Appetite: Goose and Gander and The Thomas bring cocktail culture to Wine Country
APPETITE Judging a cocktail contest in Calistoga and sampling Wine Country cocktails early in 2011, I witnessed a rise in quality congruent with the cocktail renaissance exploding across the nation, beyond longtime torchbearers like SF and NYC. This is especially notable in tourist-heavy Wine Country, where shaking off the all-consuming culture of the grape is an uphill battle (so local bartenders tell me). Although you won't see many cocktail bars opening up, restaurants continue to refine their cocktails and spirits selections. You'll now find a few city-quality drinks among the vineyards. Here are two intriguing spots in Napa, perfect for harvest-time exploration.
Scott Beattie has long been considered the number one talent in Wine Country — he crafted exquisite cocktails in sleepy, chic Healdsburg at Cyrus long before many of the country's big cities had clued in, leading the way in farm-fresh, artisanal cocktails (see his book, Artisanal Cocktails, www.scottbeattiecocktails.com ), torching kumquats and crisping apple slivers from his backyard as garnishes.
When Beattie left Spoonbar to take over the bar at St. Helena's Goose and Gander, which opened in April, Sonoma's loss was Napa's gain. Goose and Gander is in the former Martini House in a 90-year-old craftsman bungalow with idyllic yard and patio. Red walls, bookshelves, brown leather booths, fireplaces, wood ceilings and floors impart a charming hunting lodge feel. Beattie works alongside talent like Michael Jack Pazdon, who previously supervised the bar program at SolBar and has won numerous cocktail contests. Beattie, Pazdon, and crew serve fantastic drinks from a handful of cocktails (all $11) on the regular menu. Ask for "the book" for a more extensive selection — and peruse an impressive spirits collection lining the bar.
The Mellivora Capensis (a.k.a. honey badger) is a prime example of Beattie-style cocktails: Eagle Rare 10 year bourbon, honey, and lemon sound like a classic base, but it gets interesting with a touch of peat from Ardbeg Scotch, pineapple, black cardamom, and chili, with coconut foam contributing texture, and edible flowers the crowning touch. A Cucumber Collins (Square One cucumber vodka, yuzu, lemon, fresh and pickled cucumber, huckleberries, seltzer) is classic Beattie: striking visuals, artfully refreshing.
Executive Chef Kelly McCown's food is notable. Spicy whole blue prawns ($16) are large and juicy, skillet-roasted brown, swimming in shallot garlic butter, rosemary, and chilis over polenta. A bright crudo of Hawaiian lemon snapper ($17) is lined up next to heirloom tomatoes dotted with shaved tomatillos and sea beans. As a twist on the ever-gratifying wedge salad, a Berkshire pork belly "wedge" ($15) is an understandable hit: a disc of iceberg topped with a hefty chunk of pork belly and Shaft's blue cheese dressing. Jersey cow's milk ricotta gnocchi ($18) melt joyously in the mouth, intermingling with cherry tomatoes, basil, and tomato coulis, crowned by a light Parmesan crisp. Goose and Gander is the whole package and works both as a romantic date locale or relaxed stop for bite and drink.
1245 Spring, St. Helena. (707) 967-8779, www.goosegander.com 
Follow the vintage neon signage of the former Fagiani's, where The Thomas opened just last month in a 1909 building restored by New York's AvroKO Hospitality Group. First visiting during opening week, I dined on the partially covered third floor terrace (although housing a second bar, this floor is for diners only) gazing out over downtown Napa. As the sun set over the river below, rooftops and hills peeking above the the deck, I was transported to Europe, a timeless moment on a summer night.
I was immediately hooked, but I'm waiting to see how the place evolves, particularly with just-launched brunch and recently named bar manager Jim Wrigley of London's Albannach and the Lonsdale. During my visit, AvroKO cocktail director Naren Young was in town serving drinks from the menu he co-created with Linden Pride, with whom he runs Saxon+Parole in NY. Drinks are classic, simple, playful with the ubiquitous (though not so much in Napa) Negroni on tap ($12), and a generous White Manhattan on tap ($15), utilizing Death's Door white whiskey, white vermouth, kirschwasser, jasmine bitters. An ideal aperitif is Jasmine ($14), made of Campari, Beefeater Gin, Combier triple sec and lemon juice. Dessert was a winning round of a Grasshopper and an elegant whiskey cocktail with biscotti, ideal alongside dreamy dark chocolate pot de creme with cookies or decadent monkey bread.
Though it's a bit too early to call, there's plenty to enjoy on Executive Chef Brad Farmerie's casual, comfortable American food menu. (he's formerly of The Public in NYC.) On a warm night with an icy-cool White Manhattan, a raw bar seafood tower (mini $22, medium $67, large $125) suited perfectly with a sampling of East and West Coast oysters, smoked mussels, Dungeness crab, and plump shrimp. Grilled chorizo sausage ($13.50) was lively, with txiki cheese, black bean chocolate puree, and padron peppers.
The three-story space has a big city energy, with much of the staff from NY, imparting a welcome cosmopolitan vibe atypical of the area. The bottom floor boasts a vintage oak bar and pressed-tin ceiling, which looks like it's been there for 100 years, in keeping with the historicity of the building, freshly incarnated.
813 Main, Napa, 707-226-7821, www.thethomas-napa.com 
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