My Trip to Napa Valley: Part I

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Breakfast at Thomas's
I'm pretty sure I fell in love with Napa. It's like an alcoholic's wine lover's Disney World; a dream land filled with picturesque landscape, a fantastic crisp breeze and some of the world's best wine at your fingertips, ripe for the taking. And the food scene; well, it's TDF.

I was lucky enough to enjoy two incredible vino-filled days there last week. If you ever get a chance to get out there, I have a feeling you may want to check out some of these spots.

Day one started where I'd like to start every day if I wanted to be 500 pounds and severely diabetic -- at famed American chef Thomas Keller's French-style morning bistro, Bouchon Bakery, located in the charming little town of Yountville, California.

Can we just take a look at this place for a second?

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No, really, look at it.

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I never, ever, ever want to be anywhere else. It's like Willy Wonka's Chocolate factory but with butter.

After trying to convince my guy to order eight different things, convincing myself that the pastries would definitely hold up for another few days in my luggage and just straight up drooling at the counter, we decided on two Café Au Laits and a splitsky between a Ham & Cheese Croissant and the most glorious-looking Cheese Danish.

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The croissant was everything I had imagined it would be and more. I can't even put into words how buttery and moist, delicate and flaky the croissant was (so okay, those were words...but they really can't do the viennoiserie justice). The nutty Gruyère and sweet, salty ham only added to my euphoria.

I almost regretted our decision to split...until I tried the Danish.

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A dollop of sweet and tangy cream cheese sat perched atop the lightest, fluffiest brioche pastry I've ever had. I was more than pleasantly surprised when we sliced it open to find a sweet and gooey berry jam filling.

After a breakfast like that, we needed a walk, so we strolled around Yountville popping into shops and basking in the town's quiet charm. With a bounty of fresh produce at its fingertips, it's no surprise that the town boasts several Michelin star restaurants, including one we'd dine in later that night: Michael Chiarello's Bottega.

The rest of the day was spent vineyard-hopping (my new favorite hobby) on the Silverado Trail with a friend of ours who lived in town. The unique Darioush Winery, which boasts Bordeaux-style estate wines, some interesting architecture, and killer chile lime pistachios, and Signorello Estate, a striking hillside vineyard with an infinity pool that was voted one of the 10 Best Tasting Rooms in California by the San Francisco Chronicle were definitely must-sees.

Not wanting to fill up before dinner, we headed to downtown Napa for some late-afternoon snacks...and obviously more wine. Our friend suggested a local favorite, 1313 Main, for happy hour. We sat in the sexy lounge's sleek back patio, enjoying the vibe and indulging in a cheese plate featuring some of the best local cheeses around, and a few more very well-priced glasses of wine from the valley.

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Despite my hesitance with goat cheese, the smooth, creamy Central Coast Creamery's Goat Milk Gouda was fantastic alongside dollops of fig jam and spiced Napa nuts.

After a pit stop for some much-needed rest, we headed back to Yountville for our 9:30 reservations at Bottega. The dimly lit town was even more striking at night, if possible.

Chiarello's restaurant, looking like a glorious upscale version of a traditional Italian farmhouse, is all class. The James Beard-nominated chef and host of the Emmy award-winning Easy Entertaining uses peak-of-season, fresh, local produce and house-made ingredients to showcase just how breathtaking simple Italian cooking can be.

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But as I took my first bite of my Grilled Shortrib Meatballs, stuffed with creamy, housemade ricotta and served in a thick, gravy-like sauce of heirloom tomatoes alongside soft, earthy eggplant, cool cucumber and sweet, off-the-vine grapes, I realized there's really nothing simple about it; it takes a true genius to make these simple flavors taste that complex.

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The Burrata Caprese made with sweet, Golden Bear Ranch heirloom tomatoes, milky and briny burrata cheese, fresh basil and a drizzle of punchy extra-virgin olive oil could not have been a better example of the beauty of Californian produce. There was even a balsamic "caviar," little bulbs of sweet balsamic vinegar, scattered in the nooks and crannies of the tomato and mozzarella tower.

Thank god we vowed to share our entrées before we tasted the starters, because at this point, I wanted to taste everything and anything Bottega had to offer.

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My Truffle Rubbed Roasted Chicken Breast was earthy, crisp and incredibly succulent, even without the au jus drizzled over the plate. I used the freshly dug, olive oil-poached potatoes and tomato panzanella salad to sop up the remaining juices, savoring each moment before I offered up a bite to my dining companions.

But it was really too good not to share (and really, I wanted to try everyone else's).

The Mediterranean Seafood Brodetto, almost like a Moroccan spiced cioppino, was a table favorite. The fresh clams, beautiful gulf prawns, calamari and mussels came in a spiced-tomato broth topped with a healthy dollop of paprika saffron rouille. The fresh baked bread couldn't have been devoured faster as we greedily sopped up the seafood broth.

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My fiancé's Duck Three Ways was a stunner; roasted breast, confit leg and a smear of duck liver mousse were accented with sweet rhubarb, apples, spiced hazelnuts and watercress.

Perhaps my favorite of the night, though, was the Rigatoni al Coniglio, perfectly prepared pasta tossed in a sugo of tomato braised, rich as ever Sonoma rabbit, and sweet, earthy caramelized mushrooms and topped with fresh, nearly melting housemade ricotta. Even the waiter called it the world's most perfect pasta dish when it was served. I agree.

We finished our meal with a few espressos before heading to Yountville's diviest bar for some pool and after-dinner cocktails. Not too many, though; we had a six-hour wine tour awaiting us in the morning.

To be continued...



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