Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Napa Valley Dining: Casual & Fancy 2011

Our August week in the Napa Valley always includes some fine dining and lots of casual dining. In this blog post, I include highlights of our meals. Each year we seem to have more good choices of places to eat. It is hard to decide...maybe next year, we should stay up in the Valley for two weeks.


With Louie with us, all our lunches are outdoors. This year we even included Louie at one dinner.

Our casual dining got started with an early morning stop on our way up at Sweetie Pies Bakery in Napa.

I have yet to find a better Morning Bun than the one they bake. Many a year ago, it was their morning buns that were the first of this wonderful pastry that I'd ever tasted. Sweetie Pie's version of this bun, made of buttery croissant dough and flavored generously with cinnamon and sugar, remains my favorite.

And, their Sticky Bun is pure heaven. It's Jim's favorite at Sweetie Pies.

We don't just save Sweetie Pies for our vacation week; any time we are spending a day in the Napa Valley, we leave the house early enough so we have time for our morning coffee and pastry and this legendary bakery. Since their repertoire goes well beyond morning pastries, we often make a late afternoon stop on our way home for some of their elegant dessert pastries.

In recent years the town of Napa has become more gentrified and more of a tourist destination. We often take time after our pastry stop to stroll around town.

On another day, after a morning of wine tasting, we found ourselves in St. Helena, hungry for lunch. Our choice was Tra Vigne Pizzeria, the casual restaurant of the ever-popular nearby Tra Vigne. We sat on the patio and enjoyed "Tre Colore" Salads, a chopped vegetable salad. I added grilled chicken to mine.

Louie relaxed while we ate.

We always have lunch at Pacific Blues and usually choose it on a day when we've spent the morning by our hotel pool. They have a lovely outdoor deck. This visit I had a Grilled Vegetable Sandwich and Jim had a Cobb Salad. Louie enjoyed a big bowl of water and whatever we dropped on the ground.

During our stays in Yountville, we can't help but notice the line, out onto the sidewalk, at Bouchon Bakery. There is a line at the Bakery from early morning until its early evening closing. Bouchon Bakery is part of chef Thomas Keller's food realm in Yountville. The bakery makes the breads for his restaurants as well as selling them and other pastries to the public. The bakery sells a wide variety of breakfast and fancier pastries, including the popular French-style Macarons. Bouchon Bakery also, just like bakeries in France, offers several baguette sandwiches and a few salads and light meal selections. There are benches outside the bakery and several tables on a patio between the bakery and Bouchon restaurant. I always buy bread and pastries to carry home with us at the end of our vacation.

This year, I decided that it was un-American, or, at least, un-Yountvillian not to have a lunch from Bouchon Bakery; the rest of our world there seemed to be doing it. And so we did: Two with ham and cheese and the other with turkey and a big Butter Lettuce Salad to share. We shared a chocolate chunk cookie for our dessert.

While the sandwiches might cost a bit more than at the local deli, I must say they are worth it for the tasty fresh bread and the generous quantities of fillings. It was a treat that now has me hooked on lunch at Bouchon Bakery.

Before heading back home, we usually indulge in a fancier lunch. This time it was at Hurley's where we often go for dinner as well.

Jim ordered the Fixed-Price ($20) Two-Course lunch. He started with a Watermelon and Prosciutto Salad and, for his main course chose Oven-Roasted Tuna.

My favorite lunch at Hurley's is the Pan Bagnat, a French sandwich that is made with all the ingredients of a Salad Niçoise. At Hurley's the fresh tuna in the Pan Bagnat is poached in Olive Oil.

We completed our lunch by sharing Bob Hurley's "My Mother's Strawberry Shortcake," the perfect end of a bucolic week in the Napa Valley.


When we travel, dinner is often our main meal and main activity for the evening.

On our first night, we joined Jerilee and Jim for dinner in Yountville at Bistro Jeanty, one of our longtime favorites.

Our enjoyment of Bistro Jeanty goes back decades to the time when Yountville was a sleepy town with few restaurants. This was way before Thomas Keller took over the French Laundry and opened several other restaurants in town. For whatever reason, all four of us had "forgotten" about Bistro Jeanty as more and more restaurants popped up in Yountville.

