Carpe Diem Wine Bar and Restaurant: still producing Grade A innovation and flavor.

Only a ten minute walk from Napa’s luxury Bed and Breakfast Inn, The Inn On First, is Carpe Diem Wine Bar and Restaurant; what we call a “small plates restaurant”, meaning you order to share.  Where else can you be tempted by the daily taco of the day (filet mignon with pomegranate glaze, or shrimp pad thai, or pulled pork with a chipotle sauce, or lamb with pickled slaw- every bite delicious!) that changes all the time according to the chef’s inventiveness and seasonal ingredients.

I’m a fan of their pork steam buns, the short ribs, and their filet mignon with red rice cake.  Yet by the time you get there these may be gone and replaced with some other yummy dish for you to choose.  The fried olives are still a favorite of mine, and the truffled popcorn is downright addictive.  You swear you will stop eating it, and yet your hands keep reaching.  Jamie loved the brussell sprouts flatbread (you know I’m a hater so I don’t touch the stuff!), and the soft housemade burrata with olive oil drizzle and toast points is always fun.

This restaurant is fun, exciting, and always busy, so reservations are a must.  With so many wines by the glass, too, it makes it really interesting to try new wines with these dishes.  We’ve even had guests return two nights in a row just so they could try out other dishes and different wines.  Stephanie and Scott, Owners, Hostess and Chef, make this must-eat stop in Napa.  Oh, and seriously, if they ever take the Twix Bar off the dessert menu I might consider picketing the establishment.

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Lunch in the mountain vineyards: a most spectacular event and only $80/pp

As we left for the day from The Inn On First, a luxury Napa Bed and Breakfast, we knew we were in for a real treat with our upcoming vineyard lunch.   You enjoy as much wine as you want from each bottle they open for you to try.  You eat to your heart’s content with incredible food from Ken Frank of La Toque.  You look down upon the beauty of Napa Valley and think: “Oh my!  I’m so lucky to be in Napa!”  You are one of the few who have discovered and enjoyed the uniqueness of Napa Valley at its best.

Chateau Patel-VGS.  Vineyard Lunch. It began with a drive up Mt. Veeder and down a long, dusty road to a gated vineyard.  We met Tony, an affable man with a great smile, and he opened the gates and invited us to follow him.  We traversed the rows of cabernet grapes, and when we spotted the pink flag on one of the stakes he proudly proclaimed: “Pick a row!  Climb the mountain.”  We did.  It wasn’t a long climb, about 50 yards, through the vines ripe with fruit, purple and luscious, hanging, waiting for you to enjoy their bounty.  I can see why tennis shoes or good hiking shoes are a must.

We found a dirt road on top and followed that up another 50 yards until we found the arbor, built specifically for this purpose.  A table, white linen table cloth and napkins, with wine glasses, silverware, and plates awaiting the diner.  As well as a gorgeous view of Napa Valley and the surrounding vineyards.

We started with a salmon spread and toast points served with their VGS Explorer Sauvignon Blanc ($25).  A crisp wine with smells of lightly buttered toast and hints of lemon went well with the salmon.  We followed this with a lovely green salad, blue cheese, candied pecans and a balsamic vinaigrette served with the VGS Chardonnay ($45), with notes of pear, green apple, and honeydew.  A beautiful combination of food and wine.  We also paired this and the next course with their cabernet-zinfandel blend called “Illegitimate” (2009) ($37).  Fruity, with flavors of tart cherries and spice, very fruit forward and big fruit flavors.

Our main course was beef carpaccio, potato salad, and marinated vegetables served with the Illegitimate and their VGS Syrah (2009) ($75) with big fruit flavors, lightly spiced, and extremely delicious.  Of course there was still the cheese course with cranberry nut bread, nuts, and three beautiful cheeses.  All that could be paired with what we already had open.  But then Tony opened a bottle of their late harvest zinfandel, called “Zinie” (2010) ($28).  Low in residual sugar and not at all like many of the dessert wines we’ve had elsewhere, it was an incredible pairing with the cheese and bread.

I have to admit that it wasn’t just the food and the wine and the view that made our day special.  Tony is an incredible host, funny, and willing to engage you in conversation about many things.  He makes you feel comfortable, even about the fact that there are no restrooms: “Just find a nice spot around the bend in the road,” he encouraged as we each took turns finding our private hideaway.  Rustic, yes, but with the views of vineyards and mountains, it didn’t matter.  For $80/pp you would be hard pressed to enjoy such a wonderful experience at any restaurant in the valley with this caliber pairing of wines for anything less.  And remember, you also get all those views on your way down the mountain!  Oh, and don’t forget to ask him: “What does VGS stand for anyway?”

Zuzu’s: great flavors, small dishes, superb delight.

Zuzu’s has been one of those restaurants that we have had on our list due to guest comments over the past year.  We’ve even had guests who were Tapas-style chefs go and come back raving about the food and we knew we had to go.  Well, we finally made it to the restaurant last week and we were ready for a feast.  I’ll tell you now that we only have one regret with the meal: we didn’t have enough room for more.  The problem was the paella.  We ordered enough for 3; we should have ordered enough for one, shared, and moved onto other dishes.  At first I though the tomato sauce on the paella was too tart, but then I kept eating it and wondered what the attraction was that kept me coming back for more.  It was served with a light and sweet cream sauce that was the perfect balance to the tomato.  We were half-way through that when the next course showed up: the flat iron steak with the chimichurri sauce which was Jamie’s favorite.  Then came the next, which I loved, the asparagus with Serrano ham, and we both loved the next course, scallops with the olives and meyer lemon.  The last course we ordered was the Bacalao with truffle oil which we pretty much fought over to finish, and then we were stuffed.  Argh!  Not enough room for more.  There were still many more flavors and options to try and we were so disappointed that there had been so much paella that we didn’t…couldn’t possibly….have room for more…..than dessert!  We settled on the apple empanada because a number of guests had talked about the tart apple with the hint of pepper on your throat to be finished with caramel sauce.  Whoa!  Really yummy!  Now I understand why our guests love this place so much.  Everything in small portions, shared family style, and paced out over the course of your meal.  One dish shows up, you begin to eat, and then another, and you add that to your plate, and then a third.  Dirty plate and don’t want to mix flavors?  No problem!  There are extra clean plates at the table and they are prompt to clear the dirty ones away.  Not sure how hungry you are?  Fine, then start with a few and order more as you go.  No reservations taken here, but worth the wait if you have to.  Definitely a great meal for those who are looking for something casual, different, flavorful, and fun.  The restaurant is only a two minute drive from the inn, or a fifteen minute walk.

