sandwich itself was fantastic. I'll be back!

EDIT: I did go back for another lunch, and the leg of lamb sandwich was just so perfect that I didn't bother trying anything new -- except this time I got a cup of soup with it instead of salad. It was a white bean soup, and I was right: better than their salads. And I took a photo of the sandwich this time! Look at all that fluffy bread and roasted garlic...

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Mustard, Mud, and Music Festival

Today marked the beginning of Calistoga's annual two-day "Mustard, Mud, and Music" weekend involving wine and mustard tastings and live jazz scattered at different venues throughout Calistoga.

In the 4 years I've been here, I've never attended, so today was the day! I figured parking might be crazy and I also figured I might be a little affected after wine tasting, so I took the Napa VINE bus (route 10 N, as usual) and was there in an hour, right before the festivities began at noon. Like many events around here, things were a bit confusing at first -- I saw people walking around with orange flyers about the event, and I saw officials (volunteers?) handing out information and informing people on the street. Yet... there were no signs anywhere or indications of where to go to get the admission ticket (which was actually a plastic wine cup and a bracelet with tear-off tokens for 10 wine tastings). Eventually one of the ladies told me to go to the "Chamber of Commerce" to purchase admission, yet the signs read "Visitor's Center", not Chamber of Commerce. Heck, I've worked here for 4 years and it's STILL this confusing, so I can only imagine what it felt like for tourists.

Being a local, I got a discount ($22.50; normally $30 per person) and headed out... music started up on the main stage soon enough at around noon, but the website about the event had been pretty vague about how it worked or when things were happening. Music started at noon but wine pouring wasn't officially happening until 1:30, so I wandered around quite a bit. However, it did give me a good chance to notice some of the shops and venues that I normally just walk right past and pay no attention to!

I can only presume that this is part of the purpose of the event: to draw people into the boutiques and shops and restaurants. Unfortunately for me, many of these are places I would never normally visit if they weren't pouring wine inside: "Mudd Hens" sells bath, spa, and beauty products; "Mud Puddles" being a clothing store for young children; "Sugardaddy's" and "Attitudes" being fashion boutiques; and "Ace Hardware" simply being a weird place to have wine, though this is one of the local establishments I've found a need to visit on occasion.

Wineries included many of the local tasting rooms but also several small-scale or custom-crush pourers who don't even have a tasting room, so I wanted to be sure to give some of those a try and figured I could save visiting the existing tasting rooms for another day. The wines I tried were: Envy Wines, Raymond Vineyards, Alienor, W.H. Smith Wines, Castello di Amorosa (because it's normally $25 to visit and taste, so I wanted to a sneak preview to see if it's even worth tasting there!), August Briggs, Madrigal Vineyards, Kenefick Ranch, Laura Zahtila, Bennett Lane, Casa Nuestra, Sterling Vineyards, and Tofanelli. I didn't bother with Chateau Montelena because I've tasted at the estate and, famous as they may be, the wine was not great (despite being way overpriced); Frank Family Vineyards was also pouring, and I do like their wines but have already tried them before.

Yes, I know that's more than 10 tastings. The fact of the matter is that they were not all collecting the tickets. Another fact of the matter is that I probably drank too much wine (the woman at the bus stop while I was waiting for my ride home kept looking at all of the swarms of people in disgust and talking to me about all of the "borrachos" -- "drunks"). I would say that the wines were overall hit or miss, with the best that I can remember were Kenefick Ranch 2006 Cabernet Franc, Bennett Lane cabernet Saugvignon, W.H. Smith Pinot Noirs, Alienor Sauvignon Blanc, and Casa Nuestra Symphony.

The free mustard sampling at CalMart was also a nice experience (supplemented by a big, juicy Saag hot dog on a stick at $1 each) -- plenty of different flavors here, with my favorites being Wine Country Honey Truffle, Wine Country Merlot Spice, Napa Valley Whole Grain, Good Housekeeping Apple and Spice, and CalMart's own Cherry BBQ and Sweet Onion and Bacon blends. The finale of the tasting booth was a wonderful cheese called "Red Dragon": a soft Welsh cheddar made with whole mustard seeds and brown ale (and, if I'm not mistaken, a hint of horseradish). It was delicious and I was sold on the spot -- went in ans bought a small wedge, even though it's not cheap at about $22 per pound. I also brought home jars of honey truffle and apple spice mustard.

As for music, it was certainly nice to have around... I didn't sit and concentrate on any one performer, other than spending about 10 minutes listening to Susan Sutton (keyboard and vocals, with accompanying upright bass) at the Brannan Cottage Inn, because it was a nice, relaxing, secluded environment and the mellow music was great to accompany some chilled-out wine sipping. I was also impressed by Bob Culbertson's fancy fingerwork on the "Chapman Stick", a string instrument in which you play notes with both hands simultaneously. In this way, it's like a guitar but almost played more like a piano. Culbertson was certainly a pro at it.

All in all, an enjoyable day and I'll probably try it again next year. I'll also be sure to ride the bus again, and possibly do fewer tastings and/or drink more water. Not sure which would be the solution, but I'm pretty sure I'm going to be hurting in the morning.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Osprey Seafood Market

I wouldn't expect anyone visiting Napa to cook their own food -- after all, this is home to The Culinary Institute of America, The French Laundry, and other world-class and Michelin-rated restaurants.

However, if you happen to like cooking your own meals and you like seafood (and you live here or have a vacation home or an extended stay with access to a kitchen), then there's a little place you might want to check out called Osprey Seafood Market.

