- Monday 1 September 2003
Wine isn't the only treat which awaits visitors to California. Dan berger looks at the state's latest places to eat and stay
For those making the pilgrimage to northern California's wine church, drinking from its cup is not the only heavenly experience which awaits. Its daily bread is also a semi-religious experience for those who know where to go.
Many visitors are drawn to the tried and tested dining spots, and rightly so. Napa and Sonoma play host to some of California's most exciting restaurants, including The French Laundry (recently voted the world's best in Restaurant magazine), Mustard's, Terra, Tra Vigne and Catahoula in Napa, and John Ash & Co, Mixx and Equus in Sonoma.
But new flavours are being explored all the time, and over the last few years, restaurants have opened to local acclaim that don't make headlines outside the region. Yet headlines are precisely what Julia's Kitchen deserves. Those travelling north from San Francisco typically drive first to see Copia, Robert Mondavi's Centre for Wine, Food and the Arts in the once-dreary town of Napa. Famed chef Julia Child, a consultant to the project, was honoured in the naming of the facility's handsome restaurant.
In May, after the Patina Group was brought in to operate it, Joachim Splichal (famed for his Patina in Los Angeles as well as his numerous Pinot bistros) installed chef Victor Scargle to run the kitchen. His Americanised French-oriented cuisine is one of the south valley's true treats. The interior is modern, with aluminum chairs and stainless décor, and the vegetable and herb garden is proof of the freshness of the goods.
Just up-valley in Rutherford, one of the Valley's most impressive eateries is the chic La Toque, former Los Angeles wunderkind Ken Frank's homage to French à l'Americain, with a prix fixe menu ($92) and optional wine by-the-glass service. An exceptional part is the cheese course, a rare treat in this part of the world. Moreover, Frank is perfectly happy catering for vegetarians. And sommelier Scott Tracy's wine choices are sublime, and not limited to Napa offerings.
St Helena, the heart of this renowned valley, has two brilliant new dining additions in Martini House and Roux. The former, the creation of famed restaurant designer Pat Kuletto, is a block off the main drag, set in a 1920s craftsman style mansion with fireplaces in each of three separate dining areas, a loft looking down on a stylish bar and an impeccable menu featuring wonderful grilled specialities.
Roux, in a small storefront, is the haven of Vincent Nattress and Tyla Jones, who use traditional French preparations with local produce to create a fusion of impeccable style. The $48 prix fixe dinner is a four-course masterpiece that often includes a cheese plate or savoury creation including la fromage. Of special interest is the wine list, which features hard-to-find wines from obscure local producers.
The Inn at Southbridge, open seven years, is one of St Helena's newer lodging establishments and one of the most attractive. The 20-room inn is located on the grounds of the famed Tra Vigne and its Cantinetta, so it's walking distance to the entire town. Moreover, the Inn is across the street from the locally renowned upscale diner Taylor's Refresher, where you can get an ahi tuna burger.
The old standby of the Napa Valley, Meadowood, remains one of its best lodging spots. But the wine programme of John Thoreen just got creative. By-the-glass offerings now include any wine on the 400-strong list, including such famed wines as Screaming Eagle Cabernet.
Further up-valley in Calistoga is the locally-acknowledged Wappo Bar and Bistro. Chef Michelle Mutrux offers up various dishes from Brazilian chicken stew and a Yucatan vegetarian dish, to Thai braised pork or Spanish, saffron-based dishes. Twin dining rooms, a gorgeous patio, and creative wine list complete this special place. Calistoga is also home to Christopher's Inn, featuring spacious rooms with high ceilings, many with patios.
Sonoma County also has its dining excitement, and the newest 'in' lunch-and-dinner place is Carneros, part of the Lodge at Sonoma. The high-ceilinged restaurant is home to a dazzling array of creations as well as impeccable service. The all-Sonoma wine list is extensive. At the Lodge itself, most of the rooms have fireplaces and patios, and cottages offer private, outdoor spaces. There's a wine tasting bar, too.
In the town of Sonoma, a place to try is La Salette. This is chef/owner Manuel Azevedo's recognition of his Portuguese upbringing. He prepares the likes of Porco à Alentejana, a classic Portuguese stew of pork tenderloin; Bacalhau, a casserole of salt cod; and Feijoada completa stew, the Brazilian national dish.
Further north, in the small town of Glen Ellen, The Girl and the Gaucho is Sandra Bernstein's second restaurant, following the huge success of her Rhône-oriented Girl and the Fig. It offers Argentinian dining of a high order with two dozen tapas-style appetisers and a wine list that encourages adventurers. At Syrah, Josh Silvers' café in downtown Santa Rosa, the fare is more traditional, with an accent on braised meats. and a fine hand on side dishes and desserts.
One of the hottest joints in Sonoma County is Willi's Wine Bar (no relation to those in Paris and Venice). Located in a former watering hole along Old Redwood Highway north of Santa Rosa, the food concept here is mainly creative tapas. The wines (dozens are available by the glass) can be ordered as small pours for sampling.
Zin, named for the red wine that made northern Sonoma County famous, is located in Healdsburg and is a classic American-style bistro with frites and house-made ketchup, Mexican beer-battered green beans, and 'coq au zin'.
Sonoma County's western reaches, bordering the Russian River, have a number of gems that remain hidden even from locals. Two stand-outs are the Farmhouse in Forestville, with a cosmopolitan menu, and K&L Bistro in Sebastopol, which features more rustic, full-flavoured entrées. The Farmhouse has some of the most elegant accommodations in western Sonoma County, and is just a 20-minute drive to the Pacific Coast.
Dan Berger writes a weekly column for the Los Angeles Times and publishes the wine newsletter Vintage Experiences.