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Photo courtesy of Hotel Yountville
By Deirdre Bourdet

The Altamura family has invested some serious time and energy in coaxing the contemporary Hotel Yountville out of the 50-room, country-chic Yountville Inn.  The construction of several new buildings, conference center, restaurant, spa, swimming pool, and outdoor lounging areas is almost complete, though, and the place has shaped up rather spectacularly into one of Yountville's sexiest resorts.

Designed by the same team that transformed Milliken Creek Inn, the remodeled Hotel Yountville blends sleek modern design with luxurious comfort.  Subtle details and rich textures create an inviting environment full of plush seating and contemporary comforts.  When I was invited to tour the property in early February, it was all I could do not to sink into every seat we passed.  Fortunately, I had been invited to sit down for breakfast at the guests-only Hopper Creek Kitchen, which has been making waves since the soft opening in December 2010.

Two Hot New Pairing Programs at Napa Wineries

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lmrwines.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

I enjoy wine tasting, but I definitely perk up substantially if there's food pairing involved.  Thankfully, there are plenty of other people who feel the same way, and our growing numbers are prompting great changes in the way wineries present their products to the public.  I recently had the good fortune to be invited to two of the best winery food and wine experiences in Napa, and can't wait to spread the word.  

Long Meadow Ranch
Adding a food component to their winery's tasting program was a no-brainer for Long Meadow Ranch Winery in St. Helena, which for many years has been producing grass-fed beef, premium olive oils, free-range eggs, and organic vegetables in addition to their wines--and which opened a Ranch-supported restaurant (Farmstead) next to their tasting room just last year.  LMR has just announced some new options for people interested in food as well as wine, with packages at practically every price point.

Rotisserie & Wine: So Much More Than the Name

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r_and_w.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

Historically, the City of Napa--not to be confused with the Napa Valley in which it's located--has not been known for its wine tasting options, tourist attractions, or epicurean sophistication.  In the last three years, however, the city has welcomed the Oxbow Public Market, a remarkable community of over 20 tasting rooms, and a critical mass of excellent restaurants all within an eminently walkable downtown district.  The arrival last year of nationally renowned chefs like Tyler Florence and Masaharu Morimoto marked the end of Napa's status as the culinary ugly step-child of the Napa Valley, and a huge leap forward for all the other entrepreneurs fighting to put Napa on the food and wine map.

The Year of the Rabbit Joins The Food Truck Frenzy

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foodtruck.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

February 3, 2011 marks the first day of the Chinese zodiac's Year of the Rabbit.  People born in years of the Rabbit (1915, 1927, 1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999, and 2011) are supposed to enjoy the good things of life, and have excellent taste.  In honor of this particularly noble year, Napa's Food Truck Friday will be featuring New Year's specials themed around the animal of the year.

Food Truck Fridays started in Napa last October as the semi-guerilla "Circle the Wagons" event, which gathered the first gourmet food trucks of Napa Valley all in one place, for one night only.  Phat Salads & Wraps, Crossroad Chicken, and Mark's the Spot all convened at Dim Sum Charlie's shiny silver Airstream trailer to support the fledgling food truck movement in wine country.  The night was such a success, they wound up making it a monthly occurrence on the first Friday of each month. 

Chocolate + Wine = Excellent February Weekend

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wine_chocolate_034.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

Valentine's Day is just a few weeks away, but the folks at Rodney Strong Vineyards are starting the lovefest early.  The 22nd annual Wine & Chocolate Event is scheduled for Saturday February 5, 2011, from 1:00 to 4:00pm.  This event's raison d'etre has always been to savor the delicious union of two much-beloved aphrodisiacs, and in furtherance of this lofty goal the winery's Healdsburg barrel room will be bursting with delectable variations on the chocolate + wine theme.

Five Great Burgers in Napa Valley

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burger1.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

Who doesn't love a great burger?  (Other than vegetarians, of course.)  People have their own particular preferences about type of bun, cooking temperature, and toppings, but there is a burger out there for every individual palate.  Check out these gems from the Napa Valley, and see which style will become your favorite.
By Deirdre Bourdet

Wine country's dramatic beauty and sensual delights make it an ideal destination for romance at any time of year, but I tend to think winter is one of its finest seasons.  Chilly temperatures seem to amplify our enjoyment of food and wine, and also encourage the wintry inclination to cuddle up closer with our person of choice (plus, there's also that holiday in the middle of February that tends to prompt some romantic gestures).  Here are some suggestions for dining à deux in wine country when the barometer runs low, but passions run high.

Cozy Up By the Fire. Everyone knows one of the best ways to fan the flames between you is to cozy up by a fireplace.Start the evening off right (or just make a night of it) in the lounge at Cuvée in Napa, which offers great happy hour discounts on drinks and globally inspired appetizers during the week.The fireside tables at Brix tucked away in a discreet corner of the restaurant behind the bar, also make a great place for shameless flirting over dinner.   In Sonoma County, the low lighting, plush textures, and dramatic stone fireplace of John Ash's front lounge provide the perfect ambience to make your move.

Napa Valley Restaurant Month Deals and Steals

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boonFlyCafe_donuts.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet


Now is the time to dine in Napa Valley. The region's first ever Restaurant Month kicked off this January to complement Yountville's second annual Moveable Feast, offering sweet specials all over the valley. With over 30 participating restaurants--nearly all of which have different fine print on their deals--assessing the options can seem overwhelming. To save you time and headaches, I offer you my top picks for the most incredible, can't miss values on offer during this month only.

2010 Restaurant Retrospective

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Deirdre Bourdet

2010 will go down in Napa history as The Year of the Restaurant.  We saw no fewer than twelve new restaurants opening their doors within a half mile of each other, making the downtown region the new dining hot spot of the Valley.  Each new arrival brought something special to the eating scene that is worthy of note.  Here's my highly subjective take on what each new place has done for Napa, in roughly chronological order.

1.    Grace's Table Husband and wife team Mauro and Nancy transformed the modern Elements space into a comfortable neighborhood restaurant with neighborhood prices, satisfying global comfort food, and a warm welcome at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  No one else in town pumps out the variety of housemade jams, breads, stews, burgers, tamales, gnocchi, and salads at accessible prices like these guys do.

The Riddling Rack Is A No Brainer

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riddlingrack.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

Cold wet weather makes me want to hole up at home with a bottle of red wine and some truffle mashed potatoes.  Home is easy, it's warm, it's reasonably attractive, and it almost always has some really good wine on hand.  But when I dragged myself out on a random weeknight for pre-dinner drinks at the AVIA Hotel's Riddling Rack, I discovered another comforting nook in town with these same attributes--one that's also way cooler looking, and has vintage Dom Perignon by the glass.  

Time To Stop Beating Around the Bûche

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By Deirdre Bourdet

Growing up in California, I always thought a yule log was the crackling fire you tuned your televisions to while you opened your Christmas gifts.  I was stunned to learn that the yule log is not only a real cake consumed by many Americans, but the Christmas Eve dessert for families in France.

In contrast to the rest of the traditional Réveillon menu for December 24th--oysters, foie gras, truffles, and roast capon--the Bûche de Noël is a humble little creature.  Thin genoise cake, usually chocolate, is rolled around a flavored cream-based filling and then frosted and decorated with meringue mushrooms to look like a felled log in the forest.  Although some French seem to prize an ultra-realistic log, and others opt for a more cartoonish look, everyone's goal is clearly to make the cake look like a moldering piece of wood.

Piero Fetes the Feast of the Seven Fishes

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By Deirdre Bourdet

One of my all-time favorite Italian culinary traditions is the southern regions' Festa dei Sette Pesci, the epic Feast of the Seven Fishes celebrated on Christmas Eve.   Unlike many other traditional meals, the menu for the Feast of the Seven Fishes is not set in stone--nor is the number of dishes, despite the name.  Celebrants may serve seven, nine, eleven, thirteen different fishes at the meal, depending on what is fresh and available and inspiring to the cooks.  Italian-American Feasts of the Seven Fishes have also been known to sneak in some meat with the fish, as well.  A multi-course parade of creative seafood variations that incorporates meat products whenever delicious may not sound much like an abstinent religious observance, but then again we are talking about the Italians.  And it is a Festa, after all.


