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    What’s New in Napa?

    By David Landis–

    As a food and restaurant writer, I’m constantly asked, “What’s new? Where should I go? What should I try?” In San Francisco, there are always a plethora of new restaurants, and with Omicron subsiding, more are opening in the Bay Area every day.

    Yet, often people want to get away—especially during this pandemic. Tahoe, Carmel, and Santa Barbara are always great places to visit since they’re an easy drive. But even closer—and perhaps with the best restaurants of all—is the wine country and my personal favorite, Napa.

    So, what is new in Napa? Well, as it happens, quite a lot. And lucky for us, much of it is dog-friendly!

    My husband and I decided to explore Napa for the second time in a year, packed up the dogs, and took off for a couple of days last month to celebrate Valentine’s Day. It turns out that Napa offered many new places in which to celebrate.

    A great landing pad in downtown Napa—especially (but not only) for pet owners—is the luxurious River Terrace Inn. Run by Noble House and located on the beautiful Napa River a stone’s throw from downtown Napa and the Oxbow Market, this gorgeous property recently had a partial makeover, and it shines. All the rooms on the river side of the property are extremely quiet and have balconies with a birds-eye view to the water. We opted for a Luxury King room that included: a modern bath sporting a spacious walk-in shower, bathtub, and double sinks; a sitting area with a massive TV and fireplace; and a desk/workplace that doubles as a dining table. (Insider’s note: when visiting the hotel, I’d ask for one of the refurbished rooms.)

    Being pet-friendly, the hotel also delivered a goody welcome package with toys and treats for the pooches from Napa’s own Milo & Friends. A downside is there isn’t an onsite pool, but that hardly matters when you have hiking trails outside your doorstep.

    The hotel’s resident restaurant, Alba, is a design-forward space with soaring ceilings. Instead of indoors, we opted to have cocktails (the seasonal craft cocktail program is exemplary) and dinner with the dogs on the beautiful outdoor terrace overlooking the river. The wine menu focuses on local Napa offerings, but showcases a smattering of international wine choices as well. Additionally, the craft cocktail program sports one-of-a-kind libations in inventive combinations like the Berry Blossom Fizz (with raspberry vodka, lemon, and prosecco).

    Featuring local ingredients and California cuisine, Alba’s dinner standouts included: fresh-baked (and addictive) melt-in-your-mouth cornbread with a slightly-smoked maple butter and fruit jam; a mushroom and crescenza cheese tartine with kale, basil and balsamic—the combination of sweet and savory makes this appetizer almost a meal in itself; a bechamel sauce-based mussels and green olive toast from Napa’s local Model Bakery that tastes as if it’s right from Italy; and a generous little gem chopped salad that surprises with quinoa, roasted beets, pistachio, dried cherries, and roasted carrots, topped with Point Reyes blue cheese and house-made ranch dressing. The only disappointing offering that night were the lamb meatballs: they boasted a provocative herb-laden mixture, but they were undercooked on the inside and yet still dry. The restaurant was nice enough to send over its seasonal fruit and crumble that was very tasty, but we could only manage a couple of bites after this satisfying meal.

    Other new places of note in the Napa Valley: don’t miss the North Block Restaurant in Yountville, a true culinary highlight located within the beautiful, new North Block Hotel. This is one of Yountville’s best new restaurant offerings. The former chef earned a Michelin star from New York’s Momofuku and the innovative menu reinforces that influence. The courtyard setting is straight out of old Europe with stucco and Spanish tiles—and the interior is modern, clean, and artsy.

    We again opted to eat outdoors (which is dog-friendly), and the restaurant was prepared with heating lamps to counteract the Valley’s evening chill. We began our meal with the freshest Hamachi, served sliced with avocado, kohlrabi, and buddha’s head (a fruit that’s also called apple custard). Light and flavorful with surprising accents, this appetizer bode well for the rest of the meal.

    Other starters included a delicious golden beet and mandarin orange salad topped with Sicilian pistachios, which reminded us of some of the best dishes from the Mediterranean; and aromatic squash fritters exploding with flavor, served with a honeynut mousse and nori. For our mains, we opted for the “duck a la gray,” with preserved lime, crème fraiche, and tatsoi. Without a doubt, this was the best duck I’ve ever had in my life. Truth be told, I’m not usually a duck fan because often it’s not cooked properly. This duck was medium rare and juicy, yet still tender.

