Monday, September 27, 2010

Dim Sum Charlie's is open... and they will love me long time

Thursday, September 23, 2010: NBC Thursday's season premieres of Community, The Office, and new show Outsourced; and, just as exciting to Napa residents (if not more), the night Dim Sum Charlie's opened its serving window to the public.

In case you missed my earlier post about this awesome place, Dim Sum Charlie's is Napa Valley's first Asian food truck.  It's also Napa's first dim sum eatery.  And Napa's first food truck that's actually an Airstream trailer. 

This 22-foot, classic 1958 Airstream has tortured dim sum loving locals like myself since it was spotted parked next to the railroad tracks at 728 First Street near the Oxbow Public Market.  Who is Charlie? Why is he never there when I stop by at lunchtime? When will he start doling out the dim sum and loving us long time?

Some of these questions remain unanswered, but the guys behind Charlie are Andrew Siegal and Clayton Lewis.  The idea for the late-night dim sum social scene was hatched on one of Andrew's trips to London, when he visited a rockin nightlife hotspot called Ping Pong Dim Sum, a place people gathered to socialize, drink, and snack on dim sum late into the night.

Andrew, the finance guy, hatched a plan to create what he describes as a "Route 66 meets Bladerunner" dim sum operation for downtown Napa, which until very recently has been utterly devoid of nightlife activities outside private homes.  He procured the battered Airstream and found the perfect property near the Oxbow Public Market on which to park it.  The Airstream and the dining area are set back off of First Street, and conveniently just east of the intersection with Soscol.  Yes, that is right next to the ongoing construction, which is currently limiting them to serving only after 6pm on weekdays (they open at noon on Saturday and Sunday, however, for your dim sum brunch needs). Stylin sail shades protect the long row of picnic tables from the sun, and decorative light strings and an outdoor fireplace keep things lit up after dark.  The location is entirely visible from the street, but feels delightfully secluded. 

Clayton Lewis is the funky glasses, chef-side of the Dim Sum Charlie's equation who helped Andrew restore and remodel the trailer into a shiny and fabulous dim sum steaming machine, and who now controls the kitchen operations day to day.  The entire menu is steamed to order (so all you fried lotus ball lovers like my mom are SOL), and uses  100% organic ingredients.  To ensure top-notch dim sum quality, they've partnered with one of SF's dim sum house elite--which shall remain nameless--and also plan to start collaborating with Napa rockstars like Taylor Boetticher and Toponia Miller of Fatted Calf.

In the four days they have been open to the public, I've been twice, and others have been there daily. Obviously, it's an instant addiction.  Tender rice flour coatings are neither too thick nor too thin, with just the right amount of chew and transluscency to please the eyes and the mouth.   Seafood, veggie, and meat fillings are pristinely fresh, perfectly seasoned, juicy, and truly delicious even without the standard condiment accompaniments (which are of course available on every table).  And, delightfully, the menu changes frequently to keep you coming back for more.

Clockwise from top left: scallop-garlic, shrimp-pea sprout, and lobster-sea bass-shrimp
 Some of my favorite things--so far--are the Country-style Shrimp Almighty dumplings, the Scallop and Garlic dumplings, the White Fluffy BBQ Pork Bun, and the mysteriously named Barbecue Pork Rice Noodle "Snotty."  I can only guess at the origin of the Snotty's name, but I will say that the slippery, goobery texture of this layered noodle item is deeply satisfying.  And the barbecued pork has just enough naturally caramelized sweetness to carry the dish without requiring an off dry wine as a beverage choice.

BBQ pork bun says, "We love you long time!"

Speaking of which, what wine DO you drink with dim sum?  The Napa Twitter community certainly had a lot of pairing ideas this past week, and will be putting those ideas to the test this Thursday night (September 30th) for a Dim Sum Charlie's tweetup party coordinated by the Tweetup Queen herself, @CordairGallery---a.k.a. Linda Cordair of the Quent Cordair Fine Art gallery in downtown Napa.  I'm inclined to bring a dry Riesling or new world sparkler, but I may just grab a bottle of Mahoney Albarino from the neighboring Taste at Oxbow wine bar for something a little different... or maybe I'll just bring a six-pack of Tsingtao. 

