Wednesday, May 7, 2008

In-N-Out of Napa

We set out for Napa behind the wheel of a Sebring convertible. Though cheesy as can it was beyond necessary for an unabashedly sunny day that was to be spent driving through the vineyards and greenery of Northern California. We set out early and arrived in Napa just in time for a late breakfast. Our plan had been to check out a small café, get some coffee and relax in order to free our bellies for a large meal that was sure to come later on. Instead, we turned into the Boon Fly Café, a cutesy place set up in what used to be a barn (or was at least constructed so that it looked as if it was in an old barn).

The interior was very welcoming. Huge windows lined the walls, allowing natural light to pour in and bask everything in its sunlit glow. This created indisputable warmth, the kind that convinces you you’re going to love this experience no matter what you end up eating. We ordered the Boon Fly Benedict, in which poached eggs top very thick cut ham and homemade levain in lieu of English muffins. The ham was a bit too salty for me taste (which is saving a LOT), but he loved every bite, and it wasn’t my dish anyway, so I just watched on in delight as he barreled his way through. The other plate to arrive at the table carried a breakfast flatbread, essentially a pizza with eggs on it. It was interesting, and, in my opinion quite good. The saltiness of the cheese and the bacon contrasted so nicely with the caramelized onions. Upon popping the yolk of my over easy eggs, each of these flavors was brought together in a wonderful bite that was all at once salty, sweet, creamy, crispy, and chewy. Breakfast was a bit on the expensive side, but we were only in Napa one day, so we figured we might as well, and we both left satisfied and very, very full.

Our first vineyard stop was at Darioush, which is fairly new to the Napa scene. The proprietor is of Persian descent and this influence is apparent throughout the property. There are pillars inside and out, lavish bathrooms, Persian touches throughout. It was, by far, the most ostentatious building I saw throughout the day, but we never did make it to the Castle. The winery was, in a word, ridiculous, in its size, stature and decoration, but it was an experience I am definitely glad we had, since it differs so much from the rest of the Napa wineries. There were artichokes growing in the lawn, which made me beyond jealous that it was artichoke season in northern California and unadulterated winter back in Chicago. As for the wines: they were all good, but the Chardonnay we tasted was the best of any we tasted all day. I usually don’t tend towards whites, but this was perfectly balanced, not too sweet and totally refreshing. Instead of crackers during the tasting, Darioush places before you delicious roasted pistachios (which can, conveniently, be purchased by the bagful).

We went next to Mumm for some sparkling wine. We sat outdoors in the warm sun and drank sparkling wine overlooking the vast expanse of vineyard that lay before us. It’s not far off from perfection as far as Mondays go, or any day really. We each ordered a different tasting flight, the “Best of the Best” and the “Reserve Tasting,” so that we could try as many wines as possible (obviously). Not all of them were great, but they were mostly quite good, and the DVX Rose 2002 was by far our favorite. The wines on the Reserve Tasting were generally more affordable, so we went home with a bottle of the Blanc de Blancs 2003, which we enjoyed our last morning in the city. We loitered at the vineyard for a while, drinking and enjoying the beauty around us. The scenery was gorgeous, the company great and the sparkling wine quite enjoyable.

(We made it to another couple of vineyards before calling it a day, but neither one of them was particularly notable, so we’ll just skip right through them.)

The early evening found us at Ad Hoc. I had read many great things about it prior to our departure. Since there was no way we could afford a French Laundry meal, we decided that a home-style Thomas Keller meal was a great bet. We called to see if there were reservations still available, and unsurprisingly there were not, but we were told that we could sit at the bar and enjoy our meal there. They gave us the menu (they provide a fixed menu each night of four courses: salad/soup, main with sides, cheese and dessert) on the phone, which featured fried chicken. We later heard from one of the locals that fried chicken night was beloved within the community and the place was jam-packed every other Monday. This tidbit, combined with our struggles with timing in San Francisco prompted us to arrive at the restaurant a half hour before it opened, at 4:30. We waited and waited and were finally let in at five o’clock. We sat at the corner of the bar and were promptly greeted by one of the friendliest servers I’ve encountered in a very long time. It was clear from the moment we walked in how proud every person there was to work there, and how much they appreciated the food we were about to be served.

