Oenotri, Napa, CA: Fidei with Smoked Mackerel, Tomato, Cream, Shellfish Brodo, and Hot Pepper
Fidei is essentially capellini pasta, commonly seen in the Ligurian region of Italy, often paired with that other specialty of Liguria: pesto. Curtis Di Fede and Tyler Rodde create some of the most innovative pastas anywhere, and none more so than this incredible dish. Think of the most vivid seafood broth of a bouillabaisse in Marseille, enhanced for some structure by cream and tomato. Flakes of fishy but not overly so smoked mackerel are strewn about the fidei, perfectly complimenting the oceanic voice of the broth. Finished with a joly of hot pepper, this is as perfect a pasta dish as you’ll fine.
Oenotri: Fried Cavalo Nero with Chili, Lemon, and Pecorino
Cavalo Nero is black kale, so this is healthy right? It’s a lot healthier and tastier than potato chips or frites in terms of vegetable sides. In the same vein as the recent boom in fried brussels sprouts (usually with pancetta…), the razor thin cavalo nero gets lightly fried to a crisp, then sprinkled with flakes of sharp pecorino, a squeeze of lemon for a new acidic dimension, and like the with fidei above, a jolt of spice from the chili. Once you pop, the fun won’t stop…they actually reminded me of Pringles in terms of the thin, brittle nature of the central ingredient.
Bottega, Yountville, CA: Polenta Under a Glass with Caramelized Mushrooms, and Balsamic Game Sauce
Polenta? Seriously, we’re ordering polenta? That was the unanimous exclamation of my table when informed by myself and our very helpful waiter than the polenta was a must order. This isn’t your garden variety polenta, folks. Warm and creamy, served in a canning jar with the mushrooms glistening on top, and then after being mixed together, served on a plate, and topped by the robust sauce. Just like everything from Michael Chiarello (spoiling already next week’s review), this dish perfectly represents the Northern California meets soulful Tuscany ideal that the chef strives to achieves and surpasses magnificently. You’ll never have polenta this good I promise.
Note- the polenta really is IN glass, not under.
Bottega: Pan Roasted Potato Gnocchi with Spring Vegetables, English Pea Fonduta, and Valley Ford Montasio
If I have ever had a dish I wanted to call Cézanne to hustle over and take a quick still life of before we ate it, this would be it. The dish just looks like spring. It’s full of bright colors, signalling hope, love, and the arrival of sunshine (and English peas). With tender brussels sprouts, pickled onions, carrots that almost melt, a swirl of the most pea-tasting English pea fonduta, the dish really thrives because of Chiarello’s home made potato gnocchi. They are somewhat hefty raft boat shaped gnocchi made of potato instead of flour, for a more earthy flavor. Then caramelized to a perfect golden crisp, this really is quite the masterpiece. Get Cezanne to paint and Mr. Beard to taste this!
Cheeseboard Collective: Pizza with Roasted Cauliflower, Roasted Onions, Cheddar Cheese, Mozzarella, Italian Parsley, and Garlic Olive Oil
It’s the crust, just doughy enough toward the center, but very crisp at the perimeter that makes this one of the Bay Area’s premier pastas. Ingredients are stellar, especially the combination of sharp cheddar with the earthy funk of cooked cauliflower. I only wished for a little more Italian Parsley. It’s a greasy affair thanks to the garlic olive oil. The ratios are just perfect: not too wet towards the center, just the right amount of toppings, just the right amount of naked crust at the edge. They do one pizza a day here and boy, do they do that one pizza right. More places should take note about that lesson.
Cheeseboard Collective: Chocolate-Chocolate Chip Cookie
Almost more like a moist, dense chocolate cake, this is truly an epic and undeniably chocolatey cookie. Soft but not mushy, everything clicks here. Perfect after a Cheeseboard Pizza. Then go to the Temescal for…
Scream Sorbet: White Guava Sorbet (or any sorbet…)
I could have picked any sorbet here really, such charming sorbets from an equally charming postage stamp sized store front in Oakland’s Temescal Neighborhood. Something about the pristine white guava made by day so much brighter. Maybe it’s because I’m so used to guava tasting so syrupy that you feel horrible drinking this “fruit juice.” The sorbet here was so pure it felt like yoga meditation by the scoop.
