Saturday, December 17, 2011

'Tis The Season To Be Truffly

This post is sponsored by Serve from American Express. Sign up for Serve and receive $10 credit towards your first use. Comment below within the next 7 days for your chance to win an extra $100 credit to your account!

December in Napa is a time of great feasting and celebration.  It's also (rather conveniently) the height of truffle season, which means endless temptation and a dramatic spike in my dining out expenditures.  This year, I branched out from my usual truffle snuffling routine and headed to Bouchon with six of my favorite gourmands for a Périgord-themed regional menu, only to find that the kitchen wanted to offer us a private, top-secret, one-night-only truffle menu instead.  Mais oui, mon chef!  We will accept.  (Especially when you greet us with complementary bubbly!)

Note the truffles' sex appeal steaming up beneath the plastic.
Thus began an epic parade of decadence, not soon to be forgotten.

A sealed bowl of fresh black and white truffles -- protected from our lascivious hands by a sheet of plastic wrap -- appeared first out of the gate, as the platter for a round of silky foie gras mousse canapés.

For those who care, the little pebbles in there with the truffles
are coriander seeds, juniper berries, and black peppercorns.
With the foie devoured, they took off the cover and passed that bowl around the table for each of us to take a hit.  It was all I could do not to bury my face in there and never come up.

Fortunately I resisted, because there was some serious caviar on the way.  Oh, yes.  Each little brioche toast round was piled high with delicate beads of delight, ready to burst in your mouth.  Once again, the little bites hovered on an invisible floor above an iPhone that was live streaming the Bouchon kitchen-cam:

This was all BEFORE the dinner technically started... the séduit-bouches of the evening.

They did the trick. We were primed and ready for the main event.

Despite appearances, this is not Texas toast.
Our first course was a classic frisée salad with crisped lardons, fines herbes vinaigrette, poached egg, and buttery toasted brioche. With. White. Truffles.

This dish was everything you hope for in a French salad.

Crunchy, soft, hot, cold, tangy, meaty, earthy, fresh, silken, and altogether just a modest little bowl of awesomeness.

Not pictured: my individual sauceboat with another half cup
of the buttery nectar. 
The ribeye steak with truffled béarnaise also hit a home run into the bliss zone.  Gorgeous medium rare beef, well seasoned, and sliced just thick enough to let you feel like you had a mouthful without choking you: this is what's for dinner.  Bouchon's béarnaise, however, will live forever in my memory as the embodiment of all that is rich and perfect in this world.  If truffle butter manifested itself in cloud form, this is what it would be.
I wish I had packed up the leftover sauce and taken it home to bathe in.

The ultimate in sweet-savory desserts.
Truffle-themed desserts make one think of rich chocolate ganachey-type things, perhaps with a neat infusion of herb or spice or tea to mix things up.  Our truffle dessert did no such thing -- this was a revelation.  Classic choux pastry profiteroles were stuffed with an intense white truffle/vanilla ice cream, then doused with black truffle-infused salted caramel sauce.  Several people commented that the combination sounded totally unappealing, but made perfect sense once you tasted it.  The balance of sweet, salty, and earthy was spot on.  Another memory to fondle for years to come.

After dinner, the uber-gracious staff let us peek backstage in the kitchen and meet chef Michael Sandoval, who seemed just as excited about creating our truffle menu as we had been eating it.  Love him.  He was especially pleased with our dessert... so here's hoping it becomes a regular fixture for Bouchon's winter menus.

While we were back there, we also got to check out the kitchen cams in other TK establishments, and spotted the man himself in the Las Vegas Bouchon kitchen (upper left window in the picture at right). It was the perfect end to a phenomenal experience.

The excuse we needed to spring for this over-the-top truffle junket was Serve from American Express, a new online payment system that lets you send money to other Serve users just by sending an email.  It's designed to make settling up with your friends and family easy, instant, and awkwardness-free.  Serve is encouraging people to sign up this month by giving away FREE MONEY with every new account... which certainly comes in handy this time of year, as my fellow truffle whores can attest.

One lucky reader of my blog will also win an extra $100 credit to their Serve account!  Anyone who comments on this post in the first seven days of its going live gets one entry in the giveaway, so don't be shy.  Skeptics can check out the full contest rules here. Note that you will have to share your email address with Serve in order to have the money properly credited.

