Tag Archives: Napa

Mustards Grill: Yountville, CA

15 May
by Francine

Mustards Grill: Yountville, CA

A photo of the dining roomBack in January when I visted the Napa valley, I drove past Mustards a few times.  I was intrigued because the words STEAKS, CHOPS, RIBS, GARDEN PRODUCE and TOO MANY WINES edge the restaurant’s awning. 

After 3 days of driving past Mustards, which is right on St. Helena Highway (the main road through the valley), I visited their website and discovered that Cindy, the founder and executive chef of the restaurant (and a girl raised in Minnesota), planted an organic garden years ago when it was an unusual thing for a restaurant to have. 

She says of gardens, “I feel it’s important for freshness and flavor and it brings people closer to their food.”  After more than 20 years the garden has turned into 2 acres that provide the restaurant with 20 % of their produce year round.  You can read more about their gardening practices which include natural fertilizers and pest control here.A photo of the garden

Review: (Real Local Cooking’s criteria)
Localness:  5

I visited the garden, which is next to the restaurant, before I went inside.  I saw lovely leafy greens growing in raised A photo from the gardenbeds.  They had a variety of vegetables growing in raised beds as well as a small hoop house.  It’s great that their garden is right next to their parking lot; it encourages and allows guests to have a wander before or after their meals.

They also have a huge wine menu.  The wine menu is the size of the W volume of an encyclopedia (remember them?) and it features wines produced in the fertile valley and the rest of California.  While I didn’t have any wine, I would have enjoyed a glass, it was a sunny afternoon, the location was perfect and I was feeling leisurely.

Flavor: 4

It seems that Mustards have featured items that change regularly, if not daily, which they often post about on their facebook page.  When I visited they were featuring some different Latin American dishes, the recipes came from a cookbook, possibly written by someone connected to the restaurant (but I don’t remember).  I decided on a tortilla and black bean soup, and I was very tempted by the tres leches cake.  I also had a simple mixed green salad which I found fresh and fun to eat since I’d just visited the greens in the garden.A photo of my soup

But the best flavor of the meal was simple and happened by accident.  The waiter brought a fresh chunk of crusty bread and plunked it right down on the white tablecloth.  He also set down a dish of soft butter, a tiny dish of sea salt and a small pepper grinder.  It was presented in such a way that it reminded me of how you sometimes get olive oil and black pepper in a little dish, which is perfect for dipping bread.  So I thought, “Oh cool, here you can smear butter on the bread and then dip it in the sea salt and freshly ground black pepper,” so that is what I did. And it was amazing.

Only after I had gobbled up all of the bread made perfectly flavourful by the salt and pepper, did I realize that they weren’t suggesting dipping the bread in those three things, they were just placing salt, pepper, and butter on the table.  Oh well…I discovered a wonderful new way to eat bread.

Pleasant Surprise: YES

At a quick glance this restaurant looks a bit like a roadside attraction and perhaps at one point it was a greasy spoon spot, but it has been transformed.  And taking something old and giving it new life is something that I love! 

Mustards holds onto its roadside diner identity and feel by offering large portions of comfort food…BBQ pork, steak and garlic mashed potatoes and they’ve also left the outside looking a bit boxy.  But they’ve transformedA photo of the salad and bread a diner into a spot for fine dining…there’s lovely dark wood work, black and white tiled floors, windows everywhere to let in as much light as possible and white tablecloths.  They also added a garden and made the restaurant a place that celebrates fresh ingredients.

Perhaps I’m delighted by this because it’s a bit of what my parents have done and are trying to do at Solar.  They aren’t aiming to make it a fine dining establishment, but they have re-purposed an old drive in, invented tasty menu items (baked hot wrap anyone?), planted a raised bed vegetable garden and introduced a once a week FarmerChef special.

The C factor (Comfort+Coziness): 5

A photo of the restaurant's awningI liked that there were lots of windows; it helped create a cheerful environment and it also provided views of the gorgeous golden hills.  The staff was welcoming and friendly.  I felt comfortable dining by myself, but I would have loved to have shared the meal with someone.  It would have been fun to linger over a glass of wine with a friend. 

Ho hum…if someone had joined me I probably wouldn’t have made the bread+butter+sea salt+black pepper mistake, but I’m glad I did that because it was delicious. :)

Overall Rating: 14+

If you ever find yourself driving along Highway 29 between Napa and St. Helena, stop at Mustards Grill.  I think you’ll enjoy browsing the garden, eating yummy food and finishing off a day of vineyard visits with a glass of wine.