And the Honorary Not So Pleasant Bite of the Week: Manhattan at Cafe Renzo, Palo Alto, CA
Manhattans depend on the bourbon. It’s the fabled trio of angostura bitters, vermouth, and then bourbon. At the almost elegant belle époque Cafe Renzo (formerly Francis Ford Coppola’s Cafe Neibaum Coppola) that is very Italian in food and waiters, but very French brasserie in look, this isn’t the place to sip a Manhattan. But, hey $5 cocktails and $4 wine at happy hour? Great deal right? Think of it as punishment if you have to sip those wines or succeed in finishing this Manhattan. I didn’t even bother to ask what low grade bourbon was thrown in. All I know is Happy Hour may have been cheap, but this drink makes nobody very happy for an hour.
A relatively quiet week after a food and wine filled weekend in the Napa Valley. Here are some of the other places visited the past few days, in addition to Oenotri in Napa reviewed yesterday and a certain Yountville restaurant (no, it doesn’t rhyme with The Bench Fondly) that will be reviewed next Thursday.
In 1999 the Gott winemaking family bought the legendary Taylor’s Automatic Refresher along Highway 29 in St. Helena and at San Francisco’s Ferry Building from the Taylor Family, with the assumption that they will keep the fabled name in tact. That was the case until 2010 when the Gott’s switched the name and enough of the Bay Area was ready to revolt at the Gott’s Bastille. That revolt never really happened if the half hour lines in 90 degree heat last weekend are any indication. It’s an American classic, even the James Beard Awards have bestowed it with the title of “Regional American Classic” back in 2006.
It’s a great stop for a casual, filling lunch in the middle of wine tasting. The menu spans all the diner classics with high quality buzz word ingredients: Niman Ranch beef, Let’s Be Frank organic hot dogs, and the like. The burgers are the claim to fame aside from Gott’s location and roadside Americana atmosphere. One fellow diner complained about the burger meat being cooked too rare despite the menu claiming burgers are cooked to medium. Indeed it was medium rare…which made it juicier and even better than it would have been at medium. Think of the burger as a notch above In N Out, both similar in style featuring thousand island sauce covered burger that leaves your hands coated after eating. Gott’s meat patty is roughly twice the size of an In N Out burger. It’s the tender Niman Ranch beef that makes the difference really between the two burgers. Consider the variations on burgers too at Gott’s, whether to go Badger State with a Wisconsin sourdough burger or with griddled mushrooms and BBQ sauce, or Lone Star State with a Texas burger slathered in salsa, Monterey jack, sliced avocado, and pickled jalapenos. Fries are good, onion rings even better, and the shakes very reliable. This being Napa, why not keep the tasting going with a class of 09 Chappellet Cabernet Sauvignon or throw a change-up ay the routine with a Lagunitas IPA on draft instead?
As good as the burger is, it’s the fish items that actually shine the most. Fresh mahi mahi star in a pair of fish tacos and fresh ahi in a “burger” that resembles nothing of a burger except for the same toasted egg bun. It’s really an ahi sandwich. Sandwich or burger, it’s beautiful ruby red sashimi with ginger wasabi mayonnaise and just the right amount of Asian slaw. Roadside Americana? Well, this is the Napa Valley too, where it’s also sashimi and chardonnay country.
Ritual Coffee at Oxbow Market
San Francisco’s Ritual Coffee, one of the leaders of the “third wave” coffee roasting movement recently branched out for the first time to the Oxbow Market in Napa, a miniature version of the Ferry Building. The espresso here is just as rustic as the main cafe in the Mission District, possibly even better without that cafe’s hypnotizing music. An excellent crema gives way to a slight mahogany-cranberry finish. With Hog Island Oyster, Fatted Calf Charcuterie, Todd Humphries’ Kitchen Door, and many other very worthy artisans and food stalls, Ritual is a very welcomed addition to the market.
Napa Valley Wine Train
Yes, it’s touristy. Yes, there are at least three dozen better restaurants in the Napa Valley. Yes, it’s overpriced. But, it’s an experience. There is nothing like it I know of that brings back the glamour of old luxury train travel as if this were the Orient Express transferred to wine country. You fully expect Lauren Bacall to be sipping a a flute of champagne in the booth next to you, while With the sunset to the west and the fading sunlight shimmering on the vineyards, the vistas for the first half of the train ride at dinnertime are stunning this time of year.
We were there celebrating my magnificent (and a huge train fan) Grandfather’s 80th birthday. It fit the celebratory bill perfectly. A great way to start is by wine tasting in the wine tasting cart. Here’s where things go downhill and can easily be fixed. Why were some of the wines we tasted not even from Napa? Better yet, why were some of the wines (especially the Honig Cabernet Sauvignon, a usually reliably good winery) not in the least good? In fact, shockingly with the name of this train, the wine list was very disappointing and absurdly overpriced for its quality. Maybe you shouldn’t have wine on the wine train?
