The weather is gorgeous. You can live in a cottage with a rosemary hedge and a lemon tree out front, cycle past world-famous vineyards and sip fairytale pumpkin soup. One chef calls it a Disneyland for adults.
An hour’s drive from San Francisco, Napa is also the perfect place fora food, wine and wellness getaway.
Late fall is an ideal time to visit, and not just because rows of grapevines that criss-cross this skinny valley glow in a tapestry of golds and rusty reds. Following the mad rush to complete the harvest, the pace slows, making it easier to nab a restaurant reservation and a behind-the-scenes winery tour. Chefs offer heartier dishes to pair with the valley’s prized Cabernet Sauvignon. In fact, locals call November to April Cabernet Season, and kick things off with the Napa Valley Film Festival in celebration of film, food and wine.
Our first dinner in the 80,000-strong city of Napa set the bar high. Chef/owner Sean O’Toole of TORC may not be Italian, but he’d make any nonna proud with his hand-cut tagliatelle noodles tweaked with lemon and shards of Parmigiano-Reggiano or his house-made strozzapreti (strangled priests) warmed in a deeply delicious lamb jus shot through with soft licorice fennel, a hit of sweet, unctuous black garlic and a spritz of satsuma mandarin.
O’Toole named his Main Street restaurant for the wild boar, the scourge of winemakers whose meat is beloved by chefs. The spacious room’s impossibly high ceiling, stone walls and polished wood floor and tables add to the rustic, casual feel you’ll find even in the valley’s most posh restaurants. Yet the service is invariably excellent; the most junior server can explain exactly how your cocktail was made and describe every wine in the cellar.
Menus here are also defined by the foragers and farmers who bring fresh seasonal produce to the restaurant’s back door, which may explain why we ate a year’s worth of charred Brussels sprouts in three days. At Michelin-starred La Toque in Napa’s Westin Verasa, chef/owner Ken Frank served a five- course squash-centric dinner from the hotel’s garden, each with a carefully chosen wine. The refined, satisfying menu opened with fairy-tale pumpkin veloute garnished with walnut, celery and green apple, and ended with donuts and squash ice cream.
Along with happy, locally sourced meat, poultry and seafood, vegetables also feature prominently at Harvest Inn down the road in St. Helena, one of the newest restaurant/ inns in star chef Charlie Palmer’s empire. Guests are invited to stroll through the culinary gardens before or after dinner, and most menu items feature estate-grown ingredients. The signature dish here is the generous truffle chicken for two, served with butternut squash, risotto and truffle butter. You may even get a chance to meet the personable chef himself.
For a change of pace, head to the Oxbow Public Market, a short walk from Napa’s Main Street, and mingle with the locals. I could have spent hours eating oysters at Hog Island and fresh crab and duck tacos from C CASA, with a glass of local wine, sitting at the Ritual coffee bar with a smooth cappuccino, checking out California olive oil and Napa Valley Distillery’s local lemon liqueur and sampling cheese with names like Fat Bottom Girl, Holey Cowand Mid-night Moon. All under one roof.