to Dine in Wine Country
Published in the October 2002 issue of Alaska
FOLKS here will try to tell you that fermented grapes
are a food group, one cannot live on wine alone, even in California's
Wine Country. And who would want to? Tucked between the vineyards
of Napa and Sonoma are some of Northern California's most
The region is happily tangled in a love triangle of food,
wine and art. Copia, a new center in Napa dedicated to these
American passions, explores their relationships through imaginative,
interactive art exhibits, programs and gardens (entry $12.50).
Stroll three acres of organic gardens and orchards, where
herbs, fruits and flowers mimic the aromas of cabs and zins
and 40 varieties of lavender test your sense of smell. Baby
squash, sorrel and other garden treats often make their way
into hearty dishes like roasted lamb tournedo ($27) at Julia's
Kitchen. Copia's dining room is named for Ms. Child,
the "patron saint of the pantry."
Wine Country cuisine is a marriage between the kitchen and
the farm as much as the vineyard. No chef here worth his or
her cutlery will accept anything less than fresh, local, organic
ingredients in their kitchens, when possible. "The growing
season here is long and bountiful. The seasons and the land
very much drive what we [as chefs] create," says Therese
Nugent, food writer and instructor at Ramekins Sonoma Valley
Culinary School in Sonoma.
That's very much the philosophy at ZuZu,
a bright newcomer to Old Town Napa. Traditional Spanish tapas
take a cosmopolitan twist here, with such dishes as salpicon
of baby octopus, Moroccan barbecued lamb chops and duck tamales,
most for $6 and under. Don't miss the seared tuna with jicama,
grapefruit, avocado and papaya, a delicate balance of flavors,
colors and textures that reveals the culinary genius of chef
Charles Weber. Faded colonial-tiled floors, Mexican rusted-tin
ceilings and a recycled pine-wood bar lend a worldly, weathered
look to this new hotspot. Dine in the upstairs loft for a
view of the lazy Napa River.
Keep venturing north up Napa's Route 29 to the small historic
town of St. Helena to discover Terra, where
California meets Asia. Though hardly an unusual fusion of
cuisines, the pairing makes even more sense when you learn
about owners Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani, partners in business
and love. Doumani grew up on her family's Napa vineyard, Stag's
Leap; Sone was born into an 18th generation family of Japanese
rice farmers. The two met while working at Wolfgang Puck's
restaurant, Spago, opening up Terra in a century-old, stone-walled
foundry in 1988.
Though Terra's atmosphere is sedate, you're in for a culinary
adventure. Starters include neon magenta gazpacho made with
heirloom tomatoes, beets, peekytoe crab and avocado mousse
served in a martini glass ($11); entrees, red wine-braised
veal cheeks ($24), grilled squab and spaghettini with tripe
stew. You won't go thirsty here: Terra serves more than 200
wines from around the world. Sone's desserts, like the beurre
noisette tart with local berries and lemon verbena ice cream,
are so artfully presented even the sweetest of tooths will
pause before devouring the composition.
Square Meals in Sonoma
Don't neglect Sonoma on your gastronomical tour; the parallel
valley rivals Napa in cuisine as well as wine-making. An entire
day could be spent exploring the historical sights, boutiques,
bakeries, wineries and eateries around Sonoma's (the valley's
unofficial capital) town square alone. California's bear flag
was first raised in this eight-acre plaza, the largest in
A must-eat on the square is the Girl and the Fig,
which owner Sondra Bernstein calls "country food with
a French passion." Entering the former Sonoma Hotel,
you can swivel into a sage-green velvet booth under a fig-themed
painting or sit on the outdoor patio beside a fountain.
A bold move in a land of Chardonnays, the restaurant only
offers Rhone-style wines. Varietal flights served in prettily
mismatched glasses are carefully paired to cheese plates ($12)
featuring the best of both French imports and local artisan
brands. If the thought of the Girl's heirloom radishes with
anchovy butter and sea salt ($5) wrinkles your nose, you can
always count on standbys like steak and frites ($20) here.
Ask about the catch of the day: it often depends on what Bernstein's
fishermen friends land in the morning.
Also on the Plaza, Cafe La Haye (subtitled
A Place for Food & Art) is all about "simple cooking
with complex flavors," according to co-owner Saul Gropman.
The mostly organic restaurant belongs to the Chef's Collaborative,
a national network of chefs committed to environmentally sustainable
cuisine. Though Cafe La Haye is very tuned to the seasons
(you won't see a tomato on the menu again until May), trademark
dishes like the lavender-infused filet of beef ($22) stay
on the menu year-round. La Haye's wine selection is as mom-and-pop
as the cafe itself: 95% hail from small wineries without retail
outlets. The minimalist decor (a stainless steel, eat-in counter
overlooks the kitchen) draws your attention instead to the
rotating exhibits of playful collages and other local art.
Further up the Sonoma valley, Healdsburg is home to another
relaxed Spanish-style plaza, and equally incredible eats.
A few blocks off Healdsburg's plaza, Tastings
is among the many chef-owned "boutique" restaurants
cropping up throughout Sonoma (fewer tables often meaning
more intimate, informal service). The 32-seat restaurant's
specialty is pairings. Sommelier Finn Finnegan carefully weds
each dish to a glass, like Ricotta Gnocchi with an Umbrian
Falesco Vitiano or grilled beef tenderloin with a South Australian
Paringa Shiraz. Tastings also offers a five-course prix fixe
meal ($44, $59 with wine pairings) that changes daily (or
rather Friday through Monday, when the restaurant is open
for lunch and dinner).
Look out for Tastings' wine maker dinners, where vintners
join chef Derek McCarthy to co-create meals that celebrate
the best fruits of the vine, land and sea. And whether it's
tapas or top sirloin, that's what dining in Wine Country is
all about: bringing together the finest, freshest ingredients
and bringing out the best of their flavors.
PS -- No matter where you dine, no matter how much you eat,
do make room for dessert. Wine has a secret mistress, and
her name is chocolate.
FOR MORE INFO
140 East Napa St., Sonoma; 707-935-5994; www.cafelahaye.com
500 First St., Napa; 800-51-COPIA (707-265-5700, Julia's Kitchen);
Girl and the Fig
110 W. Spain St., Sonoma; 707-938-3634; www.thegirlandthefig.com
505 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg; 707-433-3936; www.tastingsrestaurant.com
1345 Railroad Ave., St. Helena; 707-963-8931
829 Main St., Napa; 707-224-8555; www.zuzunapa.com