Sunday, June 17, 2012

HAPPY HOUR AND OTHER EXCUSES

I haven't settled into a lunch counter solo for months, but I've been to some new places. One day I was driving while hungry as I passed Biscuits in Napa and stopped to give it a try. Yes, the biscuits are light and buttery, but the menu in general is too grease-heavy for my taste. Lunch at Mini Mango with the vegetarian niece was a delight--put enough peanut butter sauce on tofu and it's pretty tasty.

Then there was the happy hour inspiration. Why not write an article for a local magazine about the best places to go for happy hour? I started asking friends for recommendations, checked online and made some phone calls. It required a lot of on-site research--tough, but someone has to do it! Over two months I found great deals at restaurants I already liked and at others I hadn't yet tried.

At BarTerra in St. Helena the duck liver mousse was creamy, almost sweet and served on the thinnest croutons I've ever crunched, but $60 for appetizers and drinks is over the top for me. Most of the other places I tried have half price drinks, coupled with specially priced appetizers at the bar. Starting as early as 3:00, I had weekly outings with friends to sit at the bar for a glass of something refreshing along with some great food. My favorite drink is the ginger mojito at Tarla. I inhaled the fried artichokes and onion rings at Grace's Table.  And loved the BBQ at Bounty Hunter. Condensing it all to 500 words was a challenge, and one restaurant closed after I submitted the piece, so I had to go back and revise. Check it all out in the July-August issue of Napa Valley Life.

So, article written, I'm back to thoughts of lunch. I definitely want to sit at the counter at Grace's Table. Chef Mauro was so kind to me during my happy hour there, he put together a special plate of several items for me to taste. I hope he'll be there when I go in for lunch. And who knows, there might just be someone interesting sitting at the counter with me! 'Til then...

         

Monday, March 5, 2012

TARLA


Tarla Mediterranean Grill is a tasty addition to dining in downtown Napa and my new favorite restaurant. When I first saw the menu online, I knew it would be hard to choose between the offerings. Flaming cheese, mussels stuffed with rice, currants and pine nuts. Then I saw Musakka and knew I would have to try Tarla's version of my favorite middle eastern dish.

The counter is a great place to sit in Tarla to watch the precision grill team at work. While waiting for my Musakka, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the four focused men move swiftly and silently around each other in a small space. One mixed greens with salt and dressing and with a flourish, scooped them onto a waiting plate. Another cook scraped thin slices of beef off the hunk on the rotisserie and piled it onto huge pieces of crisped pita; he then topped those with dressed greens and added some fries to each plate. That's the Beef Doner--it's on my list for a future visit.

Many diners that day were lunching on the $12 specials--a skewer of chicken, lamb or beef accompanied by greens and a cup of butternut squash soup. Such a delicious deal! While waiting for my lunch, I was presented with a bread basket and some fragrant olive oil with bits of pink olive. The bread, which they told me is called "Turkish bun" is an egg-based, buttery bread something like challah. Let's just say it would melt in your mouth even without the delicious olive oil to dip it in. I shamefully admit to eating all but one piece.

My Musakka took a while, which told me they were not just nuking it, but actually baking it in an oven. It came with a crispy browned top of bechemal sauce, layers of beef, lamb, thin sliced potato and eggplant, and some dabs of a tomato puree so light and sweet-tart, they must have just made it. The best thing about a great Musakka is the hint of cinnamon and nutmeg. This was top notch.

I did  not have dessert, but would like to try the apricot and Chardonnay sorbet. Tarla serves breakfast on Saturday and Sunday. You can have various egg dishes, Greek yogurt, spanakopita or a bagel with cream cheese, smoked salmon, capers and onions. I'd also like to go back for Happy Hour, which starts at 3:00 p.m. and features a long list of appetizers including the stuffed mussels and flaming cheese, along with wine and cocktails at $5 a glass. Ginger mojito anyone?

<a href="http://www.urbanspoon.com/r/6/1642331/restaurant/Tarla-Mediterranean-Grill-Napa"><img alt="Tarla Mediterranean Grill on Urbanspoon" src="http://www.urbanspoon.com/b/logo/1642331/biglogo.gif" style="border:none;width:104px;height:34px" /></a>




Wednesday, January 18, 2012

BRASSICA


Cindy Pawlcyn has transformed Go Fish on the St. Helena Highway into a Mediterranean dining paradise named Brassica for the mustard family which includes broccoli, kale, and cabbage.  I have been here recently with a friend and know when I sit down at the counter that I have to have the eggplant fries. Bartender/waiter Dan says he loves the appetizer, but is miffed that the Chronicle review singled it out as one of the "best things on the menu." Dan would give this honor to the Moroccan Lamb Shank or Seafood Risotto.