Trufflefest Napa Valley

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blacktruffle.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

Last weekend the inaugural Napa Valley Truffle Festival brought a wave of truffle hunters to town, just in time for the start of the black truffle season.  With seminars and dégustations aimed at gourmands and geeks alike, the Festival drew a diverse crowd of truffle scientists, truffle purveyors, truffle farmers, potential truffle farmers, and truffle-obsessed foodies--united in their shared passion for mycorrhizal fungus.  

Mushroom Hunting in Mendocino

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By Deirdre Bourdet

If, like me, you missed this year's Wine and Mushroom Festival in Mendocino (November 5-14th) don't delay your shroom-hunting expedition until next November.  Many other opportunities to stalk the wild mushroom await you in the coming months! 

The Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens in Fort Bragg maintain an unbelievable variety of flora on their grounds.  In addition to the meticulous formal gardens, dense pine forest, fern-covered canyons, camellias, magnolias, heathers, and flowered coastal bluffs on the Pacific Ocean, there are wild mushrooms galore.  Every wintry Monday afternoon through January 31, 2011, the Gardens' staff mycologists lead off-trail Mushroom Walks through the funghi's favorite growing areas, and instruct participants about mushroom myths, biology, and identification.  Tours run every Monday from 1:30pm to 3pm through January 31, 2011, and are free with admission to the gardens ($10 per adult, discounted rates available for seniors, Mendocino County residents, and kids). Come prepared for wet weather and messy tromping through the wilds.  18220 North Highway One, Fort Bragg, 707.964.4352x16.

Change Is Afoot At the Oxbow Public Market

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oxbowmarketsign.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

The Oxbow Market is one of my favorite destinations in the Napa Valley.  It has everything a foodie could want in one convenient, comfortable, and very social marketplace.  As a local, it's rare that I stop in without spotting at least one person I know.  With the fantastic new changes in the Main Hall this autumn, the Oxbow's cult following is about to get a lot bigger.  

One of the biggest issues for people visiting the Oxbow in the evening was the early shuttering of the stores, starting around 7pm.  Starting November 17th, the Oxbow will be open every night until at least 9pm, eliminating the need to eat an early bird supper or leave the building.  "Oxbow at Nite!" aims to make the market an anytime, any day kind of scene: it's not just for Tuesdays anymore.

Feasting in Sonoma This Thanksgiving

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By Deirdre Bourdet

If you find yourself in Sonoma on November 25th this year, skip the stressful prep and aftermath of the Thanksgiving holiday, and focus on the feasting at one of these great local restaurants. From the rugged coast to the inland valleys, Sonoma has a wealth of delicious ways to give thanks.

Alexander's is perched right on the dramatic Sonoma Coast in the Timber Cove Inn, and enjoys panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean from the dining room. Their four course, $60 "Celebration of Cultural Heritage" menu begins with a wild mushroom soup paired with foraged local acorns. Next, a punchy salad of apple and watercress with guanciale, blood orange oil, walnuts, and marigolds freshens the palate before the bird of the hour arrives at the table. The turkey here comes in two parts--herb roasted breast and cocoa-confit leg--accompanied by an Okinawa sweet potato gratin, wild mushroom stuffing, brussel sprouts, and a house-made cranberry sauce. The meal ends on a sweet and shiny note with "laminated" pastry and a poached Suckle pear. Since the Timber Cove Inn is right there on site, dinner here is the perfect spot for an impromptu romantic getaway.

We All Swoon for Spoonbar

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spoonbar4.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

The h2hotel is Healdsburg's newest swank place to sleep, but its in-house bar does a lot to prevent any sleep from happening.  Sleek modern furniture, all-spoon waterfall, small production artisanal liquors, classic glassware, and incomparable barman Scott Beattie at the helm make it very hard to call it a night when Spoonbar bartenders await.

Bar Manager Scott Beattie first secured his place in the pantheon of celebrity mixologists when he created the award-winning bar program at Cyrus restaurant, just a few steps up the street in the Les Mars hotel.  Scott's rigorous standards for organic seasonal produce, ultra-premium mixers, and craft-distilled local spirits changed the way people looked at cocktails--and the way cocktails look.  His excellent mixologist cookbook, Artisanal Cocktails, belongs in every cocktail enthusiast's library, whether or not you can hunt down fresh Rangpur limes or borage blossoms in your area, and whether or not you ever intend to dehydrate lotus chips, pickle hearts of palm, or make grapefruit foams to garnish your drinks.   After a few years of freelance cocktail catering and consulting post cocktail cookbook, Scott has again stepped behind the bar to kick off the program at Spoonbar, a restaurant with locally-driven, sustainable ingredient sourcing priorities that line up rather nicely with his own.  

Healdsburg's Dry Creek Kitchen

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drycreekkitchen.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

All too frequently, restaurants run by out-of-town celebrity chefs reflect their out of town origins more than their actual location.  Charlie Palmer's Dry Creek Kitchen bucks that trend in every respect, and more than lives up to its name.   

Chef de cuisine and Healdsburg native Dustin Vallette manages the kitchen, crafting elegant menus from Sonoma County's finest seasonal ingredients to complement the region's distinctive wines.  Sommelier Drew Munro has created an all-Sonoma County wine list of over 600 different bottles, including the largest selection of dessert wines of any Sonoma restaurant, but the restaurant charges no corkage for Sonoma County wines brought in to the restaurant.   Dry Creek Kitchen's active participation in numerous special events throughout the year further celebrates the local winemakers, and food artisans of the area.

The restaurant is situated on the main square in downtown Healdsburg, immediately next to the swank Healdsburg Hotel.  I met General Manager Dan Prentice last year during an unrelated visit to the hotel last year, and after a fascinating discussion of the restaurant's numerous dining and wine programs, he invited me back to experience them first-hand. 

Where to Watch the World Series

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By Deirdre Bourdet

giantsBaseball.jpgNAPA VALLEY, CA - The Giants are in the World Series! Join fellow fan-atics at these wine country spots to cheer on San Francisco's own orange and black.


Calistoga Inn & Brewery. Beer and baseball are a classic pairing, and this downtown Calistoga bar/restaurant/inn also boasts an award-winning microbrewery, which sells 100% of its beers on the premises. Crispy calamari and buffalo wings rub shoulders with steamed mussels, oysters, shrimp cocktail and Dungeness crab cakes on the appetizer menu, and bring a taste of the bay to northern Napa Valley.

With a pint of local brew and bowl full of seafood, you will be more than set for game time. 1250 Lincoln Avenue, Calistoga.

Last Call for Martini House...

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Martini House sign.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

For nine years, Martini House has been the place for a sophisticated night out in downtown St. Helena.  The romantic garden patio, Pat Kuleto interiors, and semi-secret Cellar Bar offered a comfortable scene for everyone, and chef-owner Todd Humphries' seasonal wine country menu consistently hit the spot in every context.  The restaurant earned a Michelin star in 2008, three stars from the San Francisco Chronicle, and was constantly touted as one of the best special occasion spots in the Napa Valley.  

When the news broke last week that the restaurant had been sold and would be closing October 30, a shock wave of dismay and mourning struck the Bay Area.  Owners Todd Humphries, Pat Kuleto, and Richard Miyashiro have sold Martini House to restaurateurs Brian Bennett and Paul Fleming (a founder of P.F. Chang's and owner of several other successful restaurants), who plan to re-open a new restaurant concept in the Craftsman-style space after a period of closure.  Humphries and Miyashiro are also rumored to be plotting a new restaurant venture, possibly in burgeoning downtown Napa, but Martini House as we know it will be gone at the end of this month.

Oktoberfest in Wine Country

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wineriesofnapavly.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

Just because Napa is known more for its grapes than its beer doesn't mean beer-lovers should look elsewhere for entertainment.  The number of local breweries is growing, and new opportunities to taste beer alongside (or even instead) of wine are popping up all around, just in time for October. 

