Around the Bay

Beautiful cocktails for dessert at The Thomas in downtown Napa


Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Goose & Gander's bookshelves and wooden ducks

Judging a cocktail contest in Calistoga and sampling Wine Country cocktails early in 2011, I witnessed a rise in quality congruent with the cocktail renaissance exploding across the nation, beyond longtime torchbearers like SF and NY. This is especially notable in Wine Country where the god of wine dominates. Despite growth, making a dent in the all-consuming wine culture is still an uphill battle, so local bartenders tell me. Not only is the local community wine-driven, but the constant influx of travelers are mainly here for wine, after all. Though you won’t see many cocktail bars opening up, restaurants continue to refine their cocktails and spirits selection, so that one finds, a few city-quality cocktails amongst the vineyards.

Goose & Gander's dining room is warm with reds, woods and hunting lodge vibe

GOOSE & GANDER, St. Helena

1245 Spring Street at Oak, St. Helena,  707-967-8779

Mellivora Capensis (honey badger)

Arguably, the number one talent in Wine Country has long been Scott Beattie, who crafted exquisite cocktails in sleepy, chic Healdsburg at Cyrus long before many of the country’s big cities had clued in, leading the way in farm-fresh, artisanal cocktails (note his book, Artisanal Cocktails), torching kumquats and crisping apple slivers from his backyard as garnishes.

When Beattie left Spoonbar to take over the bar at St. Helena’s Goose & Gander – which opened in April – Sonoma’s loss was Napa’s gain. Goose & Gander is in the former Martini House in a 90-year-old craftsman bungalow with idyllic yard and patio. Red walls, bookshelves, brown leather booths, fireplaces, wood ceilings and floors impart a charming hunting lodge feel.

Hawaiian lemon snapper crudo

Beattie works alongside talent like Michael Jack Pazdon, who previously supervised the bar program at SolBar and has won numerous cocktail contests (including the aforementioned Charbay/Perfect Puree competition). Beattie, Pazdon and crew serve fantastic drinks. There’s a handful of cocktails (all $11) on the regular menu, but ask for “the book” for a more extensive selection to suit every palate – and peruse an impressive spirits collection lining the bar.

Cozy downstair bar

Mellivora Capensis (honey badger) is a prime example of Beattie-style cocktails: Eagle Rare 10 year bourbon, honey and lemon sound like a classic base, but it gets interesting with a touch of peat from Ardbeg Scotch, pineapple, black cardamom and chili, coconut foam contributing texture, with edible flowers the crowning touch.

Cucumber Collins (Square One cucumber vodka, yuzu, lemon, fresh and pickled cucumber, huckleberries, seltzer) and a Coastal Pimm’s Cup (Pimm’s No.1, St. George Terroir Gin, lemon, bitters, seltzer, bay laurel) are classic Beattie: visually striking and artful as they are refreshing and flavorful.

Cucumber Collins

Executive Chef Kelly McCown’s (formerly at Sacramento’s Ella) food is notable. Spicy whole blue prawns ($16) are large and juicy, skillet-roasted brown, swimming in shallot garlic butter, rosemary, and chilis over polenta. A bright crudo of Hawaiian lemon snapper ($17) is lined up next to heirloom tomatoes dotted with shaved tomatillos and sea beans. As a twist on the ever-gratifying wedge salad, a Berkshire pork belly “wedge” ($15) is an understandable hit: a disc of iceberg topped with a hefty chunk of pork belly and Shaft’s blue cheese dressing. Jersey cow’s milk ricotta gnocchi ($18) melt joyously in my mouth, intermingling with cherry tomatoes, basil, and tomato coulis, crowned by a light Parmesan crisp. Goose & Gander is the whole package and works as well as a romantic date night as it does a relaxed stop for a bite and drink.

Aperitifs at The Thomas, like the Jasmine (right)

Transporting view from The Thomas' third floor terrace













813 Main Street at Third, Napa, 707-226-7821

Follow the Fagiani's sign

Follow the vintage neon signage of the former Fagiani’s, where The Thomas opened just last month in a 1909 building restored by New York’s AvroKO Hospitality Group. First visiting during opening week, I dined on the partially covered third floor terrace (though housing a second bar, this floor is for diners only) gazing out over downtown Napa. As the sun set over the river below, rooftops and hills peeking above the the deck, I was transported to Europe and beyond, a timeless moment on a summer night.

I’m immediately hooked though waiting to see how the place evolves, particularly with just-launched brunch and recently named bar manager Jim Wrigley of London’s Albannach and the Lonsdale. During my visit, AvroKO’s Cocktail Director Naren Young was in town serving drinks from the menu he co-created with Linden Pride, with whom he runs Saxon+Parole in NY.