Bistro Jeanty: a taste of France in the Napa Valley

Sitting on Washington Street in Yountville, Bistro Jeanty welcomes you to a taste of France.  We entered a small dining room decorated much like you would see in Paris at a cafe, and then walked out onto the side patio, a large area for dining outdoors.  The menu is very “french” with menu items that still make my mouth water: foie gras pate, beef tartare, tomato soup with pastry crust, and cassoulet.  We weren’t going to order dessert but the chocolate galette and the creme brulee were just too tempting to miss.   The portions here are very large on everything.  You may find that you want to share and not order individually.  We wanted to sample a little bit of everything, stating that we would take the left-overs home for lunch the next day.  The flavors were too good to set aside and, sadly, it meant we finished everything on our plates.  Which means, I suppose, that we’ll have to go back and try some other things.  For food in solid French fashion, Bistro Jeanty is the place to eat.

Bleaux Magnolia: be prepared for a wild party in your mouth!

We sometimes refer to this restaurant as our home away from home.  It is one of those restaurants we frequent often, and if we cannot sit and have a meal, we’ll order out.  The flavors here continue to entice our palates and we have yet to walk away disappointed.  My personal favorite is the Osso Bucco on sweet potato fries, with the meat falling right off the bone.  I still enjoy the seafood gumbo and the duck jambalaya, and now their ‘tweener (1/2 gumbo and 1/2 jambalaya). This last time they offered us the Super ‘tweener, with a large duck leg on top, and Matt, the chef, joked that he wanted to improve that with a Jumbo ‘tweener that would add a crab cake on top of the duck leg.  We split the Osso Bucco and Super ‘tweener and with each bite I felt as though my mouth was at a wild dance party where the spices become the music which cause my body to jump with pleasure.  And who can forget the deep-fried butterscotch pudding with a green apple salad and vanilla vinaigrette and a scoop of green apple sorbet.  That was perfect.  I give you fair warning, though: going to any other restaurant after this one is like attending the ballet after a night of dancing to rock and roll.  You need to be prepared for more subtle flavors and nuanced dishes.  If you think every restaurant is going to offer what Bleaux Magnolia has to offer, you will be disappointed.  For us, this is another “not to be missed” restaurant in Napa.

Ubuntu: continues to shine.

Now that the thrill of New York’s elite eaters have come and gone in the wake of the NY Times write-up, and the national press has simmered down after the chef’s picture showed up in Bon Appetit, we returned to a still busy restaurant with a large group of friends.  Groups are treated to a preset menu where they bring out food until you can eat no more.  Just when you think you cannot take another bite of anything, the next course shows up.  You literally have to tell them to STOP sending food.  We enjoyed a lovely asparagus salad, a corn soup, farro in an avocado sauce with corn fritters, pizza with wild mushrooms and truffle oil, and their signature cauliflower puree.  I have to admit that there were a couple of other courses in between that I lost track of that were no less wonderful, small bites of great flavor in your mouth.  Yes, I know, it’s all vegetarian.  Trust me.  I’m a carnivore and love my beef.  Yet I’ve eaten there 5 times and I’ve never been dissatisfied, nor have I walked away hungry.  Due to its popularity reservations are a must.  There is a communal table open for walk-ins, but the wait can be long and tedious.  This is a “must” stop for anyone staying in Napa.

Hurley’s: Anything but “boar”-ing.

Hurley’s in Yountville (about 15 minutes from the Inn) was next on our list to visit.  I had once tried a bite of the Boar Stew at a street fair in Yountville last November, but this would be our first visit to the restaurant.  We chose to sit inside and I’m glad we did- I like the ambience.  Dark colors, big windows looking out over the street, a nice wine bar along one wall.  We started with cocktails- a Poma-tini (yummy martini with pomegranate juice) and a Maker’s Mark Manhattan (a Cherry family favorite for over 50 years).  Beginning with the squash blossoms, I was disappointed in the flavor.  There was an oddity to the dish that didn’t sell my palate on the dish, but Jamie’s asparagus salad and our friend’s (Rob) spinach salad took me there.  The spinach salad with the fresh, poached egg on top was the real winner of that course.  I couldn’t help but go back to the boar stew and I wasn’t disappointed.  They also had salmon (chef’s catch from his recent trip to Alaska) which was Jamie’s choice and was great.  The Halibut, Rob’s choice, worked well together with the other elements of the dish, but the fish was overcooked (easy to do with Halibut, I’m afraid).  We decided on two desserts: the berry pudding, which was light and delicious, and the ice cream sandwich, which was a wonderful end to the meal.  We all fought over the plate on that dessert!  If I was to plan your meal: go with the spinach salad or asparagus salad, then the salmon (if there is any left) or the boar stew, and definitely leave room for the ice cream sandwich.