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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French Blue: if you’re in St. Helena and want to enjoy a nice lunch.

Just 15 miles north of The Inn On First, a luxury Napa Bed and Breakfast Inn, is the town of St. Helena, and right on main street (Hwy 29) lies a small restaurant called French Blue.  All white with blue trim.  (CLOSED TUE).  We had the option of eating a late breakfast or ordering off the standard lunch menu.

Jamie chose the soup, a puree of celery root with a drizzle of creme fraiche and we both enjoyed sharing that dish.  To begin I ordered the lunch salad of roasted beets with candied hazelnuts.  It was delicious.  For his main course Jamie chose eggs in tomatillo sauce on corn tortillas and thought the tomatillo sauce was a perfect accompaniment to the eggs.  I wanted the breakfast special with a flatbread with prosciutto and eggs (I love when other people cook me breakfast!), but I could see other plates coming out from the kitchen and wondered if I should have been more adventurous: rabbit rillettes terrine, chicken paillard, lamb tenderloin, and shrimp with harissa butter.

As a lunch stop I think this could be a wonderful afternoon pitstop to enjoy some great food in a fun ambience while you are in between wineries in northern Napa Valley.  Reservations are a must, unless you want to wait for 45 minutes or more for a table.  Prices range from $8 to $12 for starters and $9 to $25 for entrees.  Visit  http://www.frenchbluenapa.com for more information.

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.

Annalien’s Vietnamese: a treat Pho you!

It was lunch time and my niece, Catherine, was visiting and we wanted to try something new.  We had heard that Annalien’s was a good place to eat and I was in the mood for Pho, a noodle soup with lots of vegetables and sometimes chicken or beef or shrimp.  We started with the Salmon Spring Rolls because they are not deep-fried, and with the accompanying peanut sauce and hot sauce our palates were awakened and we were happy with the choice of appetizer.  Catherine ordered the Green Papaya salad with shrimp, Jamie ordered the Lemon Grass soup with shrimp, and I ordered the Pho Ga (with chicken).  There was not a bad bite in any of the dishes.  I thought the Lemon Grass soup was a little on the small side (at least compared to the bowl of Pho), whereas the Pho was more than I could eat and I shared the rest with Jamie.  Catherine’s salad was just right (what, the Three Little Bears?- too big, too small, just right!).  What I loved most about the Pho was the side of little dishes (jalapeno peppers, green onion, sprouts, and three different sauces to enjoy).  I used everything but the jalapeno peppers (I can only manage so much heat these days) and it married nicely into the dish.  Although we didn’t get a chance to speak with Annalien, you will see her around the dining room speaking to guests and talking about the food.  Quite an enjoyable experience; one that I would recommend, and within walking distance of the inn.

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.

Cole’s Chop House: still delivering great filet mignon!

We don’t often go out just for steak, but we were invited out by some returning guests (thank you!- not often we can go with all the work we have to do, but it is the tail end of the low season and we could afford the time), and they wanted to return to Cole’s with some friends they brought with them from Canada.  We love the look and feel of Cole’s: a little upscale, a little casual, a little contemporary.  With a full bar to order from it makes for a great cocktail restaurant for those who just want something other than wine to drink.  We stayed with our personal favorites, the filet mignon with the Sauce Bearnaise (tender, juicy, and scrumptious!), and we ordered the hash browns (not to be missed: crunchy on the exterior, tender interior, in the shape of an inverted bowl on the plate), the mushrooms (what is a great steak without sauteed mushrooms?), and the creamed spinach!  Okay, my arteries are clogged for a week, but what the heck!  We don’t get here often.   You will be happy to note that we did start with salads first, the Butter-lettuce salad with the creamy buttermilk dressing, our nod to healthy and fresh and green.  We paired the steaks with a Trefethen Cabernet Sauvignon, without a doubt a great addition to the meal.  In the mood for steak?  Then Cole’s is the place for you.  Close to the Inn, a fifteen minute walk up First Street, or a two minute drive by car.  Reservations are recommended and required on weekends and the High Season.