Belated Birthday in Napa Valley

I still have a dozen or so more posts on Argentina but I decided to skip ahead for now so that I can get caught up.  I need to recap my trip out to California before I forget what I did and everything gets stale.  So today and for the next few days it’ll be all about my being back in the States, specifically in Northern California… 10,000 km away from Buenos Aires.

I always look forward to visiting San Francisco.  I try to go at least once a year to hang out with my brother, see my girlfriends, hike, drink, and eat well.  This visit was no exception and as usual, I had a great time.  In the past, I would just turn up and “wing it,” but for this trip, I had a very specific itinerary in mind so I planned everything out before getting there.  I hadn’t seen my brother, Paula, or Sandy since last year, and I’d missed all three of their birthdays.  I wanted to do something special and spend as much quality time together as we could manage.  It turned out to be a fantastic week that stretched out over Napa, the great city of San Francisco, Silicon Valley, down to Monterey and Carmel.  Our meals covered everything from a humble bowl of Vietnamese pho to a memorable 18 course extravaganza at a two-Michelin star restaurant.  I walked up and down the hills of San Francisco for hours, went rock climbing for the first time in my life, hiked through tall Redwood trees and along the beautiful Pacific Ocean.  I think in my heart of hearts I’m still a New Yorker, but I really do understand why people love California so much.

I had some drama with trying to get to the airport (unforeseen, unexplained train delays that caused some anxiety) but I arrived at SFO on time and as per our customary tradition, my first meal in California was a bowl of pho with countless squirts of my favorite condiment, sriracha that I lived without for so many months in Argentina.  Incidentally, I requested that we have pho as last meal before leaving CA and was granted that wish.

The next morning Kevin and I set off to Napa Valley, which I organized in order to celebrate his belated birthday.  The weather was an absolute joy and we arrived in Yountville for our lunch reservation at Redd, with time to spare.  As it was such a beautiful day we opted to sit outside and started our meal with a glass of champagne and a refreshing cocktail called “Just In Time #2”-Pimm’s cup, strawberry, cucumber, lemon, & ginger beer.   The menu at this one Michelin star restaurant was clearly contemporary American/Californian, with fresh and local ingredients.  We ordered the yellowfin tuna and hamachi tartare, tasting of cold foie gras served with stone fruits, pistachios, and brioche (California’s foie gras ban starts today), Petrale Sole with creamy jasmine rice, clams, chorizo, saffron curry nage, and whenever there is scallops on the menu that’s what Kevin goes for so he ordered the diver scallops that was accompanied by purée of cauliflower, almonds, and balsamic reduction.  We would have been happy with that but we couldn’t ignore our waiter’s enthusiastic recommendations for the pork buns, so an order was placed for them as well.

We practically licked the plates clean, and particularly enjoyed the scallops and the tartar.  But steamed pork buns proved to be the sad loser of the afternoon.  I suppose with the success of David Chang and his momofuku pork buns made it irresistible for other chefs to do their own version of it, but this one was a real disappointment…  the meat to bun ratio was off, the hoisin sauce was overpowering, and it was just too salty.

This was my third or forth time in Napa, and Kevin had just gone to a Napa winery for a wedding two weeks prior, so for this visit I tried to find things to do that didn’t involve wine tastings and typical wine country activities.  But Kevin and I couldn’t help reminiscing about our last trip, for which Paula joined us as well.  We rented bikes in Yountville for the day but I had to first practice riding since I hadn’t been on a bike in decades.  It seemed that I really did need to re-learn; it wasn’t, as they say, “like riding a bike” for me at all!  Kevin and Paula had me practice in the parking lot, and flanked me front and back for the rest of the day.  Instead of going toa restaurant to dine, we packed a picnic (from the awesome fruit stands, The Fatted Calf charcuterie, and bakery at the Oxbow Market), and went to no less than 5 wineries that day.  We bought a bottle of wine to have with our picnic lunch and we sat perched on a hill overlooking the vine covered valleys below.  Kevin and I laughed about peddling our way from one winery to the next (growing giddier and tipsier), him getting attacked by a horrible case of allergies and having to wash our his eyes repeatedly.  When we arrived at Domaine Chandon for our last tasting of the day, we more or less chugged our glasses of champagne so that we could return the bikes before the shop closed.  Oh, memories…  A few days later Paula and I re-lived that day again over a bottle of..??  bubbly, of course.