I start with the eggplant anyway. How something breaded and deep fried can be so fragrant, light and crisp is amazing--Dan says rice flour has something to do with it.  I decide to skip the wine, wanting a clear head for my afternoon meeting. It's difficult to pick another course. They serve hummus and baba ghanoush, pizza, salads featuring persimmon or artichokes, as well as roast chicken, braised beef and lamb kebabs, all of which sound delicious. There are many small dishes on the menu, great options for the diner who wants a light meal and/or a small check at the end of the meal.

I decide to go with the Grilled Lamb T-Bone-Ettes with red pepper and pomegranate glaze. Dan explains the meat is sliced thin--bone and all--before cooking. I love the sweet and spicy glaze and the thin slices of lamb are easy to cut and chew. The only trick is figuring out where the little slice of bone is under that yummy sauce.

The restaurant is attractive, but almost empty at noon on a Wednesday. I have Dan to myself at the bar for most of the meal. The service is so quick, I am afraid I'll have to kill time before my meeting by browsing the St. Helena shops, which could turn this into a very expensive lunch outing. Instead I look at the dessert menu. On the last visit I tried their affogato, so I could compare it to the one that I love at Bottega. Theirs was pretty good, but I want something more adventurous, so select Five Easy Pieces, a dessert sampler which changes daily.

In order of increasing pleasure, I eat my way through an apricot-pistachio nougat, a coffee cookie, a tiny lemon tart, zabaglione ice cream and a caramel--filled chocolate truffle. Nougat is not my favorite candy, although this homemade bit of chewy sweetness is pretty good. The coffee cookie is crisp and buttery--a stack of them with a cup of coffee would be delightful. Lemon tart is always a pleasure, even just a  mouthful or two of tangy lemon curd on a slice of piecrust. The ice cream has  wonderful flavor from the Marsala wine that I know is critical, along with a lot of egg yolk, to creating zabaglione. Yes, only in Napa Valley can you have wine-flavored ice cream. The pièce de resistance is the truffle. I think of truffles as round and mostly chocolate, but this candy has a square hard shell. The homemade buttery caramel inside has just the right consistently to be a little chewy and melt in your mouth at the same time. The perfect way to end another wonderful Napa Valley meal.

Next time, Dan, I promise to try the Moroccoan Lamb Shank. For those who like their  middle eastern spices, sesame, thyme, artichokes, pomegranate and yes, brassica, there is a lot to like here.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

ANGÈLE




I don't pretend to be a culinary expert, but I know a few things about French onion soup--Soupe à l'Oignon Gratinée. I've made it for years from Julia Childs's recipe, beginning with a ton of onions which cook down and caramelize into a little brown blob which produces a very fine flavored soup. The only place to order onion soup is in a good French restaurant, where you know it will be served hot from the oven with a large crouton and bubbling cheese melted on top.

What better way to start lunch on a chilly December day at Angèle? Located in Napa's riverfront area among the newest shops and some of our most prestigious dining establishments, Angèle is like a short visit to France--several brands of pastis  behind the bar, French titles on the menu, and French music in the background. Despite the chill of the day, it is warm enough in the sun that some diners are having lunch outside. I sigh to see another empty counter but pull up a stool. Even at the bar diners get a cloth placemat and napkin. Memories of previous visits whet my appetite--I had a great birthday party here a couple of years ago in their private room. The wine list entices, but today I am saving my alcohol consumption for an evening party, so choose water for my beverage.

Even the french bread at Angèle is excellent. It's an Acme bread made to their specifications with lots of crunchy crust. The soup arrives in an individual tureen hot from the oven, the rim overflowing with browned cheese. Just delicious. Although     the broth has salt, the combination of onions and cheese lends an earthy sweetness. A spoon of the broth-soaked crouton dripping with cheese makes my mouth happy.

Onion soup is very filling but the occasion calls for something more, if not a full entrée. I decide on the Salade Lyonnaise, which is on the appetizer menu, but is large enough to be a main course. Frisèe covers a bed of warm De Puy lentils and carrots in a vinaigrette with lardons, another French staple--Julia recommended them for many of her dishes. In America we would just use crisped bacon for flavoring, but the French use salt pork. You buy a slab of what is mostly fat with a thin strip of meaty rind. You cut it into pieces the size of a short french fry and sauté them to render out some of the fat. Then they go into your dish to add a chewy bit of flavor. The lardons in my salad are meaty and accent the dish with their familiar smoky taste.

