Appetite: Napa's affordable eats and surprising treats

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Camp cuisine: Dim Sum Charlie's magical dirt lot setting
ALL PHOTOS BY VIRGINIA MILLER

After countless weekends in Napa over the years, I'm flush with recommendations for worthy restaurants and hotels. It's not always the most affordable area, but my recent visits north have revealed a number of delightfully reasonable options within the bounds of Napa and Yountville, both new and established. 

They've also uncovered a few unexpected dishes – and in the case of one restaurant with a new chef, a whole range of them.

Napa Valley Marriott: Sleep... and a superior burger 

Breakfast, lunch, or dinner -- don't check your watch, just order the Knife and Fork burger at the Marriott

For those familiar with the hotel before its two years of multi-million dollar renovations, Napa Valley Marriott is a whole new ballgame. It now sports a warm, modern look with a soothing spa, an ultra-cool poolside patio with couches and firepits, and a new restaurant-bar. Though you may not be able to tell from the street outside, it's really a dramatic revamp.

In the high season summer months, make a weekend of it with rooms in the low $200-300 range (or mid $200 range on weeknights). Rooms have also been completely redecorated with gentle colors and artwork, plasma screens, and comfy beds. The ones facing the courtyard are particularly tranquil. The only thing lacking? Free wi-fi. It'll run you $4.95 a day.

Chef Brian Whitmer’s garden restaurant is a revelation. I've seen Napa restaurants with their own gardens, but nothing as lush as his. Spring peas are crispy and sweet right off the vine, and leafy greens make for abundant salads. Whether you stay in the hotel or not, it's worth a detour to check out.

Cozy up in a chic booth, or a grab a stool at the curved bar and order the spicy Knife and Fork burger ($12) for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. It doesn't matter when, just order it. This burger is made of Caggiano chorizo, which is savory and spicy, yet also delicate, melt-in-your-mouth, on a Model Bakery brioche. Layered with aged cheddar, watercress, the restaurant's secret sauce, and a fried egg, it's one of the better things I've eaten in Napa in awhile -- an utterly unique burger. You won't regret making a stop for this one.

3425 Solano, Napa. (707) 253-7433, www.napavalleymariott.com

 

Ubuntu: Vegetarian perfection

Chef Jeremy Fox brought nationwide fame to this eatery, often named among the best vegetarian restaurants in the country by publications like the New York Times. I've always enjoyed my previous visits.

But I'll tell you now, with young chef Aaron London at the helm, it's better than ever. The food has moved from winning vegetarian cuisine to work-of-art vegetarian cuisine. It's gone from high quality to superb. As a non-vegetarian, I would say it has become possibly the best vegetarian restaurant I've been to anywhere and one of the best dining experiences in Napa.

What's interesting about chef London is that he's been at Ubuntu since the beginning, working as Fox's sous chef. I hear he influenced a number of dishes in those lauded early days, though we did not hear much about him. Nominated for Rising Star Chef at this year's James Beard Awards, we should be hearing a lot more about him.

He's revamped the menu in such a way that each $10-19 dish is far more than the sum of its parts. You read of roasted and raw asparagus ($16) with burratta cheese coated in potato chip crumbs, but you really have no idea what you're in for. A garden-fresh dish comes out, smeared with earthy potato skin puree, lavished with pine nut and currant soffrito, dotted with frisee, greens, and edible flowers. It's an art piece that not only stuns visually but tantalizes the tongue with its range of flavors.

The two key words I'd use to describe London's cooking outside of artistic? Texture and contrast. Every single dish of the six I recently had the pleasure of dining on were a study in layers and texture. Sweet complimented savory. Earthy and bright co-mingled. Crunchy partnered with creamy. Surprises came in every dish. Not a one was lackluster.

I could wax eloquent about the merits of each -- some served on stone labs that kept them warm – but the menu changes frequently and this article would grow tedious. So I will simply say: go, and be prepared to be blown away.

1140 Main, Napa. (707) 251-5656, www.ubuntunapa.com

 

Bistro Sabor: Funky, fun Latin

Bistro Sabor's menu initially appears Mexican, but it's really a mix of Latino cuisines in the new downtown Napa. The space is hip with brightly-painted, graffiti-bedecked walls, and the staff couldn't be more helpful, particularly considering its order-at-the-counter casualness. 

On a Saturday night, tables were cleared for 10 p.m. salsa dancing, a hit with the local Latino community. Beer and wine keep it festive (wish they had a hard liquor license to serve tequila). The food? Fresh, satisfying, and all under $15. A two taco special of grilled sea bass ($11) is impeccably flaky, topped with scallion-cilantro slaw and a pineapple habanero salsa. Even accompanying rice and black beans are a notch above the rest. A rock crab quesadilla ($10) is less creative but still warm and cheesy, while pupusas, pozole, blood orange avocado salad, and lomo saltado exhibit a range from El Salvador to Peru. It's playful Latin street food with quality ingredients. A win for Napa and cheap eats.

