BEST RESTAURANTS IN CALIFORNIA WINE COUNTRY
Article Published by: andrewharper
As wineries have proliferated, so too have wonderful places to eat, creating a rewarding synergy between vintners and chefs. Here are 10 restaurants we recommend in wine country – Napa Valley, Sonoma County and Mendocino County.
I have fond memories of a Napa restaurant called Tra Vigne, whose chef, Michael Chiarello, won fans for his delicious takes on Italian cuisine. Chiarello is back in the kitchen at this venture in Yountville. He focuses on Italian regional dishes and relies on carefully sourced ingredients, with pasta, cured meats, fresh cheeses and cured olives all made in-house. Look for starters such as grilled short-rib-and-pinenut meatballs in Sicilian tomato sauce with sweet Italian peppers in agrodolce, fresh ricotta and coal-roasted eggplant; pastas like the veal-and-pork Bolognese with porcini mushroom sugo, rosemary and Parmigiano-Reggiano on tagliarini; and main courses that might include grilled acorn-fed pork shoulder loin with Tuscan beans and grilled stone fruit.
I have admired this Mendocino classic for many years, so when I heard that new owners had bought the café in late 2016, I made it a point to visit. Any concerns I might have had were dispelled by finding the place as charming as it has always been, with white wainscoting, green-blue walls and food as appealing as ever. We began with a superb black bean soup, and then followed with plump Dungeness crab cakes in a tangy scallion vinaigrette.
DRY CREEK KITCHEN
Star chef Charlie Palmer is the guiding light at this wine country restaurant, where big windows overlook the green oasis of Healdsburg Plaza. Everything is impeccably fresh and beautifully prepared. The menu features appetizers such as the delicious Oz Family Farm rabbit pappardelle with guanciale, shallot cream, fava beans and fiore sardo (an Italian sheep’s milk cheese); and main courses like bacon-wrapped Niman Ranch pork tenderloin with Yukon gold potato velouté, Swiss chard, fennel variations and a roasted-pork demi-glace. The wine list features more than 500 Sonoma bottlings (with an emphasis on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay), many unavailable elsewhere.
THE FRENCH LAUNDRY
Tucked into a charming 19th-century building, this restaurant is home to the sublime cooking of chef Thomas Keller (who also presides over Per Se in New York). Here Keller and his crew orchestrate two nine-course menus (one vegetarian) that change daily and focus on small, carefully considered dishes meant to intrigue and inspire. No ingredient is repeated in any menu. The wine list is astonishing, and the staff is expert at recommending pairings. Reservations, which are done online, are extremely difficult to obtain.
Chef-owner Cindy Pawlcyn has been known to refer to this wonderful restaurant as a “deluxe truck stop.” I have eaten at Mustards for many years and am including it now because it is favored by so many constituencies: winemakers, farmers, off-duty chefs and, yes, truck drivers. They all come for the delicious food, a lively mix that includes ahi tuna crackers, wasabi crème fraîche and a san bai su sauce; and Dungeness crab cakes with espelette aioli, garden greens and sherry vinaigrette. From the woodburning grill and oven, look for main courses such as the beloved Mongolian pork chop with sweet-and-sour red cabbage and house-made mustard. You will, I’m sure, enjoy browsing the wine list as much as I do.
The contemporary décor of this stylish restaurant exudes warmth, comfort and welcome. Chef Richard Reddington’s résumé includes stints at San Francisco’s La Folie and Masa’s; New York’s Daniel; France’s Arpège and Le Moulin des Mougins; and four years heading the kitchen at Napa’s Auberge du Soleil. His memorable menu changes often but has included inviting dishes such as glazed pork belly accompanied by apple purée and burdock with soy caramel; sautéed skate wing with savoy cabbage, smoked lobster butter and crispy bacon; and prime New York steak with short ribs, potato-mushroom purée, lardons and fried shallots. The tasting menu is one of the best values in the region, and Reddington works with the wine staff to create one of the most intriguing lists in the Napa Valley.
Part of the superb SingleThread Farms inn, this 52-seat restaurant represents an extraordinary fusion of Japanese and Western culinary and aesthetic traditions — and innovations — the fulfillment of a dream for Kyle and Katina Connaughton. The procession of dishes in the 11-course tasting menu (which can be customized to suit pescatarians and vegetarians) proved compelling, not just for the flavors and textures but also for the plates and vessels. Among my favorite courses were the yellowtail with barrel-aged ponzu, Cara Cara orange, komatsuna (Japanese mustard spinach) and Saikyo miso; and black cod cooked in a fukkura-san (a tagine-style clay pot) with leeks, brassicas, sansho (a type of Japanese pepper) and chamomile dashi. Although the restaurant stocks an impressive range of wine, go with the sommelier’s pairings. No children under age 12.
This rustic stone building just off St. Helena’s main street is the venue for some of the finest meals I’ve had in the wine country. Chef Hiro Sone, who works with his wife, Lissa Doumani, has opened Bar Terra for light meals and drinks, while keeping a vibrant full menu in the restaurant. The food embodies a skillful take on California cuisine with Asian accents. The menus change regularly, but look for dishes such as broiled sake-marinated Alaskan black cod with shrimp dumplings in a shiso broth, and grilled breast of Liberty Farm duck with foie gras game sauce and spring peas. The wine list is full of interesting bottles, and the staff is very knowledgeable.
New since our last visit to Mendocino, this proved a real find. It is a small space on the ground floor of a red-doored house, with a fireplace and, in good weather, a deck with oceanviews. Hearty contemporary fare makes up the menu, with starters such as the caramelized-onion-and-goat-cheese tart and mains like the grilled pork chop with gnocchi, butternut squash, white beans, sun-dried tomatoes, rosemary and an apple cider reduction.
I had high hopes for Valette from my pre-trip research, and our experience justified them. Ensconced in a corner space just opposite SingleThread Farms, the handsome restaurant with a brick interior and white tablecloths serves a menu of locally sourced ingredients. We enjoyed a starter of house-made prosciutto with burrata cheese and a delicious main of arugula-crusted halibut with candied-onion vinaigrette, smoked Duroc coppa and pea shoots.
About Scott Livengood
Scott Livengood is the owner and CEO of Dewey’s Bakery, Inc., a commercial wholesale bakery with a respected national brand of ultra premium cookies and crackers.
Previously, Scott worked at Krispy Kreme Doughnuts for 27 years, starting as a trainee in 1977. He was appointed President of the company in 1992, then CEO and Chairman of the Board.
Scott has served on numerous boards including the Carter Center, the Calloway School of Business and the Babcock School of Management, Habitat for Humanity of Forsyth County, and the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce.
He started a new business, StoryWork International, in 2016 with Richard Stone. The signature achievement to date is LivingStories, a story-based program for improved patient experiences and outcomes in partnership with Novant Health.