This is a basic seafood shop, nothing fancy -- it's a small, no-frills building tucked off of Solano Rd (which runs parallel on the west side of Rt. 29 on the northern part of Napa). But they have a reasonable selection of seafood that you might not be able to find at one of the local grocery stores.

I was in the mood for cooking some seafood on the way home from work today, and I was originally thinking fish -- maybe a Moroccan-style monkfish with tiger prawns. But then I thought about lobster, which I haven't had in a while, and one minute later the Napa VINE 10S drove past Osprey, with a sign out for Maine lobster, $12/lb.

They did, in fact, have monkfish (not cheap at $18.95/lb, though) but I went with a live lobster ($15), took it home and steamed it in saltwater, served up with lemon butter (melted butter with juice of one lemon freshly squeezed into it) and a side of Trader Joe's "Polenta Provencale", spicy creamy polenta with spinach and peas. I couldn't decide on which wine to pair with it, but decided to base it off the polenta dish flavor rather than the lobster, so I went with the Ochoa 2003 Chardonnay I bought at his tasting room in Calistoga recently. This one has a bit of apple, some sweet flavor like toffee, and a little muskiness. There's oak there, but it's weird because I don't taste it but can definitely smell it. It turned out to be a good pairing.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Yo el Rey Roasting - Organic Coffee

This morning I had a seriously hankering for a shot of espresso. I considered going to the Calistoga Roastery, but there is another small, relatively new coffee place in town which I've walked past on several occasions and been somewhat curious about... and the nice thing is that it's on my walking route from the bus stop to the school, so I decided today was the day to give that one a try.

It's a small, minimalist place called Yo el Rey, tucked next to a beauty salon, which is right next door to the police station and the Sharpsteen Museum. I had assumed all along that it had a bit of a bohemian vibe (judging from the prominently displayed "Fair Trade Organic" signs), and boy was I right. The interior is sparsely decorated but consists of a few tables adorned with books about modern artists and animal rights -- the two I noticed were a Salvador Dali book and one about large-scale industrial raising of animals for food. The walls were decorated with some abstract paintings and had lines of poetry scrawled across them, all over the room, and there was some downtempo reggae/chillout music wafting from a couple of speakers tucked beneath the coffee counter.

I wouldn't say the Calistoga Roastery is "corporate", but Yo El Rey is even more bohemian; it feels more like the small hippie (and hipster) hangouts you might find dotted around Haight Street or Potrero Hill in San Francisco. If you have dredlocks and/or are a vegan, this is probably the place for you. But the atmosphere and (particularly) the organic free trade coffee comes at a price. The menu is more sparse and the prices higher here than at most coffee shops. I can normally get a shot of espresso for $1.50-$2.00, with 50 cents for an extra shot. At Yo El Rey, it's $2.50 for an espresso and $1 for an extra shot.

Considering that, I decided to go with a cappuccino, which was priced more on par with other places at $3.00. It was nicely made and I have to admit that the coffee had a good flavor (less "burnt" tasting than Starbucks and probably less so than Calistoga Roastery, as well)... it was served up with some sort of small cookie. Judging from the strange, brittle consistency of it, I can only conjecture that it was vegan and maybe even gluten-free, but I don't know.

Due to the prices, this won't be a regular hang-out for me, but I will probably be back whenever I am specifically in the mood for a cappuccino I can sip in a small, cozy setting surrounded by modern art and chilled music.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


Before going to Pizzeria Tra Vigne, Sarah and I decided to pop into Merryvale. After all, why not? It's right there across the street, we were already early for dinner, and they were open for tasting.

Being a midweek weekday in the middle of the off season certainly shows here -- we were the only customers in the tasting room... kind of a strange feeling with a tasting room as large and spacious as this. Something about the whole setup here -- the large building, to its location right in St. Helena off of Highway 29, the fountain out front, the top 80's New Wave hits mildly playing in the tasting room -- all says "typical commercial Napa Valley winery" to me.

Having said that, the experience was still enjoyable. Our server, Kai (Ky?), was a no-nonsense sort of guy who looked like an ex-rugby player for New Zealand or perhaps a character in a Guy Ritchie film... he was laid-back but professional and answered any questions we had (such as whether it was normally such a ghost town, which I'm assuming is not the case on summer weekends!)

The wines were somewhat more interesting and memorable than I expected (because I had no expectations); for example, their syrah is from Carneros. For those who don't know, this is fairly unusual -- Syrah/Shiraz tends to be a warmer-climate grape, and Carneros is known for its cool-climate atmosphere, being closer to the San Francisco Bay and cooled by its breezes and fogs. Not surprisingly, this Syrah was different than many others I've tried... not as plummy and smoky, more light and almost somewhat citrusy, with flavor profiles I would much more expect from a white wine, like hints of orange blossom.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Pizzeria Tra Vigne

There is a restaurant in St. Helena called Tra Vigne. I pass it every day on Highway 29, and considering my love of good Italian food (and the fact that it is extremely hard to find good Italian food), I've always been curious. I've heard it's good... it has a fairly established reputation, with associated "Tra Vigne" cookbooks and whatnot.

However, it's a typical Napa affair, requiring a little bit of planning -- a reservation and the willingness to spend some money. On the other hand, Tra Vigne has a sister restaurant right next door, a very casual affair: Pizzeria Tra Vigne. Pizzeria Tra Vigne bills itself as a casual spot, a locals joint... and the weird part is, this is true! It's hard to find local, casual spots that are still, at the same time, classy and have a little bit of sophistication.