1126 First St., Napa. (707) 252-0555, www.bistrosabor.com


Dim Sum Charlie's: Dim sum with a side of magic

I'll tell you right now: you can get better, cheaper dim sum at dozens of places in SF. In fact, for the nearly $7 Dim Sum Charlie's charges for a mere four dumplings, I can get at least twelve, and buns, at my favorite city spots. Why go? First off, there's not much dim sum in Napa and Charlie's is decent, though far from memorable. Warning: some have commented on menu listings that could be perceived as racist ("ten dolla make you holla"?).

But the setting is still a reason to go. Dim sum and noodles are served out of a classic Airstream trailer. Sure I've seen it before, but lover of all things retro that I am, I still find it charming. And what's different about this trailer setting is its canopy of lights and dirt lot strewn with picnic tables and a campfire. Rollicking tunes make it feel like a backyard party -- a bit like camping in retro-kitsch style. With dim sum.

It doesn't really matter what you order. Bring friends. Pull up to a picnic table or fireside with hot sauce and chopsticks, and sing along to the Beastie Boys as you slurp noodles and fill up on pork buns.

728 First St., Napa. (707) 815-2355, www.dimsumcharlies.com (look for the Airstream trailer)

 

Yountville Coffee Caboose: Coffee lovers

You'll not go wrong with coffee and pastries at the original Bouchon Bakery across the street. But when that line is unbearable (or even if it isn't), I'm delighted to hit up a locals coffee go-to: Yountville Coffee Caboose. Yes, it's actually in a train caboose off Washington Street. It often features Bay Area coffees like Ritual, brewed strong, robust and with proper crema.

6523 Washington, Yountville

 

Grace's Table: Local's breakfast 

Grace's Table has its minor missteps: its raved about skillet cornbread with lavender butter ($6) was dry and rather flavorless. And $10-18 entrees for breakfast pushes a little high for a casual neighborhood restaurant. But as an open air, corner space with sweet waitstaff and soothing decor, it's a welcome brunch stop.

Quiche of the day ($12 with salad or soup - can also be had a la carte) was the stand-out, fluffy and light. The crust almost reminded me of Tartine in its buttery flakiness. Mini bagels with house-cured salmon and cream cheese ($10) are playful approach to morning food, though the bagels are not exceptional (but isn't that ever the case outside of New York?) Grace's is a pleasant place to start your day with coffee and a newspaper. 

1400 Second St., Napa. (707) 226-6200, www.gracestable.net

 

C Casa Taqueria: Breakfast to go 

C Casa, a worthy newer addition to Oxbow Public Market, works for a cheap breakfast. With grass-fed beef, free range chicken, sustainable fish, and local produce, it’s a forward-thinking taqueria, yet it maintains authenticity of flavor. A breakfast taco brimming with over-medium egg and chorizo ($4.50), is meaty and satisfying first thing in the morning. Also stuffed in there? Black beans, avocado, pico de gallo, garlic aioli, and cilantro.

Located within Oxbow Public Market, 610 First St., Napa. (707) 226-7700, www.myccasa.com

 

Ad Hoc: Ok, one splurge

Ad Hoc's Liberty Farm duck breast: more than a mouthful

At $52 per person without anything to drink (its another $39 for wine pairings), Ad Hoc is quite expensive, even if it is the one and only Thomas Keller's "casual" venture. Watch where you sit: I'd be annoyed eating inside where too many kids (at this price?) and a noisy din make make for a less than appealing ambiance. The few tables outside on the tiny patio, however, are idyllic. 

As is the food in the four-course dinner. One appetizer, a main, a cheese course, and dessert, all served family-style and impeccably prepared with ingredients from their cheery garden behind the restaurant. No substitutes -- you eat whatever is on the daily menu. 

And that's alright when you get a salad as a beautiful as a recent mix of lettuces, pickled haricots verts (green beans), toasted pine nuts, red radishes, and shaved asparagus. Dotted with green garlic buttermilk dressing and king trumpet mushrooms, it was far more gratifying than those ingredients may sound on paper. Ditto the added course of ivory salmon ($15 supplement) baked in phyllo pastry, drizzled with porcini cream, and accented with fresh, white corn. Liberty Farm duck breast was actually a little too much for two people, but deftly prepared and served with a bowl of chickpea stew gentle with curry. We finished with strawberry shortcake on biscuits, slathered in lemon curd.

At roughly $34 per person, the Sunday brunch is the way to do Ad Hoc from a slightly more affordable, angle.

6476 Washington, Yountville. (707) 944-2487, www.adhocrestaurant.com

 

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