Sunday, June 26, 2011

Feast on the Wild Side

Hank Shaw hunting diver ducks; photo
by Holly Heyser, aka NorCal Cazadora
 As someone who's always been fascinated by the hunting and foraging concept -- but admittedly more interested in the spoils than the chase -- I was stoked to hear from my friend Ashley Teplin that Farmstead Restaurant is hosting a wild dinner with foraging expert Hank Shaw on June 30, 2011.  

Hank is the author of the new book Hunt, Gather, Cook- Finding the Forgotten Feast, as well as the James Beard nominated blog Hunter Angler Gardener Cook.  He's been fishing and foraging most of his life, and has more than a few tricks to share in this book for gathering wild greens, selecting fishing gear, plucking pheasants, and gutting deer.  He also delves into the procuring process and recipes for far less familiar edibles, like sea robins, daylilies, wild doves, and --yes, it exists!-- dandelion wine.

The dinner this Thursday is part of his national book release tour, and hosted by Hank's duck hunting buddy Sheamus Feeley (who sadly is leaving his position as Farmstead executive chef at the end of July to return to Hillstone Restaurant Group).  The family style feast begins with passed appetizers at 6:30pm, and includes a book signing with Hank (and book purchasing if you like; $20 each).  

The menu sounds prett-y darn exciting.  Check it out:
All of this can be yours for a mere $50 per person, which INCLUDES the excellent wine from Farmstead's parent winery, Long Meadow Ranch.  That is a steal.

Call Farmstead to reserve your spot, and be sure to specify it is for the Hank Shaw event.  I scored my reservations this weekend, so there are still a few seats left.  See you there, I hope!

Farmstead Restaurant, 738 Main Street, St. Helena, 707-963-9181.

  • Smoked sturgeon with crema and paddlefish roe
  • Wild boar meatballs with tomato marmalade
  • Cheddar biscuits with cured ham and apple butter
  • Grilled Venison with elderberry conserve
  • Mix of wild duck and wild boar sausages with mustard
  • Porchetta " Half and Half": wild boar loin, wrapped in a red wattle belly with salsa verde
  • Ramp and potato gratin
  • Sea beans with chile, garlic and honey
  • Purslane and black kale salad with chile pequin and toasted grana
  • Salad of porcini mushrooms with preserved lemon, arugula, Carmody cheese and celery
  • Roasted rock bass with wild fennel cioppino broth and aioli
  • Buttermilk panna cotta with Saskatoon berry gelee

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A New Taste of the Himalayas

Napa is not known for its Asian food selection.  In recent years, though, we have welcomed an influx of Thai, Vietnamese, Cantonese, Indian, and Japanese restaurants aiming to break out of the stereotypical mold for "ethnic restaurants" with modern ambience, original menus, and contemporary presentations.  Taste of the Himalayas, which opened June 18th, is the latest addition to this restaurant category... and one I am supremely excited about.

The name is familiar to wine country folks--there is a Taste of the Himalayas on the Sonoma Square that has been quenching our curry thirst since 2003.  This Napa outpost is something a little bit different.  One of the original partners in the Sonoma TotH, Mr. Pemba Sherpa, put himself through culinary school and branched out on his own to open a more refined, contemporary Himalayan restaurant in Sausalito last fall; this Napa spot is his second such venture.  With his girlfriend Tenzin Yangchen, he is pushing the envelope for Nepalese and Tibetan cuisine in the former Old Adobe building at the intersection of Soscol Avenue and Silverado Trail.
(Possibly) original 1860s wall painting,
with 1950s graffiti.

Sherpa says the building (Napa's oldest surviving structure) reminds him of the house he was born in, full of history and possibilities.  Being 31 years old and a tad cash-strapped, Sherpa did much of the construction work himself on the space.  He ripped out the stinky liquor and nicotine-stained bar, replaced most of the floor and walls with new materials, whitewashed everything anew, and installed modern lighting along the dark wood rafters. In the course of his renovation, he found lots of old wall paintings in various states of decrepitude.  The best preserved one by the front door he kept intact, and if you look closely, you can still see the pencil-scrawled names and 5-digit phone numbers of former patrons... and the hospital.  

The overall look is tastefully clean and contemporary, but still homey.  Comfortable leather chairs, dark wood tables, and ornate Nepalese salt and pepper shakers strike a delicate balance between modern and traditional.  Families, friends, and dates would all be equally at home here.

But let's talk about the food, because that's really the most exciting part.  Like most Nepalese restaurants, the menu includes dishes with Indian, Tibetan, and Nepalese flavors. Unlike most Nepalese restaurants, the dishes are beautifully presented, free of artificial flavors and colors, and made with fresh organic meats and vegetables from the farmers' market.  Sherpa didn't want to open just another cookiecutter Nepalese restaurant; he wanted to do something different, and raise the bar.  He reinterprets many traditional dishes, enhancing the flavors as well as their visual appeal.  The rice that accompanies all of the curry dishes, for example, is cooked with saffron, cardamom, bay leaf, and cinnamon to create a beautifully fragrant accompaniment that's just as desirable as the main event.

