When Greg and I travel, we try hard to taste the flavors of a place. Is fresh pasta really better in Italy? Yes! Do German bratwursts really taste better with a German beer — IN Germany? Yes! Are bananas picked fresh from a tree in Peru really sweeter? Yes! The list goes on and on.
One of our travel traditions is to set aside a night or two on every trip to visit a really nice restaurant wherever we are. California’s famed Napa Valley had me wondering how to choose. There are dozens, maybe even hundreds, of great restaurants. Some are owned by famous chefs. Some are Michelin-rated. Most boast farm-to-table freshness. Since California doesn’t really have a specific food specialty, I scoured the web for ideas. I asked friends for recommendations. The task of choosing was a bit daunting. I couldn’t choose just one, so in the end we made reservations at two Napa restaurants on two consecutive nights.
Angèle Restaurant & Bar is on the water in downtown Napa. It features a fresh, Northern California twist on French cuisine. We arrived a bit early for our reservation and were immediately seated at a table with a view of the Napa River. As we’ve come to expect in the COVID world we live in today, dining was al fresco.
We ordered a pair of appetizers, escargot and steak tartare, and cocktails. Yes, it was wine country, but we had spent the day tasting wine and were looking for something different. The flavors of the appetizers were rich and robust and everything you would expect from French cuisine.
The main course, though, left us flat. The duck confit was overcooked and dry. It was disappointing, but we laughed at our bad luck and set our sights on dessert. The French, after all, have a reputation for incredible pastries. The Silverado Blackberry tart with vanilla bean pastry cream sounded delicious. Indeed, the filling was. The tart pastry, on the other hand, was also overdone.
The following night, I chose Oenotri. It offers rustic dishes built around fresh local produce. My hopes were high for delicious southern Italian cuisine and house-made salumi. Seated in the courtyard behind the downtown Napa restaurant, reminded us, somewhat, of the back-and-beyond places we’ve found in Venice and Prague.Jake, our waiter, suggested the appetizer plate featuring six of those homemade salumis. How could we say no? They arrived with herb-flavored fresh almonds, lightly pickled carrots, olives (of course, it is an Italian restaurant after all) and a selection of breads and crisp crackers. Our taste buds were overjoyed.
Next up … fresh from the vine heirloom tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, sprinkled with sea salt and paired with fior di latte. We learned that mozzarella is made from buffalo milk, but when it starts with cow’s milk it’s called fior di latte. Whatever they call it, the only way to describe it was incredibly packed with fresh, bright, astounding flavor.
The menu at Oenotri is brief. It boasts four pasta choices and three “secondi” options. The trouble was, we wanted all of it. Choosing was definitely the hardest part. We decided to split the Lumache with Stone Valley pork ragu and the White sea bass with sweet corn and summer squash. There aren’t enough words in English to describe the perfection of the pasta. That evening, back in our room, I wrote this in my journal:
“Next up was a horn-shaped noodle cooked to perfection offering an al dente, edible scoop holding what Oenotri described as “pork ragu.” In reality it was a ground pork meat sauce boasting bright, fresh, sweet tomato flavor combined with a little red-wine-cooked-all-day depth and gooey, melted cheesy strings clinging to each other, the noodles and the sauce.”
We sipped wine and started a conversation with a couple at a nearby table as Jake delivered the sea bass. It sat, perfectly cooked, on a pile of sun-sweetened corn in a buttery, creamy, lightly spicy sauce with just the right amount of heat to balance the sweet.
In perfect Italian fashion, the meal was relaxed; the atmosphere festive. A small group nearby chatted and laughed with the staff, clearly friends who’d been away for far too long. Couples clinked glasses and toasted their evening. As the Napa sun set, we did the same, thankful for the light jackets we brought to stave off the cool evening air. It was a stark contrast to the previous night’s meal.
There’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored. You gotta eat, so take the time to enjoy it!
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