February 28, 2014

Bengali sweet potato pakoras with yogurt-truffle dip at Torc. All photos: ©


Wild boar bolognese with housemade bucatini at Torc.


The interior of Torc (at the end of the evening).


Arancini and Ca’ Momi Rosa Frizzante.


Flatbread with lardo di Colonnata at Ca’ Momi.


Rigatoni con coda alla vaccinara (oxtail) at Ca’ Momi.


The BLAT at The Thomas at Fagiani’s.

A version of this piece previously ran in my Tablehopping column in the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

Sometimes you just need to get out of town, and look at that, we have Wine Country right in our backyard. Winter and early spring are an ideal time to visit: there are fewer crowds and better room rates, and it’s easier to make reservations. So let’s hit the road.

When exactly was the last time you stayed in downtown Napa? Exactly. Things are a-changin’. Check in to the ~ANDAZ NAPA~, which has an ideal central location, and while it’s a bit on the larger side, the hotel is aiming for boutique style. Go for one of the loft or terrace rooms if the price is right, and ask for a room that faces the back, not First Street (it’ll be quieter). Plan on getting some sleep, because the beds are a pillowy dream. When warm summer temperatures are back, the terrace (complete with fire pits!) will be open for drinks and hanging out.

Book a reservation for dinner at the recently opened ~TORC~ in the former Ubuntu. The handsome, spacious dining room contains 90 seats, with 17 at the bar. I recommend you start with a glass of the Charles de Cazanove Champagne ($16); the Euro-centric wine list is gonna make you thirsty.

Chef-owner Sean O’Toole (Quince, Cotogna, Bardessono) is one hell of a cook: his menu spans both the inventive and the traditional, ranging from Bengali sweet potato pakoras ($5) with yogurt-truffle dip to an elegant violet artichoke soup ($10). He is definitely rocking an international pantry. The Asian-inspired free-range chicken for two ($41) is a standout (it’s made with a vibrant farce of brioche, cardamom, cumin, clove, Tellicherry, star anise, cubeb pepper, allspice, pork fat, and butter), and it comes with creamy coconut rice. There are also some housemade pastas ($14-$19) you should strongly consider (remember, he has that Quince pedigree). One night we had the wild boar bolognese with bucatini—it was like an Italian molé, with cocoa and orange, and a hit of lime.

Dessert is truly a must. The pastry chef, Elizabeth Gentry, is so very talented; try the citrus-praline tart with lemon curd, caramelized hazelnut sablé, and smoked praline ganache (plus kumquat salt!), while chocolate lovers should get the Manjari chocolate bombe, rich with jasmine (both $9).

If you desire a nightcap, you can head to ~MORIMOTO~ for what is usually a lively scene in the lounge and bar, or enjoy a digestivo or grappa (my pick!) at the small bar inside ~OENOTRI~, conveniently within stumbling distance of the Andaz.

The next day, if you’re a biscuit lover, you’ll want to hit up the popular ~NAPA VALLEY BISCUITS~, a Southern diner serving biscuit-y breakfasts that will hold you until dinner (and help soak up any extended wine tastings later in the day). There’s also fried chicken and waffles, or you can go for the Yardbird: fried chicken, bacon, and gravy sandwiched inside a biscuit. Uh-huh.

Another option is to visit the ~OXBOW PUBLIC MARKET~. Start the day at the Ritual Coffee stand, and then take a seat at ~CA’ MOMI~, an enoteca featuring dishes from all over Italy (owners Dario De Conti, Valentina Guolo-Migotto, and Stefano Migotto take the authenticity of their dishes very seriously).

Order the Ca’ Momi Ca’ Rosa Frizzante to go with the flatbread with lardo di Colonnata, a rare treat. In fact, they’ll do all kinds of great wine pairings here, or you can go for a Venetian spritz or an Italian beer (like Baladin!). Piadine (Rimini-style flatbread sandwiches) also rule, especially the Giorgio ($12) with radicchio, prosciutto cotto, and creamy stracchino cheese filling.

Ca’ Momi’s blazing pizza oven cranks out about 20 kinds of pizza, from a classic (and VPN-certified) margherita ($16) to the Momi, with porchetta, taleggio, and caramelized onion ($17). If the carbonara with egg and pancetta isn’t a perfect brunch pizza, I don’t know what is. Plus there are nine kinds of vegetarian pies for those on a healthier tip. All ingredients are organic, and some even come from Ca’ Momi’s own garden for the restaurant.

If you’re in a lunchy mood, the pastas rock, like a northern Italian dish of spatzle allo speck with cream ($16), or the Roman rigatoni ($22) con coda alla vaccinara (with oxtail, pine nuts, and soffritto). Who can say no to gnudi ($16)? I usually can’t. For dessert, get the bigné—cream puffs with a variety of fillings.

~THE THOMAS AT FAGIANI’S~ has a tasty, casual brunch—think corn pancakes, good egg dishes, and a quality Bloody Mary—and if the weather is nice, the rooftop terrace is where you want to be. When tomato season is back, the BLAT (bacon, lettuce, avocado, tomato sandwich) is tops.

From there? Check out wine tasting rooms like Vintner’s Collective, 1313 Main, and Carpe Diem. The Culinary Institute of America is offering new Napa wine education classes at the CIA Wine Studies Annex in the former Copia, listed here. Oh yeah, and there are always the Napa Premium Outlets if you’re in a shopping frame of mind. (Dangerous after wine tasting, btw.)

For more Napa tips, check out my previous piece here.

