I had a rare Saturday night off last weekend and headed up to Napa to see an old favorite of mine at the Napa Valley Opera House, Greg Brown. "Greg Brown?," you're asking. Yeah, Greg Brown, got a problem with that? I got tired of explaining to people that he's a great guitarist and blues/folk singer, probably at his height in the 80's and 90's; okay, his height amidst the coffee house crowds. I'm sure he's popular somewhere, like in the backwoods of Ohio where he toils in the dirt on his Grandmother's farm. And opera, "Napa has an opera?", was another common response. So anyway, that's how I found myself in Napa on Saturday night, my friend Kimberly in tow, a free ticket as the lure.
Where to dinner, where to dinner? That's an exciting question for me always. Downtown Napa, Old Town, has experienced a revival in the last few years with Main Street being, well, the main street through this part of town. The Opera House sits smack in the middle with restaurants dotting the road and side streets between 3rd Street and Pearl. We were surprised how hard it was to find parking at 6 pm along this stretch, with many public parking lots to choose from. We sneaked into the Wells Fargo parking lot, and the attendant turned a blind eye as we scampered away from the car.
I had been (happily) pondering our dinner option all day, having checked online for any I may be missing. I had narrowed it down to a couple of choices: Zuzu, on Main at 3rd, a favorite of mine and pretty much the only place I ever eat in Napa proper. I was hankering to branch out though, and looked at Bounty Hunter's menu online, thinking their famous beer can chicken could be the ticket. I had heard great things about their menu and wine list, but was a little offput when I noticed they didn't mention anything about organic or sustainable on their menu. I've never been that much of a food snob, but the more I know about factory farming, the more I don't want to know about factory farming. As a matter of fact, just last night before bed I was reading Michael Pollan's "Omnivore Dilemma" and found, to my dismay, that even Rosie chickens from Petaluma Poultry are factory farmed. Whaaa! Speaking of blind eyes, I really can't turn one this time. I'm actually sort of pissed, but I'll explore that tangent in another post...
Another viable option for dinner could be Ubuntu, the Michelin Star appointed vegetarian restaurant and yoga studio which is literally right next door to Cole's Chop House, an old style steak house where Kimberly and I decided to enjoy a cocktail while we pondered our options. I hadn't remember hearing much about Cole's before, but then again, I realized I didn't know jack about Napa dining when it really came down to it. My friend Laura was to be celebrating her birthday there in just a few hours and had invited us to meet she and her husband for drinks after the show. That's the only reason it was on my radar.
The drinks almost didn't happen, as Kimberly was grumpy that there wasn't a seat at the bar, and I was trying not to be the pushy I-must-have-cocktail-now type friend. Just then, a couple got up to be seated in the dining room and voila, we had seats. Nowadays most cocktail lists are fancified with infusions and syrups and herbal concoctions. Not that I'm against that, anything that masks the alcohol artfully is okay in my book - otherwise, I'd just be ordering a Hendricks Martini up, please. But no, I'm a wimp when it comes to this stuff, so I chose a ginger-y vodka concoction (as they didn't have my current favorite, Pisco Sour); Kimberly chose a pomegranate vodka concoction and all was good, finally.
It was only 6:15 and we still hadn't decided where to eat. A phone call to Zuzu reassured us there would be plenty of seats at 6:30, Ubuntu was still an option, but I was in the mood for some meat and as much as I did want to try it, I wasn't very excited by the idea of going there. Kimberly had eaten a late lunch and was only up for a salad. Once the steak was placed in front of the guy next to us, my canines began watering, and the longer I sat there staring at his steak, the more I wanted a bite. Okay, let's look at the menu here, I thought.
Their menu boasts "21 Dry Aged Prime Steaks". But how many of the 21 would I feel good about eating? I'm no purest, just last year I had a quite delicious ribeye at the Outback Steakhouse near my house, and I'm pretty sure the Mongolian Beef from the place down the block came directly from a Sysco truck, but everything I've read (thanks a lot, Michael Pollan) makes me cringe at the idea of factory farmed, corn (and other ingredient) fattened prime beef. Don't get me wrong. Corn fattened beef is delicious: Well marbled, fatty goodness. But these days when I'm going to eat a solid piece of meat, a big, deliciously charred slice of heaven, it's going to have to be grass fed, damnit. So, after perusing the menu, and nixing the Chicago dry aged porterhouse (awwww) and New York, I decided on the Five Dot Ranch's ribeye. Not only is it my favorite cut, but also "naturally raised" and 28-day California dry aged. I'm not prepared to argue on the merits of California vs. Chicago dry aging processes. But just the fact that they were aged in Chicago, didn't have natural or grass fed in any description, recalled the factory feed lot mentality of most ranches in the midwest and pretty much grossed me out. A quick check by the bartender reassured me it was prairie fed, as up to that point I had never heard of Five Dot Ranch. The guy next to me seemed a little put off that I cared that much anyway, being completely oblivious to the corn fed, antibiotic ridden, feedlot nightmare his hunk o' meat had gone through. (ignorance is bliss)
I ordered a 1/2 bottle of Mi Sueno "El Llano" Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah blend, an almost sacrilege combination but something I've seeing popping up more often nowadays. I love the story around Mi Sueno, owned by the son of migrant vineyard worker who got his start in the food and wine business as a dishwasher at Auberge du Soleil, then worked his way around the valley, finally making wine at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. The "American Sueno" at its finest. (that's American Dream for you gringos). Not to mention, the wine was spectacular, rich, very extracted, leathery, slightly tannic, with a hint of spice from the Syrah.
The steak and caesar arrived simultaneously as requested, with the 12 oz ribeye practically covering the whole plate. Perfectly medium rare (or "mid-rare" as we say in the biz), there was nothing separating the rich flavors of my steak from my neighbor's "unnatural" counterpart (in my opinion, of course). And there was nothing separating me from my steak, save for a few bites I regretfully gave Kimberly in between sips of unctous Napa Valley juice. "Grass for dinner" you may be asking yourself? Why yes, haven't you been paying attention? With the caesar, the croutons (made from bread, which is made from wheat, which is, of course, a grass) and my prairie fed steak, what wasn't grassy about it? Watch out Ubuntu, you may have some competition.
http://www.coleschophouse.com/ - for a true steak house experience
http://www.misuenowinery.com/ - for a heartwarming story and some great wines, located in the southern end of town.
http://www.fivedotranch.com/ - located in Lassen County, they graze their herds in several open grasslands around California, even making it to Napa Valley.
http://www.gregbrown.org/ - you may be surprised to know a few of his songs.
http://www.zuzunapa.com/ - using only organic and sustainable ingredients and Argentine grass-fed beef.
http://www.bountyhunterwinebar.com/ - one of the best wine lists around and despite my issues, I still wanna try the beer can chicken!
http://www.celadonnapa.com/ - not mentioned in my post, this is the sister restaurant to Cole's and has a great wine list and asian/world fusion style food.
http://www.ubuntunapa.com/ - my next stop in Napa when I'm feeling forage-y.