The Wineries of Napa Valley tasting room next to the Visitor Center launched downtown Napa's first beer tasting bar at the end of September.  The casual tasting counter (separate from the wine tasting counter for permitting reasons) offers five Northern California artisanal brews on tap, available by the pint for $5 each, or as part of a tasting flight of four, for $8.  The current lineup includes Racer 5 IPA from Bear Republic Brewery, Blue Star wheat beer and Scrimshaw pilsner from North Coast Brewing Company, Boont Amber Ale from Anderson Valley Brewing Company, and an organic California Blonde Ale from Eel River Brewing Company in Humboldt County.  I'm hard pressed to imagine anything more refreshing after a long day of wine tasting than a flight of these effervescent local beauties. 

Calistoga's Michelin Star at the Bar

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solbar3.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

I love dining at restaurant bars.  Your server is hardly ever out of reach, there is always something to watch (the bartender, neighboring patrons, the liquor bottles), and the meal experience is far more flexible and forgiving than at a traditional table in the dining room.  Dining alone, ordering plates to share, or ordering just dessert is all perfectly acceptable when you're seated at the bar--and if it isn't, you know you're at the wrong bar.  Dining at the bar also lets visitors to high-end places feel out a restaurant's style without reservations, and with less formality.  When a Michelin-starred restaurant has bar dining, those are the seats I beeline for without a thought to reservations.

The New School of Fish on the Napa River

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Lobster Roll.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

The City of Napa straddles the Napa River, once a plentiful source of Chinook salmon, steelhead trout, bass, and sturgeon.  Although the river's edible bounty has diminished with human development of the area, the recent wave of seafood restaurants opening along both banks is restoring some of the river's former glory as the place to go for delicious fish.

Morimoto Napa led the way when it opened in the Riverfront building in August this year, bringing Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto's deft and respectful style of seafood preparation.  Pristine freshness, creative compositions, and sophisticated flavors make this the go-to restaurant for sushi lovers in the North Bay.  (See our previous coverage here.)

Family-Style Dinners at Farmstead

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Photo by Kristen Loken
By Deirdre Bourdet

While some say the recession has officially ended, the focus on back-to-basics, close to home recession specials continues, unabated.  Farmstead Restaurant in St. Helena recently launched a series of moderately priced, family-style dinners aimed at starting some new monthly traditions for this fall.   Whether you're a fan of fish fries, intimate winemaker dinners, or whole hog roasts, Farmstead has a dinner for you.  And as always at Farmstead, the ingredients for these dinners are entirely local, sourced from nearby purveyors and from Long Meadow Ranch itself.  

Where to Lunch in the City of Napa

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By Deirdre Bourdet

For many, fall means back to school, back to work, and a brutal reality check to the hedonism and decadence of summertime.  In wine country, though, autumn ushers in harvest party season and every excuse you need to keep on keeping on with that summertime spirit--even if only for a day.  

The City of Napa's location at the southernmost portion of the valley makes it an ideal destination for busy folks on a shorter leash.  With about 20 tasting rooms and one working winery (Twenty Rows) within city limits, visitors no longer need to rely solely on Carneros wineries for their wine tasting needs.  And with a slew of excellent restaurants serving lunch on the weekends, Napa is fully equipped for an afternoon of deliciousness.

French Laundry Alum Does Takeout

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tunasalad.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

The French Laundry stands for many things... culinary perfectionism, wine country elegance, technical rigor, epicurean prestige, pristine ingredients, and the elusiveness of dinner reservations.  This August, a former French Laundry chef launched a more accessible form of culinary talent in the Oxbow Public Market.  

Graham Zanow and his wife Andrea are both graduates of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park.  Andrea hails from Napa originally, so after several years of private chef-ing and other cooking jobs in various places, they settled in Napa and started Graham's Catering, an elite full service catering company with a passion for local and sustainable products. Last year the company catered meals for the Top Chef crew of celebrity judges, contestants, and crew members during the season 6 finale in Napa Valley, and this year, they opened a take-out storefront at the Oxbow Public Market.

Best Bets For Brunch in Napa

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By Deirdre Bourdet

I'm a firm believer in the classic mom maxim that breakfast is the most important meal of the day--particularly if your day begins in Napa.  Lining the stomach against all-day wine tasting, and feeding the brain in order to remember what you've experienced are both essential for optimal enjoyment of this food and wine paradise. Here are some of the best places in Napa proper to begin your taste adventure.

Domo Arigato, Mister Morimoto

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morimoto1.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

To the collective delight of sushi lovers in wine country (and really, the entire state of California), Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto opened the doors of his first west coast restaurant in downtown Napa this July.  From what I can tell the place has been packed every night since it opened... including the random Wednesday evening I finally made it there to sample some of the Iron Chef's creations.

New Staples For The Wine Country Kitchen

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hazcarmchard.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

I love discovering new "gourmet" products, particularly those that present ingredients I adore in exciting and different propositions. While some might say New York City is the best place to find envelope-pushing food products, California wine country is no slouch, either... and unlike NYC, most of our products are actually made in this state, too.  Not convinced?  Consider these epicurean wonders of wine country, which have recently seduced their way into my pantry:

Auberge du Soleil, Terrace des Délices

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aubergeOutsideDining.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

The terrace seating at Auberge du Soleil is an institution. Not simply for the people-watching possibilities, or for the ultra-romantic setting, or for the impeccable Relais & Chateaux service, or even for the perfectly executed and perfectly delicious cuisine from chef Robert Curry.  Dining on the Auberge terrace is special because it offers all of these in one spectacular place--and that's the reason it belongs on the bucket list of everyone who loves the wine country.

Peachy Summer Sweets

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By Deirdre Bourdet

NAPA, CA - All too frequently, people complain that it's too hot to eat dessert. While I'd agree that a chunk of bread pudding is probably the last thing I would choose to end a meal in 90+ degree heat, there are tons of refreshing sweet finales to be had around the Valley at this time of year--and many of them involve peaches, my favorite summertime fruit.

Tomato Time

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By Deirdre Bourdet

Anyone raised eating hydroponically grown tomatoes year round must, at some point in their life, attend a tomato event in an agricultural community. Conveniently, August and September bring with them numerous opportunities to taste the ubiquitous fruit in its full seasonal glory.

The first sign of tomato season is the return of Azzurro Pizzeria's locally-beloved BBLT manciata--a perfectly seasoned thin pizza crust served hot out of the oven, and topped with a mountain of bacon, blue cheese, iceberg lettuce, and tomato.  Hot, cold, salty, juicy, creamy, crunchy, meaty, cheesy, and 100% delicious, the cult following of this dish is explained with your first bite.

Summer Lunching in Yountville

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diningalfresco.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

The glorious Napa Valley summer has arrived, bringing day after day of perfect sunshine, and a compulsive, irresistible urge to lunch al fresco.  Downtown Yountville offers one of the highest concentrations of outdoor dining spots in the whole valley, all within an easy walk of one another, and all with their own brand of wine country charm.

At the north end of Washington Street, the Hotel Luca's Italianate stone archway opens onto a serene courtyard patio with fountains, lounge seating, and the delightful Cantinetta Piero.  Seasonal ingredients, house-cured charcuterie, and rustic lusty flavors capture the spirit of Tuscany with a California accent.   The restaurant's courtyard facing walls open up entirely to the balmy air, allowing even those seated inside to enjoy the weather, while well-placed umbrellas by the terrace tables offer courtyard diners shade from the often searing sun.  To celebrate the arrival of their full bar license, and the indulgent noshing time between lunch and dinner, the restaurant is now offering a Margarita and Margherita promotion.  Between 4 and 6 p.m. during the week, buy any cocktail you like from the bar and score a gorgeous, thin-crust margherita pizza for only $5.  Yes, and yes.
By Deirdre Bourdet

frenchLaundryGardens1.jpgWho doesn't love being let in on a secret? Particularly a secret that involves the magical stuff that The French Laundry puts on its dinner plates. Summer is the perfect time to discover Jacobsen Orchards and Hill Family Farm, the tiny, family-owned, organic farms that sell only to The French Laundry and Bardessono Restaurant.
 
You can walk the Jacobsen Orchard rows, taste and smell the organic peaches, plums, herbs, and esoteric vegetables that are inspiring Thomas Keller this season, and hear all about the history of this farm connection and its golden wares from the godson of the Jacobsens: Ryan Hill.  Ryan will regale you with tales of the Jacobsen Orchard's humble beginnings in the 1970s, when San Franciscans Peter and Gwenny purchased the Yountville land and tiny wooden shack as a country getaway, complete with outdoor shower/garden hose. Their cabin is still there, just across from the larger barn residence brought in several years later, and the fabulous outdoor kitchen that now looks out on the farm rows themselves.

