Scott Kendall may not equate his livelihood to that of the phoenix.
Yet, like the long-lived mythical bird that is cyclically regenerated or reborn, Kendall and his popular Napa restaurant and wine bar have been given, like the phoenix, a new lease on life.
The Sebastopol native was about to add a new bar and lounge to his very successful downtown establishment, Carpe Diem, when last August’s earthquake wreaked havoc on historic Alexandria Square, the Second Street building that houses his restaurant and other businesses.
Held up as city officials and preservationists weighed reconstruction options, repairs to the building are just about complete — so much so in the Carpe Diem space that Kendall and his crew returned to restaurant stoves last week.
Put a lot of small businesses in the same position Kendall found himself in “and they’re not coming back,” the soft-spoken restaurateur said the other afternoon as staffers readied the dining room for its initial post-earthquake dinner crowd. “We lost months and months due to issues involving the historical significance of the building. I was lucky that I had a little money saved to live on.
“I have to thank the DeSimoni family and All Phase Construction (for getting Carpe Diem ready for customers) — they helped us considerably.”
Kendall also praised his new general manager, Jim Foster — who had been hired but 12 hours before the earthquake struck — and his chef de cuisine, Andrew Martin, for keeping Carpe Diem alive over the long winter and interim spring.
The Carpe Diem team opened a pop-up eatery and takeout venture in the Oxbow Market. “That was helpful,” Kendall noted. “It kept our name out there and key members of our crew together. We also gained new clientele ... found a new demographic. It wasn’t about the money — just keeping Carpe Diem alive.”
Now, that core group, along with young but experienced front-of-the-house staffers, are eager to bring Carpe Diem back to friends and family who’d made it one of the busiest food and drink spots in downtown Napa for the past five years.
One doesn’t have to visit Carpe Diem more than a few times to pick up on the distinct “Cheers” vibe.
“Everybody does know your name,” said general manager Foster. “This is a place where customers leave their titles at the door.” And he should know as a 30-year veteran of the hospitality industry who, prior to that, worked in Japan/U.S. trade relations. Locals recognize Foster from his recent stints at Tarla, the Bank Bar at the Westin Verasa and Etoile at Domaine Chandon.
Not only is the re-energized wine bar and dining room ready to welcome regulars, newcomers and visitors, Carpe Diem has a new add-on — a full bar and lounge as well as a place to hold private dining events.
“We had finished setting up the (adjacent) space for our first private party, even had the tables set, that night before the earthquake hit,” Kendall said.
“For now, we’ll be using it as an extension of our dining room because of the loss of our patio seating. Eventually, it will become our late-night bar.” The new lounge can accommodate up to 42 guests for private dining functions.
With the new liquor license, Kendall and Foster have hired a pair of experienced mixologists to offer craft cocktails to guests. The chef said his crew has been helping prepare drink ingredients like a fresh peach syrup and a strawberry/anise hyssop.
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Carpe Diem is also brewing its own draft beers, with Aftershock IPA and Belgian Farmhouse Saison just two of the half dozen on tap at the moment.
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An easygoing chef whose youthful appearance belies 20 years in the kitchen, Kendall sources all of his produce from four area gardens. His menu is simple, rife with tasty small plates, artisanal cheeses, charcuterie and yummy flatbreads.
Inspired by seasonal ingredients, Kendall’s soups are popular with diners. At the moment, he’s featuring smoked heirloom tomato soup. Regulars like the fact that it’s possible to order a shot ($2), cup ($4.40) or bowl ($7).
He makes his own burrata daily, serving the soft, rich cheese with heirloom tomatoes, bacon and caramelized onion jam ($14). Additional starters include ahi tartare ($13) with jicama, avocado, tobiko and taro chips; duck liver mousse ($12) with grilled peaches; plus house fries with harissa and pecorino cheese as well as truffle fries with Parmesan cheese ($6 and $8. respectively).
Salads ($9-$12) include garden greens with red onions, candied walnuts, pickled plums and shaved Parmesan; heirloom melons with baby mustard greens, feta cheese, shaved fennel and crispy beets; plus a seasonal chopped salad that tosses together arugula, Israeli couscous, pancetta, tomatoes, crispy corn and local goat cheese.
Brick oven flatbreads ($14-$16) feature roasted wild mushooms with roasted garlic and Gruyere cheese, shredded barbecue chicken with smoked mozzarella as well as heirloom tomatoes with tarragon/basil pesto and ricotta cheese.
A tasty variety of artisanal cheeses and charcuterie — some of the latter made in house — are offered daily, ranging from $6 to $21.
Fans of the chef’s quack ‘n’ cheese can take heart — this mix of pasta, duck confit and caramelized onions remains on the small plates menu ($12-$17); other offerings include an ever-changing selection of tacos, filet mignon steak skewers, crab-stuffed squash blossoms and mussels steamed in a white wine broth with grilled corn and roasted peppers.
Larger plates ($18-$24) to be shared — or not — range from seared diver scallops with carrot-ginger risotto to pappardelle with oyster mushrooms, fresh peas and preserved lemon, ostrich burger with brie, cherry and caramelized onion compote served with truffle fries to the chef’s harissa claypot, featuring harissa crusted lamb tenderloin, Israeli couscous and sumac-lemon yogurt.
Desserts ($8) include the chef’s well-liked Mexican chocolate pot de creme as well as any number of seasonal cobblers.
“Our shared plate style menu encourages people to enjoy life with wine, food and good company,” Kendall reminds diners on the restaurant menu.
“Carpe Diem, loosely translated, means seize the day — eat, drink and be merry, and give thanks for today.”
Restaurant regulars are thankful to have Kendall and company back downtown where they started out more than five years ago. They’re welcoming the team with open arms — and mouths.
Carpe Diem is located at 101 Second St., Napa. Hours are 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, with service extending to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Happy hour is observed daily from 4 to 6 p.m. For reservations, call 707-224-0800.