Tag Archives: Napa

Farmstead at Longmeadow Ranch: Reliably wonderful Napa Valley farm to table

You know you’ve found a favorite restaurant when you can eat there twice within a week, and the second meal is even better than the first. That’s how I feel about Farmstead at Longmeadow Ranch, a Napa Valley restaurant that is a must for anyone traveling through the area, no matter how short your stay.


Longmeadow Ranch, like so many other winery-centric businesses in the Napa Valley, many businesses in one: tasting room, general store showcasing local products, casual eatery, fine restaurant, and private event venue. While all are well done here, it’s the restaurant, Farmstead, that takes center stage.


Having first tried Farmstead at the behest of a foodie friend last summer, it was an instant hit with me. Its shareable burrata appetizer and an addictive butterscotch pudding – so good our party of four ordered one and decimated it so quickly we ordered two more! – won me over. Alas, I was too slow to blog about it then. But two more recent visits later, and here I am, telling you that YOU. MUST. EAT. HERE. Fresh, local, and creative. Longmeadow Ranch takes your favorite food trends and innovates them – enough that they are recognizable but unique and great enough to be memorable.


Let’s talk about that Burrata, for example. Cool, creamy, oozy burrata is so good on its own, why mess with that? Longmeadow Ranch hears it. The result is basically mozzarella fondue, and it works beautifully. Try it alone, with its crackling olive-oil crostini, with a clove of accompanying roast garlic squeezed on top, with a dose of pickled onions or gherkins on top, or the marinated, pickled beets – or a little of all of the above. While part of me would like a sweet element to offset the saltiness and richness of the cheese, the different bites of various savory flavors still manage to to bring out different aspects of the burrata itself. Who knew burrata could have such versatility?


Love cheddar biscuits? Farmstead serves theirs slightly caramelized in a cast iron skillet with honey butter. They are nowhere near your heavy Cracker Barrel biscuit, but if you’re a Yelp user, you’ll be delighted to find out that they can be yours, complimentary, should you choose to check in on Yelp.

Ok, let’s talk about this menu.
First, the drinks. Farmstead makes some great cocktails; if you don’t like wine, they have many great ones. Beers aren’t a strong suit, so pick the cocktails, mocktails, or wine. Tip: Try a tasting next door, purchase a bottle and drink it at the table for $5 corkage – you’ll save a bunch over ordering off the restaurant menu. I love their Sauvignon Blanc. It is crisp, clean and versatile. Perfect for a warm afternoon on the patio, surrounded by greenery. The rosé is also fantastic – light, dry, fruity and tangy with watermelon and strawberry notes.


The food: Their current summer menu has many great options for starters, entree salads, and main courses. On my recent visits I opted for their summery salad with mixed greens, strawberries, feta, and almonds with pulled chicken first; on the second visit, I chose two small plates: beets and meatballs.

Let me just tell you that the beets and meatballs were extraordinary. I’ve talked in this blog at length about a few of my favorite food trends of the decade, including beets, Brussels sprouts, and kale. As cliche as they all can be, the last 15 years have made vegetable side dishes so delicious that people like me order them as an integral part of the meal and not a simple afterthought. In that perspective, I can’t roll my eyes when I see yet another version of them on a menu. Because they’re still nutritious (well minus all the additives to help them along) and delicious.


I am a fan of a sweeter, cold, pickled beet, but Farmstead again takes the route less traveled by making them savory and caramelizing them. Beets’ dense and juicy texture doesn’t lend themselves naturally to caramelizing, but Farmstead has made me rethink that assumption. The caramelization created an umami smokiness that paired well with the smooth, mascarpone-like goat cheese presented with it.


The all-beef meatballs also came as a harmonic and hearty small plate. Served with a tomato jam – really, reduced sweet tomato sauce and collard greens that had been broiled with high heat for an almost kale chip-like consistency, I could have eaten this dish or the beets alone as a filling main course. Our server had recommended them together, and I am grateful for the recommendation, as the two dishes did contrast nicely with one another.


My friends on these visits ordered beef tartare, macaroni and cheese (both pictured above), the pulled pork panini (not pictured), a vegetarian arborio rice dish not called risotto (but essentially was risotto), and the capellini primavera. 


Each one was fantastic in its own right. The ricotta capellini primavera, had an interesting tang to it, hinting of yogurt. The mac and cheese is one of those dishes worth the calories.

My one caveat for Farmstead is its lack of restraint with salt. I happen to love salt, but if you have sensitivity to salt, simply ask them to go easy on the salt, as their flavors tend to concentrate anyway and don’t necessitate salt.