Samosa Chaat
In addition to the expected momos, (excellent) naan, chicken tikka, and tandoori dishes, Sherpa also wants to offer more unusual items like tender goat curry (which he conveniently de-bones in the kitchen), and his interpretation of Tibet's Churi Pama: ground beef with a blue cheese curry sauce, onions, garlic, and bell peppers.  He also has created several original cold salad-type appetizers, since the Nepalese typically only eat salads of cucumber and tomato.  One of the highlights of my first visit was another of his appetizer inventions, the Samosa Chaat--cut up pieces of potato samosa arranged to look like a mountain range, studded with chole (chick peas), julienned apple,  and crunchy sev bits, and capped off with yogurt and a red onion tamarind chutney.  We could not rest until every scrap was gone.

Tandoori shrimp with vermicelli salad.
The seafood is all wild-caught, which means that not everything is available all the time.  The salmon tandoori (which Sherpa told me was one of his favorites) is being swapped out with butterfish for now, until he can find more of the beautiful salmon he had before.  The shrimp tandoori was beautifully cooked, and beautifully presented (no sizzling/overcooking platters here) with a rice vermicelli salad seasoned with sesame oil.

Once he has earned diners' trust, Sherpa wants to start offering even more unusual items, like goat lung, pig feet, and other traditional dishes he grew up making with this father in Namche Bazaar, Nepal (also known as the "Gateway to Mt. Everest").  He also has plans to open a cafe in the front portion of the building in about six months, serving coffee grown on his family's organic coffee plantation in Nepal, beers on tap, as well as casual breakfast and lunch items like "naanwiches" and wraps.  I urged him to consider "naanciatas" as well, topping the gorgeous blistered naan with a cool dressed salad... and please join me in this crusade, because it would be awesome. I feel like I need to take him to Azzurro for the BLT manciata later this summer.

Also on Sherpa's seemingly neverending list of ambitions, making and distributing his own tongba, the Nepalese sake-like alcohol made of millet.  Until that day comes, the restaurant is serving wine and beer, including the Nepalese beer Mustang.

It's hard to imagine a more original addition to Napa.  Get over there and show these guys some love.

Taste of the Himalayas is open seven days a week for dinner, and (for now at least) seven days for lunch; takeout is also available. 376 Soscol Avenue, Napa, (707) 251-3840. 

Friday, June 10, 2011

Sneak Preview of Oxbow's Kitchen Door

Last night I scored a fabulous sneak preview of Todd Humphries and Richard Miyashiro's Kitchen Door, which is slated to open to the public next Tuesday, June 14th.  I'd previously spoken with the dream team behind this new restaurant while it was still under construction, and you can read all about the background in the resulting article.

The lovely and enchanting Beef Carpaccio
The menu has a lot of variety, from the legendary Cream of Mushroom soup ($7), Kobe Beef Burger with wine-stewed onions and Swiss cheese ($13.95), and Beef Carpaccio with Himalayan truffle puree, crispy potato confetti, arugula, and lemon aioli ($10.95), to the new Korean Style Short Ribs in Soya Glaze with spicy mushroom, veggie, and bacon fried rice ($14), and Alsatian Flammeküche flatbread topped with ham, onions, gruyère cheese, watercress, and frisée ($13.75).  Fans of Humphries' mushroom soup should also check out the Hen of the Woods Mushroom Flatbread ($13.95), whose delectable blend of parmesan cream, provolone, mozzarella, starch, and mushroom is essentially a pizza version of the soup, and the ideal vehicle for gathering up any traces of shroomy love still in your bowl. 

Juicy duck + tangy carrots and daikon + Sriracha mayo = WINNING
As a Vietnamese food fanatic, I was delighted to also spy Vietnamese Chicken Noodle soup (pho ga) ($12) and a Roast Duck Banh Mi Dip ($12.95).  This version of the classic sandwich combined the usual magic assemblage of pickled veggies, rich meat, and spicy mayo with a little dunking bowl of tasty duck broth and perfectly cooked sweet potato fries.  It all vanished in short order, with only a few drops of broth remaining.

Hen of the Woods Flatbread: one of the many tasty things
coming out of Kitchen Door's wood-burning oven.
Sides like 4505's Chicharrones (a.k.a. "Piggy Puffs" here) ($3.75), Roasted Shishito Peppers with lime and Korean chili flakes ($6.75), Charcuterie from Fatted Calf ($11.95), and Burrata with olive pesto and herb flat bread ($8.25) clearly take aim at the gnawing, ravening, rich-toothed beast within.  This is comfort food at its best, with layers of sophisticated flavor and loads of satisfaction for your base, reptilian brain.