The intrigue of this salad is the "crispy farm egg." The bartender explains the eggs are cooked in the shell sous-vide until they have the perfect runny yolk and firm white. Then they are peeled, coated in panko and deep fried quickly until brown and crisp. I easily cut the warm egg with my fork and the yolk runs onto the greens, a perfect complement. I could eat a lot of eggs served this way!

A couple enters and sits at the end of the bar for drinks. I think about asking if they are visitors or locals, but they're engrossed in their own conversation. I manage only a smile in their direction. No social encounters today--it's a good thing the food is so wonderful.

In the past some of my post-lunch-encounter feelings of bliss could be accounted for by the wine consumed with those meals, but today I have had no wine and am still feeling pretty wonderful at the end of my meal. I walk around the area, looking into the shops I haven't seen before, grateful to live so close to such bounty and for my mini trip to France thanks to Angèle.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

BRIX


BRIX

Brix rhymes with "sticks" and is named for the scale used to measure the amount of sugar in grapes. This October, with a late harvest, someone is out there with a hydrometer most days hoping the level is right. The restaurant, on Highway 29 north of Yountville, has a great wine shop, with small production wines not available elsewhere. Remodeled since my last visit,  Brix still focuses on farm-to-table. My favorite thing at Brix--aside from the food-- is suspended from the ceiling. I first saw wine bottle chandeliers in an artsy shop in Austria, but now I know they were in Napa Valley first. Made by JeAnne Ettrick of San Mateo, they reflect ambient light and remind one to order a bottle of something divine.

Despite tourist season in high gear and the approaching noon hour, Brix is not exactly busy. It looks like another solo hour at the counter, just the bartender and me. A group of diners sits   outside in the sunny garden, which extends to rows of vines receding into the hills. My hemoglobin must be low, because I'm in a mood for meat. Mulling the choice between a cheeseburger and a sausage and pasta dish, I consult Dustin the bartender. He recommends both and isn't sure which he will choose for himself later on. I pick the cheeseburger along with a glass of Groth Sauvignon Blanc.
While sipping my wine and waiting for lunch, I ask Dustin to show me the bar menu. This bar is rumored to be a great place for a late afternoon bite to eat with happy hour prices for wine and mixed drinks. Dustin confirms that most afternoons after 4:00 there is a crowd of winery folks at the bar. The bar menu has a lot in common with the lunch eats--the same cheeseburger, vegetable tempura, pizza, flatbreads and cheeseboard. There are also oysters, mussels, and a salmon carpaccio. I make a mental note to come back with a girlfriend when there may actually be some men to meet here, then shift my focus to lunch.
The best thing about the burger is the choice of cheese--brie, cheddar or blue. Blue sounds just right, and the flavor it adds to the succulent beef is sublime. I am especially impressed by the glamorous slice of heirloom tomato and fresh crisp lettuce that I slap onto the burger and struggle to keep from falling out onto my lap. Dustin explains much of the produce is from their garden in the back. He praises the lavender they grow and use in desserts.
Every bite of my burger and almost all of the fries have disappeared, and I'm pretty full, but the dessert menu beckons. Have I ever eaten anything made with lavender? If not, it's time to try. The lavender and honey panna cotta,  a two inch round, comes on a plate with a tiny lake of honey caramel, and across the lake, a forest of fresh berries and cream gratinée. The flavor is delicate and, well, lavender. A bit of panna cotta, a tad of honey and a berry or two makes a delightful mouthful of flavors. I continue on to my writing class feeling fat and happy. What more could one want in Napa Valley, aside from a handsome beau with whom to share the pleasure?
Next time I'm hungry in Yountville, I'll avoid the tourist crowd and head for Brix.


  

