Growing up in Napa, I’d never heard of dim sum until I left town to go to Berkeley, and someone invited me out to dinner in San Francisco. For dim sum.
We sat in a tiny place in the city, and server after server came by with trays of all kinds of things, and I had no idea what any of them were. And we got to look them over and choose a little of this, a little of that, dumplings, buns, little fried things, and packages wrapped in leaves.
I, who had gone from Napa to dorm food, Grossburgers and Top Dog, had never experienced such an exotic dining adventure.
These many years later, dim sum has become a hugely popular dining choice — dim sum brunches are all the rage in cities, I’m told — but it has yet to show up in Napa. Until now.
Since the Culinary Institute of American bought the Copia building in Napa, they’ve embarked on all kinds of changes, from knocking down walls and adding windows, to building a fantastic teaching kitchen for food enthusiast classes.
Now they are in the process of transforming the lobby — always an odd duck of design; no matter what anyone tried, it remained a vast, cold, empty space — into a food hall offering different dining options.
So far, they’ve opened three food stalls, including: dim sum.
It’s a work in progress, said director of strategic marketing Anne Girvin. And if the public likes it, they will expand offerings. At the dim sum stall now, you can find pork and shrimp shumai (five for $5); mushroom rice dumplings (two for $6); shrimp dumplings (five for $6); pork belly sliders on steamed buns with coleslaw and house made pickles ($15); and an Asian noodle salad ($9).
This week, they’ll be adding ramen to the choices.
At another stall, staff have begun selling fresh produce harvested from the CIA gardens, along with a choice of salads, cheese and charcuterie, ranging in price from $8 for a green salad daily special, to $20 for a chef’s choice of two cheeses and two meats. A Northern California cheese plate ($15) or charcuterie plate ($15).
Another lunchtime option is pizza from the outdoor wood-fired oven. Three choices right now are a meat combo with pepperoni, bacon, fennel sausage, onion, tomato and mozzarella ($15); garden pizza with summer vegetables, burrata and fresh basil ($12) and pizza bianco with proscuitto, arugula, mushrooms, mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses ($14).
The food stalls are open seven days a week, with the coffee bar open at 8 a.m. and lunch beginning at 11:30 a.m.
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There is no admission fee to go into the CIA at Copia. Visitors really are welcome just to drop in and see what’s going on.
Another dining option is outside at the former box office, where Contimo Provisions serves heartier breakfast, like sausage on biscuits, and lunch from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. You can order at the outdoor window for take-out or sit down to eat at tables in the gardens. Lunch sandwiches includes a meatball sub ($13.50), roast beef ($12), poached chicken ($12), pimento cheese and heirloom tomato ($10), B.L.T. ($12) and Cubano ($13).
They also sell a pasta salad ($5), marinated tomato and green bean salad ($5) and a garden lettuces salad ($10).
All of this is in addition to the Restaurant at the CIA, which is open from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. This restaurant has gone through several changes since opening, and the popular chef Polly Lapetito left last May after getting the menu on track with an easy-going, highly seasonal menu, anchored by a couple of popular favorites, the Copia Burger with house-made chips ($17) and Steak Frites with chimichurri ($24). (Lapetito said she is taking some time off to consider her next move.)
Spicy Mussels are on the menu ($19) and Oricheette with Sausage and Peppers ($17), but so are lighter options, a Summer Squash Frittata ($16), and several outstanding salads, Shell Bean and Frisse ($16), Crab & Shrimp with a lemon vinaigrette ($22) and Grilled Chicken Paillard, a scallop of chicken, pounded flat, grilled quickly and served heaped with chopped salad with chickpeas and a green olive tapenade ($19).
More ideas, community connections
Girvin said they are continuing to add ideas to their first of a kind Napa venture, which is designed entirely for the public.
This past Sunday, they launched a new beer garden, with brats, beers, bocce and live music. The next beer event is scheduled for Aug. 26, 1-4 p.m.
I also got a sneak preview of the Chuck Williams museum, slated to open in September, and this is going to be a fascinating collection to view — and to inspire visitors to head down to the Shop at Copia and add to their own kitchen treasures.
When the first Copia opened back in 2001, it quickly became clear that it was a place more intended for visitors than locals, but as the new Copia, the CIA’s Copia continues to take shape, it’s clear that the community is playing a much bigger and more important role in their planning, as they create adventures for locals as wells as tourists. Including dim sum.