Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Spring Trip to CA - Napa Valley

Diane and I took a four day mini-escape to Northern California this May. We split our time between the Napa Valley and about two hours away at my uncle's place in Ardoro County.

I'll report on both parts of the trip, but I'll start with the Napa Valley. We've been there before, but it's been a number of years and we were eager to re-imerse ourselves in the beauty, tastes and activities the area has to offer. And, the fact is that this winter and "spring" has been particularly cold, gray and rainy in Seattle. So that provided sharp motivation to head south and get some sun. Lastly, we met up with friends down there to share the fun, and that's always a good thing.

After flying into the Sacramento aiport, we picked up our rental car and drove traffic free to the town of Napa - a trip that took us less than two hours. A note to people considering going to Napa, but who are not planning to visit San Francisco...fly in/out of SAC. Literally, within less than 2 hours picking up your car at the airport you can be in Napa Valley tasting wine.

Basking in the warm California sun, here's what we did in our 1.5 days in the valley...


Bistro Don Giovanni - I saw on the funny and to a degree educational show Drinking Made Easy that this place made a "Blondie Mary" yellow Bloody Mary from yellow tomatoes. So, after checking into our hotel, we headed over there to see if we could get one as a mid-afternoon libation. Well, no such luck. Turns out that May is not tomato season. Many people may know this. It didn't occur to either myself or Diane. But, with such nice weather and a gentle garden to sit and sip something cold we changed plans and had a divine Margarita instead. It was Cinco de Mayo that day after all. The Marg included limoncello liqueur and, well, it was one of the best we've ever had. (Right: Patio view at Don Giovanni. Photo taken by: Marc Osborn)

Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen - for our first of two dinners in the Napa Valley, we went to Cindy's in St. Helena. We heard about this place from friends who had eaten there before, and indeed the restaurant is not on the main drag running through the town. Rather, it's situated off of the secondary road of St. Helena...the entrance tucked away down a narrow pathway between buildings. Simply put, this was a delightful place. A favorite among locals if you believe the great waiter we had, this restaurant is casually elegant with tasteful interior and a broad but not too extensive menu.

We started our dinner with a cocktail. Diane had the very innovative and delicious Tahi-Gin-Tini that was made of gin, fresh lime juice and a cayenne pepper rim. Wow. I had a sip and instantly wished I had ordered that. I had a very classy Margarita...and why not, we'd had one earlier that day at Don Giovanni and it was still Cinco de Mayo. Just about half way through those drinks, our Malaysian Lamb Curry Puffs arrived. Lets do a little "Sesame Street" on this dish. "Malaysian" good. "Lamb" savory. "Curry" spicy. "Puffs" yum. "Malaysian Lamb Curry Puffs" awesome.

Next up we split a spinach, papaya and avocado salad. This proved a very nice change up from the appetizer and set things right before the main course. Also, at this point it's worth nothing that the pace of the meal was very nice...not too fast, not too slow. Just right.

With a delicious bottle of Franciscan Cab alighting on our table just in time, our entrees arrived. Diane had an unbelievable chicken dish. That's right. You read that correctly. A spectacular chicken dish. Trust me. I had a bite. Called "Pollo Loco," this thing was a pounded out piece of chicken breast slathered in I don't know what to bring out some really excellent flavors. Sitting on top was an avocado salsa and beside it a cheese filled green chili (not spicy). I had a very nice lamb stew with peas, carrots and savory gravy. To close things out, we shared a delightful desert.

While not cheap, our bill came to just more than $150 (before tip). For all we got - a cocktail, bottle of wine, salad, app, entrees and a desert - we felt that the cost was pretty reasonable as these things go in the area. Satisfied all the way around we left the restaurant and headed back to our hotel. All told, if you're looking for a casual but nice place to get some tasty, inventive food...not to mention great cocktails...this is your place. Check it out.

Alexis Baking Company (also know as "ABC") - the next morning, we ventured out in the sunlit morning to this place for breakfast on the recommendation of the bartender at Bistro Don Giovanni. Good move. This is a small, bright cafe on First Street in Napa. Order at the counter, get you food delivered to your table. That's how it works at ABC. I had the superb eggs benedict and Diane had what she described as "the best huevos rancheros she's ever had." Throw in some oversized cafe a laits and this place cannot be beat. Looking for a breakfast spot in Napa next time you're there? Think no further. Go to ABC.

Soda Canyon Store & Deli - after our breakfast at ABC, we met up with friends for a bike ride around the valley. More on that below. About half way through our ride we stopped at this roadside deli for lunch. Located on the Silverado Trail road south of the Oak Line cut off road, the Soda Canyon Store is like many "delis" in the Napa Valley in that it serves much better food than you would expect than a similar place anywhere else. Indeed, I had a chicken BLT on toasted roll and Diane had a spinach salad with sliced apples on the side. Really good flavors. We enjoyed our lunch outside at a picnic table under the shade of some trees. (Right: Soda Canyon Store. Photo taken by: Marc Osborn)

Redd - Following a day of bike riding (see below), our little group re-convened at Redd in Yountville for dinner. Redd is a very nice, very cool place serving what I guess most people would consider to be neuvo American cuisine. The restaurant itself describes if fare as an "updated interpretation of wine country cuisine with influences from Asia, Europe, and Mexico in a relaxed yet elegant environment." I would agree with that. We sat outside at an enjoyable table. As the night wore on, the temps dropped and the staff turned on much needed heat lamps.