Friday, September 2, 2011

OENOTRI


         A week ago I peeked into Oenotri, a little bit of Italia in Napa.  It has a long bar open to the kitchen, with a rack of pots and pans overhead. Arriving for lunch, I saw that one person had taken the two lone seats at the long counter. I moseyed over to the real bar, that is where liquor is served. Unfortunately the restaurant and the patio were nearly empty, so my only conversation was with Steve, the young bartender. Oenotri just started serving lunch in June--perhaps it hasn't caught on yet.
          Before I get to the food,  I  have to laugh about constant references to this recently developed area of First Street as the "west end." It isn't even a quarter of a mile from First and Main--it's three blocks.   If this is the west end, then what is Browns Valley, some three miles west of here but still in Napa?
          I started with the wine list and despite the price ($13) had to try a Slovenian wine.  Steve, who clearly enjoys his job and is proud of the restaurant, gave me a taste before committing me to a glass. Its name is daunting: Ribolla Gialla by Edi Simcic, Rubikon, Goriska Brda. At least the Rubikon sounds familiar! Wikipedia tells me Brda is a region of Slovenia and the grapes are commonly grown in Italy.  A pale gold medium-bodied white, it  lacked the strong oakiness of the chardonnays I avoid. An excellent choice and a generous serving.
          A glance at the menu told me the fare here is not what usually makes me salivate. Of the twelve items on the daily changing lunch menu, seven included sausage or pancetta. Then there was steak, lamb and rabbit. So if you're not into meat or eating cuddly animals, Oenotri might not be for you. The menu hails from the southern parts of Italy's boot.  Steve explained they smoke and cure all the meat themselves. They butcher a pig once a week on site and sell a large variety of in-house salumi (salami). The chefs, Curtis Di Fede and Tyler Rodde,  source their food supplies locally, including the gardens at Copia.
          I ordered the Nadia eggplant parmigiano panini, which included basil, tomato sauce and mozzarella. A comforting and delicious sandwich. Rather than that flattened toasted bread most folks call panini, the sandwich was served on a warm, crunchy roll. The eggplant had been lightly breaded and fried--crisp on the outside but soft and smooth on the inside. It was like the best meatball sandwich you could imagine only with eggplant instead of meat. On the same plate came simple garden lettuces,  with a mix of oil and vinegar which couldn't have been more perfect. I nearly inhaled this sandwich, pausing once in a while to sip my wine.
          Steve informed me that oenotri  means vine cultivators and goes back to before ancient Rome. The portrait on the wall above the brick oven is of  Curtis Di Fede's great uncle. There is a very authentic feel to the  Oenotri experience. The pizza oven was imported from Naples. The space itself is simple--high ceilings, brick walls.  The kitchen staff were easily observed cutting meat, and one held up what looked like a bag of sous vide vegetables. I would have loved to try their polenta, served at dinner, with your choice of parmigiano-reggiano, crescenza or gorgonzola cheeses. I bet it's fantastic.
          The honey panna cotta   was my choice for dessert, served with kadota figs and croccante dolce. I usually don't go for desserts that shimmy like jello on the plate coming towards me, but this panna cotta's  flavor was absolutely heavenly--it made me think of an infant dreaming of mother's milk. It had just the right amount of sweetness from the honey, divine with the beautiful pink fig slices.
          So meat eaters, check this place out. And if your date is into meat but you're not, you could be happy with the pizza, salmon, pasta, or eggplant.





Monday, August 1, 2011

THE GREENS OF HOME


I'm not talking about green fields--here in northern California, fields are brown in July--or even the wonderful San Francisco vegetarian restaurant Green's, but greens purchased at the Napa farmers' market and made into a salad, accompanied by locally grown lettuce, radishes and low fat dressing. Most of my lunches in the months since I returned from Europe have included a homemade salad. But I miss blogging and don't want my readers to give up on me; hence this update.

I hate to admit that, although I maintained my weight while slurping cider and chowing down quiche and macarons in Europe, I gained a few pounds after I returned. Graduation parties, weddings, barbeques, wine tastings abounded and I seemed to have rediscovered my need to eat everything in sight. I have pushed myself back into diet mode.

Not that I've totally stayed away from restaurants since May. Went to Las Palmas on Yajome for Mexican food with a friend. He declared their chili verde to be authentic; my taco salad was good too and the extensive menu included everything from banana enchiladas to filet mignon.  

Pierre, a French university student, stayed with me for a few weeks and I took him to the Kitchen Door at the Napa Oxbow. They have an eclectic menu and quick service, but I haven't liked everything I've ordered. We tried their Flammekueche, a regional dish from Alsace, where Pierre lives. It looked and tasted like pizza; Pierre said it lacked the signature cream topping, which makes it a dish for Alsatians who are thin or have a cardiologist on call. Cooking for Pierre got me back into entertaining mode and I found myself preparing things like crème brûlée, tasting it before dinner and then finishing whatever remained when the guests had left.

I have also been working harder at meeting men in the traditional way, that is via the Internet. After encountering Europeans who were interested in the arts, literature, and me, I decided to mount a search here in Napa. I advertised on Craig's List for a  culture buddy and got a good response. Many coffee dates later, I have met some nice fellows who are potential symphony partners, but none I really want to date. I spent Pierre's first week in the U.S.  working furiously to introduce him to other young people. Recognizing that I rarely apply this much effort to my own social life, I signed up on Match.com and followed up diligently on all the connections who seemed even vaguely promising. More coffee dates. Some follow up. No sparks. The search continues.

So I'm back on track eating my veggies and will plan a lunch encounter soon. I understand Oenotri is now open for lunch. Eiko's too. And there are some old favorites I haven't blogged on: Angèle, Bistro Don Giovanni, Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen. So many places to eat and meet. 'Til then!