This is a bit convoluted, but just follow me: Last week we posted no blog, for the first time since May of 2015. What happened was that we were on vacation, celebrating Beez’s well-earned retirement. And, Andrew having upgraded me to a wonderful computer but a desk- and not a lap-top, there was no way for me to flaunt what we ate the week before last. And here we are, late for this week’s posting because of Thanksgiving and a rather nasty head cold which left me fit for nothing more than sleeping, doing crosswords and acrostics and drinking the occasional Rob Roy.
By way of a half-hearted defense, the blog is entitled, “What We Cooked Last Week,” so that it is by nature a little out of date. This week, it will be a little more out of date, and the food we ate during the week before last will be a lasting, though not very exciting, mystery.
If that’s too confusing, please ignore it.
What we are going to write about happened last week, at the end of which we returned from Yountville, California in the Napa Valley. Food is a main subject, but this post is really more of a travelogue. We had no facilities to cook for ourselves and, given the food we ate, no earthly reason to do so. At the bottom of this lengthy post – sorry, but I can’t help sharing – you’ll find a list of the highlights of the trip.
The first thing we have to tell you is that you should plan a stay in Yountville, California. (Beez agrees with me on this, which is as comforting as it is rare.) You should go there soon. Even now, in what coastal Californians consider cold weather, the climate is just fine for anyone from the Midwest or the Northeast. I mean, Californians wear Arctic-rated down coats when the temperature drops to 50. And in November and December, the grape harvest being over, the Napa Valley is much less crowded, almost Mayberry-like at certain times of the day.
The Napa Valley is strikingly beautiful, oddly-so to an eye habilitated to the lush green hills and valleys of Western Pennsylvania. In Napa, green stands out amidst the rusty browns and sand of the hills which often swell abruptly, like the bodies of enormous, beached whales, unlike the angular, rocky hills and mountains of Pennsylvania. And stretching between you and those hills are seemingly endless, neat rows of well-tended grape vines.
Yountville may be the most perfect town to spend a relaxing week in that we’ve ever visited. Being a museum-going, sight-seeing sort, I would usually prefer to be in or near some large metropolis or historic site. But even I can talk a week of fine weather, interesting walks through beautiful streets, fine food and no reason to get up before 7:00 (Well, it’s impossible for me to sleep later and, on my first few days in California, even that late.)
Unlike busy Napa (well worth seeing, by the way) – or day-tripping locations like Healdsburg and St. Helena, Yountville is a quiet town of picturesque, incredibly expensive, though generally small, private homes, boutique hotels, wonderful restaurants (maybe 4 of the better restaurants in the country are in this little place), good walking and biking.
We stayed at the Hotel Villagio, which we recommend without hesitation, for its friendly, cheerful staff, its perfect location, its beautiful grounds and the absolutely top-notch breakfast buffet which allows you to work out or sleep in or take a walk and still sit down to a leisurely, luxurious breakfast and linger over huge mugs of coffee and the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and mull which way to walk and spend your long love’s day. (Apologies to Andrew Marvell, but sometimes that line of his just cannot be avoided.)
On the hotel grounds are a spa, an exercise gym, several restaurants, and a sort of California version of a shopping mall, set in a beautiful, old brick building with lots of wood. There is also a second, sister hotel, Vintage House, which rents tiny cottages as well as hotel rooms.
Avenue of Fountains at the Villagio
What should you do when you’ve arrived at the Villagio? Well first, squad leader, chill out and relax. After you check in at the front desk, walk out toward the pool and look down the vista of bungalows to see the row of fountains. At night, these fountains are underlit and there is a shimmer in the air and on the trees and walls of the buildings from the reflection of the constantly moving water.
If you must, go to your room and unpack – we did – and then, go to the lobby bar, order a drink and some lunch, if you got there around noon, as we did, and relax some more. The beef sliders are not dietetic, but they are decadent and, hey, you’re on vacation – give the calorie-counter a rest too.