For dessert, their new pastry chef frequently rotates dishes. Homemade ice creams and sorbet are delicate and vary daily; flavors on our visits included peanut butter and jelly (yum!), cucumber, and lemon-raspberry. Sadly, the memorable butterscotch pudding (photo near the top of this post)was a creation of the previous pastry chef, but we hope it will be resurrected later this summer (!). Other tempting dishes include fruit pies and cobblers.


I can’t recommend Farmstead at Longmeadow Ranch enthusiastically enough. You’ll leave with a new or renewed appreciation of Northern California’s local bounty and culinary talent.

Bouchon Bistro: The French Laundry’s more accessible sister pulls its weight

If you are a resident or visitor to San Francisco or New York, you’ve probably heard of Bouchon Bakery. If you are a foodie anywhere, you at least have a passing familiarity with the name The French Laundry. You might not pay much attention to its sister restaurant, Bouchon Bistro – unless, of course, you’ve had the pleasure of visiting its Beverly Hills or Las Vegas incarnations. And that’s a shame. Because Bouchon is exceptional, yet (relatively) accessible French comfort food that shines in its own right.

Scoring a reservation at chef Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry is a distant dream of mine. The restaurant has been labeled America’s best restaurant by some. Their prix fixe menus and wine pairings are the stuff of legend. Strategy (and a willingness to fork over a premium for their pricy meals) is critical. And too much effort for me thus far.

But after an acquaintance in the restaurant industry claimed that Bouchon Bistro was his favorite restaurant in the San Francisco Bay Area, I knew I needed to try it. So I booked a Thursday night reservation for three people – two weeks in advance, mind you. So let that be a reminder to make reservations well in advance!

Bouchon is located about 15 minutes’ drive north of the city of Napa in the quaint (but very bourgeoisie) town of Yountville. Yountville must have one of the highest concentrations of fine restaurants per capita in all of the U.S. Though options are plentiful, tourists and locals flock to Bouchon Bakery by day and, the fortunate few, to adjacent Bouchon Bistro by night.

  
Walking through its unassuming entrance, one immediately is transported from California to France, with deep red hued walls, classic (but classy) French decor to include an antique clock, and the obligatory chalk menu board (for specials). A knotted Bouchon Bakery baguette awaits diners as they are seated, as does an extensive cocktail and wine list with an abundance of good French and Californian wines. But the daily special red wine “by the carafe” is a great deal. We paid $50 for 1 L of California Cabernet Sauvignon, which by French bistro standards for house wines would be ridiculous, but by fancy American standards was a more than decent wine for a decent price.

  
We devoured our baguette with wine as we awaited our appetizer – escargots. This appetizer was delightful – the snails removed from their shells, drowned in mini pots of garlic and parsley butter, and topped with possibly the world’s tiniest puff pastries to help soak up the butter. I missed having the shells as part of the presentation, but not for long once I tasted them. They were well cooked and not at all tough, and the garlic butter was in perfect balance.

  
In lieu of a main course, one of my friends and I decided to order each a salad and a starter. But these weren’t just any run of the mill dishes; they are my two favorite French standards, each with Bouchon’s interpretation. The traditional salade chèvre chaud took a lighter touch than the oft overdressed French version. Instead of pungent, double creme goat cheese, Bouchon used a single medallion of a more crumbly, young Californian cheese. While I prefer the texture of a melting double creme, Bouchon’s salad was a delicate revelation.

  
And the appetizer? Foie gras, of course. Foie gras is easy to do poorly. Did I expect mediocrity? No, but the precision with which the smooth, intense portion of foie gras was seared, paired with a single stick of savory pain perdu (French toast) expertly battered and seared, married with a sweet-tart rhubarb coulis was mind-blowing. It is the second-best version of foie gras I’ve ever tasted (read about the best here!).

  
Our other friend ordered steak frites, and we swiped more than a few shoestring fries from the heap that accompanied the juicy meat.

  
We couldn’t resist dessert, so we all shared the most unique offering: a rhubarb Napoleon with tart creme fraiche ice cream. It was a wonderful combination: fruit and cream, sweet and tart, with a hint of pastry.

Though our reservation came at the end of the night, our service was on point, as fresh and hospitable as if we were the evening’s first guests. Whether you choose to visit Bouchon for a romantic evening, a celebration, or simply to share in the joy of French cuisine with a hint of California, you will not leave disappointed.

Celadon: A garden spot for California cuisine in Napa, California

No trip to Napa County is complete without good wine and food. The area has an overwhelming selection of both, so how can one choose? I offer one suggestion for a great dinner of California-influenced global cuisine in a literal garden spot in the city of Napa: Celadon.

My experience with Celadon came to be after a few friends walked by it and became enchanted with its covered outdoor patio dining area and eclectic International menu. Two days later, we secured an early Saturday evening reservation (a necessity on weekends).