Remember to sign up for Serve and receive $10 credit towards your first use. Comment below within the next 7 days for your chance to win an extra $100 credit to your account! Official sweepstakes rules and regulations may be found by clicking here. I was selected for this sponsorship by the Clever Girls Collective, which endorses Blog With Integrity, as I do.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Mutinous Night To Remember

Last Sunday night I was invited to hit the Third Annual Mutineer Magazine Red Carpet Party in downtown Napa, a one-night-only transformation of the Napa Valley Opera House's downstairs area into a bass-blasting underground club full of artisanal cocktail drinks, "beverage influencers," and the people that love them.  A red carpet entrance, festive spotlights sweeping across the sky, and lots and lots of cameras brought extra flash and sizzle to a chilly Sunday night.  The attendees dressed to match -- Mutineer Editor in Chief Alan Kropf was prancing around in tux and tails, the ladies sparkled in sequins and fur, and even the die-hard hipsters broke out their new suspenders in honor of the festivities.

The reason for the event? To celebrate the evolution of fine beverage culture in the Napa Valley, highlighting eight local bartenders in The King's Ginger Holiday Cocktail Competition,  three local beverage entrepreneurs featured in the magazine's new Inspired Voices section, and Mutineer's success with the Clean Water Crusader campaign, in partnership with A Child's Right.

The King's Waes Hail; photo by Phil Jimcosky,
Mutineer Magazine

Thanks to event sponsors Chinaco Tequila, Luxardo, and Anchor Distilling Co. -- the parent company for Chinaco, Luxardo, The King's Ginger, Anchor Steam, and several other hot artisanal spirit labels -- the evening was not wanting in liquor.  The eight Napa Valley bartenders took turns handing out tasting portions of their original King's Ginger cocktails (you can see the recipes online on Mutineer's blog "Previews" leading up to the event), while two imported SF mixologists crafted round after round of the savory juniper-scented "Just in Thyme" (with No.3 Gin) and the smooth, Chinaco-laced "Aztec Two-Step" with cucumber, grapefruit juice and bitters. 

I would be lying if I said no one was taking palate-cleansing tequila shots in between rounds. 

Photo by Phil Jimcosky,
Mutineer Magazine.

Anchor Steam beers, Dry Soda and blk water were all flowing freely too, but for once in Napa there wasn't a glass of wine in sight.  (Gasp!)  This was first and foremost the night of the cocktail.

In keeping with the theme, local chef Gary Penir and pastry maven Sara Wurst supplied cocktail-inspired passed hors d'oeuvres like the delectable agedashi & poached scallop shooters topped with King's Ginger foam, margarita spheres (Chinaco tequila margaritas spherified with calcium chloride in classic molecular gastronomist style), juniper and basil crackers with Luxardo limoncello mousse, and pork belly yakitori with Sangue Morlacco, which guests snapped up as quickly as  the servers could offer them.

Photo by Phil Jimcosky, Mutineer Magazine.

For me, the highlight of the evening (other than breaking out my fur stole for the first time in years) was checking out The King's Ginger.  I've been fascinated with this stuff ever since I learned the story behind it.  In 1903, King Edward VII of England ("Edward the Caresser" to his friends) was living the good life pre-World War I with lots of carousing, thrill seeking, gambling, sailing, and riding around in his horseless carriage.  This enjoyable lifestyle understandably worried his doctors, who created a ginger and lemon-based "tonic" (read: extremely strong alcohol) "to warm and revivy His Majesty" during his rousting about.  Thus The King's Ginger was born.

It's strong stuff... 41% alcohol by volume... and has a spicy ginger burn, offset with a healthy dose of sweetness and lemon peel citrus notes.  The most successful cocktails -- in my opinion -- were those that balanced out the sweetness with acidity and sourness. 

The winner! Photo by Phil Jimcosky, Mutineer Magazine.

Bartender Michael Jack Pazdon of Solbar in Calistoga took home first prize with The King's Waes Hail: a frothy coupe of Calvados, lemon juice, Carpano Antica and Luxardo's Maraschino Originale, shaken together with an egg white, then crowned with a few drops of gingersnap spice tincture, Genevieve Genever-style gin, dehydrated apple chips, freshly grated nutmeg, and rosemary flowers. Phew.  A lot of work to make, but a clear winner for the judging panel.