Sonoma Dining Guide

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girlfig.JPGBy Deirdre Bourdet

Sonoma Valley boasts dozens and dozens of restaurants, from tiny holes in the wall to luxurious palaces.  Where to go depends entirely on the kind of ambience and sustenance you're craving.  Here are some suggestions that may speak to your mood next time you're in the area.

The Depot Hotel.  For old-school Italian nostalgia, you must go to the Depot Hotel.  The 19th Century plumstone building is only two blocks off the Sonoma square, but feels sixty years away with its circa 1950s time capsule dining room and outdoor terrace, with fountain and reflecting pool.   Rest assured, however, that the cuisine has evolved since the 1950s.  Chef-owner Michael Ghilarducci is now joined in the kitchen by his son, Antonio, who has worked at such places as The French Laundry, La Folie in San Francisco, Angele in Napa, and El Dorado Kitchen down the street.  The finest local ingredients are prepared in true Italian style--simply, deliciously, and with a minimum of fuss.  The kitchen produces its own pastas, fresh ricotta, and salumi, and also offers regional cooking classes at its Scuola Rustica.  This month is Summer Sardinian Grilling, offered July 26 and 27th.

It's Never Too Hot To Eat

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gougere blt.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

Sunday's Wine Women and Shoes event at HALL St. Helena had the largest, hottest turnout to date... literally.  The temperature felt like it was well into the triple digits, and guests were gulping down the white wine and water like camels at an oasis.  Fortunately, many of the participating food vendors anticipated the fiery June inferno and were dishing out cool, refreshing nibbles to reinvigorate our appetites, help us cool off... and inspire follow-up visits to the kitchens from whence they came.

Several savvy restaurants were offering chilled soup shots to down in between mouthfuls of sauvignon blanc.  The Restaurant at Meadowood offered up elegant shooters of their peak-of-the-season English pea soup with yogurt and hazelnut oil, a beautiful layering of earth, nuts, sweetness, and tang.  Zuzu Restaurant also went green with their avocado gazpacho, a naturally buttery, round and soothing little cold compress for your mouth.  I had to escort myself from the area to avoid stealing all the remaining samples from Betty Teller of the Register, who was womanning Zuzu's table that afternoon.

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.

Napa Farmers' Market Newcomers

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napa farmers market.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

Farmers' market season has begun in Napa, and each week the number of tents and shoppers in the Oxbow Market parking lot seems to grow.  In addition to the perennial favorites, like Rodriguez Farm strawberries, Model Bakery pastries, and the Bolani people's bolanis and sauce, this season I'm drawn to a couple of relative newcomers with fabulous, unique wares on which to feed.

Seasonal Wine Country Produce

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By Deirdre Bourdet

To Pea, Or Not To Pea... Right now in California, that is no question.  Plump English peas are at their peak, sweet, fresh and vibrantly green.  They taste of spring and sunshine, and because of their brief window of perfection, they should be ordered on sight.

Fortunately, wine country restaurants tend to do more with the peas than classic (and aptly named) English "mushy peas."  Many gorgeous and delicious creations await those who aren't afraid of a little green vegetable in their diet.

Go West, Young Gourmand

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uptown-theater.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

According to my friend Chris (@NapaChris on twitter), a New York Times reporter stopped in to his tasting room last week as part of an upcoming piece on Napa's developing  "West End" district.  Pretentious name aside, national coverage is well deserved.  This part of town has some of the best--and best priced--foodie fun Napa has to offer.

I don't know how the Times is planning to define the region, but I'd say the cool stuff is bounded by Seminary Street on the west, 4th Street to the south, Coombs Street to the east, and 1st Street to the north--a small area to be sure, but one that already boasts four note-worthy restaurants, a swanky boutique hotel, a newly renovated historic live music venue, several intensely social art galleries, and two of my favorite tasting rooms in Napa.

C Casa Es Su Casa

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cbistro.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

At last, at long last, C Casa has opened in the Oxbow Public Market in the place formerly occupied by Rotisario.  The rotisserie remains, but the space is otherwise transformed into a warm, contemporary tapas bar feel, with absolutely killer patio seating.  Dark wood, silver hardware, sleek leather seating, and well-placed accent mirrors create an inviting lounge space looking east toward the Copia building and the hills of Alta Heights.  Finally, someone putting the Oxbow's shaded terraces to good use!

Sixteen Ways On Sunday: The HALL Cabernet Cookoff

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hallchef.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

Last Sunday HALL Winery hosted their first annual Cabernet Cookoff, inviting eight professional and eight amateur chef teams to compete for cash donations to their non-profits of choice.  The challenge: create a dish to pair with the 2005 HALL Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, using primarily organic and sustainable ingredients.  After sampling each of the sixteen submissions, accompanied by plenty of the wine in question, guest attendees would cast their votes for the best amateur and best professional teams.

Irish Mouths Are Smiling Too

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irishsodabread.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

Many holidays have their traditional foods, only eaten for the occasion.  Frequently such dishes are... shall we say... less than thrilling, which makes abstention the rest of the year pretty do-able.  But when something is truly fabulous--like champagne, or Easter ham, or Irish soda bread--why wait for the special occasion to enjoy it again? This St. Patrick's Day I faced my baking disability and associated fears head-on, and made soda bread from a recipe developed by Mrs. Mary O'Callaghan in County Clare, Ireland.

Miraculously it turned out great despite my usual compulsive meddling, and reminded me of how incredibly delicious this stuff is.  A few days after St. Patrick's Day, I tested the luck o'the Irish as a half portion, again with the lazy person modifications, and met with even better success because it didn't take as long to bake through (only 40 min).  I can only conclude that this bread recipe is fool-proof.

More Than A One-Tip Wonder

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By Deirdre Bourdet

Asparagus gets a bad rap.  Far too many people think of it as the limp, stringy, soggy, slimy, and stinky green-grey stripes garnishing a "fancy" continental cuisine plate of tastelessness.  But when it's not boiled or steamed beyond all recognition, asparagus has a sweet, unique flavor, a cheery spring color, and fantastic crunch that make it one of the most versatile vegetables out there.  "Continental" cuisine is the appropriate culinary tradition for asparagus only if it refers to Asia, Australia, Africa, and the Americas as well as Europe.  And at this time of year, the spiky green palisades are at the sweet peak of their season, waiting to be rediscovered.

Twice The Hen It Used To Be

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By Deirdre Bourdet

Brunch menus around the Napa Valley are gearing up for spring with a new twist on a breakfast favorite.  Potato hashes are as familiar and time-honored as buttermilk pancakes, but a new species of this staple brunch dish has invaded Napa this year: the chicken hash.

Much like caviar and smoked fish canapes, chicken hash brings together two of the most prized parts of the same animal: eggs and meat.  Unlike its fishy cousin, though, chicken hash also suits these frugal times and makes delicious use of an inexpensive and ubiquitous animal.  Who hasn't got eggs and a piece or two of leftover chicken in their fridge on any given week?  Shredding up those leftovers and mixing them with sautéed potatoes, garlic, and other pantry seasonings of your choice stretches them back into a full plate, and topping them with fried or poached eggs transforms the humble hodgpodge into a thrillingly rich and fabulous indulgence.  Toss in some leftover vegetables, sliced fresh asparagus, mushrooms, arugula, or whatever you've got to bulk up the nutritional value and the portion size, and you're very good to go.  Whether for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, chicken hash rocks.

Pork and Greens

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By Deirdre Bourdet

My brother Andy does a killer pulled pork.  Every time he makes it is cause for celebration... and fevered, uncontrollable gorging by every family member and friend within driving distance.  My brother consistently stuffs himself to the point of needing Mylanta intervention, but thanks to my own iron will and samurai-like discipline, I limit my own consumption level to only slightly over the one-pound mark.  Smoky, succulent, and richly seasoned, it cries out to be stuffed into corn tortillas with mango salsa and cotija cheese... or piled onto little Hawaiian rolls with a dab of barbecue sauce... or shoveled directly from plate to mouth with the assistance of leafy green vegetables.

