Napa’s Culinary Revival

A decade ago, a visit to Napa Valley rarely included a restaurant outing to the namesake town—if it did, it was either accidental or out of necessity. A few trailblazers like Celadon, Angéle, Bounty Hunter and La Toque elevated the quality of the cuisine to match the reputation of Napa Valley’s wine, but went mostly under the radar while dining rooms in Yountville and Calistoga tapped into the wine tourism business.
     Part of Napa’s challenge was the Napa River, which tended to flood out plans for any significant development. That changed when voters approved a sales tax increase to fund a US Army Corp of Engineers project, creating flood control areas in 1998. The work exposed the previously hidden river, and the city suddenly had a waterfront. Add some bike and walking trails, shops and hotels, and the restaurants were soon to follow.
     Ubuntu opened in 2007, and was the first from the new wave of restaurants to create a nationally acclaimed dining destination in downtown Napa. It’s a vegetarian restaurant that’s won over omnivores with its thoughtful dishes—fine cuisine that doesn’t miss the meat.
     Since then, the options have become numerous and varied. The most widely anticipated was Morimoto Napa, a showcase for chef Masaharu Morimoto. With oversized photographs of fish occupying entire walls, sweeping dining room views of the river and beautiful and precise dishes by the Iron Chef, it’s a worthy splurge. A few feet away, Food Network star Tyler Florence’s Rotisserie & Wine delivers on its name with spit-roasting meats that greet you on entry. The country charm invoked by the wood-lined interior and wine barrel chandeliers is rendered in sophisticated American classics like bacon-Mornay cheese puffs, grits with thin-sliced lardo and duck confit with crackling waffles.
     West of the river, Oenotri is receiving acclaim for its rustic Italian food, pizzas, pastas and house-cured salumi by chefs Curtis Di Fede and Tyler Rodde, who met while working at Oliveto in Oakland. Across the street, Norman Rose Tavern has captivated locals with a relaxed atmosphere and hearty food like Frito-laced sliders with avocado relish and Disco fries, a pile of crisp, fried potatoes doused with pork sausage gravy and topped with cheddar cheese and an egg (optional).
     East of the river, the Oxbow Public Market is the city’s current culinary center, replacing the adjacent COPIA, an early champion of the downtown Napa rebirth. With an indoor market stocked with artisanal products and prepared foods, a leisurely stroll through the market might involve some Hog Island Oysters, a glass of wine from the Oxbow Wine Merchant and dessert from Kara’s Cupcakes. Resist the urge for a burger and head instead to the Fatted Calf—a carnivore’s heaven around the corner, stocked with bacon, salumi, crepinettes, sausages and patés made on-site by Taylor Boetticher and his crew. Look for the rotating daily sandwich selections made with their roast meats or salumi on fresh bread from The Model Bakery next door.
     There’s more to come, too: A new Ritz-Carlton resort is in the works, as well as restaurants from Todd Humphries of the recently closed Martini House and Donna Scala of Bistro Don Giovanni. As far as downtown goes, 2011 is looking like a great vintage for Napa.

—Lou Bustamante

 

Fatted Calf, 644 First St., (at McKinstry), 707-256-3684, fattedcalf.com
Morimoto Napa, 610 Main (near Third), 707-252-1600, morimotonapa.com
Norman Rose Tavern, 1401 First St. (at Franklin), 707-258-1516, normanrosenapa.com
Oenotri, 1425 First St. (near Franklin), 707-252-1022, oenotri.com
Oxbow Public Market, 644 First St. (near McKinstry), oxbowpublicmarket.com
Rotisserie & Wine, 720 Main (near Third), 707-254-8500, rotisserieandwine.com
Ubuntu, 1140 Main St. (near Pearl), 707-251-5656, ubuntunapa.com