The food is not the star if the show nor should it be with the spectacular setting. The first half of the train is for drinking and a ho hum hors d’oeuvres . The pâté was chalky and inedible, but the grapes and cheese passed the test. Shrimp with a few shreds of seaweed was surprisingly creative. Three course dinners start with a regular baby lady lettuce salad with an intriguing smoked goat cheese, candied walnuts, and honey cider vinaigrette that is pleasant but you won’t remember fifteen minutes later. There are a trio of sorbets next that fit more at dessert time. They aren’t necessarily palate cleansing, reminding me of the popsicles at the summer sports camps of my youth.
The noteworthy sturgeon with three (yes three, not four) was a nightly special, served United Airlines style on forgettable rice, with a pineapple beurre blanc begging for any vague taste of pineapple. At least the fish was moist and flaky. You could consider a riveting salmon on bay shrimp risotto or the always enticing vegetable trio: grilled zucchini with goat cheese, yam stuffed gypsy peppers, and sweet pea raviolis.
Sarcasm aside, nearly everyone goes towards the meat here, if for any other reason than to have an excuse for Napa Valley cabs…if only the train’s selection was worthwhile. Grilled pork tenderloin is passable atop polenta with three wild mushrooms and a flavorless truffle port reduction. The somewhat tender roasted beef tenderloin was a wiser choice with a Bordelaise potato and carrot sauté. The one show-stopper of the night was the toast with the beef slathered in a luscious Cambazola cheese. What did it have to do with the dish as a whole? Nothing. But good cheese is good cheese.
Dessert is vanilla crême brulée or a chocolate tiramisu. I opted for an improvised fruit plate. There were zeppoles to be eaten the next day at Bottega.
Cafe Borrone, Menlo Park
I finally visited my local cafe haunt for dinner for the first time since last year when they unveiled a new small, ambitious sounding dinner menu. Homemade pastas share space with various fish and steak dishes rotating weekly (though it seems like some dishes don’t change). The halibut over celery root puree and beurre blanc has been on the menu for weeks now, but they had run out of it by the time we arrived. I had thoroughly enjoyed Borrone’s crab cakes before and these did not disappoint. A trio of cakes that are filled with nothing but crab look more like coconut macaroons, tasting of pure sautéed crab meat.
Borrone makes its own pasta, filling a ravioli with ricotta and bloomsdale spinach. It’s an excellent choice, but the large portion gets monotonous after a while. The ravioli itself wasn’t as tidy as it should be, with far too much excess, unfilled pasta to the perimeter. Along with the always excellent desserts, the very spring fava bean crostini was brilliant.
The problem with dinner at Borrone lies in the whole concept of dinner at an order at the counter, servers bring the food to the number on your table type of restaurant. What if you want three courses? You’re not allowed to make a tab. What if you want another glass of wine? Get up and order again. For a real dinner here, you could be going to the cash register 5-6 times in the meal. That’s a bit much I would say.
Cheeseboard Collective, Berkeley
Across from Chez Panisse, part of the legendary 1970’s Gourmet Ghetto of Berkeley. Since its founding in 1967 and a worker’s collective since 1971, the Cheeseboard is a cult favorite amongst Cal students, many of whom probably come every day for lunch. It’s the kind of place where you don’t even care what the pizza of the day is or who the band performing will be. It’ll be good, have faith. The Cheeseboard is also the kind of place where they’ll be taking May 1st off to celebrate International Worker’s Day. I never knew May 1 was a holiday outside of a dancing around the May Pole.
It’s a simple menu. One daily changing pizza and one daily changing salad. If you want a slice, you’ll get a slice with a little “charity” slice added on top. Or get a whole pizza for the frat party (you’ll be very popular!). The lines are infamous, but the brusque, uber-efficient service actually makes the wait never that bad. It’s the smell of the pizza that makes the wait rough.
My visit happened to have a terrific roasted cauliflower and roasted onion variety (pizzas are always vegetarian here), over mozzarella and a very sharp cheddar cheese, with a few specks of Italian parsley and a drizzle of garlic olive oil. The combination sang beautiful notes, especially the cheddar teaming with the earthy cauliflower. It’s the crust that makes the day though, thicker than Neopolitan, and slightly doughy towards the center and crispy at the edge. No discussion of Bay Area pizza elite is complete without the Cheeseboard, though I still have to give gold and silver to Gialina and Flour + Water.