Save Shroom For My Love

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By Deirdre Bourdet

Winter vegetables are notoriously time consuming and obnoxious to prepare.  Few people are willing to double their usual meal preparation time in order to accommodate the stubborn nature of cold weather veggies.  While I love greens and root vegetables at least as much as the next person, I'm also tremendously lazy and don't like spending every night of my life on the prep work and cooking necessary to transform them into something tasty and tender enough to eat.

Yeti, I Know You...

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yetifrontdoor.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

I'm sure my girlfriend and I are not the only ones who loved that guy on American Idol who auditioned in Atlanta with his original one-man duet lovesong, beginning "La-ty, I know you," in falsetto.  Now I hear that guy every time I hear a word that starts with "lay" or ends with "tee"... or anything remotely similar.  As we strolled under the large Yeti Restaurant sign into the historic sawmill building of the Jack London Village Shops in Glen Ellen, the Atlanta guy was with us.  But the delectable smells wafting up from the open kitchen into the restaurant quickly put to rest any fears of further comparisons to that performance.  Warm spices, creamy curries, and blistering tandoor breads filled the air with their enticing aromas and made it clear that we needed to get to know Yeti, stat.

Restaurant Week Comes To Sonoma February 22-28, 2010

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By Deirdre Bourdet

The tradition of local "restaurant week" promotions dates from the last recession, post dotcom crash, when the nouveaux poor's continued need for high end dining and the high end dining establishments' need for continued business found common ground in a beautiful, prix-fixed way.  New York and San Francisco restaurants enjoyed such success with their Restaurant Week programs that they kept them in place even after fortunes were again flying high.

The Pearl of Great Price

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By Deirdre Bourdet

The Restaurant Pearl has anchored the corner of Franklin and Pearl Streets in downtown Napa for almost fifteen years, and is much beloved by locals with a taste for internationally-inflected wine country cuisine.  The steak soft tacos, the Guerrero-style grilled corn on the cob, and anything and everything seafood on the menu have cult followings.  But as the restaurant name suggests, the oysters are the most unique and fabulous things to eat there...  and the most fabulous time to eat said oysters is in the winter, on a chilly Saturday afternoon during the Oyster Extravaganza.

How To Feed Your Lover

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By Deirdre Bourdet

Valentine's Day is upon us.  Do you know what you're feeding your lover?  

Much has been written about aphrodisiac ingredients, but if your love target doesn't like them--skip 'em.  The key to a romantic dinner is making food that is attractive to the object of your desire, and doesn't weigh either of you down too much.  Definitely choose dishes that inspire the senses through fragrant herbs and spices, exciting textures, beautiful shapes, and addicting flavors, but steer clear of things you know are on their Do Not Eat list. I will never attempt to seduce my partner in crime with lamb, for example, no matter how irresistible and succulent it may sound to me.  Stick to things they like.  With this in mind, here are some tasty ideas for a happy Valentine's Day.
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By Deirdre Bourdet

Most visitors to wine country have experienced at least once the painful desperation of not having enough food in their stomach to carry them through the day's wine tasting agenda.  For people who don't live locally, filling that ravening hole can be an exercise in frustration and financial dismay.  Many restaurants are expensive, and many smaller less expensive eating establishments have strange hours or slow service that don't jibe with a tasting party's urgent need to feed.

Here are a few locals' suggestions for places to fuel up in Napa Valley without breaking the bank:

Yountville's Moveable Feast

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hemmingway.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

Adding to the list of delicious off-season promotions, Yountville continues to buzz with the excitement of the first annual Moveable Feast--a self-styled "Seasonal Gastronomic Gallop" through the town's luxurious lodging, spas, and eateries.  Eleven hotels and ten restaurants have put together value-focused packages and prix fixes to lure visitors into the charming little foodie mecca.

Most participating restaurants offer either a massively discounted prix fixe menu (about $24-25 per person for lunch, $28-55 for dinner) or a special price on some of their greatest hits.  Bouchon Bakery hands away free chocolate bouchons with the purchase of any coffee, while Bouchon Bistro next door promotes its late-night scene after 10:00p.m.with a $20 two-course supper of oysters or French onion soup, and croque madame sandwich.  Bistro Jeanty offers one dollar oysters and foie blond paté during happy hour Monday through Thursday (3:30-6:30pm).

Homard Homage

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By Deirdre Bourdet

Lobster is a luscious, decadent food. From lobster rolls to lobster ravioli, the crustacean's rich flavor, meaty texture, and affinity for butter make it universally desirable. Unfortunately for us non-New Englanders, lobsters' high cost tends to keep them in the realm of the special occasion foods. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, though, and I'd venture to say that our lust for lobster is more intense than the Mainers', and our delight in devouring it much greater.

Wine country restaurants give the traditional lobster preparations a creative California twist, making the crustacean even more special, and even more compatible with the local wines.

A Super Bowl of Chili

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By Deirdre Bourdet

It's that time of year to gather up your friends, stock the beer (or wine) fridge, turn on the TV, and sit around eating manly foods like salty meats, spicy meats, fatty meats, and fried stuff.  Yes indeed, the Super Bowl is upon us! The need for satisfyingly unhealthy ways to feed the ravening crowds is mounting.  But what to do if yucky weather makes barbecuing meat out of the question?  Opt for the indoor sports food of choice, one that combines fatty, salty, meaty, rich, and crunchy in endless permutations, all in a single bowl... chili con carne.

Hail Mauro, Full Of Grace

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2010-01-15 21.13.11.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

I love to be surprised.  The opening of a real Thai restaurant in downtown Napa made my month.  Further surprises in the Napa restaurant department seemed unlikely, especially given that the other two new places opening in town were both angling for local-friendly comfort food--by definition, not the stuff surprises are made of.   The endless hordes thronging Norman Rose Tavern for quality burgers and fried chicken every night shock no one.  But the discovery of another solid, interesting, and reasonably priced eatery just a block away--with no wait--totally made my weekend.

The Plight of The Cab-Drinker

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By Deirdre Bourdet

One of the biggest challenges facing a fan of cabernet sauvignon is finding foods that stand up to their bold and brawny wine. Unless you subsist entirely on red meats, you have no doubt noticed cab's tendency to overwhelm or clash with more delicate flavors and textures, particularly vegetables or white meats and fish.  Does this mean that you can never enjoy a glass of cab with these kinds of meals?  Of course not.  It just means you need to be more creative about bridging the gap between them.

Here are a few pointers on making your food more compatible with cabernet:

Cognac, Your New Best Friend

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By Deirdre Bourdet

I'm not a brown liquor kind of girl, but cognac has a special place in my heart and kitchen pantry.  Soups, vegetables, cheeses, meats, desserts--virtually anything you're cooking ascends to a higher plane when kissed with cognac.

Many people have had cognac cream sauce with steak. Many people have had cognac with lobster and crayfish, either as a bisque or in the shellfish sauce.  But few people in the states have enjoyed cognac-macerated prunes the way the Europeans do.  In France, pruneaux-Armagnac is a classic and much beloved ice cream flavor made with--yep, Armagnac and prunes.  This combo also finds its way into other desserts with regularity... not surprisingly.

Where the Kiwi Is Not a Fruit

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mussels.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

Cold January weather and my nearly depleted stock of suitcase wines make my thoughts return to New Zealand, where it is currently high summer and the oh-so-drinkable "savvy" (kiwi slang for sauvignon blanc) is flowing like water.  I spent two gluttonous weeks there last September, eating and drinking my way from Auckland in the north to Napier in the east, then to the south island through Marlborough and Waipara, and down to Christchurch.  It was pure hedonistic bliss.

Neither Here Nor Gruyère

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By Deirdre Bourdet

My obsession with fresh goat cheeses often keeps me from buying any other kind.  Chèvre is so delicious on its own, so versatile in cooking, so hardy when forgotten in the refrigerator--I forget that another cheese also boasts all of these characteristics--and looks and tastes entirely, refreshingly, different.

Tavern of Burgery Delights

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burger1.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

The much-anticipated Norman Rose Tavern opened with a bang at the end of December, with crowds out the door and throngs around the bar.  No one expected any less for a new restaurant from the folks behind the deservedly and wildly popular Pizzeria Azzurro just a few blocks away.