Well, back to this visit to Napa.  Too full for anything else and thinking ahead to our dinner reservation, we needed to walk off our lunch so off for a hike we went.  I had looked up this trail called “River to Ridge Trail,” which connects the Kennedy Memorial Park on the Napa River with the Skyline Wilderness Park, which is supposed to be a short two and a half miles inland.  But when we got there we couldn’t locate the trail!  We walked up and down the paved roads by the water (the Napa River Trail), and finally at the end when we were heading out we saw a sign.  Now if I look at the map it’s pretty clear to me but I guess it’ll still be there for me to hike it next time.

I chose a place right on Washington Street, the main road in Yountville for us to stay the night, so we had plenty of time to relax and get ready for dinner.  It took us less than 5 minutes on foot to get to Michael Chiarello’s Bottega, which was basically next door to Vintage Inn, our hotel.  Just a few blocks away you can also find Bouchon, French Laundry, Redd, and  Ad Hoc, some of the best known restaurants in Napa.  It was a gorgeous evening and I almost wished that we were farther away so that we could stroll for a while longer.  Our reservation was for 8PM but we weren’t seated until about 8:30.  The restaurant was shockingly full for a Wednesday evening!  The tables were pretty close to each other and I could easily hear our neighbors’ conversation without trying, but the overall noise level of the dining room was high enough to drown them all out if I leaned in and focused on our evening.

With the help of the sommelier we decided on a bottle of 2009 Kazmer & Blaise “Primo’s Hill” Pinot Noir from nearby Carneros.  I wasn’t particularly hungry but it was still part of Kevin’s birthday extravaganza and since I hadn’t had any Italian food in almost six months we went all out.  We started with “green eggs & ham,” an appetizer of asparagus, culatello, and a soft boiled egg that’s been deep fried.  We also ordered this curious dish called “pasta fritta,” which came with house cured prosciutto, white balsamic strawberries, lambrusco foam, and fried dough/pasta.  We were instructed to wrap the prosciutto around the dough and dip it in the lambrusco foam to eat it.  I can’t say that I loved it, but it was interesting to try new flavors and textures.

We continued on with red wheat tagliarini bolognese and a large pot of seafood brodetto, which were both excellent.  How I missed good pasta and seafood!  At this point we were criminally full but there was just enough room to have a bite of something something… and when we saw “brown butter gelato” on the menu we both knew that was it.  All I needed was just a spoonful to finish out the meal and I can honestly say that it really did taste like brown butter but in cold sweet ice cream form.  We didn’t get to see Mr. Chiarello that evening (our waitress said that he was there all day but left around 6:30) but if we did, I would have thanked him for a lovely meal.

Kevin and I were in Singapore on his birthday last year.  We went on a fun walking tour of the Arab streets, dined on modern Singaorean cuisine complete with three desserts(!), and one more surprise birthday cake at the hotel with a spectacular view of the harbor.  It wasn’t quite as fantastic as that but I think I didn’t do half bad by him this year.  Oh, and as a side note- he told me that he received birthday messages from both the Mandarin Oriental Singapore and the W hotel in Hong Kong where we stayed last year.  What?  Amazing.

More on our visit to Napa tomorrow…


Redd: 6480 Washington Street,  Yountville, CA 94599

Bottega: 6525 Washington Street,  Yountville, CA 94599

Oxbow Public Market: 610 and 644 First Street, Napa, CA 94559

The Fatted Calf: The Oxbow Public Market @ 644 First Street, Napa, CA 94559

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