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Restaurants & Bars 1

Christmas Week in the northern Napa Valley

chairbc | Dec 27, 201112:25 PM

This is a report on Christmas-week eating in the Napa Valley.
We drove up from San Francisco on Monday, the 19th, and my original idea was to give a day-by-day narrative…but (a) that’s boring because (b) we actually brought a lot of leftovers from home, so you would have been subjected to “Tuesday dinner we had soup in our room.”
So, instead, institution-by-institution:
Brassica, St. Helena.
We had lunch on the way up, at Cindy Pawlcyn’s Brassica, south of St. Helena. This is Ms. Pawlcyn’s second try at an eatery in the space—the first being Go Fish, at which we had lunched a few years back, and recall enjoying, but somehow we never made it back to. Brassica is Mediterranean-themed, a pair of big, airy, high-ceilinged rooms, one with a bar (probably seats ten people but looks small in the space) and high, round tables with stools; the other a more conventional dining room.
We had glasses of Domaine Carneros Brut and perused the menu.
We wound up ordering, to share
 Persimmon-Pomegranate salad
 Pork Tonnato
 Pizza with chantrelles (wonderful)
 Lamb kebabs with a spicy eggplant relish
 And 500 ml of Rossi Wallace Pinot Noir.
The kebabs were the low point; the Pinot the high point. Indeed, we later bought a couple bottles for our “cellar” at St. Helena Wine Center.
I give the restaurant points for the Tonnato dish—a take on the Florentine Vitello Tonnato, only using thin slices of pork shoulder. Could have been more piquant, in my view.
The Pinot by the way, was from a section of the wine list devoted to area wineries that don’t have their own tasting rooms. Brassica is their tasting room; the offerings come in sizes of 2 oz, 5 oz, 500 ml, etc., a trend that I think is great.
Oh, and I had an affogato—espresso poured, at the table, over almond ice cream. Would order that again in a nanosecond.
Total cost: about $120 including tip.
Now, I’m a huge CP fan—once asked a waitress at Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen if Ms. Pawlcyn would adopt me—but I don’t know; I don’t know. There are a lot of Mediterranean-themed places in this world, and especially in the Napa Valley, and Brassica/Go Fish is a huge space, as I wrote above and the dining room was only 40% filled while we were there (arrived 12:30, left a bit before 2 PM; interestingly enough, more women than men in the hall). I think CP’s food works better when the atmosphere is bustling—as it is at Backstreet. Maybe if they closed off one of the rooms…
Solbar, at Solage Resort, Calistoga:
Wednesday, we went to Solbar for breakfast.
Oh, my: great meal.
Herself had “Mountain Climber”: eggs, spaetzle, spinach, fontina, breadcrumbs (with bacon in them), served in a cast iron casserole.
I had “Fish Camp”: trout with poached eggs, spinach, hollandaise (with some horseradish), red potatoes and arugula. Possibly the best trout dish I’ve ever eaten—and I may like trout more than anyone else on the planet. (technically, I think the eggs were soft-boiled in their shells—but that’s just fine by me.)
Great coffee (French press, and a second pot was provided gratis), kind and casual service, a visit from the chef (“mountain climber is supposed to have a ski-lodge vibe”), good views of the hills, good art on the walls, beautiful space, $60 including a slight over-tip.
Brannan’s, Calistoga
We went to Brannan’s twice for dinner. It’s basically a steak-house-style place (caribou head over a stone fireplace; Prairie-style light fixtures; moody lighting; huge carved-wood bar, etc.), which used to strike me as out of place in Calistoga. But it seems to be the most consistently crowded of the many restaurants along Lincoln Avenue, and we’ve come to make it part of our routine.
For Wednesday dinner, it turns out that Brannan’s has a three-course crab special ($29.95)—indeed, there’s a $29.95 three-course special every night during this season, and while I was planning on the crab, my sun-and-stars had her mind set on one of the other choices.
Turned out there are multiple choices every night except Wednesday.
So…we each had a Sapphire martini, and she had:
 Cesar salad
 Steamed clams
And I had the crab special:
 mixed greens with a mustard vinaigrette
 A whole crab, arriving at the table still warm
 Crème brulee.
And we shared a bottle of Honig Sauvignon Blanc.
Comments: this might have been my first-ever experience with a whole crab in a restaurant (we cook and eat a couple whole Dungeness crabs at home each year). When I took the carapace off this one, it had been cleaned beautifully: no gills, no yellow fat, entrails, etc. taking it apart and eating it at the table was a lot of fun.
It came with drawn butter, which don’t like that much and they substituted mayo for me without a problem. And my beloved’s clams came with a mystery glass of something that proved to be beer—strange side dish and she ignored it. She declared the clams perfectly fine.
Cost in dollars? About $125.
Christmas Eve we were back, and this time both had the $29.95 special—salad, lamb shank (“Viking-style” our waitress said) with polenta and kale; and crème brulee. I added a side of roasted marrow bone; we started with glasses of sparkling wine and also had a bottle of Napa Valley Tempranillo, maker forgotten.
The marrow was an experiment that may not be repeated, though it was okay (texture from the protein; taste from a sauce verte of capers and parsley; crunch from toast points). The shanks were large and cooked so the meat came right off the bone and melted in the mouth.
Overall? $177-ish.
An observation from both nights: cream/milk based desserts don’t strike me as good a idea after either of those mains. Something tart and fruit-based might be better—perhaps the sorbets Brannan’s has on the menu. But, y’know?, we shared & gobbled the crème brulees up both times, and went back to our room happy.
Hydro Grill
Hydro is another of our regular spots. Comfort food, good beer, interesting scenes at neighboring tables. That was Thursday’s dinner: burgers for both of us, and different draft beers. These were all a burger should be: comforting and fun to eat. And the scene—locals and visitors—at Hydro is always worth the price of admission: local gossip, people playing cards, sports on TV. (Fact: first time we ever heard of LeBron James was at the bar at Hydro….)
Cal Mart
Cal Mart—a supermarket--is another of our traditions: sandwiches and salads to eat by the pool. I look forward especially to their roast beef and to their wild-rice salad. We had take-out from Cal Mart three times during the week: I’m adding quinoa salad to the list of looked-forward-to dishes.
Calistoga Inn
This is the brew pub/restaurant/bath-down-the-hall Inn at Lincoln Avenue and Cedar Streets. Used to be one of our spots—including that we stayed upstairs several times. Last visit, we swore off on the Calistoga Inn restaurant (thought the service was too chummy and the food arrived cold); but we like the bar and dropped in twice to kibitz and enjoy martinis, a Belgian-style seasonal ale; and a couple local wines-by-the-glass.