I never thought I'd see the day the Napa Valley Opera House hosted a hipster red carpet event, but I'm glad I did.  Mutineer's millenial-generation energy is introducing something new to Napa Valley, and helping local beverage innovators reach a broader audience at home and around the country.  This I think is fantastic.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Napa Valley Film Festival: So Close, You Can Almost Taste It

The first annual Napa Valley Film Festival kicks off next week on November 9th, and -- as you might expect from a film festival event in an epicurean capital -- the movies are only one part of the draw.

Besides the 100+ films, there are tons of food and wine tasting opportunities, film-inspired dishes, cooking demos, and local celebrity chef-studded dinners to make it abundantly clear where you are.  Lounges at each of the main festival "villages" around the Valley will be stocked with local delicacies and libations, and many local businesses are offering discounts to festival pass-holders venturing out on their own. 

There's even a panel discussion about the "rise of foodie culture" on Sunday the 13th, in which I will be participating as the local food blogger alongside other far more famous people like Christopher Kostow of (3 Michelin-starred!) Meadowood.  Obviously, food is playing a pretty strong supporting role in this production, so don't miss out.

For a rundown of the most exciting culinary goings on, check out the tablehopper 707 scout report (that's me writing there too):

For the complete festival schedule and descriptions of all the different ways you can get tickets, consult the festival website

And I will see you at the [snacks before and after the] movies.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Insider's Guide to Happy Hour In Napa: Part Two

You know that the City of Napa has arrived when there are too many happy hour deals to fit in a single roundup article.  So here we are again, with Part Two of the Insider's Guide.  As in Part One, I'm not trying to do a comprehensive listing of all the discounts, just sharing some of my personal favorites for cheap drinks and snacks during that happiest of hours.  As you may notice from my photo selections, I tend to fixate on the snacks... but really, the drinks are just as important for this shortlist.  And here they are:

Bui Bistro.  Anyone who reads my blog knows of my immense love for this place.  Chef-owner Patrick Bui grew up and learned to cook in France, so his versions of Vietnamese classics have a Gallic elegance to them that suits the tasteful decor of his Pearl Street restaurant.  He also pours plenty of well-priced Old World wines, chosen to show off the complex flavors in his cuisine.  During happy hour Tuesday through Sunday, all wines by the glass are $2 off, and the appetizers are $3 less than usual.  This means that you can order the swoon-worthy Saigon wings, 5-spice duck confit, or spring rolls for only $5 per order, and wash it down with a glass of Austrian Grüner Veltliner or prosecco for $6.  And since happy hour runs from 5-7pm, this really could be dinner. 
TRAGIC UPDATE OCTOBER 3, 2012:  Restaurant staff told me today that they have discontinued happy hour... please help me lobby to bring it back!  Keep asking for these awesome deals.

Bui Bistro's oh-so-succulent duck confit
infused with Vietnamese five-spice.
1313 Main.  This sleek new wine bar at the north edge of downtown is gaining a reputation for its late night bubbles and beats on the weekends, but it's also well worth a visit during happy hour.  Sunday through Wednesday from 3-6pm, a rotating selection of eight wines by the glass and five bottled beers are available two for the price of one, with mixing and matching allowed.  Their selection of wines ranges from local cult cabs to quirky international producers, and changes frequently to keep things interesting.  A short list of wine-friendly small plates created by Chef Sarah Scott (former executive chef at the Robert Mondavi Winery) can also be yours during happy hour for $5-6 off the normal prices.  Think snacks like muhamarra, green herb pesto, and apricot raita.  1313 has a sexy vibe, and lots of different seating options (including a fabulous back patio), so odds are you can find a spot that suits you.

1313 Main's rabbit terrine with red curry mustard,
pickled fennel, toast.
Uva Trattoria Italiana. Just down the block and around the corner from 1313 Main, downtown veteran Uva has been packing the locals in for twelve glorious years.  The music stage and dancefloor get put to good use on the weekends, but I prefer to go pre-music for happy hour in their spacious bar and lounge area.  Weekdays from 4-6pm -- except Mondays, when they're closed -- a selection of draft beers is $3, house red or white wine is $5, and well drinks are $4 (yes! they have one of downtown's rare full bar licenses).  To help line your stomach against the booze, check out the happy hour antipasti menu (all $5), which includes pizzas, baby back ribs, almonds & olives, and assorted other savory nibbles.  Tuesday nights are extra happy with a burger & pint deal for $10, as well as the usual specials.  On Sundays in November, you can score a classic margherita pizza and pint of beer for only $10, as well.  