May 31, 2013

The Mercantile Terrace at Andaz Napa. Photo: ©


The comfy bed (and soaking tub) in a suite at Andaz Napa. Photo: ©


The salame cotto pizza at Oenotri. Photo: ©


The pizzaiolo and the Acino oven at Oenotri. Photo: ©


Breakfast tacos at C Casa. Photo: ©

Sometimes you gotta clear the head and get the hell out of the city (especially when San Francisco’s “summer” starts giving you SAD, or seasonal affective disorder). Downtown Napa would not have rated high on many people’s radar as a getaway spot even a few years ago, but it keeps on chugging along in its development as a cool place to eat, play, and stay. Here’s my recent 20-hour getaway itinerary:

A pleasant home base is the ~ANDAZ NAPA~, which is right in Napa’s “West End” on First Street. It was formerly the AVIA Napa and is now part of the Hyatt Andaz boutique hotel line. The look is very natural modern—the rooms are comfortable, with hickory floors, lots of gleaming marble in the bathroom (hello, rainfalll showerhead), and some suites have a fireplace and a soaking tub in the room that I affectionately called Mork from Ork. Kudos for the welcoming amenities: anything in the fridge (besides alcohol) is complimentary, plus some snacks, like a build-your-own trail mix. Free Wi-Fi, check. The king-size bed was full of quality pillows of different lofts (although I wish they put a top sheet on the bed with the fluffy down comforter—while I love a cloud of a bed, those comforters get so hot that it’s hard to regulate your temperature).

A brand-new addition to the hotel is the opening of the Mercantile Terrace, an outdoor area with a bar, fire pits, and lots of seating—you can order cocktails and bites from the on-premise restaurant (under the direction of chef Sarah Linkenheil) Thu-Sun from 12pm-10pm (last call is at 9:30pm). There’s an evening happy hour (Thu-Sat 5pm-6pm) for hotel guests in the lobby bar (Mercantile Social) that seemed pretty popular when I checked in as well, and you can grab a coffee at the barista bar downstairs in the morning; another thing to note is there’s an art gallery featuring local artists. You can valet your car or do complimentary self-parking. I really enjoyed my stay here—it was comfy and relaxing and I didn’t have to drive anywhere, score.

Literally just across the street from the hotel is ~OENOTRI~, a favorite of many an industry person in Wine Country and beyond. Chef-owners Tyler Rodde and Curtis Di Fede are doing a bang-up job with their Cal-Southern Italian menu, which features an extensive in-house salumi program (try the chef’s sampler of six [$18] to get acquainted). The pizzas are notable—the imported Acino oven gives them a perfect crispness, and our table was thrilled with our pizza with salame cotto ($16.50), San Marzano tomatoes, red onion, mozzarella di bufala, zippy arugula, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Seasonal appetizers included fried soft-shell crab ($14) with aioli, arugula, and piquillo peppers (that dish disappeared quickly); and alici crudi ($13), raw Monterey Bay anchovies with creamy halves of soft egg, avocado, wood oven-roasted carrots, and borage blossoms—great flavor on the plate. The produce here is all pretty fabulous (they have a garden in the former Copia gardens).

Our server steered us toward the creste di gallo pasta ($17)—a wise reco—with the “rooster crest” pasta coated with a reduced San Marzano tomato sauce and sausage. Our table didn’t make it to the larger plates, and we were drinking too much Franciacorta to order a cocktail, but those things exist as well. The wine list features excellent selections from all over Italy (be still, my beating heart), keeping company with plenty of California wines if you want to go that route, and there’s a list of 30 wines that are less than $30 as well. Cool space, with huge pots hanging above the line in the open kitchen, and there’s outdoor seating too. Service was a little scattered (the place is busy), but the host (Lauren) was the picture of hospitality—even when part of our party no-showed. This place rocks.

If you’d like to explore your one-block radius a little more, back across the street is the newly opened ~EMPIRE~, a splashy cocktail lounge that is part of the Andaz (it’s on the corner of First Street and Franklin). While I found the whole look to be way too Phantom of the Opera by way of Las Vegas and San Jose for my taste (the back bar is dominated by organ pipes, there are wispy curtains and candelabras everywhere, and the furnishings are rather, uh, dramatic), we found the staff to be super-friendly. And they make a mean pisco sour (cheers to beverage director Caitlin Laman). There’s also a menu of small plates and more but we were just in for a nightcap—folks were eating pretty late into the night.

The next morning, after checking out, I scooted over to ~OXBOW PUBLIC MARKET~ for some brunch. After fueling up with a macchiato at the Ritual Coffee Roasters counter, I placed my order for some breakfast tacos with C Casa. While waiting for my number to come up, I was able to swing by Whole Spice to pick up some spices (I love that shop), and then I ate outside on the side terrace, enjoying the just-right morning air and view of the mountains (just ignore the parking lot). Ah. Inhale. Exhale. Don’t forget to swing by Model Bakery for their ridonkulous English muffins to bring home, and I also picked up a bigné (cream puff) filled with nocciolata (hazelnut) cream from the Ca’Momi stand for the drive. Uh-huh.

Other spots to consider: you can swing by Morimoto Napa for splashy sushi and cocktails; The Thomas has a tasty brunch (try to get a table on the roof), plus cocktails, lunch, and dinner; if you need a rib-sticking breakfast, Napa Valley Biscuits is famous for their biscuit breakfasts that feature hefty combinations of things like gravy, eggs, and fried chicken (you do the math); the thin-crust pizzas and salads at Azzurro are a local favorite (great if you have kids in tow); and be sure to check out the tasting room at Vintner’s Collective and discover some boutique local wines.

You can also look in my book (you have it, don’t you?) starting on page 182 for some of my favorite tacos and more in the area.

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