One Night in Napa: 3 Top New Spots

This article was first published here at Table8 where I am national editor.

Those of us who live in the Bay Area are blessed — for thousands of reasons — but just one being the accessibility of Wine Country in all forms, from Napa to Mendocino, for a quick day or weekend “escape” to sunny vineyards and olive tree groves, set against mountains and rollings hills. Tourists flock the world over to explore these regions and none gets more traffic than Napa Valley.

With just a few hours back in the town of Napa proper this month (was just there in November for another impressive new restaurant, Kenzo), I was able to catch up on some downtown Napa’s strongest newcomers: two restaurants and one jazz club.

Miminashi spicy chicken karaage

Dinner, Take One: Hip Japanese Izakaya, Miminashi

Miminashi’s cool ceiling

As an honorable mention top new opening of 2016, Miminashi hit downtown Napa in May 2016 with the kind of urban-worthy, hip Japanese izakaya often found in major food cities but not in Wine Country, part of the ongoing Japanese wave hitting the region (including nearby Kenzo, a splurge-worthy escape to Japan).

Thanks to chef/owner (and 4th generation Napa native) Curtis Di Fede, Miminashi does it right. There is yakitori, ramen, okonomiyaki (savory Japanese pancake), udon noodles and other Japanese favorites done with modern ethos. Di Fede formerly cooked at nearby, popular Southern Italian restaurant, Oenotri. Though I haven’t been back to Oenotri (yet another Neapolitan pizza and pasta outpost), I actually prefer Miminashi with its relaxed vibe and ability to suit the occasion, from lingering meal to a quick stop for ramen and drinks at the bar.  The space impresses with its dramatic, wood-lined, peaked ceilings, high-backed wood booths, arrow-shaped bar, open binchotan grill and impressive, hand-carved “Mt. Fuji” front door, all designed by Michael McDermott.

Banana “soft cream” in a waffle shell with black sesame sauce

Eat This: Highlights run from a generous grilled celery root salad ($12.50) tossed with burnt Meyer lemon in white soy dressing to irresistible spicy chicken karaage ($14) marked by scarlet turnips, sesame and kombu (edible kelp), like elevated buffalo wings. One of the unexpected standouts is a sweet potato and wild nettle fried rice ($15), loaded with kimchi, egg, negi (Welsh onion) and all manner of seasonal vegetables. It’s savory, hearty comfort. Save room for house soft cream (ice cream) in flavors like banana or toasted rice, conveniently available from a take-out window (also serving SF’s great Sightglass Coffee) during the day.

Drink This: Wine director Jessica Pinzon (formerly of the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group) curates a range of global wines as well as house-brewed and regional craft beers. Andrew Salazar creates a playful, approachable cocktail menu with highlights like a Rum Champloo ($12) combining Banks 7 Golden Age and Hamilton Demerara Overproof rums with Cynar 70, pineapple and lime, or my recent favorite, Ode to Kipling ($12), featuring coconut-washed Barsol Selecto Italia Pisco, passionfruit gomme syrup, lime and hibiscus.

Restaurant at CIA Copia dining room

Dinner, Take Two: The Restaurant at CIA Copia

Pork confit

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Ambitious museum and food center, Copia, sat empty in downtown Napa for years, sadly ahead of its time. But since November 2016, the complex has come to life again as part of the The Culinary Institute of America (CIA), now the Copia campus (the others being Hyde Park, NY, and just up Napa’s Highway 29 in St. Helena). In the 80,000 square-foot space, there are open-to-the-public cooking and drink classes, events and a shop (classes and event tickets here) — and there is the Restaurant at CIA Copia.

Eat This: You could call the menu Cal-Med and it all certainly feels NorCal/Wine Country with impeccable ingredients, chic earth tones, open kitchen, outdoor patio, gardens and olive grove.

Sourcing ingredients from their own garden (headed up by CIA farm manager Matthew Gunn), CIA senior director Waldy Malouf and chef de cuisine Chris Aken oversee the restaurant with a menu that is not so much about cutting edge as quality and comfort, beautifully executed in dishes like rainbow trout in sage brown butter, accented by pistachios and Brussels sprouts, or a heartwarmingly tender confit pork topped with a crispy pork chicharron over beluga lentils.

Celery sake cocktail at Restaurant at CIA Copia

Blue Note Napa’s intimate downstairs space

Drink This: Beverage manager Shannon Latting’s balanced wine pairings (with plenty of local gems and small producers) and unexpectedly good cocktails provide even more draws to Copia. Apple Blossom ($15) is a refined, tart beauty of Spring 44 Gin, Calvados (French apple brandy) and fresh apple, while Red Marmalade ($14) is a robust, elegant beer cocktail using seasonal house marmalade made from fruit in their garden shaken with bourbon and topped with Lagunitas Red Sour Ale. There is an intimate bar if you just want to stop in for a drink.

Post-Dinner: Jazz at Blue Note Napa

Open at the end of October 2016, Blue Note Napa took over the historic Napa Valley Opera House with an intimate downstairs club and larger music venue upstairs, which will host concerts in jazz and many other musical genres. As a lifelong music fanatic and jazz fan, I’m delighted to see the famed Blue Note (with jazz clubs in New York, D.C., Milan, Hawaii, Beijing and Japan) arrive in California. Napa doesn’t exactly seem the obvious location but with a steady traffic of tourists and locals, I hope the small town will draw a nightly crowd for live jazz.