Monday, December 27, 2010


          It’s crab season!   A whole fish-market crab is too much for me to eat, so a tasty serving at one of Napa’s newest eateries is just the ticket. The latest restaurant from the Lark Creek group has opened with lots of hype. I call to find out if Fish Story has a counter.Yes indeed.
           I arrive during the noon hour and am lucky to get a seat at the midpoint of the horseshoe-shaped bar. There are ten stools around the "u",  shelves of booze are suspended above the counter, and a flat screen t.v. tuned to sports hangs on the wall at the open end.  On my left a gentleman in a three piece suit and fedora is just leaving--if he's not on his way to a fifties' costume party, he's taking himself much too seriously.  Another fellow in business dress is also finishing. Two men on my right have eaten sandwiches, leaving behind chips and salad on their plates.   I listen to their conversation about high finance and find one fellow is doing all of the talking. I've had dates like that--ouch!
I turn to the businessman. "Do you have any recommendations?” I ask. He praises both the lobster roll and bisque, then departs.  Another fellow, wearing a Department of Corrections shirt, also gets up to leave--probably going to the county courthouse across the street. Is there going to be anyone left to talk to? All of this happens before the bartender even says “hi.”
          It's hard to describe the dark-haired fellow working the counter, because I see so little of him. I feel sympathy as he moves in and out of the horseshoe with lots to do: make mixed drinks for the wait staff, take orders from the counter and two duet tables, as well as work an espresso machine and taps for beer and wine. Well, not a lot of sympathy. He gives another woman, who’s just arrived, a glass of wine before serving me. She waits for her friend and then goes into the dining room. Maybe I’m being snubbed, I think, when Mr. Bartender immediately greets a casually dressed man who seats himself near me and buries his face in his newspaper.  I feel better after several minutes, when the bartender returns and asks him, “What can I get you?” and the guy answers, “Maybe a menu?” So it’s an equal opportunity place--just slow.
          The menu is plastered with fish dishes, from ahi to oysters.   I finally order a Crab Louie, envisioning the kind of salad they used to serve at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco—that is, huge.  I snap a photo of my puny salad when it arrives, then wonder if I have blown my cover. Does the waiter now think I’m a food critic?  Apparently  not, because the service doesn’t improve. I have to ask for water and bread after my wine and food arrive.
          The crab tastes fresh and sweet.  The dressing is rich and tangy, a real Louie dressing, but I’m thinking for $22.50 I could have bought a few ounces of fresh crab at my corner market, thrown it on a salad at home, and had money for another lunch!  The bread, when I finally get it, is warm and crunchy, served with sea salt-adorned butter. And my Pinot Grigio is light and crisp (and $11 a glass.) 
          While I’m chowing down, the counter empties and refills, but nobody speaks to me. A local fellow gets into a discussion with a couple of elderly tourists about whether domestic or foreign wine is better. The older man says French wine is superior and California wine is too expensive. The local guy gives a diplomatic  response. I swallow my contribution, which would have been something about how many times Napa wine has beaten more expensive European wines in competition.
          I am getting bored. I remember that my primary purpose is to meet new people--it's not happening! Even the bartender has no time for me. I amuse myself reading the labels on the bottles above my head. I’m in the liqueur section: crème de peche, mandarine, crème de framboise. They all sound worth trying. I’m supposed to be meeting interesting men and instead I’m contemplating serious alcohol consumption!
          To finish my meal and linger a bit longer, I order the famed butterscotch pudding.  A server attempts to deliver it to my oyster-eating neighbor. The diner points to me and goes back to his paper. The pudding is smooth and creamy, not too sweet, served with a dollop of cream.  
           I note I’ve been at Fish Story for almost an hour and a half and the biggest crab of this story seems to be me. Before departing, I read the captions on the photos and stories posted on the wall between the bar and the dining room—decor made from local folks’ responses to the restaurant’s request for “fish stories." There’s a bit of Napa history here—photos of children now grown and very big fish claimed to be caught in the Napa River. I read in the paper this week that 75 salmon were counted spawning at Zinfandel Lane, a new record for recent years. Perhaps the real story of this restaurant is not the food, the staff, or the clientele, but the location—at Third and Main on the banks of the Napa River--historic pathway of commerce and really big fish.
          Postscript: I wish this visit had been more fun, but chalk it up to chance. If I'd encountered anything more than expensive food, I might feel different about the place.  I'll have to try it again sometime.  That's my plan until I receive my credit card bill. I've been charged $63 more than what my receipt says. I investigate and learn that my darling bartender, or whoever rang up my bill, mistakenly entered the seven dollar tip as seventy. I have never before experienced this type of error in a restaurant, so I'm now convinced there is indeed something "fishy"  at Fish Story. I wonder if the bartender actually collected $70 for serving me. The very nice management person on the phone assures me I'll receive a refund in the form of a check in a couple of weeks. We'll see.
              And once more--caught that check and threw it back into my bank.