Uva's pesto arancini; photo by Jade R. on
Fumé Bistro.  Fumé is like the north Napa version of Zinsvalley: friendly, non-fussy, comfort food with a twist.  Their offbeat location alongside Highway 29 on Byway East (turn off 29 at El Centro Avenue to get there) lends a clandestine feel to the place, though, and it consequently has a cultish following of locals.  Monday night is particularly famed for the "Five Dollar Burger" ($5.55) deal, which starts at 4pm and runs until closing.  The rest of the workweek also has its discounts: from 4-6pm, a small menu of prime drinking foods (like margherita pizza, polenta fries, onion rings with chipotle barbecue sauce, and fried raviolis) awaits, for only $4.50 per plate.  And from 4-6pm Monday through Friday, beers and well cocktails from their full bar are only $3.50.
For more happy hour suggestions, check out Part One to this guide, here.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Handbook For Badasstic Country Ladies

Last weekend I discovered a new consignment store in downtown Napa with a fabulous collection of historic toys, sports memorabilia, and random old books.  The deceptively generic-sounding Napa Valley Buy & Sell is on First Street between Coombs and Randolph, and offers hours of entertainment to those willing to paw through the wares--particularly the books about food and sexuality.  These two departments were spectacularly well developed, making it clear that someone in charge over there has a penchant for the fun stuff. 

I scored two remarkable treasures on my first visit, for the princely sum of $4.32 total (including tax). The first was a 1961 hardcover edition of The Escoffier Cook Book, but the second was an even more exciting relic from another time and place: the 1888 edition of Maison Rustique des Dames, by Madame Millet-Robinet. This copy is in amazing shape considering its age, and came with a bonus prize inside: two carefully pressed four leaf clovers hidden within its 636 onion-skin pages.

Since this 1888 version was the 13th edition, I'm guessing the book was wildly popular back in the day.  A quick perusal of the table of contents for this two-volume hardcover reveals why.  (Note: this book is written in 1888 French, so forgive any inaccuracies in my 21st Century translations)

Part One discusses basic household maintenance, covering such essentials as how to hire your maids; how to put your kids to work on the farm; managing household expenses; bread baking; window washing; the care and cleaning of furs; preserving meats (including a subsection entitled "Method of killing and preparing the pig"); preserving vegetables; stocking the wine cellar; and an entire chapter dedicated to colognes and perfumes.  Bien sûr.  These ladies may have been in the country, but it seems that didn't stop them from living pret-ty darn well... the wines suggested by the author include such domaines as Romanée Conti and Lafite, for example.

Part Two is a Manual of Cookery, outlining different types of service style, basic knife techniques, and a wealth of presentation and garnish ideas.  Distinct chapters on hors d'oeuvres, meat, game, fish, vegetables, purées (presumably so popular that they deserve their own chapter), fried dishes (same), doughs, desserts, pastries, and an authoritative "List of foods that may be served for lunch" provide invaluable guidance to the country hostess with the mostess.

 Part Three, incredibly, includes a medical encyclopedia and covers topics ranging from what to include in the medicine cabinet, all the way to formal pronouncements of death. 

Engraving 116: "Goat in harness"

Part Four delves into all the various types of gardens one might desire, and Part Five gets down and dirty on the Farm... articulating the essentials of farm buildings, staffing, and proper feeding of the staff (which the book stresses at length), as well as the care and feeding of an array of different breeds of chickens, turkeys, geese, ducks, pigeons, rabits, cattle, dairy animals, sheep, pigs, goats, and bees.  There's even a chapter on how to drive a horse-drawn carriage and tend your horse while traveling long distances in all manner of weather conditions. Tip: always light a lantern on your carriage right after sunset, or risk a fine of 15 francs if the police catch you.

The  book is full of priceless advice like this.  I'm thinking I need to translate and share the choicest passages and recipes on this blog to celebrate the pearls of wisdom Madame Millet-Robinet had to share with badasstic country ladies over 120 years ago.  Who knows how much of it might still be invaluable to modern "ladies" in rural communities like the Napa Valley?

Choosing where to begin, though, is gonna be tough... maybe "Management of a Dinner Party," where all the rules of engagement and feasting are made clear? Or perhaps "Enraged or Venimous Animal Bites And Insect Stings," sure to be a thrilling read full of terrifying medical advice....