Definitely RSVP here if you plan to attend this Thursday's tweetup, though, because the dim sum has been selling out every night since they opened, and is sure to vanish in a flash unless you let Andrew and Clayton know in advance how much food to prepare.  So RSVP, now.  And don't fret if you can't come after you've said you would, because I will eat your share for you.

For the time being, Dim Sum Charlie's is BYO with no corkage, and they sell waters and a couple of sodas--including Jarritos Tamarindo.  No bubble tea in sight, though.

If you can't make Thursday's tweetup, Friday October 1st is the Grand Opening party, and I'm sure much delicious merriment will be had that night as well.

The Airstream opens for business at 6pm WEDNESDAY through Friday, and at noon on Saturdays and Sundays (closed Mon-Tues) for now.  Follow @DimSumCharlies on Twitter for more updates, and to stoke the fires of dim sum lust until your time to get some arrives.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Fish Story

I'm a seafood junkie.  Unfortunately for pescophiles like me, Napa Valley is not known for its fruits de mer--something entirely natural and obvious when you consider that the best local wines are reds with a good bit of backbone and bite.  Local menus tilt to the meaty side here, with maybe one fish option... unless you're at Morimoto or Go Fish, of course, in which case you're either ready to drop a ton of cash, or upvalley.  I don't find myself in either position very often, which is why the arrival of Fish Story at Napa's downtown waterfront is this fish fiend's dream come true.  High-end cooking, medium-end prices, and low-end pretension make it feel like the seafood restaurant I've always wanted in my neighborhood.  Especially because Stephen Barber--who was the chef at MECCA in San Francisco when I lived in the neighborhood--is running the show kitchen-side.

Naturally I had to check it out on opening night, along with my partner in crime and hundreds of other curious folks from near and far.  When I checked Open Table at around 11:45 that morning, there were still table reservations available at all prime dinner times.  When I arrived at the restaurant at 7:00, though, the hostess told me that they were fully booked for the evening.  Over two hundred and fifty seats reserved on a Monday night?!? Well done, Napa. Times they are a-changing.

Since my PIC and I prefer barside dining anyway, we hadn't bothered with reservations and just installed ourselves at the 10-seat horseshoe bar.  The bar/lounge space is very distinctly separated from the dining area, as if they are two unrelated restaurants.  The bar portion has over 20 seats inside--8 or 10 tall stools at the bar counter and another 10-12 seats at smaller two-tops--and probably another 10-15 seats outside on the front patio for those who want to drink outside and not necessarily commit to any food.  A quirky/freaky octopus fountain is on hand to charm and delight the denizens of the front garden area, and a well-stocked overhead bar challenges the indoor patrons to spot their liquor of choice based solely on bottle shape.  From what we could tell, the opening night bar crowd was a mix of curious locals and lucky tourists who happened in just in time to score a seat.  The bar was full by 7:15, and the staff had to bring out extra barstools to accommodate the parents of one of the servers.
If the full bar and cocktail menu don't suck you in, Fish Story also brews its own beer right there in the restaurant.  The shiny tanks are installed behind glass partitions on the way to the main dining room, to demonstrate they're truly the brew pub they told the ABC they are.  Fish Story ales are available on draft, as are a surprisingly large selection of local wines.  GM Treg Finney told us that the wineries provide the restaurant with special pressurized "kegs" of wine that keep the product totally fresh to the last drop.  There's also a pleasing selection of wines by the more traditional bottle and glass, from California as well as more distant lands.

But on to the fish, because that's why we're here. 