Friday, November 5, 2010


Where to have lunch before my writing critique group?  Hotels are always a good bet on Mondays--they’ve got hungry folks seven days a week. Just remembering my last visit to Boon Fly Café, planned for the sole purpose of eating their amazing fresh-made donuts, is enough to propel the Carneros Inn’s eatery to first choice.  That time I justified the donut calories by riding my bike eight miles each way. Today I’m not concerned—no donuts for me!
I ask for a seat at the bar and immediately have a fuzzy memory that I know this bartender. Jamin reminds me he went to Browns Valley Elementary, where I was principal. A boy with some issues back then, he is now a charming young man who loves his job. We chat while I study the menu and the wine list,  noting the only other diners at the counter are a couple, probably tourists.
The man next to me is drinking a bloody Mary and I am enchanted to see that Boon Fly serves theirs with a crisp slice of bacon inserted in the glass—two thirds of a BLT. The fellow tells me it’s yummy. His companion asks Jamin to recommend a sandwich and he immediately advocates for the burger—there are so many ways to dress it, it’s like a different meal each time.  They even serve a burger topped by two fried eggs for those with a death wish. I order crab cakes and a Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc. 
Jamin trained as an electrician and his dad wishes he would give up this culinary fancy and return to a “real” man’s job. Jamin notes that in this economy he’d have been laid off long ago from working with wires. He’s been at Boon Fly for six years and he knows his stuff. I watch him make a mojito with cranberries and mint—it looks like it belongs under a Christmas tree.
I’m deep in conversation and heady with wine when the crab cakes arrive. They are lightly browned, rich and creamy inside and served on a mound of crunchy arugula and fennel, with colorful accents of pink grapefruit and sliced avocado; the flavors complement each other beautifully.  While I’m relishing my meal, Jamin disappears into the back and a waitress steps behind the bar to help a patron select a draft beer. They exchange notes about the acidity of two beers and every time she turns to work the tap I notice the tattoo on the back of her neck—it’s a Chinese character.
Ordinarily, I mind my own business, but this is a research visit after all and I’m going to China next week, so I ask her about it.
“It says ‘yes,’” she explains.  “My parents are crazy about the Beatles. John met Yoko Ono through her art. She put a white ladder in the middle of the room. You climbed the ladder and used a magnifying glass to look at a tiny word on the ceiling: yes. I saw it at San Francisco MOMA and loved it.”
I was a Beatles fan like her folks, but had never heard this story. I ask her if she’s read e.e.cummings, who brilliantly used so many words in new ways:
          whycoloured worlds of because do

          not stand against yes which is built by
          forever and sunsmell *   
          like every lark
          who lifts his life

          from all the dark

          who wings his why

          beyond because
          and sings an if

          of day to yes **

I must take the poems to her so this exchange won’t fade into the workday tumult of pleasant chatter with customers, to be forgotten by tomorrow.
I’m paying my bill and on a whim order some donuts after all, to take to my writers’ group—one tiny donut for each of us. They come straight from the fryer, hot and fragrant, dusted with cinnamon sugar, and Jamin places them lovingly into a box. It is the perfect finish to a lunch that has taken me back to the magic of youth: finding one’s way in a bright and shining world.
* “wherelings, whenlings,” 50 Poems, Grosset & Dunlap, New York, 1939, p.26.
**“may I be gay,” 73 Poems, Harcourt, Brace & World, New York, 1961, p. 43.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Getting Started

This blog may be nothing more than an excuse to kill my diet and dedicate myself to my favorite Napa Valley activity—fine dining.  Here's how it begins...
One day I’m driving back to Napa from St. Helena after an appointment, dressed, not in my everyday jeans and tee shirt, but in business attire. It’s past lunchtime and my stomach groans a complaint and takes control of the car.  I pull over in front of Bistro Jeanty in Yountville. Haven’t been there in years, but today I am going to have lunch.
I sit at the bar, feeling less conspicuous than I would at a table. I order a glass of wine and a salad, and am biting into a hunk of fragrant French bread, when a gentleman sits down at my counter, a couple of seats away. I notice everything. He’s got the casual professional look I love--slacks, a pastel business shirt, no jacket or tie, shiny shoes. Greying hair, wire-rimmed glasses. Perhaps someone I’d like to know. We start talking about our individual business in the valley—his architectural consulting, my meeting. I tell him about my scholarship project in Nicaragua. He’s interested in my contacts in the local Rotary club. He gives me his card and I promise to email him some information about an overseas project.
What a pleasant lunch—a salad of skinny French green beans, fresh and crisp, with just the right punch of mustard in the vinaigrette. Stimulating conversation about projects important to me, and male companionship. Nothing more comes of this encounter--the guy doesn’t ask me out or call me later. But it occurs to me that lunching alone could be a way for this lady of “a certain age” to meet available men. Men who can afford lunch in a nice restaurant, who wouldn’t be caught dead at Burger King, who don’t have a sweetie fixing them a sandwich, and aren’t likely to go home and open a can of tuna.
So I hatch this plan to expand my writing, experience more of Napa’s best eateries, and find some new friends, perhaps even a lover. Once every week or two, I will have lunch in a new place, sit at the bar, and invite conversation with whomever the universe provides. I’ll write about the people I meet, the staff, and, if all else fails, the food.
Gotta go now. Time for lunch!