Saturday, September 18, 2010

return to wine country

Steve and I celebrated our second wedding anniversary on August 16.  Like last year, we decided to spend a few days in Napa Valley, going to wineries and trying out some more of the fancy restaurants in the area.  We had ended that first trip with a quick stop in the town of Napa on the way back to SF, checking out the newish Rancho Gordo store and Oxbow Market for lunch.  This time, we began in Napa.

We left home on Sunday morning and drove for a little over an hour, up 101 and then through Sonoma and Carneros to get to Napa.  Arriving around 11am, we found a nice parking spot in the lot across the street from our lunchtime destination.
   
ubuntu
  
We had some time before our 11:30am reservation, so we walked down Main Street a little.  There were some streets that were closed off from traffic, but it was all pretty quiet.  By the time we got back to the restaurant, parking was looking a little more sparse, though.

Lunch was at Ubuntu, a vegetarian restaurant that has a yoga studio attached.  Steve and I are not vegetarians, although I sometimes prefer lighter, meatless dishes.  In any case, Ubuntu is known for doing vegetarian so well that you don't really miss the meat.  They grow a lot of the food themselves and present it in fancy, refined ways.  The only potential disappointment in going there now is that Chef Jeremy Fox, who pretty much made Ubuntu what it is and got all sorts of accolades there, left the restaurant in February.  Luckily, sous chef Aaron London took over and managed to maintain the quality.  According to critic Michael Bauer, the menu is a little harder to read, but the food is still great.
 
We sat outside, in the little patio area out back.  It was a tiny bit chilly, but it was a nice day to sit outside anyway.  Better light for pictures that way too.  We were greeted by our server, and she immediately asked if there were any food allergies.  I told her "no nuts, but pine nuts and almonds are fine," and she took my menu back to the chef to check what was safe.  When she returned, there were little notes written next to the dishes.  It was a pretty efficient way to do it, although they would need to replace the paper menu in the holder for the next person.
 
Since the majority of the dishes were meant to be shared, we settled on four regular plates and no appetizers.  The first was a pasta.
 
garden-inspired extruded pasta: fennel fiore, assorted squash 
lemony carrot top broth, miso pickled radish, sweet herbs
  
extruded pasta

This may have been my favorite.  The lemony broth was really good with the pasta, and the flavors all blended together really well.  The pickled radish on top gave it an extra kick, and the nasturtium flowers were both pretty and sweet.  There were also chunks of squash in there to break up the texture of the pasta.

Next up was another vegan-friendly dish... or at least it was, until Steve decided to order it with a fried egg on top.

rustic rancho gordo 'yellow eye' bean stew, hoja santa
rosemary, chili, smoked 'red russian' kale (+ubuntu farm egg)
 
bean stew

It was a very good bean stew, using Rancho Gordo heirloom beans.  It was pretty hearty too.  I let Steve eat a lot of it, since he likes such things more than I do.  I was also getting a hint of a scratchy throat from it, so there might have been soy protein or something else that I'm vaguely allergic to in it.  I sometimes have similar issues with chickpeas, so I wasn't very concerned.  I just didn't eat a ton of it.
  
The next two dishes to come out were the prettiest, and the first one looked like some sort of alien flying saucer thing.

"inside out" arbuckle grits cooked with goat's whey, various beans 
goat's milk ricotta, assorted roots, 'delfino' cilantro, smoked corn husk
  
inside out arbuckle grits

It featured grits cooked with goat's whey, which made it like a tangy polenta.  Predictably, this was the thing I had insisted on ordering.  I'm not sure it was quite the tang I was expecting, though.  I ended up kind of on the fence about the dish, but maybe it was also because I was getting full already.  In any case, I'm happy with the polenta that Steve makes at home.

The final dish was Carrots and Squash.
 
an expression of carrots and squash; aerated, roast, escabeche, 
our vadouvan, 2 cilantros, mint/eisley wax pepper infusion
  
carrots and squash

The colors in the dish were gorgeous, and the asymmetrical oblong plate had a hole in one end like an artist's palette.  Somehow, it was subtle enough not to be hokey.
  
As with most of our other dishes at Ubuntu, there were words on the menu that were completely unfamiliar.  Since I had no idea what vadouvan was, I didn't really know what to expect for flavor from this dish, aside from carrots and squash.  It turned out that the carrots—cooked various ways—and the vadouvan were the main flavor components.  Steve asked and found out that vadouvan was a special curry blend that could be found, conveniently, at Whole Spice in the nearby Oxbow Market.  So that explained why the dish had a distinctly Indian flavor, but not a particularly familiar one.
 