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C CASA: Napa, CA

23 Feb
by Francine

C Casa: Napa, CA (in the Oxbow Public Market)A photo of C CASA

This taqueria is one of the many delightful eateries in the Oxbow Public Market, which is just across the river from Napa’s main downtown. On C CASA’s  website it describes itself as an innovative kitchen and warns eaters that they’ll become addicted to the food served up.  After a dinner of guacamole, chips, a piled high taco and a pineapple agua fresca, I agree that C CASA is an innovative kitchen and a great restaurant.

Localness: 3

The menu and website mentions that sustainable ingredients are used (grass fed beef, free range chicken, etc.) But I didn’t notice any producers or suppliers listed on the website or menu. I have no doubt that they are doing what they are saying, but it could be great to know which sustainable producers they are supporting.

Flavor: 4

I was impressed by the innovation of C CASA. The menu is filled with unique taco creations. I had fresh guacamole and a spiced lamb taco that was piled high with mixed greens. It wasn’t the easiest taco to eat because it was very tall, but I didn’t mind using a fork to scoop up the yummy bits.  I quickly crunched through my chips and guacamole   None of the flavors in my meal crunched me over the top, but I appreciated that there were so many different flavor combinations offered.A photo of my taco

There were a few creations posted that weren’t on the regular menu. When I visited a few weeks ago, I think it was an Asian fusion type of taco. I noticed that just now on the website they are offering two dishes as their ever changing Seasonal Dishes. There’s a crab salad with ruby grapefruit, avocado and fresno peppers all tossed with a jalapeno lemon vinaigrette as well as a duck taco with blood oranges, goat cheese, avocado, and a meyer lemon serrano salsa.

Also they have rotiessere duck and chicken. If I lived in the area, I’m sure I’d stop by every once in awhile to get a whole roasted duck to go. (I used to get this from my neighborhood roast duck vendor when I lived in Dalian, China.)

Pleasant Suprise: YES

For those of you who try to or have to eat gluten free, you know how difficult it can be to find baked goods that are devoid of gluten. I was super excited to see that C CASA offers a number of gluten free baked goods and sometimes even dairy+gluten free ones. When I visited, they had a massive chocolate-y gluten free brownie.  If I hadn’t already eaten enough chips and guac to feed a small family, I’m sure I would have tried a gluten free baked good. ;)

Comfort+Coziness:  4

The Oxbow Public Market is basically a giant food court. It’s lined with a variety of restaurants, and there are open seating areas scattered throughout the middle of the market.  Some restaurants have their own designated seating areas. And some also have outdoor dining, I noticed that C CASA has patio space set aside for their customers, but since it was a rainy day I wasn’t keen to eat outdoors.  A photo of the chips and guacSince it could be hard to find seating and because the noise level varies depending on the time of day you visit, I’d say the atmosphere (and that of the entire Oxbow Public Market) is fairly comfortable, but not cozy.  Also, the service at C CASA was friendly and prompt, which always makes for a pleasant dining experience.

Overall Rating:  11+

I would certainly return to C CASA if I lived in the area because there are many menu items and specials I’d love to try.  A detail from my mealWhile I didn’t get much of an impression of being connected to the food (there weren’t any locations of farms listed on the menu), this is the type of place I hope to encounter with increased frequently.  People often rely on fast food chains, but I hope consumers can come to rely on places similar to C CASA… places with fresh options, sustainable ingredients and creative menu items.  It’s tons more fun to eat healthy quick food than greasy factory made fast food.

If you live near Napa, stop by C CASA and think of me as you enjoy a creative taco, piled high with fresh and sustainably raised ingredients!

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Ubuntu: Napa, CA

27 Oct
by Francine

Ubuntu: (downtown) Napa, CA

As Luke (my brother) and I stood outside this restaurant looking at the menu, two young women walked by and read, “Restaurant and Yoga Studio…how do they do that?!” It does make one imagine some wacky things—your waiter delivering your food with a sun salutation and then leading you in down dog stretches between courses to relax your stomach muscles.A photo of the window

While fun to imagine, I knew that wouldn’t be the case at Ubuntu since I’d visited their website prior to our lunch reservation.  I read about their garden/farm to table approach and discovered that the space serves as both a yoga studio and a restaurant (just not at the same time). I also knew that I’d be eating a vegetarian meal, which as someone who enjoys slow roasted pork shoulder, I was a bit uncertain. 