White Manhattans on tap

Drinks are classic, simple, playful with the ubiquitous (though not so much in Napa) Negroni on tap ($12), and for a change of pace, a White Manhattan on tap ($15), utilizing Death’s Door white whiskey, white vermouth, kirschwasser, jasmine bitters. The latter is a good two servings, arriving with an additional mini-carafe on ice to fill up after your initial glass is empty.

A mini-seafood tower

An ideal aperitif/starter is Jasmine ($14), made of Campari, Beefeater Gin, Combier triple sec and lemon juice, or have fun with beer in an Improved Radler Cocktail ($13) of pineapple-infused grappa, Hefeweizen, ginger, peach bitters, and lemon juice. Dessert was a winning round of a Grasshopper (Marie Brizard creme de menthe and cacao, although I couldn’t help but wish for Tempus Fugit’s menthe and cacao instead) and an elegant whiskey cocktail with biscotti.

Lovely grilled Monterey Bay squid with sweet chili sauce & creme fraiche

Executive Chef Brad Farmerie (of NY’s The Public) goes for casual, comfortable American food, though prices range $21-45 for mains, the latter being for wood-fired strip steak. Also pricey is the raw bar seafood tower (mini $22, medium $67, large $125) but a mini offers a fine sampling of East and West Coast oysters, smoked mussels, Dungeness crab and plump shrimp with Sriracha cocktail sauce. On a warm night on the terrace with an icy-cool White Manhattan, it was perfection.

Pot de creme and cookies for dessert

Beet gnudi ($21) in smoked almond-celery pesto with Cowgirl Creamery cottage cheese is a colorful, gratifying gnocchi dish. Grilled chorizo sausage ($13.50) is lively, even exciting, with txiki cheese, black bean chocolate puree and padron peppers. Save room for a dessert of dreamy dark chocolate pot de creme with cookies or decadent monkey bread.

The three-story space has a big city energy, with much of the staff from NY, imparting a welcome cosmopolitan vibe atypical of the area. The bottom floor boasts a vintage oak bar and pressed-tin ceiling, which looks like it’s been there for 100 years, in keeping with the historicity of the building, freshly incarnated.

Written by Virginia in: Around the Bay | Tags: ,

Around the Bay

A Weekend in Calistoga

Painting in Yo El Rey coffee shop

The Northern end of Napa has long been my favorite part of the Valley, namely for increasing oak trees towering over vines, and the way Highway 29 morphs from straight arrow into winding road (just like the beautiful and far less congested drive parallel along Silverado Trail). A recent weekend in Calistoga afforded one of the most relaxed I’ve had in my many dozens in Wine Country over the years. Visiting Kelly Fleming winery (by appointment only) was the impetus for my trek north, while I felt restored at Indian Springs, lounging around the Buddha Pond, swimming in an olympic-sized pool, and finally trying those famed Calistoga mud baths (I can now say I’ve done it).

Calistoga is a small town and the dining choices are therefore minimal. Lincoln Ave., the town’s main drag, is less overrun than St. Helena’s main street and less touristy than Yountville’s V Marketplace. It’s the real deal: small town Americana, laid back, approachable, and merely a few blocks long.

Calistoga Kitchen's juice bar

Calistoga now has their own organic, locally roasted, fair trade coffee, Yo El Rey, a humble little shop that feels like a college coffee dive but serves robust coffee made with care. Besides the shop, they serve their coffee at Calistoga’s Saturday farmers market where I also bought Calistoga Inn’s newest housemade granola, laden with ginger, orange, spice. I’d like to stock my cabinet with this one. A new juice bar inside Calistoga Kitchen, a catering company, is an unexpected treat. Only a few juices, but each made by the sweet owner at a charming café and garden. I’m a little disappointed in the food at longtimer All Seasons (despite inviting, retro cafe decor). But Calistoga has grown up in the realm of two relatively newer (within the last 2-3 years) restaurants: JoLe and Solbar

Bright seafood trio (uni, lobster, cuttlefish), Cheryl's Tasting, at JoLe

JoLe, 1457 Lincoln Ave, Calistoga, 707-942 5938

Utterly satisfying chicken fried quail

JoLe brings a bit of city chic to Lincoln Ave. Clean lines around a wood-burning oven and cozy wood bar are merely the backdrop for ambitious dishes. The a la carte menu reads reasonably with nothing over $18, but a meal quickly adds up to over $100 for two if one goes for the basic tasting menu: 4 courses for $50 (also 5 courses $65, 6 courses $80). Thankfully, you can chose any mix of dishes you want. One can save going a la carte, where portions are bigger so not as many courses are needed. Generally, the price of the final bill doesn’t feel quite congruent with the casual, buzzing atmosphere.