The favorite dishes of the night were the lobster roll, the scallop portion of the scallop dish, and the tuna tartare we ordered as an afterthought.  Tuna tartare is so ubiquitous and overdone that I almost never order it in a restaurant, even though raw tuna is one of the great loves of my life.  EVERYONE does a tuna tartare, and it's usually decent, but not particularly challenging or exciting.  Fish Story's interpretation, however, totally rocks the boat with unexpected textures and unusual flavors: crispy toasted hazelnut bits, hazelnut oil, and a microscopic brunoise of serrano peppers and citrus zest.  The menu description also mentioned asian pear, but I was too enthralled with the surprise hazelnut crunch (not mentioned on the description) to notice that sweetness.  Great stuff.  It went fast and I will definitely be back for more.

The lobster roll, that classic seafood house staple, was styled after the New England original--a buttered, toasted, split white bread bun with a Maine lobster salad filling, housemade potato chips, and a side of cole slaw. 

I am not generally a fan of mayonaise-based salads.  Fortunately for me, this lobster salad was made with a lot more than mayo--fresh chopped parsley, thinly sliced celery, and a bright lemony punch took this one up to a completely different level, and was gorgeous match with the Chablis we were drinking at the time.  The cole slaw was also surprisingly tasty and refined, thanks to the fine angel-hair strands of green and red cabbage, and the light tangy dressing that seasoned, rather than drowned its target.

But damn, we couldn't keep our hands off that butter-kissed bun.  Even after the lobster was gone, that toasty gift from god rocked the party.  Not a single crumb survived.

Our other favorite bites of the night were the seared scallops that came as part of the "Day Boat Scallops and Kurobuta Pork Belly with fresh black eyed peas and Swiss chard" entree.  These luscious creatures were perfectly seared and seasoned, succulently moist with that incomparable oceany minerality... and of course gone in a flash.  You'll notice from the picture at right that the dish appears to come with four scallops.  But as you cut into one of the darker scallops, you realize that the kitchen has not in fact made a collossal error of overcooking, but rather... the thing you thought was a scallop is actually a huge piece of pork. Pork belly. Cleverly disguised as a scallop.  As someone who has never loved big slabs of pork belly on a plate, I would have prefered these pork pucks cut up smaller and cooked in with the peas, leaving the scallops alone (perhaps with some scallop reinforcements) on top of the porky beans.  But that's me.  The Kurobuta pork had great flavor, and pork belly lovers would probably cream their pants tat the opportunity to eat these massive hunks.  But.  For me, the two true scallops stole the show, and I will rave about them for many days to come.

Fish Story has a ton to offer, and I'm dying to get back and try their fluke ceviche with espelette pepper, olives, and Meyer lemon olive oil, as well as their chili-roasted Dungeness Crab, as well as their Tombo Tuna with grilled artichoke, olives, and onion relish.  I'm also tempted to go for their "Hook Line & Sinker" prix fixe menu, which (the night I was there) consisted of a cup of chowder or Little Gem salad, choice of grilled Idaho trout or shrimp and grits, and a butterscotch pudding for $27.  An embarassment of riches.  I'm sure their lunch menu--once they start serving next week--will have many other irresistible items as well. 

Opening night hiccups must be forgiven, and brand new restaurants always need a few months to find their sea legs.  I'm utterly convinced that Fish Story is destined for greatness on the Napa waterfront, and I am beyond stoked to have been there at the beginning.  It will only get better from here.

PS: check out this chicken purse we spotted next to us at the bar... I think its owner is a local so keep your eyes peeled for another sighting... AWESOME.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Sweet Taste of Anticipation...

There are few things I love more than anticipating delicious things in my future.  (Obviously one is experiencing said delicious things, but the ratio of anticipated to actual is only rarely 1:1.)  I am a notorious stalker of not-yet-open restaurants and bars, constantly walking by in slow motion to peer into still-shuttered windows, searching the internet for clues and news about their future, browsing online menus, and the like.  I spend a ridiculous amount of time on such activities. 

And so this past week has flown by in a delicious haze of new restaurant lust, thanks to three Napa spots currently in the works, and to the actual opening of one of these objectified eateries tonight... I speak of course of Fish Story, the Napa venture of the Lark Creek Restaurant group.  But first, a description of the other tantalizing ventures that will continue to haunt me with their unattainable edibles and ambience.