But here we are: it's a weeknight and I showed up fairly early for dinner after Sarah offered to pick me up from my work, and this was on the way home and we were hungry. No reservation needed, we walked in and picked a table. By the end of our meal, the place was teeming with plenty of local families bringing their two or three boys each (how are they all boys???), who proceeded to wolf down slice after slice and bowls of pasta, to boot.
The focus here is, of course, pizza... thin-crust, brick oven Neapolitan style pizza, to be exact. And these pizzas have pretty reasonable prices. In addition, there are some interesting salads as well as a few other casual Italian fares: fried calamari, pasta, etc.

The typical toppings are all available, but what stood out to me are the special ones -- the one that most caught my attention was the "funghi" with crimini, shiitake, and beach mushrooms with fontina cheese and truffle oil... however, once I saw the "Positano" I knew that would be the one we'd have to get: crecsenza cheese, sauteed gulf shrimp, scallions, and fried lemons. Sarah is a lemon fanatic. It was pretty good -- the fried lemons on top are definitely what kept it interesting, though my curiosity for the funghi is still there for a return visit...

We got a large but, being a thin crust pizza, didn't know if that would be enough (it turns out that it definitely would have), so we also ordered a "piadine" as a starter. These piadine are like salads, but served on an oven-baked flatbread (basically, the pizza dough without anything on it). We got the Rocca, with roasted turkey, applewood bacon, field greens, feta, red onion, and cilantro aioli. It's a pretty nice alternative to a salad when you want more protein (from the meat) and more starchy bread (always good).

I'm not a big fan of big families with kids running everywhere, so I didn't really dig that vibe, but the food was good, the atmosphere casual, walk-in ability nice, and prices reasonable, so I'm sure I'll be back.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Domaine Chandon is a ChanDON'T

I pass Domaine Chandon every day on my commute to Calistoga. I have tried to come and give it a shot TWICE now and have been completely ignored and/or rudely mistreated both times. Considering that Napa thrives on the "hospitality" industry, you will find no hospitality here. Just a bunch of bitter people working in an over-commercialized tourist trap / sorority party.

My first visit was about 5-6 months ago, and when we arrived to the tasting room we were promptly ignored for 20 minutes and then coldly told they were closing in 5 minutes so we wouldn't be served.

This week it was like deja vu. We showed up 15 minutes before closing time, came to the tasting bar about 10 minutes before closing, and -- you guessed -- were promptly ignored until 5:01 when the bitter older man behind the bar said "We're closed. Bye."

Okay. I get it. You don't want my business. And you don't want me to bring any of my guests or company VPs and business associates here when they visit and want me to take them out tasting. In other words, you're just so wealthy and wonderful that you must not need any extra business. Good! I won't provide you any. I have better things to do with my time and money.

Heck, going to the dentist is a more pleasant experience. This place has been the WORST experience I've ever had at any winery or tasting room in the world. And I've been to hundreds.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Vermeil Wines / OnTheEdge Wines

Every day I stand outside of a little winery on the corner that says "Vermeil Wines / OnTheEdge" with a little logo of a football. This is because it is owned by Dick Vermeil, famed NFL coach and winner of Super Bowl XXXIV (and native Calistogan).

Last time I popped into this establishment was a few years ago, when it was filled with beeswax candles and a beehive you could peek into from a hole in the back wall. Now the look is completely different, with austere lighting and a sleek "Vermeil Hall of Fame" collection of photos and memorabilia adorning the walls.

Since I had an hour to kill after work before the bus arrived, I decided to finally stop in and sample the wares, of which there is quite a variety. There is a chalkboard sign outside mentioning the variety of reds, whites, sweet, dry, etc. wines. Perhaps their signature -- and a varietal you don't always find everywhere -- is Charbono, so I decided to try that along with some Zinfandel; there are far too many wines to try them all, especially considering all of the different vintages they have open for some of the varietals -- such as charbono and zin. They don't have free tastings for Napa Neighbors, and the $10 tasting fee lets you choose 4 wines to try. I figured I would give those varietals a go for some side-by-side vertical comparisons, and come back another time to try others.

I was informed by MarySue Frediani (who seems to be the main manager of the tasting room -- I always see her in there) that Trent Green was a business partner for the winery, and that he happened to be in town visiting and would be swinging by at some point. I figured I wasn't going to wait around for that but my leisurely tasting went on for a little longer than I had expected (somehow this tends to happen) and I saw my bus pull up when I still hadn't quite finished or paid, and wanted to take some photos. So I figured I'd just stick around for a while longer and wait for the next bus (they come every hour on the hour). Meanwhile, I went to the memorabilia wall to read about the history and family tree of the Vermeils and Fredianis, which is followed by photos from Dick Vermeil's past such as his coaching at Napa Valley College, Stanford, UCLA, Philadelphia Eagles and, of course, the St. Louis Rams. While I was looking around, the door opened and a crew of 5 or 6 people rolled in... sure enough, it was Trent Green and company, greeted by the server and MarySue and starting to talk about this and that, leaving me pretty much ignored in the corner (which is fine by me. I would expect nothing less...)

On to the wines: the reds here, while definitely different from year to year, each have a certain quality I'm not sure I'm a fan of. I've noticed that wineries often tend to have an overarching style to their wines, regardless of varietal, that I can only presume reflects the personal techniques and preferences of the winemaker. In this case, the wines reflect a style that I have encountered elsewhere -- lighter-bodied, but somewhat acidic, reminiscent of cranberry juice. This is not to say they are bad -- they don't actually taste like cranberries nor like plain fruit juice. I'm sure some people love this style (because, like I said, I've encountered it elsewhere), but I prefer wines to be not quite as tart and a little more "round" or smooth in the mouthfeel... but without biting tannins, so I'm sure it's not an easy feat to pull off. I'm also sure the charbono grape, itself, is a little bit to blame -- being a slightly lighter red, with a little bit of citrus/orange note to it. However, even the zinfandel here tastes far less lush and jammy than most zins I have tried.