While Celadon has an indoor dining area, the majority of its tables line a large, covered patio. Excepting truly cold days, the patio, with overhead heaters spaced strategically throughout, is the seating area of choice. Green and white tones, exposed brick, ivy and other plants seeming inspired by English gardens give the dining area a breezy elegance. It reminded me somewhat of my favorite restaurant in Kraków, Poland – Zielona Kuchnia (which I chronicled in the CD here), and so did the execution of its dishes.

The restaurant’s wine and cocktail menu was on par with any in Napa (that is to say it meets Napa’s unparalleled standards), but my group took advantage of the restaurant’s very reasonable corkage fee of $15 for our bottle of Pine Ridge Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon from our earlier excursion.

Based on a recommendation from a tasting room staffer earlier in the day, we shared the macadamia-crusted goat cheese appetizer. It met our expectations and was a sweet start to our meal – sweet enough literally that it also appears on the restaurant’s dessert menu. We also tried Celadon’s fried calamari, which was pleasant though not memorable.

  
Chicken is not a dish I often choose at a great restaurant, but I couldn’t resist the house-made, pan seared gnocchi, spinach and peas that accompanied chicken breast. That decision proved not to be a mistake; it was a wonderful combination for an early spring meal on a rainy April evening. The chicken breast and gnocchi were both cooked perfectly: tender and seared to produce a dainty, caramelized crust.

  
One friend ordered a vegetarian dish, of which a grilled artichoke was the beautiful centerpiece. Artichoke is not a vegetable I expect to see as a main dish, and yet this one was hearty when paired with quinoa and red pepper coulis.

  
The best dish of all was a bone-in lamb loin, served with Israeli couscous. This dish was another recommended above all others to our group, and the recommendation clearly had merit. The lamb was indescribably tender to the fork’s touch and seasoned with a touch of cinnamon and North African spices. If you enjoy lamb, do not pass up this dish!

Unfortunately, none of us left room for their dessert menu, which was good but fairly typical for Northern California restaurants. I certainly do not mean that as a dig in Celadon; desserts simply tend to be somewhat predictable even with California’s pride in its own eclectic style of cuisine. Which I suppose proves that “Californian” is a good style and culture all its own.

Tired of wading through a sea of great restaurants in Napa? Choose Celadon and you will have a winner.

Freemark Abbey: Cabernet (and more!) Greatness in the heart of Napa

Stop by my favorite winery in California’s beautiful Napa Valley for some of the valley’s best wines. From reds to whites to their rare library finds, theirs are truly worth trying.

If you have been following this blog, it’s no secret that my interest and appreciation for wine goes hand in hand with my love of food, travel, and culture. Why? To tell the story of a place – of a people or culture – wine is often a large part of that story.

For centuries and millennia, civilizations have been blending and fermenting fruit juice into wines. Those wines have been part of many a meal, a celebration, even a sacrament (ok, and more than a few events of intoxication-induced debauchery!). People learn about other people, their heritage and culture, and they bond over wine just as much as over food.

Freemark Abbey’s on-site vineyard

Wine has become so much a part of Northern California culture and its marketing/diplomacy to the rest of the world, thanks to the notoriety its wines have gained internationally. And for tourists, a visit to Napa or Sonoma can be transcendent, if not often overwhelming (tour buses of bachelorette parties, anyone?). And for good reason. Its scenic beauty and what seems like an endless variety of commercial wineries and viticultural areas make for a fun wine education and outing with friends.

  
Of all the wineries I’ve tried, Freemark Abbey is my favorite. Its wines and its people form a great community. My discovery came from an unlikely source: An MBA case study that was turned by my statistics professor into a cursed exam. The exam wasn’t fun, but the subject matter intrigued me. The case centered around the risks Freemark Abbey might take to leave its Johannesburg Riesling grapes on the vine for a late harvest, in the hopes a finicky fungus might take to the crop and produce an extremely rare, intense – and lucrative – dessert wine.

Seriously? Fungus, you say? Just remember the effect of fungal growth on cheese. Gorgonzola, anyone? I know some of you will never get over the idea of intentionally eating something that has rot, but fermentation is responsible for so many of the delicious foods and beverages we eat.  I, for one, was intrigued.

 

Freemark’s wine library represents decades of Napa winemaking traditions and a great sensory history tour!

 
So three years ago, on a day trip to Napa, my friends and I decided to try out Freemark Abbey. We came for the MBA nostalgia, but we were hooked on their fabulous wines. Several visits later, I am a huge supporter of their wines.

