This post was written by Deborah Grossman from the San Francisco Bay Area.
In October 2017, the devastating fires in Napa and Sonoma touched nearly everyone either personally or through friends and family. As part of the recovery, Napa Valley denizens are ready and eager to welcome visitors with open arms and delicious food and drink. Weeks after the fires, my friend and I ventured to St. Helena and Napa to support the area and enjoy some good food and wine.
Clif Family Wines and Bruschetteria
As we approached the cozy downtown of St. Helena, I spied the sign for Velo Vino at the Clif Family Winery and their Bruschetteria Food Truck parked alongside the cottage-style building. This intriguing combo would be our first Napa Valley experience.
The name Velo Vino (Bike Wine) harkens to the owners’ obsession with bicycling. Bikes and related artifacts are prominently displayed throughout the tasting room and a popular tasting flight labelled “Yellow Jersey.” To reach the tasting bar and tables, you pass numerous food displays, and then you realize this is the family that owns Clif Bars. The shelves are stocked with Clif branded olive oil, jams, flavored salts, and dukkah spice condiments.
The food truck’s menu touts its “bruschette,” the plural of bruschetta, which translates here to loaded flatbreads. We enjoyed our funghi bruschetta with seasonal mushrooms, fontina, and chives. But the fresco—with melted burrata, roasted cauliflower, broccoli rabe, radish and mint—evinced the fine dining creds of the chef. The sides such as crunchy arancini—breaded risotto with fontina, roasted squash, and salsa Pomodoro—are exceptional.
A few steps from the winery is the St. Helena Welcome Center. This is a handy place to get insider reservations made by the knowledgeable Concierge Services staff and pick up discount cards, St. Helena walking maps and Napa Valley winery guides.
After lunch, I longingly glanced at Gott’s Roadside on our way to the heart of St. Helena. Though we were too full to stop at the famous, casual food stop formerly known as Taylor’s Refresher, I made a mental note to revisit their new location close to home in Walnut Creek, California. I’m a major fan of Gott’s burgers from the ahi to the beef and Impossible brand vegetarian versions. I recently became addicted to their kimchi burger, Vietnamese chicken salad, and sweet potato fries. The milkshakes from Strauss organic ice cream are terrific, especially with the peanut butter add-on. Owner Joel Gott’s wines and other wines and beers are available.
Napa Valley fine hotels
There are many excellent options for Napa Valley lodging. Just south of the town of Napa, the Meritage Resort and Spa offers wine tasting in their cellar. In St. Helena, Meadowood presents luxury accommodations in a country setting with The Restaurant at Meadowood, a stunning three-star Michelin fine dining option; Southbridge is the Meadowood sister property at Main Street. The Harvest Inn by Charlie Palmer features his Kitchen Table restaurant.
We chose to stay at the boutique Wydown Hotel in downtown St. Helena bordered by many restaurants and stores. The selection of art appealed to me as a writer with a books mural behind the front desk.
The Wydown is one of the hotels participating in the Little Book of Big Experiences, a special option with 24 wine country experiences valuing $1,000 for only $100. Participating offers include discounts for restaurants, hotels, and big-name wineries such as Beringer and Hall.
St. Helena Shopping
Main St. is lined with boutique stores from trend clothing to gourmet goodies. Steve’s Hardware was founded in 1878. The main store houses paints and typical hardware items. But the attached Steve’s Housewares brims with the latest kitchen wares. I’ve experienced excellent shopping karma in the specialty items stocked here.
There are several home décor shops. But I opted for La Bohème Resale Shop which benefits a care home and hospice center. Here my friend found vintage marble shooters, the larger marbles traditionally used to hit the smaller ones; I chose an unusual, collectible pewter plate.
Brasswood winery and restaurants
Brasswood Winery is a food and wine oasis in St. Helena. Located just north of downtown, Brasswood is what General Manager Marcus Marquez calls “a vintner’s village.” The white, farmhouse style tasting room presents the estate wines such as their cabernet sauvignon. The long winery building at the back of the complex offers tours.
In the main “village” are a fine art gallery and the Bottle Shop and Mercantile. The shop sells Brasswood wines and wine they produce for local, well-known vintners plus specialty gift items.
In the spring, the winery will offer a new garden tour. The produce is currently used at the Brasswood Bar and Kitchen and the Brasswood Bar and Bakery. The Bar and Bakery specializes in baked goods, sandwiches, pastas, salads, and sweets—an excellent option for picnic provisions to nearby parks and wineries.