    Our other entrée—again not a usual favorite for The Gay Gourmet—were the smoked pork ribs. The reason I don’t normally like ribs is that the quality of the meat, if not chosen properly, can be grisly; also, they’re often over-cooked. These ribs were succulent with a Korean-style flavor that included caramelized honey, chili, and chrysanthemum. Simply divine! The menu also boasts snacks and wood-fired pizzas for a more casual dining option. To accompany our meal, we had a lovely Carballal Albarino white wine from Spain—dry, mineral, and clean. And our dear friend Kelly brought an amazingly smooth Alpha Omega Cabernet Sauvignon Beckstoffer Missouri Hopper 2014—a perfect complement to the duck.

    Desserts were equally amazing: a dense yet still light Burnt Mt. Tam cheesecake (served with whipped honey), a blood orange sorbet with chocolate mousse and meringue, and a sourdough ice cream with brown butter crumbles and persimmon that all provided a grand ending to a perfect meal.

    Another new, fun hotspot on the river in downtown Napa: Wilfred’s Tiki Lounge. As readers of this column know, The Gay Gourmet is something of a mai tai snob. Most places forget that the best recipe is Vic Bergeron’s original 1944 unadulterated version from Trader Vic’s. Wilfred’s looks like a modern yet retro tiki bar with all the visual Polynesian trappings, but with a bartender who knows what they’re doing and expertly re-creates Vic’s original recipe. Wilfred’s Mai Tai is the real deal—no grenadine here—and enjoying it on their upper deck with the riverfront view (and dogs at our side) is a true highlight.

    Even though it’s not new, we always love visiting Gott’s on the site of the old Taylor’s Refresher, the original burger joint in St. Helena. You order at the counter, round the corner to pick up your wine (yes, they have an extensive wine selection), and then wait at your picnic table for your cheeseburger (yup, with American cheese!) and onion rings. It’s still one of the best burgers in the Valley and the restaurant’s history is palpable. And, of course, it’s dog-friendly.

    Speaking of burgers, everyone has been raving about the cheeseburger at Chef Christopher Kostow’s (of Meadowood fame) more casual restaurant, Charter Oak, located on the site of the former personal favorite Tra Vigne in St. Helena. They’re not wrong. This burger, accompanied by hand cut fries, is smash-burger style with two patties of the best cuts of beef, served with white cheddar in between and topped with a jalapeño relish.

    Everything that Chef Kostow does is impeccable, with quality ingredients and an outstanding wine and cocktail list to boot. We started with grilled sunchokes accompanied by a mustard vinaigrette and paired it with a perfectly crisp Roland Lavantureux Chablis. We’ll have to return for the soft serve ice cream (with burnt vanilla) which also receives plaudits. Again, we ate outdoors on the deck and they welcomed Gaston and Alphonse with open arms. By the way, Chef Kostow (with wife Martina) will soon be opening a new Jewish delicatessen, Loveski at the Oxbow Public Market.

    It’s not new, but Hall Winery in St. Helena is a must-see destination. From the verdant gardens to the one-of-a-kind art collection (you can spot the winery from Highway 29 because of the giant steel rabbit sculpture that dominates the winery’s entrance) to the luxurious top-level tasting room with an outdoor lounge, Hall exudes class. That said, the Halls are currently embroiled in a controversy over a land acquisition in Napa that has made the news and is unresolved as of my press time. Regardless, we love their wines.

    We sampled a clean Sauvignon Blanc with just a hint of oak as well as the winery’s “Art of Cabernet Tasting.” The Terra Secca Cabernet has more of a European style and the Coeur is true Napa Valley—rich, bold, and tasty. The winery is, of course, dog friendly, and the views of the vineyards from the upstairs, outdoor lounge are divine.