It was time to return and we were delighted. Because Bistro Jeanty's menu does not change very much, except for daily specials, we might have tired a bit of its Country French offerings. Not any more; We've vowed to return very soon.

Two of us started our meal with the Crudités.

Each of the six cold vegetable salads was fresh, attractively presented, and as good, if not better, than an crudité plate I've had in France.

The Butter Lettuce Salad was another perfect very French first course.

The Beet Salad also made for tasty appealing first course with a bit of the fresh California influence.

Our main courses were


Braised Pork Shoulder with Butternut Squash and Brussels Sprouts

Daube de Boeuf, a classic French Beef Stew

and Coq au vin


Jim and I celebrate our wedding anniversary on our August Napa Valley trip. Our special dinner this time was at Redd.

Some consider Redd's building and decor to be stark. We like the restaurant's clean lines and have always been pleased with our meals here.

We don't dine often at Redd, saving it for special occasions. More often than not, I order the Sautéed Skate which is served with a Ragout of 12 Vegetables (I always try to count the 12) and Potato Gnocchi. Not many restaurants serve skate, so having it at Redd is a special treat for me.

Jim started his meal with Panzanella, a bread and fresh tomato salad.

His main course was Petrale Sole served on Coconut Jasmine Rice and garnished with Steamed Clams and Chorizo.

For dessert, I ordered The Stone Fruit Salad which was one of the day's special first courses. For me, this salad was the perfect way to end my delicious dinner.

Jim indulged in Peach Shortcake with housemade Raspberry Sorbet and Whipped Vanilla Yogurt.

As we lingered at our table, we were presented with a final complimentary treat: a plate of housemade Blueberry Jellies and English Toffee.

We consider Redd to be one of the finest restaurants in the Napa Valley.

Our dinner out with Louie was at the Rutherford Grilll where they don't take reservations and where they have a large comfortable outdoor dining patio.

We always expect to wait for a table at dinner time but have found that they generally overestimate the wait time and seat us sooner. This evening was no exception; we were told it would be half and hour and we were seated in about 20 minutes.

The people-watching is always good at the Rutherford Grill whose clientele is a mix of locals and visitors. A lot of meeting and greeting is goes on at this popular spot and we enjoy the comraderie, albeit vicariously, while imagining they we, too, have a house and friends up here.

Food at Rutherford Grill is American and pretty no-nonsense. But it's good and served in hearty portions at reasonable prices. And, there are lots of creative touches in the food preparation.

I ordered one of the evening's specials: Half a Rack of Baby Back Ribs with half a serving of the wood-fire roasted Chicken. My side dishes were Coleslaw and their very interesting Very Wild Rice Salad which is made with nuts, dried figs, celery,onions and lots more. I have located a recipe for the Rutherford Grill's Wild Rice Salad; click on this link for it.

Jim's Cheeseburger was served on a toasted house-made egg bun. With it he had Coleslaw and a Fresh Corn and Squash mixture.

Had we been hungrier, we would have shared their Dip and Chips...the dips change daily and really are wonderful. They always serve their Spinach & Artichoke Dip but make special other ones each day.

We chose Bottega for our final night in the Valley. Since chef Michael Chiarello opened the restaurant three years ago in Yountville, we've been fans. The cuisine is regional Italian. Many of the ingredients..pastas, cured meats, fresh cheeses and such are made in house. The menu changes seasonally and includes daily specials to take advantage of what is fresh and local.

The meal always starts with delicious bread and Bottega's special Marinated Parmesan Dip and Coarse Salt (the dips and salts can be purchased at Chef Chiarello's Napa Style shop which is across from the restaurant entrance).

I started with the "Succotash" which was a far cry from the stuff from a can that my mother used to serve me. Bottega's Succotash was a salad of cherry tomatoes, arugula, and roast summer squash on one side of the plate and a fresh corn salad seasoned with Chili oil and garnished with a fried squash blossom.

Jim thought he was going more traditional with a first course of Fried Calamari. And, it was perfect crispy non-greasy calamari, but with the added items of interest: a Grilled Lemon slice and Squid Ink Aioli dipping sauce.