Starting things off with a nicely made old fashioned cocktail for me, a martini for Diane and vaious other libations for others in our group, the table soon moved into sampling of appetizers that included spring onion and asparagus tempura, glazed pork belly, hamachi sushimi and yellowfin tuna tartare. For dinner, I had the sauteed skate fish with vegetables, gnocchi and herb butter. Diane had the Halibut with asparagus puree and prosciutto. Both dishes were delicious! Throw that together with some nice Syrah from local vintner and all was delightful.

Henry's - After dinner, we drove back to the town of Napa to find a bar to wind up the night in. Right near the intersection of Main Street and 1st, there are several establishments. However, most of the nicer looking ones were packed. So, as we walked down the street I saw a place called Henry's, peeked in and suggested we belly up in there. This bar gets described as a "dive bar," but it's much nicer than that. I mean come on. You're in Napa. None the less, it was not tony, chic or what have you and from what I could tell there were way more locals in the joint that we tourists. Suffice it to say that beers were drank and good times enjoyed.

  • Silverado - we hit Silverado on our first afternoon in the Napa Valley. Fueled by memories of good wines, a nice setting and a great view, we thought Silverado would be a great first winery stop and an excellent place to wile away an hour or so in the sun while tasting wine. Memories proved correct and we had a really good time. $15 or $25 tasting menus. (Right: View from Silverado winery balcony. Photo taken by: Marc Osborn)
  • Robert Sinskey - this was the first winery stop on our day-long bike ride around the valley. We came here more out of convenience and necessity than anything else as we had to pull off the road and wait for some of our party to catch up. As we did, we sampled some nice wines that, had we had a backpack, I think we would have bought. That not being the case, however, we moved on. $30 tasting menu. Also to note, they have a small, casual wood fired kitchen that serves tasty snacks.
  • Stag's Leap - just down the road was Stag's Leap. We stopped here just because of the famous name...to see what the place was like. Nice facility, nice wines. $30 tasting fee.
  • Clos du Val - we pulled off here based on the recommendation of a number of people, plus the ivy covered building looked quite inviting. The Chardonnay was good here, and we're not Chardonnay fans by any means. They also had a few blends that we liked. But again, no bags meant no purchases. $20 basic tastings with more expensive ones on offer if you want.  
  • Silenus - this was our best stop I think. Silenus is not a winery on it's own, but rather a facility where growers and vintners without the deep pockets to buy wine making gear can come and make and store their wines. As a result, the tasting room is full of wines from small producers that you ain't gonna get anywhere else. We tasted quite a few and were impressed by several...enough so that we did buy some bottles and I drove back to pick them up after we dropped off our rental bikes. One other thing worth noing about Silenus...or more accurately one thing we learned from the guy at Silenus...is that any winery opened after 1990 is required by law to do tastings "by appointment only." As we were told, this is one way that the local government attempts to cut down on drinking and driving - by limiting the ability of people to literally just drive around the valley stopping at any and as many wineries whenever they want to drink. We also learned that the tasting fees are another tactic to help mitigate the amount of drinking. Again, trying to minimize over-drinking some by putting up barriers.
Bicycle riding - as mentioned, the way we saw the valley on our full day there was to ride bikes through it. Starting in Yountville at the Napa Valey Bike Tours, we and our crew picked up our rental bikes in the morning and headed out under warm temps. We did not use a guide, and instead just got a map and recommendations from the bike shop team. Diane and I rented a tandem bike. We've never ridden one and wanted to try, so this seemed like one of those "now or never" opportunities...so we did it. I have to say, it was fun. (Left: On the tandem! Photo taken by: Michele)

Also, a quick note on this bike shop...it isn't easy to find. We had a hard time, and after we found it several people in cars asked us if we knew where the shop was. Anyway, it's at the far end of Yountville tucked away in the middle of a shopping center and there are not any signs (that I saw) on the street. So, if you think you're in the right place based on the address and your GPS...you are. You just need to go into the parking lot, park and walk to the middle of the shopping center.

Once squared away, we took off. Our route started by leaving Yountville via the Yountville Cross Road and heading all the way across to the Silverado trail - the less busy road that parallels the very busy Highway 29. After turning south on the Silverado Trail road, we soon stopped at the Robert Sinksy winery. After that we continued on and hit the Stag's Leap and Clos du Val wineries and then stopped at about 1 p.m. for lunch at the Soda Canyon Store in between. We then backtracked up to the intersection of Sliverado Trail and Oak Knoll Ave., swung left and cut back across the valley. We went right over Highway 29 and onto a close parallel road north. We stopped at Silenus and then pushed on back to Yountville to complete the loop. All told, it was about a six out tour. This was a really fun experience and I'd recommend it to anyone.

After our dinner at Redd and the outing to Henry's Bar that evening, we turned in. The next morning we headed out of Napa north and east to start our visit with my uncle, cousins and other family and friends.

That will be the second part of this post about our trip, so check back to get some tips on wineries in Ardoro County.

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