Friday, August 3, 2018

Hog Island Oyster Company

        The oysters at Hog Island may be splendid, but I don’t eat raw fish, so you won’t find an oyster review here. No, this is about the best clam chowder I’ve ever consumed. Hog Island’s Manila Clam Chowder is not the flour-thickened mush with tiny canned clam bits and too many potatoes that most places serve--the kind that’s been sitting on the stove staying warm for hours. Instead, you get an exquisite bowl of clams in the shell, surrounded by cream with red potatoes, butter, a little bacon, and seasoning that is perfect, cooked up while you wait.

        Hog Island at the Napa Oxbow was busy at lunchtime, but this was not my first round of their chowder, so I ignored my hunger, summoned my patience, and watched cook Miguel do the honors. For each serving he grabbed from cold storage a couple of handfuls of clams and tossed them in a buttery sauté pan with a scoop of cooked potatoes, leeks and herbs. Once the mixture was nice and hot, he tossed it to blend, then added the cream and let that bubble up before placing all with great attention into a bowl. Since I’ve never had chowder like this anywhere else, including New England, I asked the very French chef Rémy where the recipe originates. He referred me to the restaurant chain’s website. 

      I exchanged emails with the folks at the farm in Marshall, a little over an hour west of Napa and heard back from Brenna, who informed me the recipe came from one of the founders, John Finger, more than thirty years ago. John was from Long Island and while planting his oyster beds in Tomales Bay, he duplicated the chowder his mother had made: clams from the sea and veggies from the garden. Hog Island still follows the philosophy of fresh produce and seafood. The recipe for their chowder can be found at And even if you think you’ve had superb clam chowder elsewhere, give this a try when you’re in Napa or San Francisco. You won’t be disappointed.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

The French Laundry

As a Napa resident, I always have a response ready when someone asks about the French Laundry. “Yes, I was there once many years ago. All I remember is that it didn’t matter whether I liked or didn’t like each course, because it was just one bite.” 

After my second visit, I've changed my tune. “Wow! A true dining adventure—a chance to experience the chef’s brilliant combination of tastes and textures with service that is attentive without being annoying.”

How to begin? Well, with the amuse bouche which was a bit of raw salmon (my first taste ever) in an adorable “cone” of other ingredients I can’t name but that blended into some kind of perfection. Followed by nine courses. I usually don’t eat oysters, but wasn’t going to miss the signature “oysters and pearls” sabayon, a smooth blend with caviar and tapioca. It was served in the smallest of three nested bowls, just beautiful. Next came the ruby beet salad, a piece of art on the plate, which included several dots of a plum puree with balsamic vinegar that was so highly flavored I was sure there was a component of meat in it. Gorgeous and worth savoring slowly so as to absorb all the flavor.

Somewhere near the beginning the host was asked to select wine. He chose a Napa Valley chardonnay and a cabernet. We sipped the white during the fish courses and the wait staff swiftly removed our glasses and brought a set of red wine glasses for the cab as the first meat course arrived. The wine got better with every sip; I have never before noticed how much food and wine can work together, each improving my enjoyment of the other.

This was followed by tastes of sturgeon and lobster, then the bread course, another sensuous moment: the tomato brioche, about two inches across, was seated in a hollow, heated ceramic bowl. The waiter referred to the buttery layered pastry as “laminated.” It was served with a milky dish of burrata for dipping or spooning onto the bread. Delicate and delicious.

I was impressed by the sheer number of staff, all dressed in black, waiting on every table. When my water glass was half empty, it was refilled. Each course was explained, the regular and vegetarian versions. The wait people were pleasant, helpful, and not so serious as to make me uncomfortable to be getting all of this attention. They deftly assisted each other in placing and removing dishes swiftly without disturbing the conversation around the table.

The sixth course was a small circle of rabbit prepared like chorizo served next to a tiny carrot on some creamed peas. Bugs Bunny might not get the joke. Then came the lamb course. I am not a big fan of lamb, but am glad I didn’t miss this. The circle of meat was positioned next to a rib, as if it might be attached. So tender and delicious, with rancho gordo beans and artichoke, an amazing flavor combination.

We were all beginning to feel full, when the cheese course arrived: a gougère filled with melted cheese and served on a cream with Australian truffles. It was so yummy I wanted to pop the whole thing in my mouth, but forced myself to use my spoon to break it into pieces and scrape up every bit of sauce.

As if six kinds of animal protein and all the rest might not be enough to satisfy, the dessert course blew us away. We were celebrating a birthday, so a special cake was brought on a board with a vase of flowers, candle and all, then whisked away and cut into two inch square slices for each of us. In addition? A tiny espresso cup with a creamy, foam-topped cappuccino ice cream, another dish with butter ice cream (like unbrowned caramel) and a tiny bite of cake, another with a different cake topped with some kind of meringue and fruit, and just in case that was not enough sweet stuff, two bowls to share, one with tiny macarons and twists of caramel candy, the other with house-made donut holes.

After three hours, as we sipped our coffee and began to sadly consider the necessity to depart, a server arrived with a box of chocolates, described each of ten different kinds and asked us to choose one. Oh, my.

If all three star dining is like this, I am ready for more. As long as someone else is paying the bill! This was not just food. It was an experience to be savored and remembered for a long time.

Thursday, December 28, 2017


Does Yountville need another Michael Chiarello restaurant? Well, maybe, since this one claims to be fast food, in short supply in this foodie mecca. Platform 8 just opened in the space that used to be Pacific Blues. It is still a good spot to sit out on the deck and enjoy a beer or a glass of wine and a burger.

Visiting a restaurant that has just opened is always a bit of an adventure, as the kinks remain to be worked out. The first challenge is ordering. You order and pay at the bar outside, then sit wherever you want. The condiments and silverware are also only available at the bar outside. So I made more than one trip from my inside table to get what I needed. I didn’t know how I was supposed to get my soft drink and asked someone, who brought it to me. I suspect some of this set up will change. I asked one of the workers what the plan is for rain and he said they haven’t figured that out yet! It would certainly be nice to find ketchup and silverware indoors if that is where you are sitting.
That said, the ordering is being expedited smoothly, as my meal came quickly and was delivered to me hot. The menu is on the pricey side. Well, this is Yountville after all. The standard burger is $9, which is not bad, but the add-ons are all $2.50 each. The zinfandel grilled onions were tasty, but I’m not sure I would pay that much again for a little extra flavor.

The grass-fed beef burger was really tasty, cooked perfectly and full of juice, which is why they serve it with a paper “shop towel.” I liked the square shape, those yummy corners sticking out from the thin English muffin-like bun. The thin bread worked well, although I ended up with sesame seeds all over. The “grey salt” French fries, claimed to be shot from a cannon and cooked multiple times in olive oil, didn’t impress me. They were crisp, but didn’t taste salty at all. This probably depends on one’s personal preferences. I must admit I still think that McDonald’s makes the perfect thin, crisp, salty fry. The worker I asked about the French fry cannon didn’t know what I was talking about.

I took a walk after I finished my $20 burger, fries and coke but returned to try the Nitro ice cream. Chiarello says the ice cream can be made without eggs and without ice crystals because it is quick frozen with liquid nitrogen. The only memorable part, however, was the $5 tab for a tiny scoop of vanilla ice cream and a spoonful of tasteless chocolate pearls. 

Sunday, June 17, 2012


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 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=""><img alt="Tarla Mediterranean Grill on Urbanspoon" src="" style="border:none;width:104px;height:34px" /></a>

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


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


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.