Regardless of where I begin, this quirky little tome contains an embarassment of riches, and I cannot wait to taste them.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Bivalve-Curious in Tomales Bay

Oyster eaters, it's true: our beloved bivalves taste much better at the source.
A recent pilgrimage to Tomales Bay opened my eyes and mouth to the most delectable mouthfuls of mollusk I have ever eaten in our country. 

Those sweet, slick, and silky little creatures seemed barely out of the water every place we ordered them, whether at a random diner, a roadside counter, or one of the area's top tables.  Such immaculate purity and undefiled virtue! 

How many fabulous ways there are to ravish them.

Until this trip, I typically devoured them raw and naked, with just a glass of wine and some bread and butter for accompaniment.  But here again, Tomales Bay prompted a revelation.  It seems that superbly fresh oysters can indeed remain just as delicious after they're cooked--something I would have rejected as impossible before.

I certainly did put away quite a few of the naked variety on site, but found myself completely enchanted by all the exciting and original ways these beauties get dressed up on their home turf.

My first tentative step down the path of cooked oyster love occurred at Priscilla's, a tiny, no-frills, diner-like restaurant on the main drag in Inverness.  The place did not look promising given its full page of traditional pizzas and scant handful of oyster based dishes.  But appearances can be deceiving... these guys can rock the fried oysters like you wouldn't believe.

Crunchy on the outside, creamy on the inside, and absolutely greaseless.  Cue celestial chorus!  (And do you see how fresh and beautiful that side salad is? So unexpected, and so delicious.)

In addition to these badasstic cornmeal crusted fried oysters, the place also offered Silvertap's Dry Creek Valley Sauvignon Blanc, which is a dead ringer for the Languedoc's addicting Picpoul de Pinet.  And, like Picpoul de Pinet, this stuff was priced to drank.  Unfortunately for us (or perhaps not), only eight ounces were left in their keg, so we had to switch to beer after a quick glass as aperitif.  The Lagunitas Brewing Company's IPA we chose that day proved to be the go-to beverage with every oyster preparation we encountered.

Especially this one:

Oysters Kilpatrick.  Life altering.  Thank you, Australia, for creating this most miraculous of barbecued oyster recipes!  Bacon + Worcester-based sauce + Oyster = bliss.  The ones pictured above are at The Marshall Store, on the eastern shore of Tomales Bay in the town of Marshall. 

There's a lovely view of the bay from the roadside counter where those desiring to drink alcohol are relegated (the Store has no permit to serve on their premises).  Note that there's no roof over this area, so bring a jacket--the breeze off the water can be brisk-- and try to time your visit when the weather is cooperating.

Oh, and it's cash only there, so plan ahead. You'll need at least a dozen of the Kilpatricks ($13 for the half dozen, if memory serves).

Last, but certainly not least, we come to the oyster pizza at Osteria Stellina in Point Reyes Station.  What must have started as a mountain of thinly sliced leeks is sweated in butter and enriched with cream, then slathered all over the delicate thin skin of the pizza crust.  The raw oysters (out of the shell) are lowered into position, and into the oven it goes until the crust is cooked to a perfect golden brown, and those juicy little oysters are straining at their seams.

Thanks to the earthiness of the leeks, this pizza actually went beautifully with the non-vintage old vine Pleiades XXI, a quirky local red from winemaker Sean Thackrey.  The light body and earth-driven character totally worked with this pizza--and absolutely every other seafood item we ordered.  Magic.

Now that I've experienced what oysters can be just an hour and a half's drive away, I don't see myself ordering them anywhere else.  Unfortunately, I can already feel the withdrawal setting in.

This is when I thank the bivalve gods that I bought a copy of the excellent book "Oyster Culture" by Tomales Bay resident Gwendolyn Meyer, which contains history, science, pictures, and (most importantly) recipes for the region's most famous product.  Though my Napa versions will never taste as fine as the ones grown, cooked, and devoured within a half-mile of Tomales Bay, they hopefully will keep me going until my next visit.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Truffle Festival, Part Deux

"Whosoever says truffle, utters a grand word, which awakens erotic and gastronomic ideas...."
Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), preface to ‘The Physiology of Taste’ (1825).

"The truffles themselves have been interrogated, and have answered simply: eat us and praise the Lord." - Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870).

You see? We are not alone in our truffle depravity.  There is in fact a long and glorious tradition of truffle worship, culminating in the Napa Truffle Festival and its wonderland of earthy delights.  I had the great good fortune of getting to sit in on this hedonist's fantasy last year, for the inaugural event at the Westin Verasa.  You can read my official coverage of that experience here, and my unofficial trip down memory lane (with photographs) here.