Beez under one of the many pergolas
If you’ve had a martini or two glasses of wine, take a nap and then take a walk through the extensive grounds of the property, through the pergola to “V Marketplace and Wine Shop”. Attached to this complex is Michael Chiarello’s fine restaurant, Bottega, and across from Bottega is his unusual and good restaurant, cookware and food shop, Ottima. I’d suggest you walk even further – to Vintage House, on the same grounds and under the same ownership as Villagio, and straight on through to the gardens and restaurants at the other end of town (The French Laundry, Restoration Hardware’s showrooms, some fascinating private homes and more pergolas (El Jefe, villain of that excellent modern-day Stooges-like movie, The Three Amigos, would have noted that Yountville has a ‘plethora of pergolas.’) On the way back, walk on the other side of the street, past the French Laundry, Bouchon, Café Jeanty and the plethora (I had to use it again) of handsome wine-tasting shops until you’re across from the lobby of the Hotel Villagio. Now you have the basic lay of the land. There is another street, intersecting Washington Street on the diagonal and containing more hotels, including the super-pricey Bardessano and a French County Inn – and around the corner from the Villagio, just past the small vineyard on their grounds, and under the highway, is a pretty little nine-hole golf course and the entrance to Domaine Chandon – but you can deal with these complexities later in your stay.)
For now, I’d go back to the Villagio’s lobby bar for another drink and some conversation. The bartenders are good and very hospitable. Indeed, the entire staff is pleasant and solicitous, including the operations manager who not only introduced himself, but later in our stay, his wife and baby and took note of Barbara’s many suggestions on how to improve the hotel – which was, to my mind, like suggesting a few landscaping changes in the Garden of Eden. (Welcome to my world, Kirk.)
Eventually, you’ll be hungry for dinner, which we had on that first night at the Café Jeanty, two minutes’ walk from the hotel. The restaurant has a crowded, busy front room with a bar, very French and cozy, as well as a more laid-back outdoor patio. We liked the food so much that we ate there again four nights later. Above all, they make the most flavorful ratatouille on the face of the earth. One of my ambitions as a cook is to make a great baida or ratatouille. If I ever make anything half as good as this one, I will award myself five stars.
I could go on and on – as those who follow this blog are aware. But I’ll cut to the chase and tell you about the highlights of our trip:
- That ratatouille at Café Jeanty
- Leisurely breakfasts at the Villagio and playing Scrabble in front of the fireplace while plying each other with drinks from the bar.
3.Ad Hoc – another restaurant in Yountville, a sort of lower-case, lower-cost French Laundry, also owned by Thomas Keller. I liked everything, Beez was lukewarm, except about the most wonderful wedge salad. Somehow, they manage to get dressing in between the leaves of the lettuce. The salad is lifted to greatness by bits of thick, crispy bacon. The beef cheeks, the creamiest possible polenta and the peas and carrots in butter sauce were all good, but that salad took the cake.
4. Ottima – Michael Chiarello’s second restaurant in Yountville – is a unique blend of cookware, foodstuffs and a sort of food-court with a Pizzeria, a Birreria, and a deli. Skip the food court and get a table outside on the patio, then order a Nouvelle Salad with pears, goat cheese and spiced pumpkin seeds and, more importantly, the Queen Margherita pizza. I am fond of thin-crust pizzas without too much sauce or cheese – heck, I cook them. But this pizza, while having a thicker crust, may be my favorite of all time. The pizza dough is par-cooked in oil, and then finished in a wood oven with a minimum of light tomato sauce. Out of the oven it is given several dollops of a loose, house-made Mozzarella and a sprinkling of fresh basil leaves and brought to you piping hot.
5. B Cellars – Oakville Trek wine tasting. More and more wineries are adding chefs and food to their wine-tastings. B Cellars offers some great wines and some great food. The goat-cheese ravioli and the brisket slider were as notable as the wines. They store their wine in an extensive cave hollowed out of the cliff behind the winery and have several private, including one palatial, tasting and dining rooms in the cave itself. A tour of the winery, the cave and the gardens which supply produce for the kitchen are all part of the package.
