Spend a little time in Napa and Sonoma counties in Northern California and you understand why the two main attractions are wine and food. In case you’re not big on the former, you’ll certainly enjoy the latter. There are always plenty of well-established eateries from which to choose, as well as some new kids on the block.
In the latter category is the Farmstead Restaurant in St. Helena, about 25 minutes north of Napa on Highway 29 (www.longmeadowranch.com). It was the site of a culinary miracle — getting my husband, Jerry, to eat beets.
As I savored the California Petrale sole with roasted beets, asparagus and lemon butter, I pronounced the beets the best I had ever consumed. In a weak moment, Jerry, who would choose a root canal over eating beets, agreed to sample them.
The verdict: “passable” — a relatively rousing endorsement and a testament to the talents of the Farmstead’s chef, Seamus Feeley, who describes the faire as “the food I grew up eating at my grandparent’s farmhouse in Arkansas.”
That description hardly does justice to the fantastic flavors created when Feeley works his magic on local organic produce, meat, eggs, olive oil and honey which come from nearby Long Meadow Ranch and Rutherford Gardens. Like the restaurant, they are owned by the Ted Hall family.
“We live in the epicenter for food and wine in the U.S.,” Feeley said. “We grow food four seasons a year … and the people here are the salt of earth and grow the finest ingredients in the country.”
I couldn’t argue with him.
We chose to eat on Farmstead’s garden patio among the apple-tree “vines,” devised simply by training the tree branches, Feeley explained.
Indoor diners enjoy a contemporary, airy setting with high ceilings, chandeliers and other décor made from artistically repurposed farm implements.
On another day, after visiting the Buena Vista Carneros tasting room near Sonoma, we drove the five minutes to the town center for lunch at the girl &the fig restaurant (yes, all lower case). Located in the historic Sonoma Hotel on the town square, its inviting ambiance makes it a popular destination, so reservations are recommended.
The shaded garden patio offered a cool respite from the day’s growing heat, and the graciously attentive staff were helpful in altering selections to meet my gluten-free requirements. I settled on the tasty albacore tuna tartine, poached in olive oil with oven-dried tomatoes and a lemon herb aioli. Jerry pronounced the top sirloin burger one of the best he’d ever tasted.
We returned to St. Helena for dinner with Bay Area friends, who recommended Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, or CBK in localspeak. It sits one block off Main Street (hence the name), and the two-story exterior is festooned with flowers boxes. The bright and clean interior sports striped booths and white tablecloths.
CBK offers both large plates, small plates, sandwiches and salads all day and the choices are difficult. The avocado and papaya salad was refreshingly delicious and woke our taste buds for the spicy shrimp with green rice and black beans. Our friends indulged in the wood oven duck, with sherry-lemon said and potato croquettes. We were told that the duck was just as excellent as a burger.
The desserts were nothing short of grand. The reason our Bay Area friends had journeyed to CBK, they confessed, was Cindy’s signature pineapple upside down cake. It is served warm with vanilla ice cream, rum caramel and pecans. And the Campfire Pie is a visually spectacular construction of homemade marshmallow fluff, fudgy chocolate and Oreo cookie crust, reminiscent of the s’mores we all knew and loved as kids. Tastes just as good, too.
E’Louise Ondash is a veteran, award-winning journalist who was an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist for the Times Advocate and the North County Times. She has written travel features for The Coast News since 2003.