Thursday, March 24, 2011


Yountville, California, with its population of less than 3,000, boasts some of the finest restaurants in northern California, three of them owned by famed restaurateur Thomas Keller (French Laundry, Ad Hoc and Bouchon). With its adjacent bakery, Bouchon is a place to celebrate French food.

Bouchon's cookbook is on my shelf, but I make my first visit on a dreary March Friday of pouring-down rain. The L-shaped counter is adjacent to the oyster bar, taking up about a quarter of the space in the room; for all its fame, this is a small restaurant. Bartender Chris presents the brown paper menu wrapped around a cloth napkin. The counter is a busy place at 12:30, and I suspect whenever the restaurant is open. A group of three young women sits to my left, and soon two couples are to my right. No single guys, but cozy!

The menu offers many dishes I would like to try--onion soup, Croque Madame (fried ham and cheese sandwich to soothe the soul), mussels, steak frites, pâté, escargots--all so very French; how does one choose?  Trying to keep it simple so there's room for dessert, I select the Salade de Betteraves as a first course, followed by Truite Amandine. And my signature Sauvignon Blanc--from Napa Valley. Bouchon is known for its baguettes shaped like stalks of wheat and served with delicious sweet butter.

I taste the salad and study all of its fascinating parts. Small red beets (betteraves), pieces of poached rhubarb, leaves of roasted lettuce from Bouchon's garden, a sweet white cheese called Tomme Dolce and roasted hazelnuts. Sprinkled on top are some tiny yellow flowers that look a bit like the wallflowers I just planted in my front yard. With a light vinaigrette, this salad is an edible work of art. I'm thinking the diet is safe so far.

I ask the young woman to my left if she and her friends are visiting and learn that although she has spent the last year in Boston, Clemente is from Paris. All right! An expert at the table. I tell her plans for my upcoming trip to Europe and she gives me the name of a Paris bakery to visit for Macarons. I suggest she try Bouchon's amazing cookies of the same name. Clemente judges her quiche as not the same as a quiche in France, but good nevertheless. Her friends aren't able to finish their Croque Madames slathered in mornay sauce and accompanied by  mounds of French fries. Before they depart for wine tasting, we chat about local wineries.

The couple on my right has finished their steak tartare and saffron mussels. I have no interest in raw beef, but find the mussels are plentiful and look yummy--maybe next time. My trout arrives as the seats to my right refill. I meet two more young women--one is from the Bay Area and her visitor is from North Dakota. The trout is served butterflied, head still attached. The "body" is covered with beautiful buttery haricots verts (in English--green beans) and slivered, toasted almonds. Quite tasty, and except for the butter, I'm still in diet territory.

A little chocolate seems to be in order and I go for the Marquise au Chocolat, a thick, dark slice of chocolate mousse, with a dab of whipped cream and some burnt orange cream on the plate for contrast, and a couple of pralines for crunch. A true chocolate transfusion--heavenly! Yeah, forget the diet.

Bouchon has daily specials, so one could have a nice meal for under $50 with wine. Today's dessert special is  "bouchons," their special cork-shaped chocolate brownies, which are also available in the bakery. Once "uncorked," the French cuisine at Bouchon is to be enjoyed again and again, certainly by moi!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


If you're only interested in the yummy food at this Calistoga restaurant, skip to the third paragraph. I must begin with an update on my mission in writing this blog. I began with the intention of meeting interesting men while eating delicious lunches at the counters of Napa Valley's upscale restaurants. More often than not, my only lengthy conversations have been with bartenders. The focus of my blogs has increasingly been the delicious food I have happily ingested while waiting for Mr. Right to sidle up to the bar and order lunch.
Please understand that I am not a food critic. I don't know enough about  ingredients or styles of cooking, and don't wish to be held accountable for my guesses about what's in the food and why it tastes good. I leave that to those who are capable of taking just a bite of many dishes and leaving the rest. But some of you have really enjoyed my food descriptions and have told me you're going to visit that restaurant because I made it sound so tasty. For that the eateries should be giving me some kind of dessert? The bottom line here is that I am having a blast doing the research and the writing, and I'm going to continue, romantic possibilities or not. Just make sure you remind me to go to the gym more often.
On to Solbar. I reluctantly drive up Silverado Trail to Calistoga on a rainy day, knowing I am unlikely to find a crowd of single guys hanging out at the restaurant of the Solange Spa. More likely couples on vacation and ladies of leisure getting a spa treatment and having a bite. This determination comes from my embarrassment when my girlfriend from Sonoma (Sonoma, for God's sake!) recommended this Napa Valley restaurant I didn't know. The same week the Napa Valley Register wrote about several area chefs up for an award--one of them is Brandon Sharp from Solbar. It's Food and Wine Magazine's "People's Best New Chef" for 2011. It's a public popularity contest, but I figure I'd better check it out.
Solbar's ambiance is hardly plush--more streamlined and minimalist. The spa buildings are unremarkable, although fountains and fireplaces are scattered around the property, including a fountain with flames in the center. The dining room seats about fifty people, has a concrete floor and a stone bar--very simple, but cold on a damp day. Yellow tulips on the dining tables add a nice touch.      
Of course there is no one seated at the bar.  Kat, a Calistoga native with lots of restaurant experience who loves working at Solbar, waits on me. I skip the wine and order two dishes. Solbar's menu divides the offerings between "light" (for the spa crowd, I guess) and "hearty." I choose one of each. The spicy shrimp lettuce wraps would serve as an appetizer for three people--large shrimp with glass noodles, avocado and pickled carrots on lettuce leaves.  I also order the maitake mushroom pizza, thinking  I'll take some of it home.  It has a very thin crisp crust covered with mushrooms, caramelized onions and gruyere; I don't want to stop eating.
Kat and I chat while I indulge. One other diner sits down at the far end of the bar. I hear him tell the staff he's worked out for three hours, so I guess he's one of their local "club" members who uses the gym, pool, and other facilities. Kat tells me they get a mix of tourists, locals and winery folks out for a business lunch.
I ask Kat to box the remaining pizza and am ready to skip dessert, but agree to look at the menu--always a mistake. I mean I'm doing research, right? Got to try as many dishes as possible, right? Kat tells me the last item on the menu is new: fried rhubarb pie with rosemary caramel and white chocolate ice cream. I can't imagine passing on fried pie, so decided to give it a try, even if it means another half hour at the gym. The pie, molded like one of  McDonald's apple pies, sits on a wide band of caramel that connects it to a scoop of ice cream. Warm pie, cold ice cream and sticky caramel make a nice combination.  The pie is nothing special and I can't taste the chocolate in the ice cream, but I have no problem cleaning the plate.
On a sunny summer day, Solbar would be a great place to hang out. The outdoor dining area with that mysterious water-enclosed flame, looks out on a brilliant blue lap pool. The indoor atmosphere is a bit  more clubhouse than fine dining, but the food is delicious and ample. So where are  all the single guys having lunch?