Besides ever present wine, it’s refreshing to see a few cocktail options, and the bar staff can make off-menu classic or classically-inspired cocktails with their strong spirits selection (many of them local and small batch). Napa Valley 75 ($10) is a classic French 75 but with Bay Area ingredients: 209 Gin, Schramsberg Blanc de Noir, Meyer lemon juice and agave. Strawberry Tarragon ($10) is strawberry-infused Espolon tequila with tarragon, Peychaud’s bitters and egg white to soften it. I wished the tarragon was more prominent, but it’s still a crowd-pleasing concoction.

Scallops w/ tasso ham

Dishes like grilled cauliflower ($8) underwhelmed, though Dungeness crab and saffron aioli normally would be just what I’d want with cauliflower. Local Heirloom tomato salad ($10) is a dime-a-dozen dish during tomato season but I never tire of excellent tomatoes. With zucchini puree and curry oil I expected a kick, but sadly the curry was all too subtle.

With Cheryl’s Tasting ($18), however, chef Matt Spector illumines his possibility. The trio plate recalls the types of East-meets-West seafood dishes I’ve had at Ame in San Francisco. Three mini-dishes of lobster, uni and cuttlefish (the latter in the form of custard) are steal at $18 for such gourmet, painstaking bites.

House ice cream & sorbets

Chicken fried quail ($15) was the most satisfying dish, its crispy skin crackling tight over tender meat, accented by haricot verts (aka green beans) and blackberries, resting in a puddle of corn jus. Not quite in the same league but still pleasing were scallops ($17) with chanterelles, Tasso (that ever satisfying Southern ham) and peas in peach BBQ sauce, or Korean-style short ribs ($15) with Napa cabbage, chili, peanuts, cilantro, mint.

For dessert, I opted for a tart, summery lemon huckleberry truffle, essentially lemon pound cake layered with cream, huckleberries and lemon in a pilsner glass, and house sorbets and ice creams, all made by Sonjia Spector, wife of Matt. JoLe skillful dishes in an unpretentious setting, representing Calistoga comfort but with gourmet edge.

Lemon Lime Soup at Solbar

SOLBAR, 755 Silverado Trail, Calistoga, 866-942-7442

Peaches & prosciutto w/ lavender honey Parmesan mousse

Solage Resort sprawls over a large patch of land off Silverado Trail with modern chic cottages and main houses, including restaurant Solbar, facing a giant pool with floor to ceiling windows and spacious patio bordered by couches. The restaurant is industrial with high ceilings and touches of brown and olive green.

Solbar delivers relaxed high end to the countryside of Calistoga. Unfortunately, this can transport a mix of clientele evoking the plastic nether regions of Miami or LA, or essentially the Real Housewives set. Some plastic surgery-amplified couples or girlfriends out for a Wine Country weekend mix with upper class families and their kids. This makes Solbar a bit hard to bear at times and is far cry from the downhome people one sees wandering Calistoga’s main street.

Appetizers are around the $15 mark and entrees closer to $30 – one hungry person can easily eat one of each. The cost doesn’t quite add up with the fairly casual (though chic, modern) tone of the space, particularly if your table outside is surrounded by children, as I’ve experienced. Walking away at over $150 for two should offer a bit more of an adult setting, though attentive service ups the experience, as does gorgeous Summer evening weather.

Monterey Bay sardine

What Solbar brings to Calistoga is truly cosmopolitan cooking. Whereas JoLe is the warmer welcome of the two, Solbar has a leg up on consistently excellent, often creative dishes. Lemon lime soup ($12) is certainly Tom Kha Gai-inspired with lemongrass, lime leaf, jasmine rice, coconut milk, broccoli florets, but its citrus tart is brighter than typical in the classic Thai soup. Dollarhide Ranch peaches ($15) are served with Italian staple San Danielle prosciutto. Charred onions add on s a sweet, smoked layer, while lavender honey Parmesan mousse elevates nuance in what could be a common dish. Instead, it expresses the glories of Summer.

Brannan Street BLT

A Monterey Bay sardine ($14) is generous and glistening, just the way I love them. For those who’ve never had sardines fresh and plump as you can find them in San Francisco or along the coast of Italy, to name a few places, Solbar’s dish would be an excellent introduction. Gypsy peppers, nicoise olives, and pickled fennel open up various expressions of the fish, resting in a bit of aged sherry vinegar. No dish was more fun than Brannan Street BLT ($15). Stacked between a house-made English muffin is a bacon fat-basted egg, fried green tomato and shredded romaine slathered with aioli. It would make a fabulous breakfast.

