When ‘over the hill’ is a good thing
One of the very best parts about living in Sonoma is that downtown Napa is just a quick jaunt over the hill, a mere fifteen minutes away. It seems that each time I buzz through downtown, usually on my way to slurp some oysters or pick up some other deliciousness at the Oxbow, there is a new scene-y looking dining spot tucked between more established places that I already love.
Downtown Napa, over the last few years, has gone from utterly seedy to only slightly seedy in certain spots, but absolutely delicious all the same. Following, find my short list of favorite spots, new and old, worth checking out now.
The Thomas is a new hipster hot spot located in a very cool, very old, historic building along the Napa River that has sadly sat empty since the early seventies. There is a creepy story that hints at a haunting, but the wine chugging, skinny jean wearing crowd doesn’t seem to mind. The building has been fabulously restored and decorated in simply the most fashionable style around. The best part of the atmospheric, three-story dining room is the gorgeous, open air, rooftop space dotted with tables and a long wooden bar all glowing beneath strings of twinkling lights.
The menu reads like a birthday wish list. Think bone marrow on toast and classic French bistro seafood plateaus. Everything about The Thomas feels festive and, since their opening, the food has never been prettier. Sunday brunch is a particularly fun time to dine here, although no matter when you’re dining, it’s best to make reservations before heading over the hill. Call The Thomas at 226.7821 to do so.
I am always a strange mix of happy and sad each time I visit downtown’s Norman Rose Tavern. Happy, because I love it so much and sad, because I wish we had our very own Norman Rose right in our very own town. If so, this is totally the spot that I would find myself frequenting religiously, burrowing into a big bowl of homemade soup or maybe one of their super fresh, super interesting salads. The menu at Norman Rose is exactly what every neighborhood spot should be. Beautifully presented things to share with a big glass of wine or a handcrafted cocktail, include a bubbly crock of cheesy-garlicky-spinach dip, homemade pickled veggies, über fresh Prince Edward Island mussels steamed in dark beer and aromatics, or pretty smoked salmon which arrives tenderly folded a top a generous portion of herb-flecked egg salad crostini.
If you’re feeling particularly cozy, definitely go for the all-natural Tavern burger. About the best burger around, it is griddled to a nice, greasy goodness, decked out with the freshest of trimmings, all on a killer ABC Baking company potato bun. I could go on and on about all the heavenly dishes here; casual, friendly, and fun, but prepared with the utter skill and care. But, just go. And eat. A lot. Norman Rose Tavern is located at 1401 First Street. Visit Normanrosenapa.com to drool over their menus.
Chef Todd Humphries’ Kitchen Door is sort of secreted away through two red swinging “kitchen doors” in the back of the Oxbow Public Marketplace. One of my favorites, it is super casual, but super yummy. It’s just the sort of spot that you’d like to while away a Sunday afternoon. This is a restaurant person’s restaurant, a chef’s kinda place. When passing through those swinging doors it’s sort of like you landed in the kitchen of a friend who just so happens to be a professional chef. The menu is crammed with the sort of dishes that we restaurant folk like to munch on when we’re done serving fancy plates of foie gras. Beef carpaccio is sublime, with teeny tiny little flecks of crispy truffled potato. A selection of crispy flat breads are fun to share and a duck liver mousse is outrageous, liver-y and perfectly creamy. The rotisserie chicken is lovely, old-fashioned peas and carrots on the side. Desserts are definitely not an afterthought: gorgeous little jars of panna cotta are crowned with fresh, sweet berries and the to-die-for Straus soft serve is offered “Affogato” with a shot of hot espresso, simply one of the yummiest things. Ever. The restaurant’s gorgeous outdoor deck offers a spot to sit in the sun overlooking the murky, slow moving waters of the Napa River. I highly recommend grabbing a glass of vino and staying awhile. Visit Kitchendoornapa.com for details on reservations and fun, daily specials.
Once a month or so I make the trek over the hill to hit up Target under the guise of picking up very necessary provisions, a.k.a. trying on clothes and playing with make-up, but what I’m really up to is sneaking in a little visit to one of my favorite Napa spots, the Bounty Hunter Wine Bar. Imagine the most perfect Wine Country watering hole that you could possibly dream up and you’d have the Bounty Hunter. This cozy saloon sports brick walls and high ceilings, rustic and comfy, deer mounts on the walls, and plush leather booths; a spot you’d want to linger in, to huddle romantically in the winter rains or escape the heat of a summer afternoon. The crowd is always interesting and jovial.
Here, you could easily sidle up to an off-duty server from that fancy joint down the street or possibly a famous Napa winemaker sipping a cold brew. The yummy wine choices are dizzying, with more than 400 wines by the bottle and 40 by the glass and the food always feels just right. It is simple, comforting, and not too fussy. Find a perfect little selection of wine snacks like olives and cheese and super fun dinners — some served family style! — like a whole beer can chicken and heavenly smoked and pulled pork. The most amazing part is their magnificent daily deals on food and wine. Find Bounty Hunter at 975 First Street or visit Bountyhunterwinebar.com for menus and more.
I can’t think of a more ‘Napa’ spot than the fancy bar at Morimoto. The flashy Japanese spot downtown is best known for their Iron Chef owner and stunning selection of raw fish. Here, I occasionally indulge in a few pieces of their glistening sashimi or a creative sushi roll of some sort, but typically I go gaga for their crazy-good sides. My ideal dinner could possibly consist of their duck fried rice, a hearty concoction of jasmine rice studded with tender shredded duck, petite peas and a tiny dice of carrot. The whole beautiful bowl arrives crowned with the most magnificent, oozing, fried egg for a mere $6. Chinese broccoli is absolute perfection, steamed to an ideal state and finished with a light, sweet-soy glaze. At Morimoto, the food is as pretty as the out of town diners. 610 Main Street, call 252.1600 for essential reservations.
Beer Can Chicken
Recipe from Chef Will Wright, Bounty Hunter Wine Bar
This will make enough spice rub for twelve chickens – store what you don’t use in an airtight container for up to one month in a cool dry place. Serves.
- 4 lb. whole chicken
- 1 can of Tecate beer
- 1 lime, cut in half
- 5 lb. pre-mixed Cajun spice mix
- 1 cup fennel seed
- 1 cup coriander seed
- 1 cup white sesame seeds
- up dried thyme
- up dried oregano
- up smoked paprika
- 1 tsp. Coleman’s dry mustard powder
- 1 tsp. tumeric
Special equipment: a beer can chicken roaster
Toast all seeds until you can smell a strong aroma. Allow to cool 5-10 minutes and grind in a spice/coffee grinder. Add seeds and additional spices to the pre-mixed Cajun spice.
Rub chicken with the spice blend at least 20-30 minutes before placing on grill. Place aluminum foil down on grill, then place beer can chicken holder on top. Open and drink about a f the Tecate, then place in the holder. Place chicken, cavity down, over can and holder and pin wings back so they don’t burn. Squeeze half a lime in the neck of the chicken and use it to cork the neck to trap in the moisture.
Grill under low-to-medium heat for about one hour and fifteen minutes or until a thermometer reads 165°F, taken between the thigh and backbone
Kristin Jorgensen is one of Sonoma’s most passionate, food obsessed residents. In this weekly column, she covers all the delicious happenings, foodie events and restaurants in Sonoma, the rest of Wine Country and beyond. Email her with comments, questions, or your food related events at firstname.lastname@example.org.