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Napa Valley: Three restaurants that won't blow the budget

, Napa , California
Cuisine: North American
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Cathy Bartrop makes a bid to eat Napa Valley on a budget.
 
Thomas Kellar, with his quartet of restaurants and trio of Michelin stars is one of a handful of pioneers responsible for putting Napa Valley on the food map.
 
Once a humble grape-growing region, Napa exploded in a world-renowned gourmet hot spot a couple of decades ago when savvy chefs moved in to make the perfect pairing: sun-drenched wine country served up with lush local produce. The Lord of Yountville, as Keller is locally known, is a title well-earned. But at his flagship restaurant, French Laundry, an eight course tasting menu will set you back an eye-watering $310.
 
Most wouldn’t bat an eye, but for many Brits it’s a once in a lifetime adventure. Does eating out in the Valley really have to be so rarefied, so prohibitive and so darn pricey?

Thanks to The Culinary Institute of America, which has a school here, there is a constant churning out of entrepreneurial chefs After graduation, many choose to stay in the area. And who can blame them? The climate is blissful, the scenery is beautiful and they have the pick of California’s abundant produce to work with. Not to mention a captive market of close on 4 million hungry visitors apparently spending, on average, $389pp a day.
 
That said, eating out in Napa doesn’t have to cost a fortune – the cunning connoisseur may like to save their cash for wine and perhaps only occasionally indulge in gourmet dining. I tried out three very different dining options from budget to blowout for budgeteers.
 
First up, at the budget end, Heritage Eats is worth seeking out. The brainchild of dynamic duo Ben Koenig and Jason Kupper, this is fast food with an eclectic twist at a great price. The tag line, ‘where down the road meets round the globe’ describes globally inspired sandwiches, in various guises, prepared fresh to order using only local heritage breeds and ingredients.
 
Tempting menu choices, averaging just $10 each, include a Banh Mi Dutch Crunch of grilled lemongrass pork on Dutch crunch roll with Asian pickle, garden greens, creamy coriander and an intriguing sounding ‘boom’ sauce.  
 
A Chicken Masala Wrap was slow cooked chicken in tomato sauce with coriander, yogurt & spices all wrapped in a warm flour tortilla, stuffed with fire grilled veggies, steamed rice & local greens. I went for the Thai Bao presented on two steamed bao buns made daily in-house. The sweet, light buns came stuffed with crunchy cabbage slaw, aji verde sauce, pickled carrots, cucumber, red onion and coriander. The portion was huge but so moreish I confess I ate the lot. There’s also a great selection of sides and extras – I can highly recommend the waffle fries with dipping sauces.
 
It’s the perfect pick-me-up after a night of serious wine drinking. This kind of passion for fine ingredients, great value food and a happy atmosphere certainly does create good vibes. I saw one customer take Ben aside to shake his hand and praise him not only for the quality of the food but the obvious strong work ethic behind the slick operation. That’s not something you see every day in what is essentially a fast food joint.
 
Ben shared with me his ambitions to expand – next stop possibly Oakland on the East Bay? Watch this space – Heritage Eats could just be the next Chipotle.
 
Next, Goose & Gander is a warm and welcoming gastro pub just off the St Helena main drag with garden seating and a very flexible menu. After a day of tastings, appetite levels can be unpredictable; chef Jeff Larson’s clever response is a varied menu that ranges from bar bites through small plates and sharing platters to salads and generous mains.
 
To kick things off the cocktail menu, all at $13, provided a welcome respite from wine. The Cucumber Collins proved a real beauty – served in a tall glass lined with delicate red (from beetroot juice) and green pickled cucumber slices, it combines Cucumber Vodka, Yuzu, Lemon, Selzer and is finished with a smattering of Huckleberries. And what better drink to feel all summery than a Coastal Pimm’s Cup? To my mind, Pimms No.1 should always be mixed with Ginger Beer. A dash of lemon, bitters and bay gives a sophisticated twist to a classic.
 
Cocktails come with bar bites: Delectable Smoked Corn Croquettes ($9) to start with. Croquettes can sometimes lack flavor but the smoked corn in these sung - soft and moist inside with a crisp crumb coating.
 
The Chicken Wings ($12) threw up a dilemma – ‘Wet or Dry’? The solution? Taking advice we went for dry with a dipping bowl of the spicy Korean wet sauce on the side. Not sure I could have coped with the full on spice of the firey sauce over the whole lot. The dry version with just a light salt and pepper flour coating were wing perfection.
 
I’ve got to be honest, we were already feeling jaded – much as I love a good steak, chunky bit of fish or a burger, those bar bites were filling.
 