Desserts mostly center around the softserve ice cream from Straus (sundaes with tiny marshmallows, fudge, candied nuts; or dulce de leche and fried churros; or marinated strawberries; or espresso, $3.75-$6.50), but there's also a Candy Cap Mushroom Bread Pudding ($6.95), Panna Cotta with summer berry compote ($6.50), an assorted cookie plate ($6), and Napa Cakes Panforte ($3.50), loaded with nuts, fruits, and spice.

Looking towards the south wall.
The dessert station is where the Oxbow Wine Merchants' refrigerated
high-end wine room used to be.
In terms of beverages, I was loving on their Rosso Fazekas Sangiovese, which is available on tap for $8.00/glass, $17.00 for a half-liter (2/3 of a bottle).  Balanced and earthy, this was for me the perfect food wine.  A total of eight wines and four beers are available on tap, with 20 more bottled wines available by the glass, half-liter, or bottle, and nine more beers in bottles or cans.  Every single wine is available by the glass, too, so you can truly order only what you want to drink. 

Some might gripe that the wine selection is fairly simple, but Kitchen Door is not Martini House.  This is supposed to be a place you can visit any night of the week, every week.  A place for Tuesday night wine, not $75 Napa cabs.  In my opinion, the list has a remarkable range of food-friendly varietals: Vermentino, Riesling, Grüner Veltliner, Arneis, Grenache Blanc, and Viognier, in addition to the usual big three whites; Tempranillo, Grenache, Petite Sirah, Sangiovese, as well as the obvious reds.  And, the most expensive bottle is $42.  That works just fine for me....

Kitchen Door is planning to be open for lunch and dinner every day of the week starting June 14th.  I can't wait to go back... but I think it's safe to say the place will be mobbed.  And deservedly so.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Three Places To Take (Or Score) A Hot Date In Napa

The city of Napa has historically played a rather stolid supporting role for the glamorous Yountville and St. Helena wineries and restaurants people associate with "The Napa Valley,"  providing the county with essential civic stuff (courthouse, government offices, jail) and a cheaper place to live for working class folks who couldn't afford the tonier hamlets upvalley.  Sexy it was not.

Now, however, downtown Napa is drawing even our neighbors from upvalley to its awesome and ever-expanding array of date destinations.  Here are three of the hottest spots for seduction.

Carpe Diem Wine Bar.  Steve, Stephanie, and Scott have created something beautiful at the corner of Brown and Second Streets.  Modern decor, creative comfort food, and a quirky, ever-changing wine list proved to be the holy trinity that lures Napa's tasteful 20 and 30 somethings out of the woodwork.  The bar area is packed every night of the week with happy hour revelers and later-night solo diners looking for love in the form of harissa fries, Cabernet-braised shortrib sliders, globally inspired soups and salads, charcuterie, and other wine-friendly snacks.  My current heartthrob is the asparagus flatbread with caramelized onion, truffled parmesan, prosciutto, chili, and an extra sunny side egg on top -- but my other part-time lover is the ostrich burger with Zinfandel-cranberry and caramelized onion reduction sauce, Brie, and truffle fries.  

1313 Main.  This is the place to take sophisticated wine and beer drinkers for some intimate pre- or post- dinner refreshment when you want to hear each other talk.  The sleek decor and sexy tableware might seem snobby at first blush, but the knowledgeable staff is more than happy to help guide you to something you will like.  The menu spans a full range of price points, and includes both the famed (e.g., Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon) and the obscure (Bokisch Graciano, from Lodi), available by the glass, bottle, or 2-ounce pour for those who love variety.  The selection of composed cheese and charcuterie plates exhibit the same attention to detail.  I'm obsessed with the Mona sheep cheese from Wisconsin, paired with a salted fig compote, roasted almonds, and olive breadsticks from Panevino.  All the cheese and charcuterie plates come with fabulously thin, bias-cut slices of baguette garnished with fresh thyme, another little touch that makes me very happy.

AVIA Hotel.  Everyone loves the AAA Four Diamond AVIA Napa on First Street downtown.  Even if you haven't booked a room here, you can enjoy the make-out options at the Riddling Rack lobby bar, and/or the rooftop-like Terrace on the second floor, which is fully equipped for all your needs with privacy curtains, a firepit, and swings.  The suggestively lit Riddling Rack bar is a great spot to meet up for naughty conversation and international bubblies by the glass, but a tasteful selection of snacks and the full menu from the hotel's main restaurant are also available if you decide to park it there for the evening.  During the summer, the outdoor Terrace hosts live music Thursday and Friday evenings, with drink and food service available; the rest of the year it's just a gorgeous spot to visit with or without drinks from the Riddling Rack.  In terms of food: the cheese plate is always stunning, but if you want something a little lighter, go for the seasoned popcorn in your choice of truffle, parmesan, salt & pepper, or all three at once.  They say it's more fun with three.