The second Napa Truffle Festival promises to be just as much delicious fun as the first.  This one will take place January 13-16th, 2012, coinciding with the kickoff of the 30th Annual All Truffle Dinner at La Toque.  As with the first Napa Truffle Festival, there will be two thematic tracks from which attendees can choose: the Scientific, for those interested in becoming truffle cultivators, and the Culinary, for those intent on eating as many truffles as possible (not an exact quote from the sponsors).

Among the highlights: Barbara Fairchild, the former Editor in Chief of Bon Appetit magazine will be delivering the keynote speech; a Michelin-starred cast of international chefs will be cooking the outrageous multicourse Truffles and Wine dinner for Saturday night; daily truffle cooking demonstrations and truffle wine pairing seminars; trufflicious lunches at La Toque; and a guided tour of Robert Sinskey Vineyard's developing truffle orchards in Carneros.

For those poor souls who who can't afford the all-inclusive $1,250 pass (that's per person, yo), there are other, more moderately priced ticket options to the festival, and a mere $40 will get you access to the Napa Truffle Festival Marketplace, where truffly goods of all kinds (including les truffes themselves) will be available for tasting and purchase.  Check the Festival's main page, or Facebook page for full details and updates as the date draws nearer.  You can also for up to the second news.

As we toil through the four torturous months remaining until the festival, remember that Whole Foods carries a very respectable brand of truffle butter (yes I know it's not the same as the real thing but it's still super tasty), which -- with some mood lighting and sexy music -- ought to get the job done.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Insider's Guide To Happy Hour Deals In The City Of Napa

Being a person of French peasant descent (and modest income), I have always delighted in discovering great deals on food and wine.  Living in Napa raises the difficulty level of this particular challenge, but also the satisfaction of finding a truly awesome happy hour discount. 

The following is a totally subjective list of some of the best happy hours in town, chosen by yours truly because of their value, their accessibility (e.g., more than one day, continues past 5pm), and/or their quality of offerings.  There are other worthy contenders out there, though!  Let me know your favorites in the comments.  À la vôtre...

Oh how I love thee, mushroom flatbread. With. Truffle. Oil.
Carpe Diem Wine Bar.  These guys do happy hour RIGHT, which in my book means every day of the week.  From 4-6pm, you get $3.50 draft beers, red and white wines of the week (one of each color) for $6/glass, and discounts on a short list of their favorite menu snacks, including my beloved wild mushroom flatbread ($6 during happy hour), truffle popcorn, and their wildly addicting harissa fries--made with the harissa blend from Whole Spice in the Oxbow Public Market.  Carpe's space is cool and contemporary, and verrrrrrrry popular... so it can get loud.  Arriving on the earlier side is advised if you aren't up for standing room only.

Grace's Table.  Just down the street from Carpe, Grace's Table also rocks the daily happy hour from 3-6pm (3-7 on Wednesdays).  Glasses of the house red and white wines are $5, as are the soju cocktails (normally $9).  Their food menu offers a really great variety of meat, non-meat, seafood, and cheesey goodness priced between $3 and $6.  It's rare to see such a broad selection of dishes and non-fried preparations on a happy hour menu that also contains fried pickles and semolina crusted onion rings.  If the bar stools aren't calling your name, no worries--the discount applies in the restaurant area too.

Salt cod beignets/tater tots with harissa aioli.
Fish Story.  Rounding out the pack of daily happy hour spots, Fish Story's deal runs from 3-6:30pm.   During this luxuriously long time, full-size draft beers are $2.50 (!), signature and well cocktails are $5, and a half dozen of their wines on tap are also $5 per glass (the Morning Sun Sangiovese rosé from Sonoma Mountain is my vinous go-to).  Foodwise, the $5 menu changes but typically includes oyster shooters, fish tacos, ceviche, clam chowder, and salt cod beignets.  Discounts only apply in the bar area and on the pleasant front patio, aka the Octopus' Garden.

Zins' thrilling smoked salmon, goat cheese, caper pizza.  Try
it with a cucumber gimlet for maximal enjoyment.
Zinsvalley.  Holding court over the brick plaza on First Street, Zinsvalley is a spacious restaurant with plenty of shaded patio space as well as a fireplace-equipped bar.  Zins does its well-known happy hour in the bar Monday-Friday (no weekends), from 2-6pm--except for Wednesdays, when the hours remain happy until closing at midnight.  Three dollar beers, $4 well cocktails and house wine, and a discounted appetizer menu happens every happy hour night, but there are also special deals on Tuesday (half-price burgers) and Thursday ($6 you call it Martinis, featuring Ketel One).  The vibe is casual, and the bar is usually full of locals.

