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?

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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 pi├Ęce 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.