The Tavern is the first restaurant open for business in the new Napa Square Building, in a quickly upscaling section of First Street in downtown Napa. It bills itself as offering "elevated American classics" like big chopped salads, fried chicken sandwiches, all-beef hot dogs from Fatted Calf, mashed potatoes, french fries, and of course... cheeseburgers.

Bacon, Sweet Mystery of Life

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francisnbacon.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

Sweet-savory desserts are now a way of life, it seems.  But for many, the most exciting (if borderline disturbing) sweet creations are those that incorporate the incomparable flavor of pork.  Bacony sweets were once the exclusive realm of the molecular gastronomists, who put bacon ice cream in soup with a slow poached egg in preparations designed as much to shock as to delight the taste buds.  The current generation of porked out sweets, though, seem to be taking a more natural approach that I think will be better received than the chocolate-bacon truffles of yesteryear.

Eating for Luck in the New Year

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By Deirdre Bourdet

New Year's is a time for renewed energy, and renewed hope for a brighter future...given a bit of luck. Small wonder then that most of the world sets the New Year's table with dishes designed to maximize their good fortune in the coming year. Lucky colors, lucky animals, and vegetables that look like money are all welcomed to the party. Here are some ideas to make 2010 the best year yet.

The Gift of Ganache

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By Deirdre Bourdet

Ganache is magically delicious.  Cream + chocolate = sweet perfection, in a preternaturally versatile combination.  The same basic ganache recipe (equal weight boiling cream and chopped dark chocolate) works equally well poured hot over ice cream sundaes as it does chilled in truffle form, or as a thick layer of decadent frosting on a chocolate lover's cake.  And, because hot cream is so easily infused with other flavors, making ganache taste like your favorite herb, spice, or other flavor is one of the most impressive, no-talent-necessary kitchen tricks in the world.

Being a bit of a culinary thrill-seeker, I take advantage of Christmas gifting season to experiment with new ganache infusions.  Last year my friends got jasmine tea, salted caramel, and fresh thyme-meyer lemon zest truffles.  This year it's chipotle, earl grey, and rosemary-parmesan.  It's pretty hard to go wrong with cream and chocolate, so be bold... and maybe start with a small batch. I've found 6 ounces cream and 6 ounces chocolate tends to be a good experimental size.

Mini Bistro, Mega Delicious

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mini mango kitchen shot.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

Mini Mango Thai Bistro opened this month in the downtown space last occupied by Bleaux Magnolia, and judging by the packed house and fifteen minute wait last Friday night, Napa's Asian food fans have already heard about it.  The place is indeed mini, as the majority of the seating at that location is outside on the fabulous (seasonal) patio.  But in a commendable show of restraint, the new tenants have not festooned the tiny indoor space with diminutive mangoes as you might expect from the name.  The look, like the cuisine, is minimalist and contemporary, with nary a mango in sight.

Cold-Weather Dining Deals

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By Deirdre Bourdet

Winter is traditionally the off-season in wine country, though it's always been one of my favorite times to visit. Besides the lack of crowds, cold weather brings out local warmth and a slew of discounted activities and menus.

Here are two restaurant deals that should not be missed this year:

Truffling Toward Ecstasy

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By Deirdre Bourdet

My butterlust is only exceeded by my passion for truffles. Funky, mysterious, and mind-blowingly delicious, a single taste of the real thing will alter your life forever.

Needless to say, I've had La Toque's black truffle dinners in my calendar as soon as the start date was announced, and am now counting down to January 8, 2010 with breathless anticipation.

Holiday Hors d'Oeuvres

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smoked oysters.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

Smoked Oysters with Fennel and Lemon

(approx. 4-6 hors d'oeuvre servings)
Rediscover the retro magic of smoked oysters! The dressing is highly acidic so you don't want the oysters to sit in it too long, or it will ruin their luscious texture.

Let's Get This Party Started

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cheesePlatter.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

Holiday meals are the stuff that memories are made of.  Ritualistic dishes, predictable (and often dreaded) guest lists, a stressed out hostess, and the inevitable family drama combine for pure holiday magic. Whether you are just beginning to establish some edible traditions, or seeking desperately to add a new twist to the rote and routine, punchy autumn appetizers offer a fun and memorable way to jump start the party.

Hors d'oeuvres don't have to be elaborate or fussy. You can build any number of fabulous little taste explosions using a few key ingredients and some creative flavor combinations. 

Here are my tips for appetizer success:

'Tis the Season... for Olives

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By Deirdre Bourdet

The start of olive season always gets me excited because it means olio nuovo is here--the bright green, fresh out of the press, creamy and practically alive-tasting oil. It's the first, freshest extra virgin oil from a crush and it only keeps its magic for a short time, making it an elusive commodity. I love to finish salads or fish with a drizzle of the stuff, or just set out a dish with good bread and sea salt for one of the simplest and most delicious snacks ever... more than worthy of a quality bottle of vino to wash it down.

Foodie's Holiday Wish List

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By Deirdre Bourdet

cheeseKnifeSet.jpgMy family insists that I am difficult to buy gifts for, due to my extremely personal and subjective taste (aka "pickiness") when it comes to clothing and the like.  I remind them annually that it's actually very simple to get me something I will love - as long as it relates to food or wine (or is in fact food or wine), doesn't clutter up my cabinets and counters, and doesn't dominate my kitchen aesthetic, I'm a happy camper.  In this vein, I offer you some suggestions for the picky foodie in your family, virtually guaranteed to please those who love to cook and eat:

(1) Laguiole 3-Piece Cheese Knife Set 
Laguiole is still the gold standard for cheese service knives, and for good reason.  The traditional design is classic, elegant, but also sleekly modern.  And the knives are fantastic: a razor-sharp cleaver for the hardy mountain cheeses, a short rounded spreader for the soft stuff, and versatile long blade with pointed tip to spear that hunk of camembert you've just sheared off.  Gorgeous and functional, these knives are welcomed everywhere they go.  

Buena Vista, Bueno Gusto

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BVC_Ramal+Vineyard+Estate_Windmill.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

As an incorrigibly food-obsessed individual, my favorite wine tastings are those that involve snacks as part of the experience. I was recently invited to visit Buena Vista Carneros to try their current releases and check out their Carneros Room tasting, the food and wine pairing program offered to visitors on Saturday mornings.

Cooking With Wine

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When You Actually Put It In the Food

By Deirdre Bourdet

Some may consider the deliberate pouring of wine into anything other than a drinking vessel or eager mouth a shameful, wasteful act.  While I see their point, wine-based cooking also happens to be one of the most delicious, easy, and traditional techniques for creating wine-friendly food.  A splash of red to deglaze your meat searing pan, a dash of white to loosen up those all-too-quickly browning onions, and you've suddenly added worlds of flavor, depth, and sophistication to your creation.
 
Then there are the truly wine-based recipes (coq au vin, boeuf bourguignon, moules marinière, etc.) where the wine takes center stage.  Typically there is a great deal of reduction involved--simmering the wine with other ingredients to concentrate flavor and reduce the volume of liquid to a thicker, more sauce-like consistency.  These recipes make you confront the question of which bottle to use head-on, because the quality of the wine reduction really sets the tone of the dish.

Formule de Fig

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fig+front[1].jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

I love prix-fixe menus, and wish more restaurants outside of Europe embraced the concept. There is something very satisfying about walking into a restaurant and having the whole meal just brought to you without instruction, all thought out and planned and decided by the chefs. So obviously, when the girl and the fig invited me to come check out their Bistro Plat du Jour prix fixe, I jumped at the chance.

The New Napa Tippling Points

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The Border Michelada.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

Recession-special happy hours are still popping up at a fabulous pace, even though the recession tide has turned and is (officially) over.  Downtown Napa recently added a couple of new and exciting options for happy hour tippling, besides Pica Pica Bar with its fab $3 drinks and ceviche.

Pumpkin Lovin

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Pumpkin Cupcake Karas 3.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

This time of year you can't turn around without a pumpkin or nine staring you in the face. Every storefront has trotted out at least ten or twelve for the window display, and the Stanly Ranch Pumpkin Patch is rockin' and rollin' with its hay bale maze, giant sunflowers, and pumpkins of every size and color. Though the decorative pumpkin frenzy will die down after Halloween, the edible pumpkin bandwagon is just getting going in wine country. It's one of my favorite seasons for sweets.