Dim Sum Charlie's catered the rehearsal wedding for a friend of friends last weekend, to glowing praise.  As Napa has NO acceptable dim sum anywhere, let alone from a food truck, the positive report (from Diane of Napa Farmhouse 1885) sent all asian food lovers into a tailspin trying to find out where, when, and how soon we could get our mouths on some local har gao.  The where proved easy: the battered Airstream trailer has taken up residence behind the flood building on First Street just east of Soscol Avenue.  It has a lovely little dining area with picnic tables and shade just outside the service window (see picture).  When and how has proven more challenging... the website says only that the grand opening is "coming soon," and multiple plaintive email requests (not all from me, thank you very much) have met with no response.  The mysteriousness is both torturous and delectable.

Since Charlie wouldn't give it up, I turned my attention to the construction job on Main Street just north of Azzurrro Pizzeria.  I have been walking by this place for months (since my girlfriend moved to the neighborhood), and witnessed first-hand its razing, regrading, and rebirth into a stunning example of contemporary architecture. 

Ok, I admit, I didn't really get excited until the "NO PERSONS UNDER 21 ALLOWED" sign went up in the window.  But after that, I was enthralled.  I peered in almost daily.  And finally one day I was able to accost one of the construction workers as he was taking out the trash, and he told me the place was going to be a wine bar... named Cal Wine.

Fortunately, the address number had also been posted so I could look it up on the ABC License Query system to confirm the name.  Not so fortunately, the construction worker was correct--1313 Main Street in Napa, California will soon be home to a wine bar named Calwine.  But I'm not going to hold the generic name against it--when it opens, I'll be there.  It seems I'll have to rely on my own meanderings to figure out when that will be, though, because the internet silence on this place is deafening.  Do you know something about it?  Please share.

Last, but certainly not least, we have Fish Story.  Sustainable seafood, full bar, raw bar, swanky digs, and one of my favorite Bay Area chefs at the stoves had me hooked with the first press release last year.  Its prime location at the corner of Third and Main in downtown's new Riverfront building has required me to walk by countless times on my way to Angèle, Celadon, and Morimoto Napa (see my report on that awesome newcomer here).  With ever-increasing excitement, I watched the installation of funky glass lighting, the construction of the rounded bar, the addition of a tiny outdoor dining garden, and just last week, the stocking of the bar with actual liquor bottles--the surest sign that opening was nigh.

And indeed it is!  Tonight's the night... and I will be there to realize my fantasies and feast upon the glories of Stephen Barber's cuisine.  Kinda makes me want to shave my legs and put on sexy underwear.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Pork and Buns

My girlfriend and I recently checked out Solbar for the first time (shocking, since it's been open for more than 30 days) and grazed through their lounge menu.  We totally wanted to order their cha siu bao pork buns, but our waitress talked us into getting the pork cheek tacos instead.  Those tacos were pretty fantastic with their tiny pickled Thai chili peppers and ripe avocado, but our pork bun craving remained in full force.  When we found ourselves at Redd's bar for dinner before the Charo concert in Yountville a few days later (an event that deserves its own post... ah, Charo), I took it as a sign from god that we should be eating pork buns that night. 

Redd's renowned open-face buns are only available at the bar, so you have to squeeze your way in among the drunken visitors and locals on the prowl to experience this porcine bliss--but it's well worth the effort.  Instead of the usual barbecued mystery meat, Redd uses smoky pork belly for the filling, diced into 3/4 inch chunks, crisped to a delicate crunchy perfection on all sides, and then glazed in hoisin sauce.  The steamed rice flour "bun" is more accurately a tender, toothsome pillow that cradles the ambrosial belly, soft taco style, capturing every drop of the bacon-laced plum sauce.  The accompanying pile of crisp julienned veggies in tangy rice wine vinegar makes a perfect foil for the rich morsels of sweet meaty delight.  We both piled the vegetables on top of the pork, folded the cloud-like bun around the assemblage, and inhaled.  Pure ecstasy.