    Of special note, Hall Winery hosts its thirteenth annual Cabernet Cookoff on Saturday, April 30. Hosted by Vintner Kathryn Hall, the event features a lineup of renowned culinary teams vying for a chance to win proceeds for a charity of their choice by participating in a food and wine pairing competition. 100% of ticket proceeds benefit nonprofit organizations as selected by the winning chef teams. The event includes a VIP Culinary Stage event from 11 am to noon prior to the main event that takes place from noon–3 pm. Chef teams are tasked to create a small dish that they feel pairs best with 2019 HALLJack’s Masterpiece Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2022 Cabernet Cookoff also serves as the release of the 2019 vintage of the Jack’s Masterpiece wine. Guests in attendance will sample all pairings to vote on the People’s Choice Awards, and a star-studded panel of celebrity judges will taste to vote for the Judge’s Choice Awards.

    Again, not so new (but new to me) is Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch (curated by the Halls), a delightful repast for lunch in a bucolic setting. In addition to the outdoor restaurant, the complex also includes a grocery store, bar, and indoor dining. The shining star is its outdoor patio, especially during those lovely Napa spring days. The wine list, of course, highlights local Napa and nearby regions, but offers a smattering of international varietals (and beers) as well. The cocktail program is out-of-the-box, presenting such creative concoctions as a “Birds of Paradise” (mezcal, aperol, passionfruit, caramelized pineapple, and lime).

    Our starter included a tasty wood-grilled Castroville artichoke with grilled lemon and gribiche, fresh off the farm; from there, we split a rich yet fresh Dungeness crab roll on a brioche bun with house-made potato chips; the cole slaw with cabbage and green apple was a standout, as was the homemade potato salad with whole grain mustard; the special pork tacos with mango were juicy and not overcooked, with just the right amount of tang. The beignets, crisp, light, and fluffy and dusted with a generous sprinkling of powdered sugar, left us on a high note, a great topper to a delicious meal.

    Newish to me and now at the top of my wine-tasting list, Davis Estates on the Silverado Trail near Calistoga marries great wines with Michelin-quality food pairings. It is family-run and our guide was son Brandon Davis, who was knowledgeable and welcoming (even to the dogs!). The setting on a hilltop offers panoramic views, and the winery tasting room is an architectural wonder.

    Remember this name: Chef Mark Caldwell. His food rivals some of San Francisco’s finest restaurants. Our wine/food pairing began with a lovely 2019 Sauvignon Blanc paired with a leek and russet potato bisque; light yet still creamy. It was a perfect accent to the clean, white wine. We then sampled the 2018 Classic Chase, a delicious red wine paired with roasted carrots and chermoula, date paste, smoked gouda, and kalamata olives.

    The Davis Estate red wines are elegant and smooth, holding up well to spicy offerings, but without the bombast of many big Napa Valley red wines. From there, we tried the elegant 2017 Zephyr wine, paired with a black truffle spaetzle, sauteed kale, roasted maitake mushrooms, and topped with truffle cream and tarragon crunch. To conclude, we had a taste of the magnificent 2018 Calistoga Cabernet, paired with an Asian-braised Niman Ranch beef short rib (moist and juicy) with coconut milk polenta. The Gay Gourmet gives Davis Estates 5 stars!

    All in all, there are many great new reasons to visit Napa (and its dog-friendly offerings) once again!

    Bits and Bites

    Undercover Quinoa Crisps – A healthy, chocolate crunch bar that titillates your taste buds, they’re light as air, yet still tasty. Because they’re nearly 50% crispy quinoa, they have less sugar. They’re all natural and gluten free. The chocolate is luxury grade, certified Rainforce Alliance chocolate—flavorful, but not overpowering. The crisps come in a variety of flavors that include dark and milk chocolate as well as a mixture of fruits like blueberries, pomegranate, and currants that offer pleasant accents. The dark chocolate/sea salt is now available at Costco. All flavors are available online and also in CVS, Rainbow Grocery, and Rite Aid stores.

    Wildgrain – Delicious frozen sourdough loaves are sent directly to your home; just pop them frozen in the oven and you have freshly-baked, tasty, and crusty bread in about a half hour. Their frozen homemade pastas are the real deal as well: easy to cook and they taste just like your Nonna from Italy made it fresh.

    St. Benoit Creamery Yogurt from Sonoma – one of the creamiest plain yogurts I’ve ever sampled—so delish! This yogurt brand sports a topping of cream that adds to its luxurious texture. Other flavors include: Meyer Lemon, Strawberry, and French Vanilla (which have added sugar). Also, the vanilla, salted caramel, and TCHO chocolate pot de crèmes are to die for! And their plain organic milk is anything but plain. From real Jersey cows blended with real cream, this whole milk comes in real glass and tastes as if it’s fresh from the farm.