Still, I will have to come back and try some more of their wines. I only had a small sampling of them, and sometimes these winemakers who opt for more acidity make some very nice whites, so I'm especially curious to try sauvignon blanc, though I'd also like to try the syrah, cabernet sauvignon, and cabernet franc.

Tip to anybody out there: if you do like the charbono, opt for "Nonna's Secret" which is blended with charbono and tastes almost the same, but for a much nicer pricetag).

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

In-N-Out Burger

If you've never been to In-N-Out, then one of these must be true:
  1. You don't live in California or Nevada.
  2. You are a vegetarian.
  3. You hate life.
And if you've never even heard of In-N-Out burgers, then... well, then I don't know how you get internet inside your cave.

In-N-Out Burger is an iconic establishment of West Coast fast food. Now, there has started to be some (slightly raging) debate over the best burgers in America. Fuddruckers caused a stir with its larger, more homestyle burgers, but some would argue that ventures away from the realm of fast food because they are more expensive and take longer to cook and to sit down and eat. On the other hand, many people are claiming the newer Five Guys burger chain (currently sweeping the nation; full disclosure: my uncle owns several of them) boasts the best burgers.

Right now, the biggest battle is between the In-N-Out diehards and the Five Guys fanatics. Both have achieved cult-like followings and loyalty, and both have fantastically fresh and sloppy burgers. It's almost like a West Coast versus East Coast rap rivalry here, folks.

Don't get me wrong, Five Guys burgers are pretty good, but the problem I have with them personally is the pricetag: they weigh in at close to $6 per cheeseburger. For about half that (a little over $3), I can get an Animal Style Double Double* at In-N-Out. To me, that says it all: bang for the buck. And in this department, you can't beat In-N-Out. Also, I don't know how they do it, but the workers at In-N-Out always seem a lot more wholesome and professional than you would normally expect from your typical teens working at a fast food joint. I sometimes wonder if they're back there singing Kumbaya while they mustard-grill my patties*

Now, let's be clear: In-N-Out is not a "strictly Napa" thing, unique to this area. No, they are everywhere, scattered throughout California and some parts of Nevada. But they are a California thing, and there is one right off of Soscol/Imola in Napa, so if you're craving a fast but fresh-made sloppy cheeseburger after a day of wine, this isn't a bad option.

Except their fries suck.

[We also don't have a Five Guys here, but you can find a great local burger at "Gott's Roadside" -- used to be known as Taylor's refresher -- with original location in St. Helena but also one at Oxbow Market in Napa]

* Yes, there is a special lingo at In-N-Out for their "secret menu"... some might find it annoying, some think it's fun, but it's all just part of the tradition and culture. You don't need to know the terms if you want a standard burger with normal toppings, but if you want some different toppings -- admittedly not as many offered as Five Guys -- you need to know the codenames. For me, Animal Style is the way to go: a mustard-grilled patty with sauce and sauteed onions. You can also get Animal Style fries, which is definitely an improvement.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Cole's Chop House

Sarah's boss was in town for a business trip, and he's a big fan of steak (Ruth's Chris being a regular weekly meal for him -- guess that's easy to do when you are a VP), so I had suggested we book a reservation at Cole's Chop House, but it was too last minute so we gave Rotisserie & Wine a try instead. Fortunately, their business day went late and he was too jet-lagged for that dinner. (I say "fortunately" because I think he would have found both the hipster-casual environment and the meat at Rotisserie and Wine to be subpar -- especially considering they were out of the only beef item they had on the menu.)

However, when that occurred I figured we should book the next night's dinner at Cole's Chop House in downtown Napa. I had never been to this restaurant, but you can't go wrong with a good chop house, and I'd heard this one was decent -- I figured, looking at the menu on the website, that with prices like that, it'd better be good! I had also seen the interior when dining at Ubuntu next door for my birthday a couple of years ago, and we have also tried Celadon, Cole's sister restaurant down the street, which is also decent and with a menu that's a little more varied and intriguing.

Cole's bills itself as a "Classic American Steakhouse" and it definitely has the standard old-school chop house vibe -- not unlike Ruth's Chris, but it's nice that Cole's is a unique location, not a chain. The atmosphere works well for this "gentlemanly" type approach: it's a lofty old brick building, which is in fact the 1886 Williams-Kyser building. Rather than describe the history of it, I will let their own website do the talking:

Named after its original owners, the Williams building was the first commercial block constructed north of the Napa creek. The hand-hewn native stone structure cost $26,000 to build and its designers were San Francisco architects Wright and Saunders.

While owned by the Williams family, the Main Street structure was used as an exhibition hall during the 1890 Napa and Solano counties fair. Three years later, the building was outfitted to be the temporary home of the local armory. At about the same time, D.S. Kyser became a tenant when he relocated his furniture and undertaking business to the Main Street block.

In 1897, the Williams Building became the site of both civic pride and notoriety. Shortly after the arrival of that year, January 15, 1897, the Napa County Courthouse was the scene of the last public execution held in California. That day, Billy Roe was hanged for murdering Lucina Greenwood of Napa in 1891. Kyser attended the execution in an official capacity as the Napa County Coroner. Eventually, Roe’s remains were delivered to Kyser’s Main Street undertaking business.