We both like Bottega's pasta dishes and that's what we usually order.

Jim's Pan Roasted Potato Gnocchi was a beautiful and tasty dish which included summer pole beans, root vegetables, and golden squash pesto.

For my main course, I chose the evening's Risotto which was made with housemade sausage and broccoli rabe and topped with fresh soft cheese.

For a "little something" for dessert, we shared the Trio of Fruit Sorbets and Cookies, all made in house.

Bottega is a busy restaurant but manages to not have a noisy dining room, at least in the main dining room where I always ask to be seated. I appreciate that there is plenty of room between tables, so, despite the restaurant's popularity, we never feel croweded.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Café Attila: Good Eating in San Ramon

In the last month or so, I read a review of the relatively-new Café Attila in San Ramon. I was intrigued to read that the Café had, for several years, been a pastry shop and had relocated to a larger area. They still are creating their magnificent pastries but, in their new location in San Ramon Square, are also serving a Bistro lunch.

Today, Joanne and I gave Café Attila a try.

It's in a strip mall along a busy commercial street. Parking is easy and our lunch was wonderful.

The lunch menu is small but very tempting. Meals are priced between $9 and $15.

Joanne had the Pork Tenderloin sandwich. Her sandwich was served with housemade cole slaw.

My choice was the Roasted Chicken Gougère...a serving of three cream puffs filled with Chicken Salad.

Both of our meals were absolute perfection.

On my next visit, I plan to try the Pulled Pork with Cornbread and Cole Slaw. I saw this dish and the half Roast Chicken being served at other tables and both looked and smelled amazing. The person who ordered the Roast Chicken took at least half of it home for another meal...servings are very generous.

Because the dessert pastries are so tempting, we decided to share two:

A berry tart

and a Raspberry Chocolate Cake creation.

We loved our entire meal.

A sign in the window says they are getting an alcohol license. Maybe dinner service will follow? If not, Café Attila is worth a trip for lunch, and, of course breakfast and dessert pastries. They are closed Sunday and Monday.

Monday, August 22, 2011

A Perfect San Francisco Day of Culture, Entertainment, & Food

Saturday, I continued celebrating my birthday, this time with Mary Ann, who took me to see Billy Elliot and for dinner afterwards in San Francisco.

Our day was, in my estimation, a perfect day in downtown San Francisco.

Two San Francisco museums have been paying tribute to Gertrude Stein this summer. Both museum's exhibits close on September 6, 2011. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) exhibit, "The Steins Collect," is an extensive exhibit of the art that Gertrude Stein and her family acquired while living in Paris. It's such a huge exhibit, that, when I saw it earlier this summer, I came out exhausted from the sheer volume of works by Matisse, Picasso, and other Parisian Avant-Garde. At the Contemporary Jewish Museum, the exhibit, "Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories," is about the life of Gertrude Stein, starting with her early days in the United States and continuing in Paris. These two exhibits complement one another.

Before I went to the SFMOMA exhibit, I had tried to take in the Jewish Museum exhibit but did not have enough time to get through the complete exhibit. I wanted to view the rest of it and Mary Ann was interested in seeing it for the first time, so we started our day at the Contemporary Jewish Museum which, itself. is an architectural attraction with waterfalls and a large plaza in front.

It is on the site of a former Pacific Gas & Electric Power Substation, designed by Willis Polk and built in 1907.
The facade of the substation, facing Mission Street, has been preserved and is the main entrance to the museum.

However, the interior of the museum and the remainder of the exterior is extremely modern and somewhat abstract, designed by architect Daniel Libeskind. One corner of the Jewish is a huge, off-kilter blue metallic steel "box" that houses the gift shop and the Yud gallery. To the west, the "Jukebox" Marriott hotel looms over the museum.

Getting to the Jewish at about 11:30, we were just in time to join the 11:30 docent tour of the Gertrude Stein exhibit. I got new insights into the portion of the exhibit that I'd already viewed and we both learned a great deal about Stein's life and work.

