Ubuntu: new chef, same great food.

Jeremy Fox and his wife left Ubuntu this past year and we were a bit worried about what would happen to this nationally known “vegetable restaurant”.  Well, after eating 2 dinners there with Chef Aaron London (who has been working there since the inception of the restaurant) there is no doubt that the same great food is coming out of that kitchen; ok, dare I say it?  I think even better.  The menu has been scaled down to a more manageable size, and the flavors are still incredibly rich and inviting.  I have eaten there more often than any other restaurant in Napa Valley; simply because, I conjecture, I cannot believe someone is actually going to get me to eat all of my vegetables!  This last time it was the carrots.  I thought I just couldn’t swallow another carrot for the year, and the plate arrived and we found ourselves fighting over the dish.  The flatbread (not pizza) with a thin crispy crust and lots of greens on top was fresh tasting, gave great crunch, and deeply satisfied.  Of course, for starters we always begin with the marcona almonds and the olives and the chickpeas in romesco sauce because the flavors just wake the palate up out of its afternoon stupor.  For dessert I had to order the chicory doughnuts and hot chocolate (two of my favorite food groups: fat and sugar) and was not disappointed as I sipped up liquid chocolate pudding from a cup.  It was heavenly.  Don’t worry about walking away hungry; you won’t.  They find plenty of ways to put protein sources in the meal (legumes, grains, cheese, eggs).  It is no surprise to me that the New York Times called it the “Best New Restaurant in America outside of NYC” in 2009.  It continues to shine.

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La Toque: classy, upscale, romantic restaurant with really great food.

For years we have talked about eating at La Toque, especially when it moved from Rutherford to the City of Napa.  As an upscale, classy, and special place we kept waiting for a “special occasion” to go.  Well, we finally had to admit that having a free night together was enough of a special occasion to go; and we were not disappointed.  They sat us near the fireplace at a quiet table for two; and as I looked around the room I realized that all the tables were spread out so that each table provided privacy and gave you enough aloneness to make it very romantic.  As much as I love tasting menus because they provide the chef a place to showcase his talent, we wanted to eat on the “lighter” side.  They offer a 3-course or 4-course options on the main menu, and we chose the 4-course (so much for “lighter”): appetizer, first course, main course, and dessert.  They began with a small amuse bouche to awaken the appetite, and then we began with our first course- for me,  ricotta ravioli served with chickpeas and mushrooms.  It was such a great beginning and I was really pleased.  Jamie started with the curried dungeness crab salad with homemade papadums, a small tower of crunch and flavor in every bite.

For second course, I decided to try the lobster salad with roasted sweet potatoes- a combination of foods I wouldn’t necessarily have paired together- and it worked brilliantly.  Served warm, the lobster still stood up for itself against what could have been an overwhelming flavor in the sweet potato and the two danced perfectly on my palate.  Jamie chose the Quail, with sausage-stuffed morel mushrooms that were completely addictive.  For his main course Jamie went wild and ordered the buffalo with a buffalo pot-roast terrine, served with scalloped potatoes, as his main course; I admit that buffalo can have a gamy aroma associated with it, but the flavor did not carry it.  With the raclette-filled potatoes, the combination was really nice.  Angus rib eye with red wine sauce was my choice, mostly because it came with cheddared pearl tapioca on the side, which was every bit as delicious as I had hoped.  Although the courses look small in appearance, as you eat each course you begin to fill up and wonder whether you even have room for dessert at the end.  We suffered through it, of course, and ordered the chocolate mousse cake with a mint chocolate chip ice cream cookies that was rich and creamy, and the chocolate parfait that had incredible layers of cream, chocolate, and nougat throughout the cup.  Overall cost?  Without wine: about $200.00 for two, which in Napa is a great bargain; with wine, add another $100 – $150, depending on what you order.

For guests looking for a really nice dining experience that is classy, upscale, and romantic (and is only a 2-minute drive from The Inn On First), check out La Toque for a really lovely meal.

When you want something more than wine in Napa: Skyline Wilderness Park.

We enjoyed a perfect day in Napa.  Lovely blue skies, 75 degree weather, and a lovely hike for an hour to Lake Marie (Lake Marie Road).  It starts in a parking lot, veers around an RV park, and then climbs into the hillsides filled with oak trees, long grasses, and beautiful flowers all over the place.  There we found a bench at the lake, a place to eat lunch, drink some wine, and to enjoy the afternoon.  Then we made the trek back with some really spectacular views of Napa Valley; all the while proclaiming: “Oh my!  And we get to live here.”  It is a five minute drive from The Inn On First and it is called Skyline Wilderness Park.  For a $5.00 day-use fee you have access to picnic grounds and some really wonderful trails in the hills around the city of Napa.  Due to poison oak we stayed with the Lake Marie Road trail, which is pretty much a straight shot to Lake Marie.  There are picnic areas along the trail, as well as picnic tables or benches (okay, only 2) for you to enjoy the view of the lake, the egrets, the hawks, the ducks, the blue herons, etc.  For a Saturday afternoon, when the valley floor is crawling with people and cars and wine-tasting, this was a perfect day in the park and a picnic lunch where there were few people along the trail, and we only saw one other couple at the lake.  When they left we were alone for a good 30 minutes before anyone else showed up.  Wow!  What a perfect day, and right here within city limits.

Oxbow Market: great place to buy picnic foods for a day in Napa Valley.

We wanted the perfect lunch and we thought Oxbow Market, about a two minute drive from the inn, would be the perfect place to get everything we needed.  We started in a store called The Fatted Calf, where they offered only 2 sandwich selections (we bought the pork sandwich with slaw and dressing on a beautiful ciabatta roll), but also offered cold bbq’d ribs and other cooked meats to take with you.  Next door we entered into the Model Bakery for a lovely selection of cookies (and more sandwiches), desserts, and breads.  We followed this up with a walk through the wine store where we picked up a Rhone wine (half-bottle) for our lunch (yes, it’s important to drink non-Napa wine!), and then perused the cheese shop next door for something delicious to take with us on the hike.  We then took a walk through the main Oxbow Market and I was disappointed that I could not take ice cream with us as the ice cream shop was just screaming for attention on this hot day.  I wanted to dally in the spice shop, or at the meat market, or even at Pica-Pica that offers everything gluten-free (made with cornmeal) with lovely tortilla-like sandwiches, and to meander through the veggie-fruit market; but, alas, Jamie called me out of my “shopping haze” to get back outdoors and to enjoy the day.  Want to take a picnic lunch with you?  Start at the Oxbow Market and you can find pretty much whatever you want for the day.  And remember: tell them that Jim and Jamie sent you from The Inn On First!