So, there you have it. Now on to the service and food. The waiter, like the atmosphere, fit a "classic American steakhouse" well. He was professional and well-mannered, serious but not aloof or unfriendly. He had the sort of "old world" service demeanor that I know some people are very fond of.

The menu is a little overwhelming at first, especially for someone like me who (I'll admit) is not exactly a beef connoisseur or meat expert. I have enough trouble distinguishing different cuts, let alone special features like Wagyu, Dry-Aged, or Certified Angus. The prices for any of the steaks are not cheap, most of them being close to $40 (some as high as $60 or $70!), and this is without any sides, which are served family-style separately. I opted for a special they had for the evening, mostly because it did come with sides and they sounded pretty great: a marinated New York strip with mushrooms sauteed in fois gras, served with truffled mashed potatoes.

However, the sides were a little unnecessary, considering we also ordered asparagus (cooked just right -- tender but bright green and a little crisp. I never know how they manage to do that at restaurants), creamed spinach, and mushrooms -- not just any mushrooms, but a seasonal special of sauteed wild mushrooms with garlic, shallots, red wine sauce, and truffle oil. This was fantastic and I'd say well worth the $15 (for a large portion that could easily be enough for 4 people).

After seeing the petite filet and filet mignon ordered by Sarah and her boss, I was a little disappointed in my selection. The sides were, in fact, pretty good, but the steak was not so tender (despite being ordered medium -- and served actually medium rare); the filets were clearly much more juicy and tender (to be expected, but my New York strip was pretty sub-par even when compared to ones I've ordered at places like Outback steakhouse, to give you some comparison). I tried Sarah's Double G Brand (Red Lodge Montanta) 7 oz. petite filet and it was, in fact, excellent -- very fresh, flavorful, juicy, tender.

We also ordered wine, for a few reasons: (1) what is filet mignon without a good red? Blasphemy, that's what. (2) Cole's has a very decent and pretty extensive wine list -- to give you some idea, it includes a table of contents, with local Napa wines being divided up by AVA -- how cool is that?? On top of that, although the markup is still pretty high, it still seems to be more reasonable here than at some other restaurants (such as Rotisserie & Wine). The corkage here is $25/bottle, which is absurd, but might still be the best route if you have one you know you like. We went with a Chimney Rock 2006 cabernet sauvignon, since that is one we know and like, but it was $105 (retails for $65). I'm going to stand by my belief that: (a) corkage should be reasonable, and (b) wine markups should be on par with corkage fees. One would think a markup of 40% would still net them some profit, instead of the 60% markup they charged for this bottle.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Rotisserie & Wine

During my little exploratory excursion to downtown Napa last month, I noticed a new restaurant at the Napa Riverfront complex (which is designed to be a live/shop environment, with condos over restaurants and shops. The shops are slowly appearing, and the restaurants are really starting to take root, as well); actually, I noticed a few new restaurants, but the one I had not heard of was "Rotisserie & Wine"

This is a restaurant by celebrity chef Tyler Florence partnered with Jeremy Fox (of Ubuntu fame -- not sure what happened there, but he up and split and became Florence's creative director). The general premise is very "Napa Valley" -- take down-home country cooking and give it an upscale twist (like practically everything else here). As the name suggests, there is a focus on rotisserie meats and a fairly large wine list. Essentially, the aim is "country comfort fusion" -- decor includes moonshine-jug shaped glowing-coil hanging lights. Servers wear plaid flannel shirts and speakers play classics from Guns n' Roses and Michael Jackson, though you can't really hear it from inside due to the general noisiness and proximity of everybody and everything. Considering the reasonable the size of the restaurant, the tables are oddly packed like sardines in one corner of the room (while the other half is devoted to a sort of "lunch counter" style eating and the namesake rotisserie ovens). This lends a feel of casual coziness, but detracts from any sensation of privacy or personal space.
I can only describe this genre as part of the new, hip "so casual it's not casual anymore" trend going around -- you know, the type of hipster thing where you pay a premium to go to an exclusive place where you can partake of blue-collar entertainment and drink Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Rotisserie & Wine isn't really that, per se, but in the same trendy vein. The beers and wines, however, are a notch above PBR -- with pricetags to match. I didn't recognize many of the wines on the list, but they sounded intriguing, with about half hailing from local regions and half international (mostly France). If someone else were footing the bill, I'd be tempted to try some. For example, I have been really enjoying all of the Santa Lucia Highlands pinots I've had recently, but I'll be damned if I'm going to spend $105 for a bottle like the one they sell here.

I came because the food sounded interesting, although it was a bit dismaying that the one meat entree I wanted -- prime rib -- they were all out of (at 7 pm?). They were also out of my second-choice charcuterie plate, as well as the olive assortment. Since I'm actually not really a fan of rotisserie chicken (and certainly not for $22), we opted for one entree of curry BBQ lamb ribs, and two smaller dishes of duck confit waffles (the Napatastic equivalent of "chicken and waffles") and farro verde, a buckwheat or spelt-like grain served up risotto style with foraged mushrooms and bits of fried sweetbreads. This started out with two delicious (but small) ladyfinger-like cornbread sticks served with sweet and delicious honey butter. This was more like cookies than like a bread serving.

The lamb ribs were a bit lackluster -- a decadent amount of fat with very little meat (seemed even more than usual for lamb) and the lamb flavor overwhelmed the curry BBQ flavor, which smelled enticing but really got lost in the flavor of lamb grease. The side dishes were more interesting; the foraged mushrooms were delicious and the sweetbreads were cooked perfectly, battered crisp and light and salty on the outside with that sweet, succulent creaminess within. The duck confit went well with the waffles and bourbon maple syrup, though the portion went down mighty quick and easy for a $14 dish. Still, when all was said and done, these three dishes together packed Sarah and I to the gills and we couldn't squeeze in dessert.