Bounty Hunter Wine Bar.  Bounty Hunter started its happy hour discounts in the dark early days of the recession, but the enduring popularity of these offerings has kept them around since.  Deals run Monday through Thursday from 3-6pm, and ALL DAY on Monday until closing.  During these happy times, draft beers (including Guinness) are 2-for-1, and Bounty Hunter wine brands (Streamside,  Pursuit, Waypoint, The Vigilante, etc.) are 2-for-1 by the glass, or 20% off by the bottle.  You can also get a quarter slab or ribs for $5, or a BBQ sampler platter with brisket, pulled pork, and ribs with a dollop of cole slaw (a full meal) for $10.

New bar tables and chairs moved into the wine bar space
in mid-September. Is a flatscreen next?
Whole Foods Wine Bar.  Ok, this one is technically neither a restaurant nor a happy hour--it's a frickin' unbelievable value.  The recently expanded wine bar located in the heart of the Napa Whole Foods Market is a wondrous place, open 11:30am to 8pm daily, where you can order beers like Four In Hand IPA or White Cloud Belgian White for $1.99, 5-ounce pours of Sancerre for $5, a half bottle of Veuve Clicquot for $30, cheese plates for $8, and/or any bottle in their wine department at retail cost, with no corkage. Thursday and Friday night wine tastings cost an impossible $2 per person... and we're talking flights of Rombauer Vineyards (9/22-9/23), Robert Sinskey Vineyards (9/29-9/30), and other totally legit producers.  No joke. Check the tasting schedule for details.

For more of my favorites, check out Part Two of the Guide...

Monday, September 5, 2011

Savoring Summertime

Flipping through my mealtime pictures from the last few weeks, I am struck by how many delicious items I discovered for the first time this summer.  Time for a roundup of the best stateside dishes of recent memory! (For pictures of France's prime offerings, check out my post from early August.)

Porchetta Arugula Pizza 

I discovered this luscious beast at the Silver Oak Release Party pizza pairing contest, when it won my heart and first place vote among a field of worthy contenders. A chewy blistered crust, perfect tomato to cheese ratio, and glorious paving of succulent porchetta slices packs plenty of flavor right out of the oven, but then the whole thing goes to another level with a cool showering of fresh arugula and shaved pecorino romano. Perfection. It was spectacular with Silver Oak's Alexander Valley Cab, but it is also superbly satisfying with Ca'Momi's own house red, Rosso di Napa. And, if you hit Ca'Momi on Sunday, Monday, or Wednesday night, you can get a bottle of the house red and any pizza (including this one) for only $20.  Total.

Grilled Watermelon Heirloom Tomato Salad 

Gorgeous, juicy, and minimally dressed, this is summer on a plate.  The hint of char on the watermelon brought a nice caramelized element to offset the sweet and tart aspects, but the stealthy showstopper of this salad was the creamy pine nut puree drizzled around underneath the peppery watercress and salty ricotta salata.  Amazing stuff.  I'm very pleased with the menu additions coming out of Fish Story under Kiwi chef Clint Davies, who took over from Stephen Barber in late June. Can't wait to go back and try some more of his repertoire.

Ham Biscuit With Peach-Borage Jam And Creole Mustard

Wow. As hard as it may be to believe, this thing tasted even better than it sounded, and even better than it looked.  Salty, meaty Fremont ham.  Sun-kissed peach preserves, with an unexpected herbal twist.  Tangy, spicy, coarse-grained mustard.  A perfect buttermilk biscuit enveloping it all like a fluffy golden cloud, if clouds tasted like butter.  And ... all this artisanal farm-fresh goodness costs a mere $3.25.  Get there early, because this divine creature is only on the breakfast menu.