    New in the Castro is Hot Johnnie’s on 18th Street,which features house-cured pastrami, plant-based corned beef, grass-fed burgers and halal fried chicken sandwiches. On top of that, they have a lovely deck out back, perfect to enjoy the springtime sun.

    Eclipse Dairy-Free (and Plant-Based) Ice Cream – from Oakland, a company that makes non-lactose ice cream that is refreshing, surprisingly creamy, and really tastes good! For those with lactose intolerance, this is a terrific alternative. It’s also plant-based, so it helps the planet. I personally loved the Mint Chip, but the company’s flavors also include: Caramel Butter Pecan, Cookies N’ Cream, Classic Chocolate, Vintage Vanilla, Mango Passionfruit, and more.

    Chef/owner Bruno Chemel has announced that Bauméin Palo Alto just ended service in February and re-opens this month as Bistronomie by Baumé, showcasing bistro style dishes prepared with gastronomic cooking methods.

    Fine dining restaurant Luce at InterContinental SF Hotel partners with the City College of San Francisco (CCSF) Culinary Arts & Hospitality Studies program for the 11th Annual Culinary Clash 2022, a fundraiser for CCSF’s Culinary Arts & Hospitality Studies scholarship fund. Six rising CCSF students and recent graduates take over Luce’s world-class kitchen on three consecutive Mondays (March 14, 21 & 28) to showcase their very own three-course fine-dining menu as they compete for scholarship and cash prizes. CCSF Culinary Arts & Hospitality Studies students/grads gain unprecedented real-world kitchen experience while a panel of special guest judges and Rogelio Garcia (Luce, Executive Chef) judge the tasting menus to see which ones truly stand out in flavor, technique, pricing, and originality. Culinary Clash 2022 is open to the public and tickets are $50/person.

    KAIYO Rooftop, a contemporary Peruvian Nikkei bar and lounge owned and operated by San Francisco restaurateur John Park of Brick x Brick Hospitality Group (KAIYŌ, Whitechapel, and Novela) just opened in San Francisco’s SOMA neighborhood. Nestled on the rooftop of the Hyatt Place Hotel in SOMA, steps away from Oracle Park, KAIYŌ Rooftop is the second location for Park’s KAIYŌ concept, following the success of the concept’s Cow Hollow restaurant. 

    Congratulations! U.S. News and World Reportjust named Hotel Valencia Santana Row the #1 hotel in San Jose.

    The popular Schlok’s Bagels just opened a brick-and-mortar store in Nopa on Fell off Divisadero Street—and since The Gay Gourmet is always looking for a great bagel, I’ve heard these are certainly ones to try.

    Some good news for The Castro: A new ordinance recently passed by San Francisco’s supervisors will allow additional bars to open in the commercial district of the neighborhood. Cheers to that!

    Cassava in the Outer Richmond just celebrated its 10th anniversary and is planning a second location opening in North Beach for August.

    And one of The Gay Gourmet’s favorites, Sam’s Anchor Café, just reported its biggest January ever in its 102-year-history. Bravo, that’s quite an accomplishment!

    River Terrace Inn and Alba Restaurant:
    Visit Downtown Napa:
    Milo & Friends:
    North Block Restaurant:
    Alpha Omega Winery:
    Wilfred’s Tiki Lounge:
    Gott’s Roadside Napa:
    Charter Oak:
    Loveski Deli Napa at Oxbow Market:
    Farmstead Restaurant at Long Meadow Ranch:
    Undercover Quinoa Crisps:
    St. Benoit Creamery:
    Hot Johnnie’s:
    Eclipse Non-Dairy Ice Cream:
    Bistronomie by Baume:
    Luce at the SF Intercontinental Hotel:
    KAIYO Rooftop:
    Hotel Valencia Santana Row:
    Schlok’s Bagels:
    Castro Merchants Association:
    Sam’s Anchor Café:

    David Landis, aka “The Gay Gourmet,” is a foodie, a freelance writer and a retired PR maven. Follow him on Instagram @GayGourmetSF or email him at: Or visit him online at:

    Published on March 10, 2022