We next stopped for a quick lunch at 'wichcraft. 'Wichcraft is chef Tom Colicchio's sandwich restaurant, the casual member of his Craft family of restaurants in New York. There are other 'wichcrafts in Las Vegas and New York City. I often stop here for lunch or an early dinner when I am downtown shopping or museum-going.

Mary Ann had the Frittata sandwich

and I had the warm pressed Zucchini and tomato sandwich.

All sandwiches are served with a bag of potato chips and are reasonably priced at between $6 and $10. 'Wichcraft also offers creative meal-sized salads and freshly-made soups. Because it is on Mission Street on the back side of the Westfield San Francisco Centre shopping center, only those "in the know" know where to find it. It's a great alternative to the San Francisco Centre's hectic food courts.

From there, we walked to the Orpheum Theatre which is a few long blocks away on Market Street. If we had gone directly to the theatre without making our downtown stops, we would have taken BART to the Civic Center stop which is right in front of the theatre.

Billy Elliot's run in San Francisco was cut short by a few weeks because of lagging ticket sales. We were among those whose tickets had to be changed to an earlier date. Although Billy Elliot's run in San Francisco is now over, we, and everyone else we know who saw the show, cannot understand why it was not a smash hit. In fact, it is currently running in Toronto where it has been extended because it is such a success. At any rate, we loved this creative and touching musical...outstanding choreography, dancing, singing, acting...

After the show, we had dinner at Passion Café on 6th Street, in a not very pleasant part of downtown. This is a part of San Francisco which is said to be "evolving" but it is going to take some time before that will happen. I did notice a few other new restaurants on Market Street between 5th and 8th...Show Dogs and Original Joe's... but change happens slowly in this part of town.

Passion Café is a few blocks from the Orpheum Theatre and just a few doors down 6th Street across Market Street from the Golden Gate Theatre.

While I would not walk in this area by myself after dark, I'd say that before or after theatre there is enough foot traffic to feel secure. Also, the restaurant partially validates parking at the Priority Parking lot across Sixth Street. The café is open every day except Monday, from 9 a.m., serving breakfast pastries, lunch, dinner, weekday happy hour, and weekend brunch.

At any rate, Passion Café offered a free glass of wine to Billy Elliot attendees and Mary Ann thought the restaurant sounded interesting enough to try. I was game.

Our dinner turned out to be the most authentic French meal I've had in San Francisco, or anywhere in the Bay Area, in years. I felt like I was sitting in a Parisian Bistro. Passion Café serves the classic French bistro food that I most enjoy of all French cuisine.

Waiters were running up and down the stairs from the basement, where we guess the kitchen is, carrying trays of food. Our waiter spoke French to us. And the food was reasonably-priced and superb.

Mary Ann ordered the three-course $28.50 fixed-price dinner which includes choices for each course. I ordered à la carte and shared her first course and dessert.

We started with the Country-style Pâté.

The presentation was as beautiful as the pâté was delicious...on the plate was a radish salad, cornichons, pickled onions, and toasted bread croutons dabbed with a bit of olive spread.

Mary Ann's main course was Salmon with a cream sauce and pesto, served with a cucumber and apple salad and herbed rice.

My main course was the Bouchée à la Reine aux Fruits de Mer, a seafood Vol au Vent (Puff pastry shell filled with sauteed seafood and a white wine herb sauce). It was served with herbed rice and sauteed mushrooms.

I'm fairly certain I've never had this dish in the United States, but know I've enjoyed it in France.

Our dessert was a slice of Tarte Tatin, a classic French caramelized apple tarte. I was so excited about eating the Tarte Tatin that I forget to photograph apologies.

After our dinner in the front dining room, we further explored Passion Café's rooftop outdoor dining area. This would be a lovely place to sit for lunch or happy hour on a warm San Francisco day. Inside, on the bar, where we were admiring the whole Tarte Tatin, I spotted the colorful French Macarons, meringue sandwich cookies that have become popular in the Bay Area. I bought one in each flavor to take home...strawberry (pink), pistachio (green), and chocolate (brownish). When I asked who supplied their macarons, I was told that their in-house baker makes them.

Thus, ended our lovely San Francisco day.