Calistoga Village Bakery
We got scones or muffins from Village Bakery a couple of times—gingerbread persons, too—and enjoyed same thoroughly. Their ginger scones were a revelation.

Our last night was Christmas—the 25th—and there were only three places open in downtown Calistoga. After some scouting of the menus, we picked Checkers. Now, I’ve avoided this place in the past, as too-brightly-lit and decorated with cartoonish bric-a-brac.

Big mistake (the avoiding), as this proved a great, relatively light and casual, last-evening meal.
 A salad with random greens, goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts
 A pizza with pesto, sun-dried tomatoes--and pine nuts.
 A bottle of Joel Gott Zinfandel
And it was great. Every bite full of energy, attentive but not overwhelming service—and the cartoon stuff I recall seeing from the street in past years has been replaced with vintage French and Italian posters, and the brightly lit spot was warm and smile-inducing.
Total bill: about $66, including tip. And my better half observed, as she did at Brannan’s, that half the bill was, ahem, alcohol.

Market, in St. Helena
On our way home, on Boxing Day, we took an early lunch at Market. Now, I’ve loved this restaurant since the day we were sitting at the bar (eating the daily special, for the record) and I heard a fellow two stools away saying, “Well, Tom Seaver came by my vineyard over the weekend and….”
So our lunch was:
My better half: the daily special of
 creamed black bean soup
 chicken salad on toasted sourdough
 a rice-crispies treat
and I had…a burger and fries, the nice thing about which (she observed) was that the aioli and mustard were in little dishes, not bottles plopped on the table. Also the quality of the beef, the grilled onions, the…
Water and espressoes (espressi?) and we were good to go.
Of further note was that one fellow patron was on a motorized scooter thing; and there was at least one small child in another party…and the staff accommodated them all with no fuss whatsoever. And it came to: $ 43.00 more or less.

For years we’ve made the Calistoga Spa Hot Springs our base in the valley. Each time, we think, we’ll go wine-tasting, we’ll go to this or that; most visits, we check in, and don’t use the car again for a week, and it’s perfect. Kitchenettes in the rooms; four pools to choose from; a range of spa treatments including mud, massage, and reflexology, what could more could a person want? Well Calistoga Spa Hot Springs has rebuilt its hot pools and deck area, adding a fire feature to the latter—and has become even better.

To sum up
Positive rec’s
 Solbar
 Brannan’s
 Cal Mart
 Hydro
 Village Bakery
 Checkers
 Market
Rec’s with reservations
 Brassica
 Calistoga Inn (The bar)
 none

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