I mean I love my veggies, but I just didn’t know how fabulous they could be.  Ubuntu showed me that vegetables can be ah-mazing. This restaurant knocked us out of our tree poses (or for you Yoga enthusiasts Vrksasana). The creativity, flavour and presentation of the food we had at Ubuntu only happens every so often, but when it does—it’s unforgettable!

(Update: Ubuntu will be taking a sabbatical through the winter months, beginning Nov. 21st. Find out more information on their facebook wall.)

Review: (See Real Local Cooking’s criteria.)
Localness: 4

The menu changes according to what’s in season and the menu clearly highlights which items come from Ubuntu’s garden by listing the items from their garden in capital letters. Every dish seemed to have at least 2 items from their own Biodynamic garden. I overhead one of the servers explaining their growing practices to an inquisitive guest. I imagine that if one would like to they could arrange to visit their nearby garden.

A photo of the MenuWith such an obvious connection to their ingredients I imagined I’d find (at least) a small garden out the back door. I peeked when I went to the restroom, but no, just a small patio for al fresco dining and a parking lot. Ubuntu is after all in downtown Napa, which is great because it’s easy to find. 

And since it’s located in the fertile Napa Valley, the ingredients they use in their dishes don’t have to travel far. Their website states, “The vegetable inspired menu features ingredients from our local Napa gardens.”  Also, according to their website, “[they] adhere to the seasonal calendar and participate with local producers for products [they] are unable to farm, and [they] contribute to a greener earth by relying less on global food sources and those products with the highest carbon emission and water footprint.”

Flavour: 5

As I mentioned above, I enjoy meat dishes and I was somewhat hesitant about a ‘vegetable restaurant’ (I think one too many soggy falafels had done me in). However, the dishes we shared at Ubuntu amazed us. We probably sounded a bit funny if anyone overheard our lunch conversation. We were continually stammering, “oh the flavour,” while scooping up another dainty bite, and then muttering “wow…the flavour!” A photo of the carrot dish

One dish we had featured 24 hour marinated carrots. Every bite of this complex dish had a different taste. There wasn’t a single flavour we could pin down, they all twisted together and left us muttering to our empty forks, “wow! that’s good.”

Before Ubuntu, I couldn’t even imagine that vegetables could be so interesting, complex and swoon-inducing. We cleaned our plates completely—we didn’t want to miss out on one tiny bit of flavour.

Pleasant Surprise: Yes

Each dish was a work of art: this was a very pleasant and wonderful surprise.  The first dish that we ordered was described as a gazpacho soup with many ingredients, one of which was char-grilled lime peanuts and another was melon. The dish that arrived was gorgeous—itty bitty leaves, a nearly every shade of green and served in an elegant white dish. 

The server held in her hand a small white vase and told us she was going to pour…something (I can’t remember what, because I was so overwhelmed by the loveliness of what was in front of me). She poured a clear liquid into the dish and it transformed into a little pond. The leaves delicately floated on the surface, the peanuts sunk like rocks to the bottom and a droplet of liquid rested on tiny scalloped leaf,  like a dew drop on a lily pad. It was a thing of beauty. Probably the most beautiful thing I’ve ever eaten. Magical.A photo of the magic

Comfort+Coziness = The C factor: 5

The restaurant was open and inviting: a high ceiling, big windows, long wooden tables, cozy corner tables, a bar, interesting yoga inspired sculptures and an open kitchen, which was clean and bustling. The service was welcoming and fast.

For a restaurant with one Michelin Star, there could be a tendency towards condescension, but that was not the case. The server clearly explained how the menu was set up—the menu items are appetizer sized so people usually order a few to share. This helped us feel less bewildered as we looked at the gourmet menu. Ubuntu definitely had a good vibe—maybe it comes from the veggie goodness or the yoga zen, but it could just be that laid back California charm.

Overall Rating: 14+

I highly recommend Ubuntu for a unique and memorable meal. It’s doing things right: using quality locally produced ingredients in creative and inspired ways. While it’s certainly worth it, it is a bit of a splurge. Our meal of four dishes came to about $65.  But for that price we enjoyed four unique dishes—full of flavour and beauty, with a little magic poured on top.

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