Our sympathetic waiters’ lighter menu suggestions proved to be right on the money – he’d seen that kind of ‘just don’t give me a massive plate of food’ face before! A small plate tender Lamb Kebab ($16) served with mint and broccoli rabe pesto, smooth chickpea hummus and pickled onion for my husband and a generous serving of creamy wild and tamed mushrooms on sourdough toast ($12) for me was plenty. A glance at the extensive and pricey looking wine list was enough to remind us wine is a serious business in Napa. Help was at hand from an endearingly geeky wine waiter who took one look at my creamy mushrooms and recommended a Russian Valley Pinot Noir. At $15 a glass it seemed fairly steep till the glass arrived and it was more like a bucket – and what is more, he was right, it cut right through the creaminess of the dish.
 
We were done but they insisted we try the house specialty dessert. It turned out to be ‘Basque’ cake, a moist vanilla sponge with a hard baked crust topped with toffee sauce and served with vanilla ice cream and a pairing of poached rhubarb. Yummy.
 
For our blow out meal we decided to dine at Morimoto. Two reasons: we love Japanese food so were intrigued by the Chef Morimoto’s Japanese/Western fusion menu and second, the location was perfect in downtown Napa on the riverfront and, crucially, within walking distance of our B+B.
 
There’s a sense of theatre as soon as you walk in. In the welcoming lobby there are sale displays of Japanese art and crafts, comfy chairs to wait in and an inviting looking Sake Bar with more varieties of the stuff than I ever thought existed – a fun place in its own right.
 
Once your table is ready you are led through past the noise, steam and sweat of the open kitchen, and teased by delicious looking platters of sushi and sashimi being prepped and promptly whisked away by an army of waiters.
 
The main dining area is vast, a contemporary mix of concrete and warm wood with floor to ceiling glass opening up the view from the riverside terrace. Screens break up the space. Large, potentially noisy groups are seated away from more intimate tables for 2 to 6. On one side of the room is a huge, beautifully lit bar and, on the walls stunning stripped back ancient vines, remind us that we are still in wine country.
 
The atmosphere is buzzing, relaxed yet sophisticated. This was a Tuesday night in late May and by 8pm the place was pretty much full – we were lucky to get a table. At weekends, advance reservations are essential. We were also warned it was expensive – a perusal of the wine list however calmed my husband’s fears of a credit card max out. Of course you can go all out but, we went with a Francis Ford Coppola Sofia Riesling at an astonishingly reasonable price of just $30.
 
When it comes to the menu – it's flexibile  - a Napa trademark. At the top end there’s the $120pp Morimoto Omikase multi course tasting menu and at the other end of the scale you can pick and mix from the Sushi/Sashimi menu from $5 per piece or opt for a sushi platters with 10-12 different fish and vegetables for $32. In between there is a wonderful a la carte menu that just sounded so different and intriguing we had to try it.
 
My appetiser was quite the most beautiful plate of food I have seen in a long time – Morimoto Sashimi. Five precision cut cubes of layered salmon, tuna, seared toro, eel and hamachi, served with an array of multi-coloured pipettes containing complex and complimentary sauces. $26 for an appetizer may sound pricey but this was truly a work of art and, what is more, tasted divine.
 
Even so, I was also quite envious of my husband’s choice of sticky ribs in tamarind sauce – a simpler dish visually but complex in flavor and quite the tastiest ribs either of us have ever had. Braised and fried they were both meltingly tender as well as crispy, and coated in the most delicious, sticky sauce.
 
For our mains, I opted for a crispy whole fried sea bass served in a spicy tofu sauce with a papaya salad. My husband went for the seafood tobanyaki, a steaming bowl of lobster, crab, mussels, clams and sea scallops, in a red miso sake broth. Both huge portions, cooked to perfection and delicious although somewhat overshadowed by the beauty of the appetisers – we almost wished we’d gone for double starters.
 
There was no need for it, but when it came to dessert, we felt we had to try at least one and plumped for the Morimoto take on the classic American beach bonfire favourite of a ‘S’more’. Unlike the usual sickly Hershey chocolate and marshmallow version, unsurprisingly this was at a whole new level. A divine concoction of a dark chocolate crispy base, a silky smooth chocolate mousse with the tiniest hint of wasabi, a blowtorched meringue/marshmallow topping and a fine tempered chocolate ‘cracker’.
 
Thinking about it now is making me smile.
 
Our bill came to $190 – a bargain in my opinion considering the quality of the venue, the sense of theatre and top notch food and presentation Chef Morimoto and his team deliver. There are Morimoto restaurants in several US locations as well as Delhi, Mumbai and Mexico City. I definitely want s’more – here is where I officially launch the petition for a Morimoto in London…
 
Cathy Bartrop was a guest of Visit California at Heritage Eats and Goose & Gander. For more information Visitcalifornia.com
 
Heritage Eats 3824 Bel Aire Plaza, Napa
Goose & Gander 1245 Spring St, St Helena
Morimoto 610 Main Street, Napa
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3 July 2016
By: Cathy Bartrop
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