I might possibly come back and try this place again, if I had guests who were interested and somebody was willing to pay for the wine, but the overall lack of menu variety, the cramped quarters (I was basically a participant of the date happening at an adjacent table), and the expensive wines are deterrents.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Oxbow Market, Part 1: C Casa

Oxbow Market is... well, how can I make a long story short?

Oxbow Market is basically a collective of gourmet restaurants and shops; a sort of a Napa, upscale, niche-target food court /market. It is located near downtown Napa, but just east of Soscol Ave. and the Wine Train tracks, in the area of the COPIA building. (COPIA was a similar experiment, which attempted to merge high-end food alongside wine tastings and education, but the experiment had far too much money pumped into it to recoup its losses, and failed to the tune of bankruptcy and closure... alas, I never even got to give it a try)

I've been to Oxbow Market once or twice before, but really just to look around... the one restaurant here that kept being recommended (through local wine tasting rooms) was C Casa, an upscale taqueria. I guess I had never been tempted, due to the high prices -- $8+ for a taco is a bit prohibitive considering you can get them for $2 each (sometimes less) at local taco trucks and taquerias.

Still, I figured it's one of those things I should at least give a shot, and we happened to be in the area today so... why not?

I'll tell you why not: this place was a madhouse! Here I was, thinking that being the middle of the winter offseason might deter tourists a little bit. Word to the wise: tourists are never deterred from visiting Napa. So here I was, weaving my way between the privileged and the wanna-be-privileged, waiting in line for an expensive taco ("Gluten free!" the sign reads. Umm... I may be confused, but aren't tacos -- normally served on corn tortillas -- always gluten free??) and looking around to see no open tables available.

Still, within twenty minutes, Sarah and I had our gourmet tacos and found a small nook to sit at outside of the bar area in the middle of the cattle call. To be fair, they were well-presented and delicious: mine was a lamb taco with juicy meat and some mint and cilantro; Sarah's was a blackened prawn taco with some fresh-tasting and heavy-duty shrimp in there. The servings were not filling -- after all, they are pretty much normal-sized tacos, meaning you would need at least 2 for a full meal, but I don't think that warrants spending nearly $20 per person.

Verdict: Tasty gourmet tacos -- perhaps overhyped and overpriced, a yummy snack but doesn't fill you up for the price.

The crowds were a bit much and I actually was feeling pretty claustrophobic, so we didn't stay long -- on a warmer day, we might have headed to C Casa's outdoor eating section, but it was not one of those nice, warm days (and if it were, that area would probably be teeming with people, too!)

Friday, February 18, 2011

Olivier St. Helena

Olivier is a local French-themed olive oil and condiment shop located on Main St (Hwy 29) in St. Helena. (On a recent visit to Northstar-at-Tahoe for some snowboarding, I noticed they also now have a shop right there at the Northstar base camp, as well as a little bistro!)

The ambience is light and airy, provencal-type decor and colors... warm yellows, olive green, lots of artisan cookware, etc. A small, cozy atmosphere that is only made more enticing my plenty of sample trays out for dressings, dipping oils, barbeque sauces, various condiments/dips, vinegars, and four large copper kettles of various varietals of virgin olive oil.

This was not my first time here, but it is always changing -- some things stay the same, but their line of sauces and dips seems to be ever-expanding, with most recent additions being barbeque sauces and salad dressings. On my first visit, the things that really stood out were the arbequina olive oil -- a particular strain of olive which has a somewhat floral flavor less grassy and a little more honey suckle than your typical store-bought extra virgin -- as well as the white bean and sage dip, which was possibly the best and most addictive bean dip I had ever had, but unfortunately they changed up the recipe and it's not nearly as good now (they took out the lactic acid and replaced it with lemon juice, added additional parmesan... the flavor is a little more tart and not nearly as wonderful as it was 2 years ago).

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen

In St. Helena, there is a little restaurant tucked off the beaten path -- that beaten path being Main St/St. Helena Highway (Hwy 29), the main artery right through town.

This restaurant is run by Cindy Pawlcyn, best known for her mid-valley restaurant "Mustards Grill", but also owner of Go Fish in St. Helena. It can be found one block east of the main road, off of Railroad Ave., more or less right behind the Cameo Cinema. Hence the name: "Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen"

This restaurant has a different vibe than either Mustards or Go Fish (which, in turn, are very different from each other). It goes for the same "classy meets casual" vibe that the other two attempt, and it feels closer to Mustards than to Go Fish. However, Mustards was always more of a "scene" -- after all, you have to actually make an effort to go there (due to its location) and for that reason, if nothing else, it feels more formal.

Backstreet Kitchen feels like more of a locals hangout -- in fact, when I was there that's all it was... the bartender knew people coming in by name, everybody seemed to know what was going on with everybody else. This is the local diner, Napa Valley style.

To be honest, it was a little bizarre. I am a "local" but do not live or work in St. Helena, so I was as much a stranger and tourist there as anybody else could be... not that I felt unwelcome. I showed up for an early dinner at 4:00 (hours are 11:30 to 9:00), so there were only a few people in there... which is good, because they were understaffed due to snow on the mountains preventing some of the employees from "driving over the hill" as they say. [Yes, we have gone from 80 degrees a week ago to snow, hail, and cold rain today]

The decor is sort of Beatrix Potter/French cottage meets jazzy diner... I imagine this is what you'd get if Dr. House, MD decided to live in Giverny. A long chrome counter serves as both a bar (a full bar but also with an emphasis on local wines) and eating counter, which comes in handy for days like today when requesting a "table for one", and the rest of the restaurant is cozy seating areas with small white tables. In a way, this feels more comfortable than either Mustards or Go Fish... light and airy, perhaps a bit feminine but subtly done and not overboard.