Trade Secret (L) Smashed Margarita (R)

Cocktails here are among the best in all of Napa. Though it’s still a rarity to get cocktails of this quality nearby, that to me doesn’t justify the $14-15 average. San Francisco is not far away and littered with artisanal and classic cocktails, many of them excellent at $8-10, with the pricier average more like $12. It seems odd to find these even more expensive than in the city. But they are artfully made and delicious. Smashed Margarita ($14) is made with the ever-respected Siete Leguas blanco and lime, given that smoky, mineral touch I’m crazy about from a splash of Sombra mezcal and smoked, orange-infused Cointreau. A pasilla chile and smoked salt rim confirms it’s status as a fine margarita. Deer Park Sour ($14) appeals to the Scotch lover on the light, refreshing tip: Glenfiddich 12yr and lemon are enriched with maple syrup, lavender tincture, and egg white. Trade Secret ($14) is my favorite of recent visits. It plays like an elevated tiki drink sans rum. Germain-Robin brandy and Batavia Arrack may not sound tiki, but combined with pineapple juice, lime, house-spiced pineapple molasses and peppercorn, it’s sweet, spiced, boozy perfection.

Robin's Chocolate Cake

A finish of Robin’s chocolate cake ($10) wins with a scoop of their house Old Rasputin stout ice cream. Though sold on the fact that the dessert includes mustard caramel and sea salt pretzels, I was disappointed not to taste much mustard or enough sea salt. It is still a worthwhile dessert mainly due to the ice cream, though punching up the salty/savory aspect would make it divine.

All in all, every visit I’ve made to Solbar has been a pleasing one. Clientele and prices are a struggle, but the tastes are most seamless of any place I’ve been to in the area, and it’s one of the better in all of Napa. Sitting couchside near the pool on a warm Summer night for appetizers and cocktails allows one to soak in the slow pace of the region, but not lose in big city quality and invention.

Written by Virginia in: Around the Bay | Tags:

June 1, 2011

“Let the rain kiss you. Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops. Let the rain sing you a lullaby.” - Langston Hughes

Beans roasting at Kauai Coffee Plantation (see "Wandering Traveler")

I am off to London, then Ireland, for two weeks of exploring restaurants, distilleries, cocktail havens, pubs, the Irish countryside, theaters, bookshops, and seeing old (and new) friends.

As I won’t be back before the next issue would normally come out, there will not be one on the 15th this month. I will resume again with bi-weekly newsletters July 1st.

There’s no Top Tastes this month, though I dined out frequently. My top new opening pick is Chambers Eat+Drink, which I’ll write more about at a later date after I’ve returned (I was already a fan of chef Trevor Ogden’s cooking from his Mission Beach days). I was less enthralled with, though still found merits in, Criolla Kitchen and Oenotri in Napa. With family in town, I did a lot of revisiting of stand-bys and favorites like Rosamunde, Leopold’s, Kitchenette, Magnolia Pub, Citizens Band, Evvia in Palo Alto, Solbar in Calistoga, and back to Outerlands for a menu that keeps getting better.

The Latest talks sustainable fish with Peru’s leading chef, Gaston Acurio, including recommends on eating sustainably locally. Imbiber comes in two parts: part one sips Carlo Splendorini’s cocktails of artful understatement. Part two meets with three Napa and Sonoma winemakers.

Soup shots at the better-than-ever Ubuntu in Napa (see "Around the Bay")

Around the Bay dines on the cheap (and not-so-cheap) around Napa, uncovering a number of surprises from a perfect chorizo burger in a hotel to impeccable coffee.

Wandering Traveler wraps up in Hawaii on the island of Kauai for the best in hotels, coffee and rum. On the Town introduces Gilt Taste, a new gourmet food source and online magazine helmed by none other than Ruth Reichl – she hosted the recent launch dinner held here in SF.

I’d love your feedback on any spots visited from my site. As your personal concierge who tells it to you like a good friend would, I also create personalized itineraries: trips, meals, explorations (under “Services“).

Let me guide you to the perfect spot,


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Follow my “best of” lists on NBC’s The Feast

Recent entries in my Bay Guardian column:
Island Bites: Hawaii, Part Five
Napa’s Affordable Eats & Surprising Treats
A Tale of Two Cocktail Trends
Island Bites, Part Four – Kauai

**Unless otherwise noted, all photos by Virginia Miller**

Written by Virginia in: Intro Letter |

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