Pork Chop With Agave and Malanga

Cielito Lindo opened in the old Annalien space on Main Street in July. Another Mexican restaurant for Napa? Yes... but with an original concept, and plenty of dishes you won't find anywhere else in the valley.  The menu salutes the cuisine of Jalisco, the Mexican region best known in the U.S. as the home of Puerto Vallarta.  As you might expect, there is a lot of fresh seafood involved. As you might not expect, there is also a pork chop to remember. Thick cut, seared, and slathered in a sweet-savory agave and lychee pan sauce, this slab of pork is irresistible--especially perched on its starchy mash of malanga (a tropical tuber very similar to taro, with a nutty, earthy flavor). I loved it when I tried it in the restaurant, but I loved it even more when I stood in front of my fridge later that night, gnawing the leftovers off the bone.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Make Me Laugh, Tout Suite

The esteemed tasting panel at Thursday's Tasting In The Dark.
Photo by Ashley Teplin.
Why are unexpected pleasures always the most delightful?

I was invited to visit the Tout Suite Social Club headquarters in St. Helena Thursday night to watch them film a blind pinot noir tasting and a tequila/taco segment with Jesus Padilla of Los Osuna Agave Azul spirits. Not having done my homework, I learned moments before the filming started that Tout Suite streams live broadcasts about interesting food and beverages out to its "social club" of followers every week, with two-way video that allows members to "call in" and interact with the live guests as part of the show.  The goal is to get incredible products and producers into your living room, no matter where you live.  Tout Suite launched on Bastille Day this year, and is presently in a kind of soft opening beta status while they work out the kinks and build up their online content.

Tout Suite's tasting commentators dissecting every
swirl, sniff, and eyebrow lift.
Photo by Ashley Teplin.
The shows have sassy names like "Tasting In The Dark" (their blind tasting competition), and "Meet Your Maker" (featuring producers of artisanal products), and an irreverent tone to match.  The blind pinot tasting, for example, involved a panel of four serious wine lovers -- a winemaker, a wine collector, a somm, and a blogger -- tasting their way through six masked bottles of pinot noir, while out of sight commentators offer helpful background and narrate the blow by blow with hushed tones and golf-like intensity.  Like real television commentators, they take enormous liberties speculating on the thought process behind every visible move, however minute or meaningless.  

A random sampling to give you a sense:

He's really getting that wine all the way back into his mouth....
Did that come out of his nose there?
She's like a sweet rose between two thorns.
Look at that spit! What an impressive spiral motion.

As someone who loathes golf (and particularly televised golf), I found this completely awesome.  Fortunately the shows are available to view after the initial live broadcast on the Video Vault portion of the Tout Suite website.  Check it out! It's free to join the club.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Vacation Food P*rn

So, it's been a while since my last post... largely because of my vacation in the Langedoc-Roussillon region of France.  Though the vacation itself was only about 10 days, the pre-departure month-long cramming on, like, ALL of my paying jobs really cut into my personal blogging time and enthusiasm.  And it seems that the same is true on the return side of the trip. Sigh.

To lament this sad state of affairs, but also celebrate the delectable reason they occurred, I give you some of the tastier scenes from Languedoc.

The coquillage platter from a Béziers fishmonger stand.
The teeny tiny clams are called "tellines."
Perfectly ripe Camembert. Vive la France!

Picpoul de Pinet, the local wine of choice with seafood of any kind.
Astonishingly cheap and delicious. (Note the plastic ice bag, also ubiquitous in the region.)

Another delicious local specialty, the "tielle"-- essentially a pasty stuffed
with finely chopped, tomatoey octopus.

Perfection in egg form, served with fresh marinated anchovies,
and the delectable bread below...

L'aperitif at the Pourcel brothers' casual spot, insensé (they also own and operate Michelin-starred Jardin des Sens).  In Montpellier you get some kind of little snack like this anytime you order a drink. Very civilized.
Spring roll stuffed with local crab and julienned local veggies (zucchini, carrot, celery root), served with minted "guacamole," local honey, and a balsamic reduction.  The Pourcels rock.
This is train food in France: buttered Poilâne bread, ham, gruyère.
The Languedoc-Rousillon is also the homeland of cassoulet... and it's the best cassoulet you have ever had.

The texture on that duck confit was INSANE.  Drooling again at the memory...

Petit pâté de Nîmes... a delicious pastry-encrusted meat pate. There is also one filled with salt cod brandade.

Hands down, THE best sardines of my life. Salted, grilled, drizzled with persillade. It doesn't get better than this.

A whimsical chocolate and salted caramel "Rocher" and an adorable poppy flavored macaroon.

Check that luscious thing out. The salted caramel (salted with local sel de Camargue)
was swirled around the middle of the mousse.

Ile Flottante: poached soft meringue in crème anglaise, topped with roasted almond bits, caramel, and crack.