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Local Tastes: Tim Carl’s top 20 Napa Valley eateries for 2019
Local Tastes

Local Tastes: Tim Carl’s top 20 Napa Valley eateries for 2019

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This year’s top picks for restaurants include some Napa Valley stalwarts as well as some new additions to the local scene. These 20 outstanding eateries range from super fancy to extremely casual. Throughout the valley’s 200-plus dining establishments are plenty of excellent options, but these are some that are making their culinary voices heard and their customers happy.

The criteria include assessing the quality of the food, service and ambience and also taking into consideration the eatery’s approach to sustainability and staffing stability as well as their popularity assessed by informal polls and online ratings.

Within this year’s top 20 are two in Calistoga, six in Napa, eight in St. Helena and four in Yountville. Your list might be different, and I encourage you to add or subtract to this one based on your own taste and experience. It is disappointing that there are not more women and people of color represented here, and my sincere hope is that this will change in the future as the Napa Valley achieves greater diversity.

At the end I provide a list of honorable mentions of restaurants that are not included in the list but are worthy of your consideration. The French Laundry and Kenzo are not on the list because I didn’t eat at these restaurants in 2019; however, all indications are that these two remain exceptional choices.

Top 10:

1. Angèle restaurant and bar (Napa). Since 2002 owner Bettina Rouas has built a cozy eatery for those seeking consistently excellent food and friendly, consistent service. The menu explores Northern California produce through the lens of French country cuisine, which seems a near-perfect match for many local wines. The new chef, Phil Moratin, joined eight months ago and is making his mark, lifting the already excellent menu to new heights. This restaurant is quintessential Napa Valley comfort. Try the Cassoulet with Toulouse sausage, duck confit, creamy butter beans and Delicata squash ($34).

2. The Charter Oak (St. Helena). The creation of culinary visionary Christopher Kostow and executed by Chef David Guilloty, the food at this 2-year-old restaurant is delicious, often sourced hyper-locally and prepared in a manner that explores wonderful textures and non-typical flavor combinations. The service can be hit or miss at times, but the food and creativity make up for any minor shortfalls. The warmth of the large, open grill, the lively crowds on weekends and a cooking staff that is the best-trained, hippest and most innovative in the valley mean there is just nothing else like it. Try the cheeseburger with its crispy, crunchy tenderness accompanied by gooey cheese and a fruity (not hot) jalapeño salsa that renders ketchup irrelevant ($20, includes fries).

3. Ciccio (Yountville). Crafting pizza that any resident of Naples, Italy, would consider worthy, Ciccio makes stunning pies. Beyond the excellent and creative pizzas, the chef, Peruvian-born Bryant Minuche, and his crew also make outstanding creations such as cauliflower “Al Forni” with brown butter and pine nuts or the Cacio E Pepe. The owners are local vintners Frank and Karen Altamura and their sons, Giancarlo and Frank Jr., along with their super-friendly local floor staff have created an environment that feels — even if you’re alone at the bar — like you have gathered with a roomful of friends and family. The menu changes daily, but if it’s on the menu when you go, try the potato and onion, rosemary, grilled lemon and Taleggio pizza ($26).

4. Perry Lang’s (Yountville). Bucking the trend of serving more plant-based menu items, Chef Perry Lang is focused on serving exceptional meats that have been cured, brined, smoked, barbecued or otherwise cared for in a manner that makes meat a special event. While I don’t support a reversal of the push for more plant-based items — quite the contrary — if you are going to eat meat, Lang’s care and expertise make the experience sublime. Try the St. Louis ribs ($19).

5. Compline (Napa). The creators of Compline include the former wine director for Charlie Trotter’s, Ryan Stetins, and Master Sommelier Matt Stamp, formerly at The French Laundry. Opened in 2017, the initial idea morphed and expanded to become what is a combination wine bar, restaurant, wine retail shop and wine education hub. The eatery is located in the increasingly quiet First Street Mall, but it is worth the trip. They serve a range of food that includes what many consider to be the best burger in the valley, and the many plant-based menu items can pair exceptionally well with some of the wines by the glass. Try the warm ancient grains with chanterelles, lentils, apricot and Ricotta Salata ($26).

6. The Station (St. Helena). Joel Gott — owner of Gott’s Roadside, a fantastically popular fast-casual chain of eateries that started in St. Helena and now has half a dozen locations in Northern California — has quietly opened a new-concept casual-food shop. This time, instead of grilling hamburgers, The Station is located alongside a working gas station and serves breakfast and lunch items. They are currently open only Thursday through Sunday because of the challenges of finding enough staff. When opened, the walk-up counter offers exceptional coffee (often from local roaster Naysayer), breakfast sandwiches and a collection of the currently popular “toasts.” Beyond avocado, these thick slices of house-made Levain bread made with locally grown, organic Capay Mills flour, are topped with everything from cinnamon and sugar to sweet-potato hummus. Try the smoked salmon toast with whipped feta, cucumber and pickled red onions ($9).

7. Goose & Gander (St. Helena). Since taking over St. Helena’s Martini House restaurant space in 2012, Goose & Gander has consistently provided Napa Valley residents and guests with cozy digs in which to enjoy non-fussy, rustic American pub-style fare with an exceptional cocktail menu. Two years ago Nic Jones came on as executive chef and has since slowly evolved and elevated the food. Beyond the expressive menu and friendly service, the speakeasy-styled bar in the basement is the best bar in the Napa Valley. Order a bowl of creamy mushroom soup ($13).