Next door is the sensational Cheeseboard Cheese shop, probably where that sharp cheddar came from. The baked goods are not to be skipped either, especially a scrumptuous chocolate chocolate chip cookie that seems more like a cake and fluffy, killer fresh pita. Hummus never had a better dance partner than that pita.
Remedy Coffee, Oakland
While Ritual has an outpost as mentioned above in Napa’s Oxbow Market, it has no outpost in Oakland. Officially that is. The honest truth is that this eclectic coffee shop on a barren stretch of Telegraph just out of walking distance (it’s close but…this stretch is more what people imagine Oakland to be) from the street’s now vibrant and hopping Temescal neighborhood heart is really a Ritual cafe. The coffee is Ritual, the vibe just as alternative and Mission feeling as the Ritual cafe in the Mission. The coffee itself? Excellent, beautiful espresso and drip-overs. The vibe can be a bit cold, not inviting you to sit and read for a while. The dominating painting of a Telegraph Ave. street sign above the bar is very striking. Ritual or Remedy? What’s in a name?
Scream Sorbet, Oakland
Further up Telegraph is the Temescal commercial center, best known as the home of Pizzaiolo and Bakesale Betty’s fried chicken sandwiches. Add some of the Bay Area’s most pristine (and healthy) iced treats. Scream Sorbet recently opened this storefront after operating only out of pints in a cooler at the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market for a year or so. It’s a beautiful, sunshine filled spot, barely larger than the freezer filled with pints. Samples are given liberally (I literally was forced to try every one of the flavors). Go for the fruit flavors first, especially the white guava that makes any guava juice you’ve had before taste like fructose syrup. Pistachio is bold and vivid with the nut’s funky flavor. Go for the chocolate hazelnut and it actually tastes of hazelnut. Maple walnut tastes like walnut instead of just plain sugar. Strawberry shortcake? Tastes how it sounds, like perfectly ripe, red berries in a buttery Pierre Hermé pastry crust.
Prices are almost twice as high for the dainty scoops as you would get for the equivalent at a Bi Rite or Fenton’s…yet there is something so innocent, so pure in these sorbets that you walk away almost feeling virtuous from eating these sorbets. The scoops are worth the price, don’t worry. It’s the kind of place you wish you had around the corner from your house.
the original Peet’s Coffee, Berkeley
Part of the Gourmet Ghetto, the “second wave” of coffee started here at Vine and Walnut. The shop seems no different than any other Peet’s in a shopping center near you. Yet the quality seems a tick above usual. Usually, Peet’s espresso strikes me as watery Italian style. Here it’s as full of nuance and a beautiful crema that I could be fooled into thinking its Ritual. For coffee fans, it’s a pilgrimage. Is it really a better Peet’s than, say, the one a few blocks further down Shattuck? If my espresso says anything, then yes.
Downtown Napa is hopping these days. What once was a mere stopping off point on the road to the wineries and destination restaurants further north in the Napa Valley has become a dining destination every bit on par with heavyweights St. Helena and Yountville. The Napa River’s waterfront boasting Morimoto’s flagship, Tyler Florence, and, the carbon copy of the Ferry Building’s market, the Oxbow Market, is the focal point of activity, though it is by no means a Riverwalk à la San Antonio in terms of guests streaming up and down its banks with restaurants and bars left and right.
Much of Napa’s excitement is away from the river…and the wineries. Tucked away a few blocks up First Street from the riverfront resides a second, smaller slice of cosmopolitan activity, anchored by the SoHo chic Avia Hotel and the now two year old Oenotri. Courtesy of chef-owners Curtis Di Fede and Tyler Rodde, Oenotri presents a big city feel with that now very common, yet still invigorating style of California-American bistro (think Flour + Water or a Mario Batali restaurant with less guanciale) where handmade pastas, wood fired Neopolitan pizzas, and a sharp, limited selection of antipasti and secondi focused on high quality meats from big names like Niman Ranch and Willis Farm, along with the local, seasonal ingredients that are mandatory in this day in age.
This particular block of Downtown Napa has that now familiar re-gentrification faux Tuscany feel, as diners turn off the street into a small piazza alleyway leading to the entrance. Without a reservation, expect to wait here no matter what the night is. Impressive cocktails are crafted at the bar for those given wait times upwards of two hours or others tired of wine tasting. Interesting enough, the wine list veers heavily towards Italian wines despite this being a somewhat well known wine country region.