6. Bottega – Michael Chiarello’s beautiful restaurant in Yountville, on the Hotel Villagio estate grounds. I must confess to having a soft spot for Chiarello based on his cookbook, Live Fire, which has been the basis for many cook-outs at Casa Stuarti. Beez had Michael’s take on Bouillabaisse – Brodetto ai Fruiti di Mare and I had Cavatelli with Head-On Prawns, a dish as pretty as it is delicious. We also had a waiter with a Walrus moustache and a walrus personality. Northern California is filled with characters, and many of them become bartenders and waiters.
7. Chez Panisse – On the way back to the airport, we stopped for lunch in a smoke-filled Berkeley, to pay homage to Alice Waters whose cooking has inspired many of America’s top chefs and even some home-chef nerds like me. (Tony Bourdain, usually so savvy, was just wrong in his estimation of Alice. He may have been put off by her flower-child background and the air of hushed saintliness that her cookbooks imparted to fresh ingredients and vegetables. Or it may have been the self-regarding and consciously with-it locals scattered among the tourists dining at the restaurant.)
We shared a simple lettuce salad and a small pizza. The dressing on the salad was excessive but delicious – crème-fraiche with a hint of garlic, champagne vinegar, salt and pepper – and the lettuce and some watermelon radishes could not have been fresher. The pizza, which I tried, unsuccessfully to recreate at home, was a bunch of spicy, charred arugula, on top of melted pecorino with bits of toasted pancetta imparting a porky lushness to the whole affair.
8. Back in Pittsburgh – before you take off for California take a half-hour and visit Vino Volo, a wine-tasting shop at the airport. There are lots of wines and wine flights to taste. We had the Shades of White and discovered something I thought as mythical as the Yeti – a good, dry Riesling for under $50 a bottle.
There are many more things to do in the area. St. Helena is a nice little town to visit, with a branch of the Culinary Institute of America housed in the magnificent, immense old Christian Brothers winery, just outside of town.
Callistoga has some famous springs. And you can get to the wonderful towns of the Sonoma Valleys well without much trouble – I’d recommend Sonoma itself and, if you have the time to get up there, Healdsburg. If you are a true wine lover, you’ll want to visit more wineries and there are many, very good ones in the area. There is a bicycle trail running from Yountville down to Napa and lots of trails for hiking throughout the area. You can ride horses. In winter, you can drive to the Sierra Nevada in under 2 hours and get to some wonderful ski slopes. If you get to Napa City in the morning, have coffee and a pastry at Napa Valley Coffee Roasters. The coffee is good and strong – even Beez put some cream into hers. If you get there at lunchtime, go to the Oxbow Public Market and browse and grab some take-out crab tacos at C Casa and haul them up to the Fieldwork Brewing Company where you can drink fine beer and keep an eye on the interesting crowd entering and leaving the market. If you come for dinner, there are a plethora (I can’t help myself) of great restaurants. For a picnic, pick up some bread, salumi and cheese or sandwiches at the Oakville Grocery (Oakville is maybe 2 miles north of Yountville. There are a plethora (last one, I promise) of other good places to eat and visit. Playing it by ear will work in Napa Valley in a way that it wouldn’t in, say, Uzbekistan.
We rented a car which allowed us to get to Napa and St. Helena on our own but was really not necessary. Uber is available almost instantaneously and you’ll want to use it any time you’re going to be drinking, which was most of the time, for us.
Note: Café Jeanty and Ad Hoc were recommendations from Jonathan Newman, CEO of Newman Wine and former head of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, a guru of wine and a friendly fellow. And the Oxbow Market and C Casa were suggestions from Jean Newbill, manager at Hall Family Estate Tasting Room in Yountville and a great source of information on the area.