Though the wine list seemed quite nice, we settled on beers – we were eating fried chicken after all. Our meal started with a simple salad of mixed baby greens salad, cremini mushrooms, pickled red onions and turnips, shaved parmesan and garlic vinaigrette. The salad came dressed with olive oil only with the dressing served in a little boat on the side so that we were free to add as much as we pleased, no more, no less. The big bowl of salad placed in front of us drove home the idea of the home-style restaurant. The salad was super fresh, and I made sure to pick every last pickled turnip out of the giant bowl.

Next came the fried chicken, which was presented on paper in a metal tray. It had been brined in lemon and soaked in buttermilk, which left it with an amazing lemony tang screaming out from underneath the perfectly crisp, yet not at all greasy skin. My boyfriend, the biggest fried chicken lover I know declared it perhaps the best he’s ever had. I was still talking about it three weeks later, and I don’t usually even like fried chicken. I understood immediately why the chicken riled the locals up so much.

The chicken was accompanied by black-eyed peas with smoked ham hocks and wilted spinach over melted leeks. The beans came dotted with generous hunks of pork and the saltiness was just at the right level. There was not much complexity to the black-eyed peas, but they were simple, comforting, and delicious. The spinach was delicious, too, full of the subtle sweetness of the leeks and speckled with garlic.

Next we were brought a hunk of Westfield Farm’s Hubbardston Blue cheese with Marcona almonds and Marshall’s farm honey, which was served warm. The cheese was particularly interesting because all of its blueness was in the rind, with none of the trademark dotting within the cheese that you expect from a Stilton or other blues. It was much more mild than other blue cheeses, but it was pretty good. I enjoyed the honey as well, and felt that the warm honey and the mild bite of the cheese really complemented each other. I held off on finishing the whole hunk, since dessert was yet to come and I already was pretty stuffed.

The apple upside down cake was served with cinnamon ice cream. The apple called forth nostalgic memories of apple pie, which is funny, because I never really ate pie as a kid. But the flavors are undeniably those of home, and of picnics, and of good times in general. I loved the ice cream, and was perfectly content with the wee scoop I was given, since any more would surely have put my over the edge. I cannot comment too much on the cake itself, since I minimized the amount I ate as I thought I was going to burst.

The service was spot-on the whole time. They apparently noticed us standing outside for a while, and respected our commitment to the fried chicken cause, giving us one of our two meals for free. This meant that our four-course meal was $48 plus drinks and tax. Obviously we tipped extremely generously because of this, but the thought and sentiment behind this gesture was incredibly nice.

Stuffed beyond recognition, we departed Napa and headed back for San Francisco. We started on the scenic drive after we cross the Golden Gate Bridge and continued along until it got too dark for it to be scenic. Before we left, though, we had decided that today was going to be the day that I had my very first In-N-Out Burger. People from California cannot shut up about this place, so I knew I had to try it. Since we both just pigged out, we shared a cheeseburger, and none of that “animal style” business either. I wanted my first In-N-Out experience to be unobstructed by extra sauce and fussiness. I wanted a pure cheeseburger in order to best judge the burger. And you know what? It was pretty damn good. Everything just seemed really fresh and the bun was squishy and delicious. It was a very good fast food burger. The jury is still out on the fries though. They’re cut right before they’re fried and not coated with any sort of batter. This leaves them incredibly starchy and kind of flavorless. I wasn’t convinced, but it also seemed like the type of fry that could really grow on you.

And that does it for the NorCal posts. I recognize it took me just about forever for me to get them all up, so thank you for your patience.

Ad Hoc
6476 Washington St.
Yountville, CA 94599
(707) 944-2487

4240 Silverado Trail
Napa, CA 94558
(707) 257-2345

Mumm Napa
8445 Silverado Trail
Rutherford (Napa), CA 94558
(707) 967-7700

333 Jefferson St.
San Francisco, CA 94133
(800) 786-1000

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