Mick Salyer will gladly tell you that the success of his downtown Napa restaurant, ZuZu Tapas, inspired him to open a Spanish food and wine bar three doors down the street.
What actually cemented that decision was a trip taken early last year with hospitality industry associates to San Sebastian in the heart of Basque country. Once he returned to the valley, Salyer set his sights on developing and opening La Taberna, a goal he accomplished late last October.
La Taberna — a most informal, social networking spot — has proven to be popular with locals as well as wine country visitors now flocking to Main Street in Napa, or as some refer to it, Restaurant Row.
While Salyer first envisioned his second Main Street business as a Spanish bar offering wine and beer, plus a few pintxos, the inexpensive Basque-style finger foods have been figuring prominently the daily bill of fare.
A typical snack of the Basque country, pintxos traditionally consist of small slices of bread upon which an ingredient or mixture of ingredients is placed and fastened with a toothpick, which gives the food its name, meaning “spike.” Pintxos are usually eaten as an appetizer, accompanied by a small glass of wine or beer. They are used as an excuse for socializing. Typically, a group of friends will go from one tavern to another, drinking small glasses of wine or beer and eating pintxos.
People often ask about the difference between pintxos and tapas. It’s probably best if you leave that debate up to, say, a resident of Madrid and a resident of San Sebastian.
Tapas can be practically anything from a chunk of tuna, cocktail onion and an olive skewered on a long toothpick, to a piping hot meat with sauce served in a miniature clay dish — or anything in between. Tapas are served day in and day out in every bar and cafe in Spain. It’s so much a part of the culture and social scene that the Spanish people invented the verb tapear, which means to go and eat tapas.
Asked to describe the daily food menu at La Taberna, chef de cuisine Yancy Windsperger said it’s “Spanish-inspired and California-driven. Our goal is to use as much local product as possible. Pintxos, as you know, are small plates. We like to keep them playful … (offering) something that you wouldn’t do at home, focusing on different flavors and textures.”
The pintxos are meant to complement sherries, sparkling and still wines, beers and ciders — “an eclectic array of beverages, predominantly from northern Spain,” the chef added.
The daily pintxos menu is written on a chalkboard hanging behind the bar, but within eyesight of the tables that flip down from the tavern’s south wall, for those guests who prefer a bar stool to standing at the busy bar. Always a feature of the menu is the prized jamon Iberico, along with suckling pig and fried pork belly. On a recent evening, additional pintxos plates included smoked black cod, squid and blood sausage, lamb tartare, as well as both skate and prawns a la plancha. For those with a sweet tooth, Idiazabal flan and honey empanadas were also among the selections.
The printed beverage menu provided guests includes a dozen sherries, even more beer and cider options (from not only Spain, but Iceland, France, Belgium, Germany, Canada, Louisiana and California), plus more than a dozen wines by the glass and nearly five dozen by the bottle. Beverage director Shawn LaSage has put together a list that includes such grape varieties as hondaribbi zuri, albarino, treixadura, verdejo, listan negro and godello from Spain; several vinho verdes, plus touriga nacional, robigato and arinto from Portugal; cinsault, picpoul, grenache and petit manseng from France. Napa Valley and the North Coast are represented by selections that include Lee Hudson’s Carneros rose, Failla and Matthiason chardonnay, Coho merlot and Pride cabernet sauvignon.
A team effort
A native of Minneapolis, chef de cuisine Yancy Windsperger joined Salyer’s culinary team at ZuZu last May. The wife of one of the chefs at ZuZu worked with him at Morimoto Napa and told him about Salyer’s plan for La Taberna.
Like many who man commercial stoves today, Windsperger got his start in the business at age 14 as a dishwasher, working in a mom-and-pop pizza restaurant not far from his home. A loyal employee, he remained on the staff for seven years, working his way up the ladder to pizza chef and eventually manager.
Windsperger continued in the restaurant business while he studied at a community college in the area. One of the chefs he worked with encouraged him to become a professional chef. He followed that advice, enrolling in the two-year course of studies at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. He worked in New York City for a time before returning to Hyde Park to get his bachelor’s degree.
Job offers poured in from around the country once Windsperger completed his CIA studies — from nearby New Jersey to Utah, Miami to Texas, California and Arizona. He accepted the offer of the Hillstone Group, owners locally of Rutherford Grill and R + D Kitchen in Yountville. Following a training program in Los Angeles, he took a post in Miami. But when he and his girlfriend found Florida not to their liking, both returned to Los Angeles. Windsperger worked for Wolfgang Puck at Spago and then spent three years at Jose Andres’ Bazaar. A headhunter introduced him to chef Kang Kuan at Morimoto, which led to a two-year stint with the Morimoto Napa culinary team just prior to his current post.
General manager Eddie Heintz grew up near Ames, Iowa. He’s been in California since 1985 when he came here to open several TGI Fridays eateries. Save for a couple of years spent in Hawaii in the employ of a hotel and a brewing company, Heintz has been a part of the California hospitality industry.
“With the help of Donna and Giovanni (Scala), I moved back here from Hawaii,” Heintz said, “and I worked the front-of-the-house for them at Bistro Don Giovanni.” In addition to working for Napa’s Bounty Hunter, Heintz over the years ran several restaurants in the Golden State, including Piatti Santa Barbara, Pane e Vino and Il Fornaio in the Bay Area.
The newest member of the culinary team is executive chef Jean-Claude Balek. A native of New York, Balek grew up in San Francisco and credits his mother for his passion for cooking. He’s worked with a number of well-known chefs, including Jeremiah Tower and Peter Hall at Stars Oakville, Gary Danko at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco and Roland Passot at Menlo Park’s Left Bank. Before joining the Left Bank team, Balek was executive chef of Restaurant Cellars de Tarragona in Spain.
Prior to Spain he was executive chef and Partner in Wolf House Restaurant in Glen Ellen. Locally, Balek also cooked at The Grill at Meadowood, Auberge du Soleil and Bistro Don Giovanni. He served as executive chef for five years at Google headquarters in Silicon Valley, and most recently for Palantir Technologies.
Balek is overseeing all culinary operations at La Taberna, ZuZu Tapas and ZuZu Wood-fired Paella Co., a catering company also owned by Salyer.
Located at 815 Main St., Napa, La Taberna opens daily at 2 p.m., serving food and drink until 11 p.m. most days and until midnight Friday and Saturday. Reservations are not accepted. For information, call 707-224-5551.