The 74 seat room can get quite deafening, enhanced by the prominent open kitchen and wood fired pizza oven that stretches one end of the room and grand floor to ceiling windows fronting the street on the other. There is both an open, modern feel and a cozy, bustling trattoria feel to the restaurant. Tables are particularly spacious, as if they were constructed for a Korean barbeque restaurant instead. Couples come here for romantic dates, big groups celebrate birthdays here, and then there are the few tourists who did their homework and found their way off the main stretches to dine here. The prime seat of the house to impress date would be the “pizza seats,” right in front of the pizza oven, where a pig skull eating an apple stares down at couples, and as our waiter put it, you can hear every word in the kitchen, most of which are not PG rated.
The menu is sleek and compact, with five selections each for pizza, antipasti, pasta, and dessert three secondi, a few contorni (side dishes), and then…some nearly two dozen housemade salumi. The salumi are outstanding all around, chosen at random by the chefs, with a minimum of six for the smallest platter. The sugar dusted almonds, cured onions, and cauliflower are as addicting as some of the salumi selections. Who even needs the meat with this supporting cast?
What is on the vaguely Southern Italy inspired menu tonight may be on the menu tomorrow, but almost certainly will not be in two days. Don’t have too many favorites. Pizzas probably change the least often, always anchored by the margherita. This being spring, green garlic and asparagus appears on one pie with hen of the woods mushrooms and parmigiano-reggiano. As the waiter promised, the pepperoni was some of the boldest, smokiest, most flavorful I’ve ever had, teaming with wood oven roasted onion and arugula for a bitter-smoky-sweet sensation that reminds me of the fabled Wise Guy at Pizzeria Bianco. Oenotri’s crusts are the highlight of the pies aside from that pepperoni, perfectly charred with a little thickness and puffy rings on the edges. The only issue with the pizzas, as is the case with many high heat blistered pies, is that the center isn’t fully cooked, causing it to become slightly limp and the ingredients quickly slide off. The pepperoni pie didn’t skimp on the wonderful meat, but some slices had no arugula to be seen.
With the salumi, a salad of some sort with produce from Oenotri’s four acre garden must be ordered. There was a fresh, seasonal shaved snap pea offering with asparagus, pancetta, ricotta salata, and Bergamot mint. Wood oven roasted young fava beans, the darlings of spring, are lovely with beets, pistachios, juicy citrus from the Oenotri garden, and sunflower sprouts, a dish I could eat nightly.
The heart of the order comes with the housemade pastas, each one sounding more enticing and complicated than the next. Chances are you will never have heard of any of the pastas themselves. Fregula? Radiatore all’ telefono (Yes, telephone shaped. No, you can’t call somebody with them.)? Fidei? That fidei is a thinner spaghetti twirled into a masterpiece of a dish with smoked mackerel, tomato, hot pepper and a shellfish brodo. The broth has the seafood intensity of the most soulful bouillabaisse in Marseille, with a layer of tomato added, pieces of subtle fishy mackerel flecked around, and the not too subtle blast from the hot pepper create true art work that makes a humble pasta dish into the extraordinary. There is no doubt already this dish will be one of the highlights of the year come December. you can’t go wrong though with ribbons of farfalle tossed with sugar snap peas and white shrimp, or red wine braised squid, manila clams, and gremolata joining fusilli.
Do order a side of fried cavalo nero (black kale) with lemon and shaved pecorino, given some heat from chili. It’s a truly addicting chip. Secondis revolve around whole-meat preparations, one night might be porchetta, another could be pork sausage with walnuts and red cabbage. Often the single fish dishes can be highlights, too. Big eye tuna from Morro Bay (it’s clean enough to fish there?) comes medium cooked but still flaky tender and moist, over soft gigante beans, and given an excellent boost from lots of mint and grilled meyer lemon, and the salty crunch of fried capers.
Hungry for dessert? Chocolate panini sure is enticing. Amongst the offerings including a lighter mandarin sorbetto with zabaglione, I went for the chocolate-espresso (emphasis on the espresso!) sformato, neither as rich as a mousse or as soft as a pudding. It’s simple and perfect for a few closing bites, if you like espresso late at night.
Service is very sharp and extremely friendly, almost over the top at times. More than once our waiter claimed that this dish was literally the best in the world, only to top it with the next dish being truly a dish worth traveling thousands of miles for. I would travel to the ends of the earth for that fidei pasta dish. The enthusiasm is welcome, but did border on being too far, almost comedic. Pacing is impressive given the hectic nature of the restaurant and the challenge of pacing several smaller courses. The only faux pas came in failing to deliver initial bottle of wine before the starters arrived.
Bold, loud, and gutsy, this is some exciting cooking at Oenotri. It’s firing on all cylinders and by way of Italy, leading the charge in Downtown Napa.