The Next Generation of Napa Restaurant

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bistrosandor.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

Napa restaurants seem to open in bursts these days, with multiple places launching more or less simultaneously.  Mid-June 2010 saw the arrival of Bistro Sabor, Carpe Diem, and the as-yet-still-in-soft-opening-mode Bui Bistro, all within three blocks of each other.  Each restaurant brings its own unique cuisine experience to the downtown restaurant scene, but all three share the modern look and casual style that seem to be the new trend in wine country restaurants.
Bistro Sabor took over the former First Squeeze space on First Street, looking out at the sunny brick plaza that hosts live music on Chef's Market nights.  The Ceja family's ambitious young Ariel masterminded the restaurant's pan-Latino street food concept, the casual urban feel (complete with an original graffiti "mural" by bay area legend Estria), the interesting beer, wine, and sake list, the late 2 a.m. weekend closing time--and, I suspect, the flat screen above the long communal counter on which to follow World Cup soccer.

ensaladafruita.jpgLike his mother Amelia, Ariel Ceja is supernaturally energetic and ambitious.  He plans to change up the menu regularly, adding recipes selected by followers of the family's soon to be launched food and wine website Salud! Napa.  For now, the food menu combines some of the Ceja family's favorite staples with ultra-fresh versions of Mexican tacos, Cuban tortas, El Salvadorean pupusas, and other street snacks.  The ensalada de frutas is hands down the best in the valley--lusciously ripe mango, crisp cool jicama, and juicy watermelon tossed with chile powder and yerba buena, and topped with a dollop of cool rich crema.  Seafood is also particularly strong here, so don't miss the salmon ceviche tostadas, or the shrimp dishes--whether offered in garlicky, spicy skewer form, or in a delicious taco with sweet melted onions and serrano chile-mango salsa.

carpediem.jpgThe husband and wife team behind Carpe Diem Wine Bar also have an eye for style.  Stephanie and Scott Kendall transformed the utterly forgettable La Gondola into a swank urban oasis just a block away from Bistro Sabor on Second Street.  The natural wood grain accents, dark wood tables and stylish seating transport you to San Francisco, but the strong (and extremely well priced) selection of hard to find local wines give away your true location.  Like the ambiance, the menu aims for titillatingly different but approachable comfort.  Kobe beef corndogs with ponzu mustard, truffled goat cheese flan, and edamame hummus share space with cabernet-braised short rib sliders, roasted mushroom and gruyere flatbreads, and a nice selection of artisanal charcuterie.  If it's time for dessert, don't hesitate to ask for a Happy Ending: flambéed banana with Nutella, vanilla ice cream and a lattice tuile.

springrolls.jpgAs a former Berkeley resident and lifelong Vietnamese food fanatic, I was thrilled to notice a liquor license application with Patrick Bui's name on it go up in the window at 976 Pearl Street.  His restaurant Bui on Solano Avenue is an elegant and tasty Vietnamese bistro that combines classic and original creations without skipping a beat or mixing his metaphors. Mr. Bui's latest venture in Napa seems to aiming for a similar look and flavor.  Perfect toothsome, chewy rice noodles in the spring rolls and the chicken pho soup of the day, classic shaking beef made with the tenderest filet mignon, and smokily rich eggplant chicken with basil will all hit your standard Vietnamese food cravings head on.  But Bui Bistro improves on perfection in many respects: traditional banana blossom and chicken salad becomes even more addictive and nuanced with the juicy, tangy hit of julienned bosc pear, and familiar five spice duck becomes the evening showstopper when prepared as an asian duck confit with baguette toast points.  Once the rapturous feasting is done, a fascinating selection of exotic teas from Paris-based Mariage Frères vies with fabulously rich, dark, and strong house coffee and the Indochine-style kaffir lime crème brulee for your attention.

The space has a sophisticated, sexy vibe that enhances the elegance of the cuisine and the mostly European wine list of Kermit Lynch favorites.  Sipping on grüner veltliner by the glass in a setting like this is a personal fantasy of mine, and a whole new ballgame for Napa.  Fortunately the restaurant (which still lacks outside signage and an official opening day) seems to be serving both lunch and dinner for now, making this new wine country dining experience a distinct possibility twice daily.

Bistro Sabor, 1126 First Street, Napa, 707.252.0555

Carpe Diem Wine Bar, 1001 Second Street, Napa, 707.224.0800

Bui Bistro, 976 Pearl Street, Napa

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Thank you for the kind words Deirdre! We're happy to be part of the revitalization of downtown Napa offering Latin Street fare. We look forward to hosting you again soon!

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