Spooky Salsa

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Ceja Tasting Rm2.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

In keeping with their reputation as the first family of fun, the Cejas are throwing a Halloween bash this year in their downtown tasting bar. This means far more than special pricing on the wine... though there will be by the glass discounts and a healthy 30% off all their bottles for the evening, including those to take home. No, Halloween with the Cejas means music, passion, drama, and dancing.

We Got the Beet

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beetBurger.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

The avalanche of autumn produce in our markets is a sure sign that fall is here, notwithstanding some freak summer flashback days. Pumpkins, squashes, apples, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, and beets of every color beckon with their earthy sweetness and sexy dark green leaves.

Like everyone else I hated the canned beets of my childhood, but I've since grown to love the silken texture, rich flavor, and eye-popping colors of the real deal. Beet greens also rank among my favorite leafy green vegetables of all time, but only appear in good shape in fall and winter. Easy to clean and quick-cooking, they taste like a more tender, earthier version of chard. Since you typically get the beet greens for free with the beetroot, a bunch of beets is also one of the best produce deals out there.

Back Room Battle

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Back Room Wines 10.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

The film Bottle Shock tells the tale of the 1976 "Judgment of Paris," where California wines beat out their French counterparts in a widely publicized blind tasting.  This week in Napa, three local merlots go head to head against three from Bordeaux at Back Room Wines' Thursday night tasting event. It won't be blind, but it will be delicious.

Pica Your Poison...

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Pica-Pica-bar2.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

Pica Pica Bar has opened in Napa's Oxbow Public Market! I was delighted enough to hear that they would be serving ceviche with wine and beer, but news of their ridiculously awesome happy hour made me make haste to the comfortable leather bar stools at the south end of the Oxbow building. From 3-6pm on weekdays, all alcoholic drinks (white or red sangria, most of the ten draft beers, Venezuelan-style fruit juices called batidos, and your choice of red, white or rose wine) are $3, and a varied assortment of ceviches and corn arepa "sliders" are also yours for the same price.

Butter is Forever

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By Deirdre Bourdet

Most ingredients go in and out of style, depending on the latest health craze or foodie fad. This doesn't of course affect their deliciousness, or deter the converted from continuing to use the items in our own cooking once they have fallen out of fashion with the rest of America.

So I'm sure I wasn't the only one whose heart soared when Julie & Julia hit the silver screen this year, trumpeting the timeless and unparalleled glory of butter to audiences near and far. Sweet vindication! I almost cheered at the scene where Julie sets a pound of butter in front of Julia's portrait in the Smithsonian.

Open Studios, Open Mouths

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short_season_.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

The sensory delight of Napa Open Studios begins September 19th. What better way to celebrate wine country's artists than with local wines and nibbles?

Although many venues are hosting special events, the offbeat G Studio in the upstairs of an old factory in Napa lets visitors meet the artists and their creations in the actual studio space where they work. The resident artists include Kate Salenfriend, Reuben Godinez, Katie Roberts, Deb Lubin, and glass maven Patti Wessman, whose fabulous tableware designs look straight out of that sexy wine country restaurant you've been dying to visit. Visiting artists Yvonne Henry, Heather King and Nancy Shapiro join the party for Open Studios this year. Walk around and chat with these crazy colorful characters about their inspiration as you sip seriously good wine (Bennett Lane, Bighorn, Tres Sabores, and many others), enjoy the late summer light streaming in the windows, and ponder the beauty of life.

Five Fun Things in Downtown Healdsburg

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healdsburgmarket2.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

(1) Healdsburg Farmer's Market.
One of the most famous farmers' markets in the Bay Area is mere steps from the square. Unusual heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables grown by local farmers are only the beginning... local cheeses, meats, seafood, and breads round out the offerings and make it clear you are in a very delicious place.

Healdsburg Farmer's Market
Tuesday evenings and Saturday mornings (check website for seasonal closure)
North and Vine Streets, Healdsburg
707-431-1956

The Bread from Ipanema

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cheesebread.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

A wave of anti-gluten sentiment is washing over wine country... everywhere you look, foods trumpet their gluten-free status, chefs dole out gluten-free recipes, and South American-Americans hawk their pão de queijo.

I first encountered Brazilian cheese bread at the Napa's farmers' market, where Alex Fochi of Sampas was handing out samples of her company's miniature versions behind a huge GLUTEN FREE banner. She makes her pão de queijo the size of Swedish meatballs or Asian fish balls, perfect for wine tasting snacks... or really any kind of snack. The traditional tapioca flour in pão de queijo means there is no gluten in the finished product, although the "bread" is puffy and chewy and much like a tender pizza crust in snack form. Since the cheese is completely incorporated into the dough, every mouthful has a smooth, sensual texture worthy of the Brazilian title. Napa-based Sampas does both the traditional plain (cheese) version, as well as rotating weekly specials like roasted garlic or black olive.

Perfect Patios

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williseafood.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

The heat is on! And few things are more glorious than summer dining alfresco in wine country. I offer only three recommendations here because there are far too many fabulous patios than I can do justice to in the space permitted.

Willi's Seafood & Raw Bar just off Healdsburg's main square has a blissfully shaded garden patio on which to sample their delectable and different small plates. Tuna tartare--normally a snore-inducing must-skip item for me--goes in an entirely new and awesome direction here with cashews and slivered chilies in a cool coconut milk sauce, served atop crispy taro chips. Pumpkin seed-cilantro pesto takes bacon-wrapped scallops to new levels of delicious depravity. If it hits triple digits on the patio, move inside to the bar and have Bob the bartender (or one of his compatriots) cool you down with a cucumber martini.

Summer Love

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By Deirdre Bourdet

Summer romances are as old as time, and like clockwork, I find myself falling in love every year around this time. I speak of course of fresh salmon.

Nothing says summer more enticingly than a huge piece of barbecued wild salmon, charred and smoky from the grill, its succulent pearlescent flesh crying out to be devoured. Unless you consider sweet and toothsome and absolutely impossible-to-say-no-to grilled corn on the cob... ; or the intoxicating fragrance of farm-fresh heirloom tomatoes seducing the unwary into $30 salads... or hunks of cold watermelon so juicy that you need a napkin just to think about putting a piece in your mouth.

Seasonal Snackage

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By Deirdre Bourdet

Harvest 2009 is underway in Napa, meaning that the harvest party season is officially upon us. And that of course calls for celebration.

I am a staunch believer that when it comes to entertaining, simple is best. My favorite kind of dinner party is actually the all-appetizer sort, because (1) appetizers are typically the most interesting part of a meal; (2) the host can get all the preparation done in advance and never has to tear herself away from the party to clear dishes or prep the next course; (3) people can snack continuously all evening; and (4) sensational market-driven starters are a snap to make, especially this time of year.

In Memoriam: Ubuntu's Strawberry Sofrito Pizza

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strawberry sofrito sandwich.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

Napa recently experienced a sudden, tragic, and devastating loss... Ubuntu took its strawberry sofrito pizza off the dinner menu. In my humble opinion, this dish showcased all the best qualities of the restaurant: uber-local organic ingredients, creatively prepared, internationally inspired, and perfectly executed. Who else would think to combine Napa's famous summer strawberries with onions and garlic, slow cook the mixture in olive oil for three days to a sweet, savory, caramelized nirvana, and then spread it on a thin-crust pizza with fresh burrata and pine nuts? It was bliss, and I was in love.

What to Drink With That Junk Food?

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sherry and reeses.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

I recently attended a Women for Winesense event focused on pairing wines with ethnic cuisines, since most Americans these days eat some form of international cuisine as part of their weekly diet. Great idea, but what do you do when you're trying to rustle up a drink to go with your all-unnatural, luxuriously salty, and heart-stopping fatty favorite junk foods? For better or worse, American junk food is forever, and it seems more and more people are trying to find ways to enjoy wine with our nation's bad for the body, good for the soul contribution to international cuisine. Some fast food restaurants will soon be offering wine with your burgers and deep fried tortilla-wrapped gut bombs, so it's time for some experimentation. Here are some suggestions to try.

