Affordable Napa, Vegetarian to Dim Sum

VIN eleven at Napa Marriott

After countless weekends in Napa over the years (and at least five excursions lately), I could easily recommend worthy restaurants and hotels. Napa isn’t always the most affordable town, but 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… or in the case of a restaurant with a new chef, a whole range of them.

Sleep… and a Superior Burger: NAPA VALLEY MARRIOTT, 3425 Solano Avenue at Redwood Road, Napa, 707-253-7433

Marriott’s surprisingly lush garden

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

In high-season summer months, make a weekend of it with rooms in the low $200-300’s, or mid $200’s on weeknights. Rooms are completely renovated with gentle colors and artwork, plasma screens, comfy beds, and are particularly quiet facing the courtyard (only thing they don’t have? Free wi-fi. That’s $4.95 a day).

Back patio firepits

Chef Brian Whitmer’s garden off the parking lot is a revelation. I’ve seen Napa restaurants with their own gardens but not one as lush as his. Spring peas are crispy and sweet right off the vine, while a range of leafy greens make abundant salads. Chef Whitmer uses this bounty for the hotel’s restaurant. Whether you stay there or not, it’s surprisingly worth a detour.

VIN eleven’s excellent chorizo burger

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. The burger is made of Caggiano chorizo, savory and spicy, yet also delicate, melt-in-your-mouth on a Model Bakery brioche bun. Layered with aged cheddar, watercress, ‘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.

Vegetarian achieves perfection: UBUNTU, 1140 Main Street near Pearl, 707-251-5656; dinner nightly/lunch weekends

Roasted & raw asparagus w/ burrata coated in potato chip crumbs, potato skin puree, pine nut/currant soffrito, frisee, apple/fennel juice foam

I really liked Ubuntu before. Chef Jeremy Fox brought the vegetarian restaurant to nationwide fame, often named among the best vegetarian restaurants in the country by publications like the New York Times… all superlatives I found a bit excessive.

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. It’s gone from quality to superb.

Chickpeas both stewed & fried in romesco sauce; slow poached farm egg in center

As a non-vegetarian, I would say it has become possibly the best vegetarian restaurant I’ve ever 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, but we did not hear much about him. Just nominated as Rising Star Chef at this year’s James Beard Awards, we should be hearing a lot more.

Beets and broccoli w/ yuzu kosho, spiced almond, pickled beets, beet chips, almond cream

He’s revamped the menu in such a way that each $10-19 dish is far more than the sum of its part. You read of Roasted & Raw Asparagus ($16) with burratta cheese coated in potato chip crumbs and 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 on the tongue with a range of flavors.

Creamy grits w/ goat’s milk whey, fava beans, English pea confit, pistachio, mint, lemon balm

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 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.

Funky, Fun Latin: BISTRO SABOR, 1126 1st near Main, Napa, 707-252-0555

Bistro Sabor’s menu initially appears Mexican, but is a mix of Latino cultures in a new downtown Napa. The space is hip with brightly painted, graffiti-lined walls, while the staff couldn’t be more helpful, particularly for order-at-the-counter casualness.

Bistro Sabor

On a Saturday night, they cleared tables out for 10pm salsa dancing, frequented by many in 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 usual. A Rock crab quesadilla ($10) is less creative but 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 in cheap eats.

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Dim Sum with a side of Magic: DIM SUM CHARLIE’S, 728 First Street near Soscol (look for the Airstream trailer), Napa, 707-815-2355

Charlie’s Airstream Trailer

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 dumplings and buns at favorite city spots.

Why go? First off, there’s not much dim sum in Napa and theirs decent, though far from memorable. Some have commented on the could-be-perceived-as-racist menu listings like “ten dolla make you holla”. But the setting is the one reason to go.

Dim Sum Charlie’s

Dim sum and noodles are served out of a classic Airstream trailer (that I’ve seen before, but loving all things retro, do not tire of). What’s different is the trailer setting under a canopy of lights in a 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, singing along to Beastie Boys as you slurp noodles and fill up on pork buns.

Coffee Lovers: YOUNTVILLE COFFEE CABOOSE, 6523 Washington Street, Yountville

Coffee Caboose

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. They often feature Bay Area coffees like Ritual, brewed strong, robust and with proper crema.

Local’s Breakfast: GRACE’S TABLE, 1400 2nd Street at Franklin, Napa, 707-226-6200

Grace’s Table – mini bagels & lox

Grace’s Table has its minor missteps: their 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 restaurant with uber-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, though the bagels are not exceptional (isn’t that ever the case outside of NY?)

Grace’s is a pleasant place to start your day with coffee and a newspaper.

Ad Hoc’s garden

To-go Breakfast: C CASA TAQUERIA, 610 1st Street (near Soscol Ave.), 707-226-7700, Napa

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 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.

Ok, One Splurge: AD HOC, 6476 Washington Street at Mission, 707-944-2487

Salad of the day

At $52 per person without anything to drink (another $39 for wine pairings), Ad Hoc is quite expensive, though it is the-one-and-only Thomas Keller’s “casual” venture. However, I’d actually be annoyed eating inside where too many kids (at this price? ) and noisy din make it less than appealing at that price. The few tables out on a 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.

Duck Breast

This is 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 it sounded. Ditto the added course of Ivory Salmon ($15 supplement) baked in phyllo pastry, drizzled with porcini cream, accented by fresh, white corn. Liberty Farm’s 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, their Sunday brunch is the way to do Ad Hoc from another, slightly more affordable, angle.

Ad Hoc signage