After our shopping expedition, we cozied into a booth at the Bar and Kitchen. Brasswood estate wines are on tap and other wines are available. Cocktails such as the Sweet and Caliente with tequila, cassis, lime, grapefruit, cilantro, and Jalapeno are well-balanced and refreshing.
On the menu, look for freshly pulled, Sonoma mozzarella with peaches or seasonal sides. The sweet white corn soup was a stellar example of how to pack an appetizer with flavor and texture— creamed corn, grilled corn kernels, star anise, walnut pesto, and chives. The many pastas tempted us, but we enjoyed a savory, herb-infused pappardelle with short rib sugo. The four-cheese risotto and confit of crispy Sonoma duck leg was delicious with a side of braised radicchio. Next visit we’ll sample the herb-crusted lamb chops or dry aged porterhouse for two. Save room for the butterscotch pudding.
The Charter Oak restaurant
After relaxing in a sunny seating area for the Wydown breakfast — replete with muffins and scones from the iconic Model Bakery across the street, we headed off for more St. Helena shopping.
We lunched at The Charter Oak restaurant in the former Tra Vigne space across from Gott’s Roadside. In late 2016 Meadowood executive chef Christopher Kostow and a partner opened The Charter Oak. The huge hearth and open kitchen at the back are the focal point of the room framed by floor-to-ceiling windows with brick and wood elements. Wooden tables both large and small— with secret drawers that house your own silverware—add a vibe that is simultaneously casual and upscale.
Kostow highlights the nearby restaurant garden in the small plate of raw vegetables — including the tiny bok choy and radishes with “fermented soy dip.” Not a fan of miso, I never imagined fermented miso could be such a delicious ingredient.
We were enchanted by the little gem lettuces accompanied by smoked, dried albacore with herb cream. The house-made spaghetti with clams was outstanding. From the wood hearth, we selected beef rib grilled over cabernet barrels with beets dried over the fire. The wine country influenced grilled buttermilk brined chicken with Napa grape leaves, fresh and dried grapes was savory with a touch of fruit sweetness. A pastry chef served pavlova and date pudding with homemade ice cream.
The Restaurant at the CIA COPIA and Oxbow
After lunch we headed south to downtown Napa. We settled on the delightful shopping opportunities at Oxbow Market on the Napa River and lingered at shops such as Whole Spice to select hard-to-find condiments and Annette’s Chocolates for sweet treats.
Before heading home, we dined at The Restaurant at CIA Copia next door. The Culinary Institute of America (CIA), based in Hudson Valley, New York, hosts an outpost in St. Helena. The CIA Copia in Napa offers public cooking courses, a kitchen goods shop, chef demos, and wine tasting classes.
Polly Lappetito is the director of restaurants of the CIA at Copia and executive chef of The Restaurant at CIA Copia. Lappetito is not a fancy person. She is as enthusiastic about her new Eats & Treats patio take-out window offering panini and soft serve as her gourmet, family style restaurant. A note on special diets: Chef Lappetito or her chefs will come to the table to discuss gluten free or allergy issues.
The best place to dine at The Restaurant at CIA Copia is the kitchen counter. We enjoyed chatting with Lappetito while she cooked. Her philosophy of cooking is simplicity. For starters, Lappetito makes a ridiculously delicious chickpea pancake. The signature spicy mussels dish is layered atop a hunk of grilled garlic bread which absorbs all the seafood juices. Note that I did share the delicious bread with my friend.
On the day we visited, the restaurant was gathering funds for fire victims from the sale of the cacio e pep, chickpeas with bucatini pasta, black pepper, and grana Padano cheese. We chose the dish and loved the flavor combination. The vinegar based chicken with cipollini onion, spinach and pancetta was also deeply flavored. When I asked the chef about the dish, she said, “Oh, I found a recipe in a magazine and built upon it.” Her openness and honesty are refreshing. The grilled prime hangar steak with balsamic radicchio and blue fondue looked tempting. For dessert, there’s tiramisu in a jar, pear clafoutis, and chocolate bombe with peanut brittle.
Along with California and international wines, the cocktails are creative and well-crafted. We enjoyed the Hanami with vodka, jasmine tea, lemon, and thyme. The beer list is proudly local. For non-alcoholic drinks, try the fresh lemonade and spiced tamarind fresh limeade.
During the October 2017 fires, Lappetito kept the restaurant open for the first few days, preparing food for the police, firemen, and evacuees at shelters. Now, like the rest of Napa Valley, the Restaurant is humming with happy guests on the hunt for good food and drink.
Deborah Grossman is a freelance food, drink and travel writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can find samples of her travels at deborahgrossman.com.