I couldn't decide what to get from the menu... I wasn't in the mood for any of the large plates, but I was hungry and wanted some variety. I debated between the duck burger with shiitake mushroom ketchup (a popular choice, as I saw the man next to me order it and directly after someone came in to pick up a carryout order of the same thing), the mushroom tamales (the one "large plate" I considered), a rabbit tostada, and the "Backstreet Fry" of calamari, red onion strings, fennel, and okra. I decided on the last two -- I'm always curious to try fried calamari and see the variations and how well it is done (which can vary wildly from amazing, crisp, and succulent to horrible, like chewing on fishy leather shoelaces).

Of the two dishes (which were much larger than the "small plates" I had thought they might be), the rabbit tostada was more exciting -- it looked delicious, it smelled delicious (I can't put my finger on the aroma given off by the toppings) and it tasted delicious, with plenty of rabbit meat cooked just right in just the right amount of sauce, though a little on the spicy side but I like that.
This is not to fault the Backstreet Fry -- it, too, was very good, with a nice balance of the different ingredients. The calamari was extremely tender, fresh, and juicy -- on par with the great fried calamari at my favorite St. Helena restaurant, Market (a block away). I like fried onion strips, but was more excited by the okra and especially the fried fennel, so I wish there had been more of those in lieu of some of the onions.

I was extremely full by the time I finished all that, so no room for drinks or dessert, but I'll be sure to come back at some point with Sarah. They also have special "Supper Club" events every Wednesday and Thursday, food specials that revolve around a monthly theme. The theme for this month is Indian-and-Portuguese inspired foods; tonight they had a vegetable sambar (curry and rice), a special lentil soup, and a lamb vindaloo or something like that. I was just thinking recently how much Napa could use more Indian/curry options at the restaurants, so this was refreshing to see, but I wasn't in the mood today... maybe I'll check the menu out in a week or two -- I can't afford to do this on a regular basis; my bill for two small plates and water came to about $30, and also unfortunate is that CBK does not have free corkage like Market does (I believe it is $15 here).

Monday, February 14, 2011

Butter Cream Bakery and Diner

Today was, of course, Valentine's Day. Normally, I find the notion of Valentine's Day to be pretty cheesy and uninspiring -- the one day of the year people are rushing around looking to buy a quick, cheap, trite way to express affection for somebody. If you ask me, "romance" means spontaneity and unexpectedness, it means doing things from the heart -- which means it can happen at any time, not on one set day of the year. And it should happen far more often than on a "once annually" basis.

Mostly, I just resent the unoriginality of it all, and the mad dash and crowds that happen to make many experiences (like trying to go out to dinner) decidedly unromantic. Today was no exception -- I decided, unoriginally, that it might be nice to do a "typical" V-Day gesture: a box of chocolates for Sarah. I swung by See's Candies, the local storefront for See's, a California brand of candies and chocolates (Overall I do not find them to be amazing, but they have the hands-down best dark chocolate bars I have ever had.)

Unsurprisingly, the place was a mad house, a sardine can of unimaginative sheeple herding into the chocolate corral to very unromantically fulfill a tacit obligation. To top it off, the one type of assortment I would actually be interested in buying -- the truffle centers -- were completely sold out (and it wasn't even 5 pm yet.) What a horrible, unpleasant experience.

Sarah was not expecting any gifts from me, aside from the dinner I had planned to cook, but I wanted to get a little surprise anyway... and I didn't have a dessert planned, so something sweet would be good. What to do?

I remembered that just around the corner is a bakery/diner I had heard of (and passed on numerous occasions -- it is candy-striped bright pastel pink and white. Kind of hard to miss.) called ButterCream Bakery, near the intersection of Jefferson and Lincoln. So I headed there.

To my pleasant surprise on this gray and misty day, they were open and practically empty, to boot. I had never been here before, and this was a perfect excuse to visit. The server girls were polite and unpushy, letting me take my time and look around and take photos. I didn't realize that this is not only a bakery (specializing in the sweet stuff -- mostly cakes and donuts) but also a diner, a typical old-fashioned place I would imagine seeing plenty of blue-hairs eating eggs and sipping coffee on Saturday mornings. That portion was closed (only open for breakfast/brunch/lunch), but I am almost 100% certain my imagination pegged the scene spot-on, but the only way I'll find out is to return at some point.

Being Valentine's Day, I just had to go for the enticing little spongy, confectioner's sugar-coated cakes with red jelly hearts on them. I wasn't quite sure what they were, but they looked like wonderfully fluffy and unhealthy sugar bombs, so I pointed and said "I'll take two of those, whatever they are" and also requested two red velvet cupcakes*.

They made for a very eye-widening and lip-salivating surprise for Sarah, and the two little confections for each of us were just the right dessert for the meal I whipped up of crab-stuffed flounder, broiled asparagus with meyer lemon confit, and whole wheat couscous.