Redd-y for Action

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redds.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

I'd heard that Redd's bar has quite a scene, but I couldn't quite believe it until I showed up on a Monday night to standing room only. The two guys next to me were trying to pick up their to-go order (and whoever else would tag along), the newlyweds on my other side were toasting themselves and making lifelong friends with anyone who'd hold still long enough, and Patrick the St. Louis sommelier was charming his way into everyone's evening with his seductive beverage list and bedroom eyes.

A Cheese For All Seasons

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By Deirdre Bourdet


Shopping for cheese can test the endurance of even the most food-obsessed.  The typical modern cheese counter has so many delicious options from so many interesting places, with flavors and textures and shapes all over the map.  And yet, when it comes down to identifying the cheese that is always in my fridge  at home, the cheese I can eat straight out of the packaging and also serve gussied up with fresh herbs and truffle honey when company unexpectedly drops by, the choice is surprisingly easy.  Fresh chèvre is my go-to.

 

nealandicecream.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

It is time to shine the harsh light of investigative journalism on the mysterious Three Twins operation and their "inconceivably delicious" ice cream.

First shocking revelation: the three Twins are not genetically related, nor do two of them share a body. Neal and Carl Gottlieb are just twin brothers from Marin, and Liz is Carl's wife (and another twin). Neal is the tall, curly-haired twin who started and runs the business. Carl let Neal live with him and Liz as the ice cream dream was taking flight, thus inspiring the company's inconceivable name. (FYI, Carl also inspired an unofficial, off-the-menu sundae that involves a great deal of chocolate sauce... ask for it at the San Francisco store.)

Huitlacoche: It's What's For Dinner

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The Border huitlacoche quesadilla plate.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

I am a truffle fiend. And while not technically a truffle from the Tuber genus, huitlacoche--aka the Mexican corn truffle--definitely has enough funky, truffly sex appeal to make me happy. (Plus, its other English name is corn smut, which makes me smirk every time I hear it.)

Mexicans consider huitlacoche a delicacy and eat it in a variety of dishes, but most American corn farmers do their best to keep it from showing up in their crops. Huitlacoche is the black, squishy, and disgusting-looking tumescent manifestation of a plant fungus on corn kernels. Not coincidentally, perhaps, the most common restaurant preparations involve hiding the huitlacoche from view... in tamales, quesadillas, soups. I once had an amazing pizza in Mexico that proudly kept the evil-looking fungus front and center--but honestly if there hadn't been neon orange and green zucchini blossoms sharing the stage, I'm not sure I could have eaten it every day like I did.

I Nduja Tonight

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boccalone nduja.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

Hot summer nights call for sexy music and spicy company... enter nduja, everybody's favorite spreadable salame. Assertive, tender, musky, and exotic, it's everything you're looking for, and you can spread it on a cracker too.

Nduja, pronounced "en-DOO-yah"(not "NOOD-jah," as I was hoping) is a traditional cured pork salumi product that originates from Calabria, the "toe" region of Italy. The name derives from the French andouille, which is another type of spiced pork sausage bearing only a faint resemblance to nduja.

A domestic version of this Calabrian classic is now making Americans swoon, thanks to Chris Cosentino (of Incanto restaurant fame) and his Oakland-based artisanal charcuterie business, Boccalone. Cosentino's nduja features a unique, almost rillettes-like texture, hints of sour orange and smoke, plus plenty of heat from a variety of chilies that also lend the meat a fiery red hue. The salted meat and spices are fermented, lightly smoked, and dehydrated only enough to firm up the exterior casing, leaving the inside enticingly soft.

Egg on your face

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pizza_egg.jpegBy Deirdre Bourdet

Has anyone actually used this expression in the last thirty years? Kind of a shame it's not more commonly heard, as I am a staunch believer that we could always use more ways to say we look foolish or ridiculous, and more opportunities to eat dishes with egg on them. Toast and salads are just the beginning--in Australia I hear they top hamburgers with a fried egg, like a cooked riff on steak tartare. In France, and now increasingly here as well, you see pizzas crowned with runny-yolked eggs. If you've not yet experienced this combination, your life is empty and meaningless. Get thee to a pizzeria immediately.

Pizza and Pinot

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estate.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

A $10 dinner with wine in a wine country restaurant is like a unicorn--beautiful, magical, fun to think about, but totally a mythical beast... or at least that used to be the case.  I can now say with certainty that such an animal exists, every night, AND you can sit outside by a fireplace to enjoy it.  

Estate is Sondra Bernstein's latest restaurant project in the old General Daughter's location just a few blocks west of the Sonoma square. The restaurant offers up some seriously well-priced California-inflected Italian cuisine, and the Pizza and Pinot special is perhaps the best example of the restaurant's bicultural offerings.  Every night, and all day Saturday and Sunday, the bar menu features your choice of pizza with a glass of featured pinot grigio or pinot noir... for ten dollars. Total.  

Napastille Day at the Oxbow Market

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bastille_day.jpgLiberte, Egalite, Block Parté

by Deirdre Bourdet

'Tis the season of Independence Day celebrations, and Francophiles in the Napa area will be fête-ing le quatorze juillet (aka Bastille Day) at the Oxbow Market - this year. Live music, dancing, games, and--bien sûr--a wide variety of frenchy food specials will celebrate 220 years of Gallic freedom in appropriately hedonistic style.

Starting at noon, Toni Cordioli and his Accordion Gang will roam the market and transport you to Paris, only without the b.o. and pushy donation collection. Cooper masters from Nadalie USA will be there from 2-6 to demonstrate the fine art of barrel-making--an entirely different kind of French toast we rarely get to see.

Coup de Coeur à Bordeaux

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La Tupina cepes and Fronsac.jpgby Deirdre Bourdet

What, who, or where is a must-see on a trip to Bordeaux? According to a former colleague of mine, a cozy little restaurant called La Tupina. A quick perusal of their website revealed that this 30 year old + establishment prides itself on simple, classic bordelais specialties, prepared with the finest local ingredients and a hefty dose of nostalgic passion. When I read that French president Nicolas Sarkozy had also lunched there on his recent visit to the city, I figured there really was something to this place, and cut out early from Vinexpo's lunacy to see for myself.

Incredibly, on a day when 50,000 wine industry members had overtaken the city, I walked in without a reservation at the height of the lunch hour and scored a prime table on their terrace. Even more incredibly, I also scored a very amiable and helpful waiter... yes, they do exist in France.

Indulgence Within Reach

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bounty_hunter_winebar.jpegby Deirdre Bourdet

Far more could be said about the positive aspects of the recession than would fit on this blog, so I'll limit this discussion to some of the incredible discounts available these days on Napan indulgences.

One of my personal favorites is the all-day Monday happy hour at Bounty Hunter, where the entire stable of "house" brands is two-for-one by the glass... including the Waypoint Vineyards Beckstoffer/To Kalon wines, normally $20 a pop.  If you can make it in between 3 and 6 p.m.  on the other weekdays, the same deal applies.  Consider adding a "mini" barbecue sampler plate heaped with pulled pork, brisket, ribs, and coleslaw to your tab, and you've basically got dinner and two glasses of killer wine for $35.

Deirdre's Top 5 Oxbow Market Snacks

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cupcake.jpgby Deirdre Bourdet

For those of you who love food emporiums as much as I do, here is my list of the top five things to hit on an eating romp through Napa's Oxbow Public Market.  Warning: may be habit forming.

The Best Shrimp Tacos north of Baja...

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La Taquiza sign.jpg

By Deirdre Bourdet

Who knew they would turn up in a suburban shopping plaza just off Highway 29 in Napa? Or that they would be offered alongside fabulous mushroom quesadillas and scarily good grilled octopus burritos?

La Taquiza is a gem. Though the restaurant name suggests that the fish tacos are the can't be missed signature item, do not be misled. Shrimp is the way to go here. Perfectly grilled to order, juicy, succulent shrimp, to be specific, buried under fresh shredded cabbage, pico de gallo, salsa verde, and a luxurious dollop of crema. All you need to attain nirvana is to anoint them with your condiments of choice--pickled onions, more pico de gallo, and/or one of the housemade salsas, as you prefer--and lift the Mexican masterpiece to your lips.

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