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Trip report – Napa, San Francisco and a Tiny Bit of Sonoma

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As always, thanks to CHers for recommendations, reviews and opinions. I never leave home without you. ;-)

We spent Thanksgiving week in beautiful Northern California. It was our intention to stay in the Union Square area the entire time, and maybe do a day trip to Napa (we visited Sonoma last time). But a Groupon to Napa River Inn changed the itinerary to two nights there, while insistent (and generous) friends changed the rest of the itinerary to 3 nights with them in San Rafael ;-)). So much for San Francisco!

First meal of the trip was at GATHER in Berkeley en route from the Oakland Airport to Napa. Good stop. I liked this place a lot. Nice neighborhood-type vibe, and very good, fresh food. My husband had squash pancakes with goat cheese and huckleberries – not at all sweet, which was perfect; I had the polenta with lentils and a perfectly soft-boiled egg. Simple and yummy. Coupled with a glass of Roederer sparkling wine and really good service, I could not think of a better way to start our vacation.

Our first stop of the evening was a 4:00 PM jazz show at Silo's in Downtown Napa. Hard to beat live music that starts that early on jet lag day! I wanted to keep our first night reservation-free since I knew we were waking up that morning at 2:00 AM Pacific Time. Right before we left, some friends recommended BOUNTY HUNTER – friends with similar tastes. While I liked the rustic space and laid-back service, what was I thinking ordering BBQ in Napa? Really? But it smelled so good as we walked up! Anyway, my pulled pork was as dry and meh as they come; husband’s brisket was slightly better. I should have stuck with the charcuterie and cheese (likely what our friends had) but I just wasn’t in the mood for “snacking” at that point. Good for a glass of wine, for sure. Oh, and the roasted root vegetable side was absolutely fantastic. California does know how to treat its veggies right.

Monday was wine tour day (Platypus tours - highly recommend) and a picnic lunch in a vineyard. I had my heart set on going to the Oxbow Market, specifically to Hog Island Oyster Company for the happy hour, which I had read (somewhere) ran from 5:00-7:00. We hightailed it there after the bus dropped us off at the hotel, and got there at 6:30, just as they were closing down. Noooooo! So Plan B was THE THOMAS at FAGIANI’S (although we missed the happy hour there, too – sigh). A dozen West Coast oysters and two glasses of Shramsberg later, and all was well. My husband and I joked that it was THE most expensive snack we ever had. (He’s from Southern Louisiana, where you can still get a fantastic, Gulf Coast oyster for a buck – and that’s not even during happy hour.). Great service here as well.

Dinner was at MORIMOTO. A $50 gift card came with the Groupon – either to Morimoto or Fish Story and I think I chose well. I’m very picky about my sushi. Really. Picky. The bar was raised even higher recently after a lunch extravaganza at Yasuda in NYC. Mind-blowing. Morimoto was not mind-blowing, but it was very good. Husband started with hamachi tartare; I had the tuna pizza – loved this! All the flavors and texture were just perfect, and who doesn’t like fresh jalapenos? Main courses were a Chef’s combo sushi for my husband and chirashi for me. I hadn’t ordered it in ages, and it was a nice change for me, actually. I love doing the omakase thing, but after a wonderful, winey day, this was just a better fit for us all around. The service? Oh boy. Our server disappeared for long periods on end, and if I said the place was one-quarter full, that would probably be generous.

Tuesday we made the short trip to Yountville (thanks to our wine tour guide the day before, I think I finally got the pronunciation down!) to REDD. I loved this place. The service was the anti-thesis of pretentious, but oh so professional and top-notch. You now the kind: the servers know precisely when you need them, but more importantly for me, exactly when to stay away. The food was spectacular: creamy chestnut soup with roasted apples; tuna & hamachi tartare with interesting “puffs” of rice; Petrale sole with clams and chorizo; and risotto with wild mushrooms & spinach. I’d love to go back for the 5-course lunch with wine pairings, when we don’t have to deal with a rental car return in Oakland, BART, and meeting friends downtown by 4:00. Phase II of the trip, when we chose none of the restaurants, was about to begin.

Dinner was at FARALLON. I was looking for something on the lighter side, so started with a ½ Dungeness crab and had a shrimp salad appetizer. Hard to judge the food only having two appetizers, but the Dungeness was on my list, and it didn’t disappoint. My husband had an appetizer of toast? topped with crème fraiche, smoked salmon, salmon caviar, and chives, and an entrée that was some type of fish, seared, and served with fingerlings. He enjoyed it very much. We all shared a mini baked Alaska for dessert. Service was very good and although the décor is a bit gimmicky, the vaulted ceiling is very cool. Definitely lots of groups here.

Wednesday night was a gathering of old friends, some of whom had not seen each other since we all lived in NYC in the early 00s. We started at the Lagunitas Brewery. I loved this place. We drink Lagunitas at home, but I had never had the Brown Shugga before – good stuff. I think we had an artichoke dip appetizer, but we weren’t there for the food. Dinner was at RISIBISI in downtown Petaluma. I started with some Delicata squash (more great veggies) and had garganelli with braised lamb for my main. Really good, and not swimming in sauce, which I like. My husband liked his seabass carpaccio and penne Puttanesca. I was too stuffed for the little doughnuts making their way around the table for dessert, but my husband reports they were tasty. Considering we closed the place down the night before Thanksgiving and never felt rushed, I give the service an A+.

Thanksgiving: cooking and dinner with old friends. All the fun, but half the stress of being with family! Great day. Not to mention a picnic (with Thanksgiving leftovers) on Marina Green on the following beautiful day.

Black Friday must have been successful in Downtown because so many places were packed! We were leaving on the red eye, so got to have our last meal in SF. Asian or Italian was up for discussion at a little coffee shop in North Beach. As much as I knew we should have gone for some really great Asian food, I had such a hankering for some red (and European, sorry) wine that I chose Italian. No one protested. So we shopped some menus and ended up at NORTH BEACH Restaurant, which had no problem taking our party of six (downstairs in the wine cellar). I wouldn’t send anyone out of the way for it, but it was decent, old-timey red gravy Italian – perfect with the Nero D’Avolo I ordered. The service was also old-timey – not that there’s anything wrong with that, very efficient. Oh, and the homemade prosciutto was very good. All enjoyed their dinners.

My favorite meal: Redd. Husband’s favorite: Farallon. Really great trip – and kept alive by the bottles and bottle of wine we had shipped home…

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  1. your remarks about Redd brought back memories of a meal I ate there. Totally agree about the service, and you managed to make me hungry. Redd is a really delightful restaurant. And, thanks for reporting on your trip.

    1. Great report and thanks for confirming a lot of what we Napas know... The Thomas is just way too expensive to recommend. Sorry you missed the happy hours at Hog Island; we locals don't even bother with it except on Oxbow's Locals night - and sometimes not even then!