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Calistoga Report

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A report on chowing down in the northern Napa Valley.
We arrived on Friday evening to stay at the Calistoga Spa Hot Springs, almost our home-away-from-home; we’ve taken rooms there up to three times a year for the past decade. Went that evening to Hydro—the bar and grill place in the middle of Calistoga.
Ms. Margaret had a green salad with smoked chicken (she declared it very good), candied walnuts, white cheese that was supposed to be Feta, but was undistinguished, and apples on the side—also a Death and Taxes ale.
I had pozole, if only because that’s pretty rare in these parts—warm, soothing, with a little kick—also Anchor’s Christmas ale. I’m not that crazy about Christmas beers, but this one was so pleasing I ordered a second.
For desert, we split a cinnamon-apple crisp, topped with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream.
Saturday evening, largely in order to hear the jazz duo that plays there, we went to Brannan’s. Now, I’m not a huge fan of Brannan’s; it’s always seemed to be about martinis and large slabs of meat.
But this time, with the waitress’s enthusiastic support, we made a meal of shared small plates and now I’m converted:
 Smoked salmon with warm marble-rye bread and remoulade (the salmon was a chunk, not thin slices, maybe 2x3x4 inches, gravlax-flavored, creamy and light).
 A beet and faro salad with Meyer lemon vinaigrette.
 Mussels, served not in a bowl or tureen, but arrayed on a plate, beautiful.
 Pasta with wild mushrooms.
And a bottle of Napa Valley Syrah.
In all this came, with tip, to around $125 for the two of us. Every bite sang out, this was worth it.
Sunday, rain being predicted, we drove down to St. Helena and went to Cindy’s Backstreet Café. Now, we’re Cindy Pawlcyn fans, have been for 25 years, easy. And will continue to be, based the Sunday experience.
For a late lunch—again, encouraged by our waitress—we had
 Flat bread with wild mushrooms and mascarpone
 Piquillo peppers stuffed with ground beef, on a roasted-tomato salsa, with slivered almonds and cilantro.
 Warm mixed chicories with bacon
 Pumpkin and spinach risotto
(the last two items served as a single course; we asked the waitress to help us choose between the risotto and a roasted-root-vegetable dish, and she steered us rice-ward; good woman.)
And a Mouvedre from Contra Costa County.
Oh, and also a pineapple upside down cake and coffees.
The bill? Again
About $110, and well-well worth it.
On Monday we were guests at a friend’s house in Petaluma.
Tuesday, we opted for Pacifico, a standard Mexican place in Calistoga. Over the years it has diversified and gone up-market a little from your basic Tex-Mex menu and slid its price points upwards, too. But it’s still a bargain, still a place locals seem to go, still comforting and filling. Enchiladas, flautas, chips, beans-and-rice, a pitcher of margaritas; what it does it does well and we’ll be back.
So Wednesday was the big-deal meal we had been planning and waiting for: lunch at Culinary Institute of America—Greystone Wine Spectator, our second-ever visit there—and oh, man!, did it pay off.
This is a handsome dining room—huge space, stone walls, grained-wood tables, subtle lighting, open kitchen, quietly vigorous bar scene. The hall was or seemed almost full and there was a nice level of happy noise, but you couldn’t really hear other people, though the tables are comfortably close together. That was good.
We shared “Today’s Temptations,” a five-plate small-bites course that on this occasion included dates; little timbales of whipped salt cod (with micro-arugula sprigs); tablespoon-sized servings of duck confit with a bit of cabbage; thimbles of cauliflower soup; and goat cheese rolled in walnuts.
We both had the “One Dish Meal,” which was an almost Platonic ideal of boeuf Bourguignon, at once deeply flavored and somehow light, very meaty but greaseless, featuring a variety of mushrooms, all served in half-liter Le Creuset Dutch ovens, with whipped potatoes in a separate bowl. We shared a side of broccolini dressed with breadcrumbs and olives.
For desert we parted ways: for herself, pear frangipane tart; for me, warm citrus crepes which met someone’s definition of one last fillip to the tongue at the end of a memorable meal.
To drink? A bottle of Merlot from Markham, the winery right across the road, how cool was that? And (indifferent, but who cares?) coffee. (This was the second place this week, by the way, where we found a list of so-many wines all at the same price, an adjustment by local establishments to the recession. Here it was about 15 or so bottles for $20 each, and organized by the kind of tastes they would enhance (Asian, Latin, anything…), rather than by color or grape or provenance. This of course, in addition to the restaurant’s large and not-especially-budget-oriented main list. Backstreet’s version was 26 wines each for $26.)
Total including tip? Again in the $120 range for two.
At this point, I must ask: during eating weeks like this, does anyone else start to feel overfed? We did, and scaled down our next couple days to things like quesadillas and salads (back at Hydro) and serviceable burgers in the bar at Calistoga Inn.
So now we’re onto Christmas Day dinner. Back to the Calistoga Inn, with reservations in the dining room—which was nicely lit by candles and tricked out with space heaters.
In a change of strategies, we each ordered main courses—no appetizers.
For herself: duck breast, served in a very thick (in a good way) Pinot Noir sauce; it was said to be “Siena Style.” There Brussels sprouts on the side, grilled with bacon and figs. Figs? Didn’t seem to add much.
For me, well, I’d planned and planned to have crab—seen on the on-line menu, seen on the menu in the bar the previous evening, seen on the menu posted outside the Inn, seen on the menu I was handed, and, naturally enough, 86’d by the time I ordered. Oh well. They also had my favorite or second-favorite meat dish: lamb shank. So that’s what I had. And, y’know, the thing with dishes of that ilk is, no matter how beautiful the first few bites, by midway through the serving, your meat will have gone cold. But I soldiered on, the meat was silken, coming right off the bone the way I like it; the side of al dente kale was a nice contrast, all was good.
We had glasses of California bubbly before, and a bottle of ZD Pinot Noir from Carneros with; and each had a desert (me: apple crisp, Calistoga Inn’s standard for many years, but what is it that every desert now comes automatically a la mode, as we used to say?; Ms. Margaret had a peanut butter mousse cake, which again has been on the menu for a decade at least). No coffee, and a bill, including tip, of $155.
For our last dinner in the Valley (this trip), we opted for comfort food and went to Bosko Trattoria, which we like particularly because it seems to be a local-family hangout. We shared roasted beets with arugula. I had pasta shells with mushrooms, garlic (prominent!) and hot pepper flakes; she had a pizza with prosciutto and more arugula. We splurged on wine, with a $40-ish bottle of Zinfandel from Dry Creek, skipped desert, and were out of there for about $90, coming home quite happy.

Something else to mention: the meals we had in the area that haven’t been described above were typically take-out from the Cal-Mart in Calistoga, eaten pool-side or in our room. Cal-Mart has a very good deli, with salad bar and particularly good roast beef and a truly excellent cheese department.

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  1. Thank you so much for the write up - we get out to Calistoga quite a bit and it is nice to have a guide!

    1 Reply
    1. re: Meredith

      you're welcome--would be glad to hear of your favorites