I had two other unassuming but notable meals in the Napa Valley worth a mention.
BarBersQ is a contemporary barbecue house in a Napa shopping center, between a Target and Whole Foods (explain to me why this city of 75,000 rates a better Whole Foods than Minneapolis or St. Paul?). It's an informal but upscale spot with table service and a menu full of craveability. As we dined, the owner sat next to us discussing expansion plans. We'll see.
It was lunch so we didn't go whole hog, but had a great starter of fresh-fried Key West pink shrimp; I guess the owner has a jones for them and flies them in. Fresh domestic shrimp taste incomparable, the habañero tartar was not quite hot enough to kill their flavor. A Memphis pulled-pork sandwich was not as good as Mustard's Grill's, but eminently scarfable; a smoked pulled chicken sandwich with white cheddar and blue cheese mayo would bring me back. There's skirt steak, lamb mini-burgers, smoked baby backs, chicken, and brisket. Hit BarBersQ on your way in or out of Napa.
If you're at the other end of the valley in Calistoga, which is a bit challenged for interesting fare, give Solbar a go. This all-day poolside restaurant at a stylish, youthful resort run by the Auberge du Soleil folks. It has a French Laundry alum in the kitchen, an attractive menu balancing comfort and spa fare, and superbly cooked and conceived dishes. We had a three-bean salad with prosciutto (and bibb lettuce), killer sliders over onions sweated for ten hours, and an heirloom tomato and avocado BLT on sourdough toast that nearly made me cry, and surely will when I see a crap hothouse tomato on some local plate this week.
Best Meal: Ad Hoc
Worst Meal: Press (and it wasn't bad).
Hungry? If you're headed to Napa Valley, here's some advice to avoid crowds, traffic jams, and hassles, which there can be plenty of.
- Avoid weekends. Napa is closer to SFO than Brainerd is to MSP. 'Nuff said.
- September and October (crush season) is the busiest time of year. March through May can be idyllic, particularly when the wild mustard carpeting the valley is in bloom in March. Winter gets some rain, but lodging bottoms out and there are plenty of sunny days in the 50s.
- Make reservations and create a dining plan-not all eateries serve lunch; many close one day or another, and unless you're there during a dead time, places fill up almost every night. A day or two out is all you need to book unless you're going to French Laundry.
- The Valley is not huge, but it's a solid forty-five to sixty minutes from Calistoga to Napa. Look at a detailed map of wineries, attractions, and restaurants before you lay out an itinerary. Otherwise you'll be driving back and forth like a madman.
- Highway 29: slow. Silverado Trail: fast.
- Many wineries are open by reservation only. If you only visit the ones who take all comers, you'll only get half the picture.