 

Judgment of Paris-era wines

 
Having a longer history than many of Napa’s existing wineries, Freemark Abbey has been producing wines for over 125 years. As part of its legacy, its wines were part of the now immortalized 1976 Judgment of Paris face-off between French and California wines. Though California and Hollywood have marketed this event to death for almost 40 years, and I’m sure the French are pretty annoyed with all the hoopla that continues to surround it, it cemented California as an international wine destination and exporter.

Today, Freemark Abbey is transforming its bright – but small – tasting room to accommodate a growing contingent of members and visitors. I’m not sure how I feel about that, because I’d like to enjoy peace and quiet when I visit!
Anyway, enough about the winery, let’s get to the wines! While their Cabernet Sauvignons are my favorite, I enjoy several of their whites, and their Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé is fantastic. So I’ll give you just a few highlights – but keep in mind, this list is not all-inclusive.

Whites:

  

  • Their dry Riesling is fairly mellow and not quite as crisp as other dry Rieslings (my favorites being from Oregon’s Willamette Valley and Germany’s Rhine River Valley), but it still is refreshing and bright in its complexity. A little citrus, a bit of honey – those are the flavors I detected in some great sips.
  • Viognier was an unexpected favorite, as it isn’t prevalent in California. In my humid, hot home state of Virginia, Viognier is one of our best varietals (and one of the few Virginia wines I’d recommend to serious wine drinkers!). Freemark’s deliciously crisp, dry, and fruity Viognier made more sense when they told me their grapes come from the flatter, hotter southern end of Napa county close to San Francisco Bay than the hills around the St. Helena winery.

Rosé
If you like rosé and also drink red wine, this Cabernet rosé is for you. You’re probably more accustomed to Rosé of Pinot Noir or European Grenache. But the bolder, fruity Cabernet Sauvignon lends a deeper, more intense flavor of strawberry and cherry than from a lighter grape – at least in my opinion. My friends seemed to agree and drank all my stash, so I am sadly without.

Reds:

  • Whether you can get your hands on a 2010 (or earlier vintage), 2011, or 2012 of their Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon, each one is delicious. The earlier vintages bear the smoothness and maturity of their aging, while the younger bottles are still more than drinkable, with slightly edgier tannins and slightly smokier oak. If you add a bite of cheese or dark chocolate, the dark fruit and hint of sweetness become that much more noticeable.

  

    • Year after year, the Cabernet Boché is the creme de la creme of Freemark’s vineyards produces their best (and thus scarcer and pricier) fruit. It hails from one of Napa’s drier microclimates, so its juice is extremely concentrated. But it’s so good you almost don’t want to waste it on dinner, yet pairing it with food makes it that much more layered in its complexity. It’s one you’d best start before dinner and then have a glass with food so that you can experience every facet of this smooth wine. The 2004 vintage was particularly amazing.
    • Like the Bosche, wine from the mountainous Sycamore vineyard is in short supply, as its higher-elevation fruit is smaller and of less yield. Its Cabernet Sauvignon is complex, yet balanced and smooth.

    Dessert wines:

      

    • Though it is hard to come by, their late harvest Johannesburg Riesling Eidelwein is outstanding. You won’t want to waste a drop of it. It is not at all syrupy; its aroma is part honeysuckle; part peach and pear; and part floral. If you can try a botrytised vintage, its flavors are all the more intense. When I was handed a vintage 1986 botrytised sample, it truly was drinking the nectar of the gods. They also do a delicious Zinfandel port.

    The library tastings:
    I was fortunate to score a library tasting. It was proof that some vintages – and the aging process – can lend legendary status to a wine. On the other hand, the unpredictability of the bottling process, especially with natural cork, can turn what once was an amazing vintage into, well, bad vinegar. (Sidebar: synthetic cork is much more reliable for wine preservation and storage, despite the snootiness and traditional appeal of real cork)

      

    • 1969 Petite Syrah: To my friends, this wine was basically the holy grail of wines. It aged beautifully, retaining its peppery bite but having tamed the acidity, bitter tannins and oak to create the masculine kind of wine one would imagine being dipped in the library with cigars and a smoking jacket. Aside from the reverence for consuming something that is now 46 years old and was growing the year a man first walked on the surface of the moon, it was a wonderfully rich sip.

      

      • 1993 Sycamore Cabernet Sauvignon: Call me crazy, but I preferred the 21 year old Cab to the older Petite Syrah (this is not symbolic of how I prefer my men!). I just happen to prefer Cabs, and this one was luxurious. It was ripe, rich, deeply fruity with blackberry and currant, and its oak, tannins, and acidity all were so well integrated.

        

        • 1981 Solari Cabernet Sauvignon: I was eager to try a wine that was born along with me. I was sadly disappointed that this particular bottle or case had turned to vinegar. So either I aged much better than the wine did, or it doesn’t bode well for those of us born in 1981!