By the end of our four dishes, I was really full.  It was tempting to get a dessert, but I knew that there would be many more opportunities for desserts that day.  I had my eye on a cupcake place down the street for a snack, and we were planning to eat a large dinner around 5:30pm.
 
To fill the afternoon, we decided to walk around Napa a bit more.  However, we quickly learned why those streets had been blocked off when we approached crowds sitting along them.  There was a parade going by with the usual small town floats, including the victorious little league team.  Then, some people around us told us that the main event of the parade was the famous "dancing horses."  We decided to stick around and see what that could possibly mean.
 
The horse section of the parade began with kids on ponies.  Very cute.
  
mini cowboy

Then, a guy doing lasso tricks led the adults on horses.

parade in napa

You may notice that the back horse's legs are crossed in the picture above.  We found out that dancing horses are sort of exactly what you'd expect.  Since my new camera takes video, I tried it out on the parade.  This was my first attempt, so I didn't know that although I can take pictures while I'm taking video, it disrupts things quite a bit.  I cut the thing together the best I could in iMovie to take out the stutters from the pictures I took.

video

 
Some horses were clearly better "dancers" than others.  The main one in the video was probably one of the best, kind of step-touching down the street.  Others looked like they were staggering around, sometimes sideways, and a few were just walking.

After the parade had passed, Steve and I headed across the bridge to Oxbow Market.

whole spice

Steve decided he wanted to get some vadouvan from Whole Spice, as well as a couple other obscure things.  Then, he got some coffee from Ritual Roasters, and we looked around the market a little.  Things were a little more developed than they had been last year, although there were still a couple stalls under construction.  We passed an "innovative taqueria" called C Casa that serves interesting combinations with things like buffalo meat or spiced lamb.  Too bad we didn't have time to devote a lunch to trying it.  I also looked at the cupcakes at Kara's, but I had tried one of theirs last year and had another spot in mind for later.
 
Around the side of the market, we stopped at Fatted Calf.  Steve got some dried mushrooms and some different polenta to cook up sometime, and we bought a couple of dried meat sticks to eat as a snack during our trip.  It's always good to have snacks in the car in wine country.
  
From there, we walked back to the main downtown area via a different bridge (the one in the picture below) with a nice view of the new Riverfront development and the old Napa Mill.  That would be the beautiful Napa River pictured.  I imagine it's a little prettier in the winter, when there's more water. 

riverfront

We scoped out the area a little, including Morimoto Napa—which is in the Riverfront complex—and the parking garage across the street, where we would need to go that evening for dinner.  Then, we walked back along Main Street.  When we reached Sift Cupcakery, we went in to check it out.  I had hoped to get a cupcake as a snack there, but I decided that I really wasn't hungry enough for it.  They have several intriguing flavors, including a Boston cream pie cupcake and an "Irish Car Bomb" one.  I guess it will have to be added to the list, along with C Casa, for next time we're in town.
 
There didn't seem to be a ton to see in downtown Napa, so Steve and I liberated our car from its 3-hour spot pretty much on schedule.  Then, we drove to Yountville so we could check into our hotel.  It didn't take us long to get there, so we were a little early for check-in time.
  
Having stayed there before, we knew the area well enough to kill some time at V Marketplace, a little complex with shops and Michael Chiarello's restaurant Bottega.  We caught sight of Chef Chiarello himself, as he apparently made the rounds, checking in at his Napa Style store and the outdoor seating at his restaurant.
   
globes
  
We looked around Napa Style, and I lusted after the antique silverware, which would be good for food pictures.  Then we made our way around the shops inside the main building.  Most of the stores are pretty obviously aimed toward middle-to-upper class, middle-aged women who are tourists, so a lot of the stuff is too cornball for Steve and me.  It didn't take us long to cover both levels of the building.  We had walked around a tiny bit three years ago, before our dinner at the French Laundry, but we were able to explore it more fully this time.  Turns out, there's not much to it anyway.
  
Once we had had our fill of the V Marketplace, we drove back to the Yountville Inn and checked in.  We were able to chill for a while in our room, which had a couch this time.  Steve and I each brought our own laptops, since we didn't have to fly anywhere for this trip, so I worked on transferring the pictures from the afternoon to my computer.  Soon, it was time to get dressed for dinner and drive back to Napa. 
  
Coming up: dinner at the restaurant of an Iron Chef!

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