With two five-inch buns per order, sharing this dish is probably best... but you have to really like the person you're sharing with.  There's no way I would have given up that second bun to anyone less worthy.  Keep this in mind when you plan your own pork bun pilgrimage to Y-ville.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Napa Burger Battle

One week ago today, a small cadre of expert eaters assembled on the west side of town for an epic battle of beef, bun, and cheddar.  With nine contenders and seven categories of scoring, this contest was an all-day affair, requiring exacting standards, keen attention to detail, and some serious eating stamina (I should confess here that we only made it through seven of the nine nominees, as our stomachs began to beg for some winnowing of the list after about 3:00pm.)

Each burger was to be ordered medium, topped with cheddar cheese, and any other items the restaurant normally presented with the burger by default.  Each burger was then rated by the panel of judges on Plate Appeal (up to 5 points), Bread (5 points), Cooking Temperature (0 or 1, depending on whether it made it to medium or not), Meat Texture (5 points), Meat Flavor (5 points), Overall Tastiness (up to 10 points), and Extra Credit (up to 5 points) for particularly great things like value for money, or special bonus features.  The most any burger could score was 36 points.  The nominees were all located in or around downtown Napa, with all but one located within walking distance of one another.

Our journey began at Andie's Cafe, the small shack next to the carwash just off 1st Street west of the 29 on/off ramps. Most people associate this place with frozen yogurt, but many know it for its extensive burger menu. The 1/3 pound basic cheeseburger here arrived promptly and colorfully, loaded with lettuce, tomato, red onion, pickles, mayonnaise, mustard, and ketchup on a toasted potato bun for $6.29.

The veggies were remarkably fresh, but the judges found the overcooked patty texturally unimpressive and without beefy wow factor.  A decent start, but with plenty of room for other contenders to seize the lead.

Next up, we drove into Napa proper and ditched the cars to complete our burgerous trek on foot.  We headed to Alexis Baking Company (aka ABC Bakery) to taste a truly fresh ABC potato bun.  Tons of local restaurants use this bun for their own burgers and sandwiches, and for good reason.  It is soft but chewy, with a delightful tang and pleasing exterior texture even when untoasted. 

The $11.95 cheeseburger we ordered "with everything," however, arrived with mayonnaise and mayonnaise alone... for which several of the judges docked the burger a few extra credit points.  The burger did come with a fresh Caesar salad and medley of pickled peppers, etc. that proved able palate cleansers, so some of that may have been recouped.  But from the burger standpoint, the best thing about the one we received was the bun.  Well past medium, the patty's tasty factor edged past Andie's by a slight margin, but still left a lot of room at the top.  And because of the messed-up order, we had nothing else to go on.

With two non-revelatory burgers behind us, the judges seemed peevish and restless.  We beelined for Celadon to experience the first "restaurant-style" burger of the day... and naturally, a round of cocktails from their excellent full bar to wash it down:  Strawberry vodka lemonade made with local berries, a Spa-tini made with house-infused lemon-cucumber vodka and ginger, and the Treetini composed of Veev acai liquor, muddled basil leaves, and sweetened lime juice.  All peevishness melted away.

And then the burger arrived... a glorious 7-ounce patty of American style Kobe beef chuck from Masami Farms, topped with shredded cheddar (per our request), sun-dried tomato mayonnaise, mesclun lettuces, ripe tomato, red onion, and a side of tarragon shoestring fries.  Hello, lover. 

It was delectable, and--at last!--still pink and juicy.  So juicy in fact, that it juiced all over the bread, the plate, and the eaters' hands.  Chef-owner Greg Cole stopped by to explain the details of his burger masterpiece, including the provenance of the spectacularly good potato-pepper roll that soaked up the juice with such ease.  Panorama in San Francisco produces these wonders with their absorbent but light interior, perfect toasty textures, and enough heft to stand up to a nearly half-pound chunk of meat.  With the use of premium meat, creative mayonnaise, and the large fries portion, Celadon's burger racked up a slew of extra credit points on top of the high scores for flavor and presentation.  And all for $14.

