Sometimes you just need to get out of town, and look at that, we have Wine Country right in our backyard with Napa Valley not that far from San Francisco. Winter and early spring are an ideal time to visit: there are fewer crowds and better room rates, and it’s easier to make reservations. So let’s hit the road.
When exactly was the last time you stayed in downtown Napa? Exactly. Things are a-changin’. Check in to the ~ANDAZ NAPA~, which has an ideal central location, and while it’s a bit on the larger side, the hotel is aiming for boutique style. Go for one of the loft or terrace rooms if the price is right, and ask for a room that faces the back, not First Street (it’ll be quieter). Plan on getting some sleep, because the beds are a pillowy dream. When warm summer temperatures are back, the terrace (complete with fire pits!) will be open for drinks and hanging out.
Book a reservation for dinner at the recently opened ~TORC~ in the former Ubuntu. The handsome, spacious dining room contains 90 seats, with 17 at the bar. I recommend you start with a glass of the Charles de Cazanove Champagne ($16); the Euro-centric wine list is gonna make you thirsty.
Wild boar bolognese with housemade bucatini at Torc.
The interior of Torc (at the end of the evening).
Arancini and Ca’ Momi Rosa Frizzante.
Chef-owner Sean O’Toole (Quince, Cotogna, Bardessono) is one hell of a cook: his menu spans both the inventive and the traditional, ranging from Bengali sweet potato pakoras ($5) with yogurt-truffle dip to an elegant violet artichoke soup ($10). He is definitely rocking an international pantry. The Asian-inspired free-range chicken for two ($41) is a standout (it’s made with a vibrant farce of brioche, cardamom, cumin, clove, Tellicherry, star anise, cubeb pepper, allspice, pork fat, and butter), and it comes with creamy coconut rice. There are also some housemade pastas ($14-$19) you should strongly consider (remember, he has that Quince pedigree). One night we had the wild boar bolognese with bucatini—it was like an Italian molé, with cocoa and orange, and a hit of lime.
Dessert is truly a must. The pastry chef, Elizabeth Gentry, is so very talented; try the citrus-praline tart with lemon curd, caramelized hazelnut sablé, and smoked praline ganache (plus kumquat salt!), while chocolate lovers should get the Manjari chocolate bombe, rich with jasmine (both $9).
If you desire a nightcap, you can head to ~MORIMOTO~ for what is usually a lively scene in the lounge and bar, or enjoy a digestivo or grappa (my pick!) at the small bar inside ~OENOTRI~, conveniently within stumbling distance of the Andaz.
Rigatoni con coda alla vaccinara (oxtail) at Ca’ Momi.
The next day, if you’re a biscuit lover, you’ll want to hit up the popular ~NAPA VALLEY BISCUITS~, a Southern diner serving biscuit-y breakfasts that will hold you until dinner (and help soak up any extended wine tastings later in the day). There’s also fried chicken and waffles, or you can go for the Yardbird: fried chicken, bacon, and gravy sandwiched inside a biscuit. Uh-huh.
Another option is to visit the ~OXBOW PUBLIC MARKET~. Start the day at the Ritual Coffee stand, and then take a seat at ~CA’ MOMI~, an enoteca featuring dishes from all over Italy (owners Dario De Conti, Valentina Guolo-Migotto, and Stefano Migotto take the authenticity of their dishes very seriously).
Order the Ca’ Momi Ca’ Rosa Frizzante to go with the flatbread with lardo di Colonnata, a rare treat. In fact, they’ll do all kinds of great wine pairings here, or you can go for a Venetian spritz or an Italian beer (like Baladin!). Piadine (Rimini-style flatbread sandwiches) also rule, especially the Giorgio ($12) with radicchio, prosciutto cotto, and creamy stracchino cheese filling.
Ca’ Momi’s blazing pizza oven cranks out about 20 kinds of pizza, from a classic (and VPN-certified) margherita ($16) to the Momi, with porchetta, taleggio, and caramelized onion ($17). If the carbonara with egg and pancetta isn’t a perfect brunch pizza, I don’t know what is. Plus there are nine kinds of vegetarian pies for those on a healthier tip. All ingredients are organic, and some even come from Ca’ Momi’s own garden for the restaurant.
If you’re in a lunchy mood, the pastas rock, like a northern Italian dish of spatzle allo speck with cream ($16), or the Roman rigatoni ($22) con coda alla vaccinara (with oxtail, pine nuts, and soffritto). Who can say no to gnudi ($16)? I usually can’t. For dessert, get the bigné—cream puffs with a variety of fillings.
~THE THOMAS AT FAGIANI’S~ has a tasty, casual brunch—think corn pancakes, good egg dishes, and a quality Bloody Mary—and if the weather is nice, the rooftop terrace is where you want to be. When tomato season is back, the BLAT (bacon, lettuce, avocado, tomato sandwich) is tops.
From there? Check out wine tasting rooms like Vintner’s Collective, 1313 Main, and Carpe Diem. The Culinary Institute of America is offering new Napa wine education classes at the CIA Wine Studies Annex in the former Copia, listed here. Oh yeah, and there are always the Napa Premium Outlets if you’re in a shopping frame of mind. (Dangerous after wine tasting, btw.)
A version of this piece previously ran in my Tablehopping column in the San Francisco Bay Guardian.