8. Miminashi (Napa). Curtis Di Fede — former chef at Napa’s popular Oenotri — creates modern izakaya-style Japanese fare with a menu packed with grilled-yakitori options, savory ramens, crunchy-chewy fried rices, toothsome noodles, a variety of raw options and delicious soft ice creams for dessert. Beyond the food, Jessica Pinzon has created a masterful list of wines, sakes and cocktail options. The building’s interior design is striking, with a wood-sided entrance covered with pointy wood carvings that represent Mount Fuji and an interior wood ceiling that represents interlocking pagodas. Try the Chawanmushi with steamed egg custard, roasted root vegetables, Manila clams and soba dashi ($15).

9. Solbar (Calistoga). In early 2019 the resort hired Gustavo Rios as their executive chef. Rios had also been a member of the initial team at Solage until he left in 2015 to become the head chef at another Calistoga restaurant, Evangeline. Serving creative breakfast, lunch and dinner is no easy task, but the team under Rios produces well-executed fresh dishes that often come with some sort of intriguing surprise, such as the multiple uses of a single ingredient or the reinvigorated use of some forgotten technique. Try the olive-oil poached Alaskan halibut with mushrooms, broccoli Romanesco, Brussels sprouts and sauce béarnaise ($45).

10. Gran Electrica (Napa). Tamer Hamawi and his wife, Blaire Scheibal (a local with Calistoga roots), opened the restaurant with their New York partners in 2018. The menu is modernized Mexican “street food” prepared by Chef Ignacio Beltran and his team coupled with creative cocktails served in a spacious indoor-outdoor dining room decorated with art inspired by Mexico’s Day of the Dead holiday and murals. Try the satisfying Chile Relleno — a large poblano chile filled with havarti and queso fresco, served with roasted tomato-jalapeño salsa ranchera, tortillas ($11).

Top 11 through 20:

11. The Restaurant at Meadowood (St. Helena). Wildly elegant while retaining its culinary relevancy. Try the shorter version of the normal menu with the three-course tasting menu served at the bar ($150).

12. La Toque (Napa). Chef Ken Frank often keeps a low profile, but his restaurant remains a tasty addition to the higher-end options throughout the Napa Valley. Try the vegetable tasting menu ($110).

13. Brasswood (St. Helena). Much of the team from the wildly popular Tra Vigne in St. Helena run the show at what has become a go-to for many locals, including winemakers and chefs looking for consistency and decent pricing. Try the Chicken Piccata with smashed potatoes and grilled vegetables ($28).

14. Mustards Grill (Yountville). Another locals’ hangout owned by Chef Cindy Pawlcyn, a pioneer in the development of Wine Country cuisine. Try the daily lamb (market price).

15. Acacia House (St. Helena). Chef Chris Cosentino opened St. Helena’s Acacia House in 2017. Expectations were high, and the staff continues to deliver. Have a Las Alcobas Margarita with salted foam ($15) and the Campanelle with charred rapini, duck sausage and crispy garlic ($26).

16. Bouchon Bakery (Yountville). Just down the street from his famous French Laundry restaurant in Yountville, in 2003 Chef Thomas Keller opened the doors to his first Bouchon Bakery. Consistent and with everything made with skill, the bakery often has a long line of tourists and locals alike waiting for coffee and pastries. Try the Brownie ($2) or the Brie L.T. sandwich ($10).

17. Farmstead (St. Helena). The owner, Ted Hall, once told me that all he wanted was that everyone who visited the Napa Valley would eat at his restaurant at least once. I’m not sure how he and his team do it, but he may be close to achieving his goal. Always super busy. Try the grass-fed beef tartar with egg, capers, cornichons and grilled bread ($18.50 or $33 for a dinner-sized option).

18. Hal Yamashita (Napa). For Japanese-influenced food in Napa this newly opened restaurant sits somewhere between Kenzo (super high-end) and Miminashi (more street-fare focused). Try the sushi (market price).

19. Evangeline (Calistoga). Although they lost their original chef a year ago, the owner, Sasan Nayeri, and his team carry on making eclectic dishes that lean toward Cajun bistro fare. Try the Gumbo Ya-Ya ($25).

20. Roadhouse 29 (St. Helena). Michelin-rated chef Doug Keane and his team of experts are making a crazy collection of tasty items in the beautiful Freemark Abbey space that includes outdoor seating. They are also trying to pay their staff a living wage in this no-tip restaurant. Try the plant-based seasoned “impossible meat” with tzatziki sauce, Greek salad mix and a grilled pita ($17) or the 48 Hour Kim Chee Brined Fried Full Chicken ($48).

Honorable mentions:

In Calistoga: All Seasons, Lovina, The Calistoga Inn, The Pickled Pig, Sam’s General Store, and Veraison;

In St. Helena: Cliff Family Bruschetteria, Cook, Market, Tra Vigne Pizzeria, and Press;

In Yountville: Brix, Southside Cafe;

In Napa: Ca’Momi Osteria, La Taberna, Las Palmas, Melted, Oenotri, and TORC.

David Stoneberg's top 5 most memorable stories of 2019

As editor of the St. Helena Star, I get a chance to produce some good stories, often wine-related stories and occasionally, I am able to delve deeper into a subject.

Jesse Duarte's 5 memorable stories of 2019

Here are some of my favorite stories from the past year. They each got positive feedback, and they were a lot of fun to write.

Tim Carl grew up in St. Helena (class of ‘84). Left to join the Navy, came back, married his sweetheart and went to school. He ended up getting his Ph.D in biology at CU and became a Fellow at Harvard. Later, in 2006, he co-founded Knights Bridge Winery.

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