Elated by this delicious discovery (new to all judges present), the burger posse moved the 100 yards to Angèle, which was in the throes of lunch rush.  Once installed on the shaded patio, we again ordered the house burger with cheddar cheese, which comes with Angèle's deservedly famous and beloved fries for $14.

As at Celadon, the burger arrived thick, pink and juicy.  The ABC potato bun was perfectly toasted on all sides, producing a textural variety that the untoasted version only hinted at.  The choice of white cheddar met with mixed success at the judging table--some thought it was too mild, others loved its subtlety. 

The fries, as expected, were a smash hit, and vanished quickly in between bites of the juicy burger (which for me scored a 5 for 5 on meat flavor, and 9 out of 10 for overall tastiness--on a par with Celadon's). 

Originally we had planned to take a wine break at Trahan and Olabisi's tasting room after this burger, but since we'd already started drinking and were feeling spry, we powered on to Norman Rose Tavern without a moment's hesitation.

Over a round of beers, we examined the Norman Rose Five Dot beef cheeseburger, loaded with four slices of cheddar cheese, and garnished with a thick slice of green tomato for $10.95.  Similar to the situation at Angèle, the cheese prompted some dissent among the learned judges.  Some rejoiced in the luxurious volume of gooey tangy goodness, while others (buzzkills) felt it overwhelmed the burger.  The bun also met with mixed reviews, with some liking the fluffy texture, and others not so much. 

It was a perfect illustration of the power and importance of subjective preference in the burger realm.

Moving past our differences, our team rounded the corner to Grace's Table for the "Hand formed Meyer's Ranch chuck, housemade pickles, fries, and whole-grain mustard aioli."  The menu did not mention that the pickles were actually a medley of cruciferous and non-cruciferous veggies grown at the chef's house, or the possibility of getting half fries and half onion rings, or all salad if such was your desire--but we figured that out with no problem thanks to our server.

For $12, this was an enormous mountain of food, overflowing the large plate on which it arrived.  We dove in to the sixth burger of the day with gusto.  Fresh veggies, homemade fries, nicely cooked beef, and lots of burger juice prompted positives from all the judges.  The mustard sauce added a pleasant tang to the mix, and the pickled veggies refreshed our beef-bloated palates.

But then we hit the wall.  Six burgers in five hours, sweltering heat outside, and bellies full of beef and booze conspired to bring us down.  We resolved to eliminate a few stops from our remaining hitlist: Cuvee, which didn't open until 5pm (still over an hour away), and Bounty Hunter, which only serves its cheeseburger once a week and thus should not perhaps get to be included in this roundup.  We piled into an air-conditioned car to drive the half mile to the Oxbow Public Market for our final cheeseburger of the day at Gott's Roadside.

The place was cool and quiet, a welcome haven from the inferno outside.  One judge bravely ordered a chocolate shake to wash down the burger, but after a few sips the scope of our overgluttedness became clear.  "I've never wanted a cheeseburger less," said another judge.  A sad and shameful moment for all the members of the panel.

With stamina taxed beyond human limits, the judges could not see past their personal peculiarities with the Gott's cheeseburger ($7.99).  The Niman Ranch beef chuck patty is topped by default with American cheese, which dismayed some who had grown accustomed to the cheddar topping of the day.  The iceberg lettuce on the bottom of the bun brought structural integrity and textural variety to the burger, but some disliked the warm lettuce factor.  The presence of homegrown homemade pickles and secret sauce (which contains relish) pushed the pickle limit for certain judges, while others enjoyed the vinegar and salt.  The seventh cheeseburger of the day was not the favorite, but I can't help but think it would have done better had it been consumed earlier in the day.

Lessons learned: (1) eating back to back burgers is a great way to compare beef texture, flavor, bun quality, and value for money; (2) eating more than five burgers back to back is a hideously bad idea; and (3) the company you keep during a burger orgy is critical to your ultimate enjoyment of the experience.

Thank you to my phenomenal fellow judges for an awesome day of unbridled gluttony in the name of science, and thank you to all the nominees for indulging our little contest with grace and hospitality. 

Can't wait for the Pizza Battle.