* Ever since I attended college in North Carolina, I've been a big fan of red velvet cake. However, I'm not a big fan of how trendy it has become -- it is such a fad for the past couple of years it is ridiculous. And a lot of people do it just plain wrong, not realizing that genuine cream cheese frosting is half of what makes it so good. But at least on a positive note this trendiness means that I can still find it and eat it without having to live in the South.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

VINTJS: A Tale of Two Trader Joe's Pinots

Trader Joes Pinot Noirs

Today I decided to pick up try some of the lower-end wines I picked up at the local Trader Joe's -- and none of them are from Napa Valley (*gasp!* blasphemy!)
VINTJS (pronounced "vintages") is Trader Joe's label they use for some of their branded wines (namely pinot noir, as far as I can tell)

I first became aware of it when looking through their selection and noticing this label on a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir a year or two ago. I scrutinized the label and became curious because the wine is actually made by "Wine by Joe", which is the budget-line label of Joe Dobbs, of Dobbs Estate wine (decent pinot noir) in Oregon.

On my last TJs shopping trip, I decided it was time to investigate some new wines -- to be specific, I picked up a 2010 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau ($7.99), a LaGranja 50/50 blend of garnacha/tempranillo from Spain ($4.99... and I'm curious to start trying TJ's entire selection of inexpensive Spanish wines, so if anybody has suggestions, let me know), an Evenus Zinfandel Port from Paso Robles ($7.99), and these two pinot noirs ($7.99 each) under the VINTJS label: one is a 2009 Willamette Valley (Oregon), the other is a 2009 Santa Lucia Highlands (Monterey, CA)

I've been a big fan of Oregon pinot for a while, but I was recently turned on to Santa Lucia pinot when Charles Hendricks poured me one of his own at Hope & Grace cellars in Yountville (Napa Valley) It was possibly the best California pinot I've had; I also tried his Russian River pinot, and it didn't hold a candle. Something about the Santa Lucia terroir must be amazing, because there is an extraordinary balance of fruit and earth and spice (more spice than I get in most pinots -- like a little hint of cedar and clove), and a smooth mouthfeel without the cloying sour/tartness of some pinot noirs.

So my gf and I decided we would open these side by side for a taste comparison. On pouring them (into our amazing new Riedel Vinum crystal pinot/burgundy glasses), the color and opacity difference were negligible. They were both medium-dark (for a pinot), somewhat translucent (par for the course for pinot), and only had a slight variation in color, with the Willamette wine having a slightly more ruddy hue and the Santa Lucia one having a hint of raspberry color to it.

Taking a whiff of each, the difference on the nose is remarkable. The Santa Lucia one had a rich, aromatic smell -- again giving some hints of that earth and spice, a little bit of mushroom and cedar and clove, but all mixed in with hints of ripe fruit as well. A wonderful perfume, reminiscent of potpourri or incense. The Willamette one had a slight oak smell, but gave a little more alcohol on the nose (despite being lower ABV) but the primary aroma here was sour cherry, all the way.

The flavor profiles didn't stray too far from those aromas. The Willamette Valley pinot had a much more pronounced oak (American oak, if my tastebuds don't deceive me) flavor up front than was present on the nose, quickly followed by the sour cherry primary flavor. Considering the relatively low alcohol (13.3%), it seemed a little hot, but it could be the acidity contributing to that sense. Overall it's right about what I would expect for a pinot under $10: a little thin, a little tart, a little imbalanced, but drinkable.

The Santa Lucia, on the other hand, far exceeded my expectations. In fact, it was better than several $30+ pinots I have tried, and it was certainly the best pinot noir I've had for under $10, hands down. The mouthfeel was round and smooth, there was a nice balance of fruit and earth/spice flavors, and the sour/tart acidity often found in pinot (even though I enjoy it sometimes) was a lot tamer here. I am definitely going to go back to TJ's ASAP and pick up a case of this for under $100.

Originally my gf and I had planned on finishing half a bottle of each and saving the rest for the next day, but after tasting them we figured we'd better down the Santa Lucia one since it was so excellent, and then if the Willamette one was no good the next day, we wouldn't care so much.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Thai Kitchen - Napa

Thai Kitchen is a little restaurant off of Trancas, just around the corner from where I live. There is nothing fancy or super unique about this place... except for, you know, the fact that I don't actually know of any other Thai restaurants in Napa Valley!

Unfortunately, restaurants that might be a dime a dozen in cities like San Francisco are actually pretty scarce here -- namely, I am thinking of Thai, Indian, Korean, German (heck, German food seems pretty hard to find practically anywhere), and others. There is plenty of Mexican, some French and Italian, California Cuisine and steakhouses, a few Chinese places, and an up-and-coming scene of sushi and seafood. However, this is the only Thai restaurant that I know of around here, and for some reason it's always very enticing whenever the weather is gray or raining.

The interior is typical but cozy, a little one-room/small-kitchen affair. The place seems to be family-run and they are always friendly and accommodating (today was actually my third time visiting). Although it's not fancy or unique, the place is never empty so that should say something. When I visited today, I overheard a conversation saying "This is surprisingly good... certainly way better than Sushi Mambo" (Sushi Mambo is a Japanese place in downtown Napa which I have never tried).

We ordered crab fried rice (very tasty, lots of crab meat, large portion to share for 2 people), duck pineapple red curry, and a vegetable/tofu noodle dish (Sarah's go-to dish, pretty good). All of the food I've tried there is pretty decent -- nothing I'd write home about, but satisfying in the same way that soul food is: fills you up and warms you to the core, so no wonder I'm always craving it on a rainy day. Or when we have a hankering for the orange, caffeine-boosted Thai iced tea... although we tend to save some money by making that ourselves at home now, using Pantai Norasingh mix ($5 per 1 lb. bag) which tastes just like what you get in the restaurants!

Verdict: Being one of very few (if not the only one) Thai restaurants around, this place is not bad for comfortable, casual food with a little kick.