The world of food in the Napa Valley has never been more in flux than it is today. With major changes in demographics, technology and climate change all coupled with increased competition, limited labor and changing consumer preferences it often seems as though there are new revelations on a daily basis.
Chef Jan Birnbaum
Chef Jan Birnbaum, 61, passed away June 12 at his home after a prolonged illness. His wife, Linda Giglio, was by his side. In 1994 Birnbaum opened the popular Catahoula in Calistoga, where he blended his Louisiana roots and extensive culinary training to create Southern-inspired American cuisine. The restaurant closed in 2003, but his legacy of spices and smoky, wood-fired cooking influenced Napa Valley chefs and beyond. He will be missed.
Restaurant Terra closes
After 30 years, St. Helena’s Terra Restaurant and Bar Terra has closed. The owners, Lissa Doumani and Hiro Sone, helped define and refine a style of modern California cuisine, fusing European and Japanese influences. The duo also created a consistently exceptional Napa Valley dining experience that was rewarded for decades by reviewers such as Michael Bauer and Michelin. But the pressure surrounding staffing became too much.
“It is mostly about staffing,” Doumani said. “It is so difficult to find someone and so many more businesses opening and housing is so limited.”
Labor shortages are not new in the Napa Valley, but with the recent (and scheduled) opening of new hotels, restaurants, brew pubs and cafes this issue is only going to grow.
“It is hard to stomach contemplating sacrificing the level of execution because you can’t find enough or properly trained and focused people,” said Christopher Kostow, chef at Napa Valley’s three-Michelin-star The Restaurant at Meadowood and co-owner of The Charter Oak. “It is hard to see things that you, as a chef, care so deeply about that aren’t valued by the next generation. At our restaurants we try to go above and beyond with our staff. We provide continuing education, tons of ‘food talks,’ field trips, time spent at the farm, instruction on things well beyond their immediate roles — and yet it is not enough to satisfy many within this generation of cooks. I’m beginning to feel like a ‘get off my lawn’ type of guy, but I’ve never been one to think that we should teach/train the way that I was — we are always striving to be better, but it’s hard to compete with the grass-is-always-greener Instagram world.”
Chef Katianna Hong named one of the Best New Chefs for 2018
Food and Wine‘s Best New Chefs 2018 list came out and included Katianna Hong, chef at The Charter Oak in St. Helena. Hong had spent five years working her way up to become the first-ever female chef de cuisine at Kostow’s The Restaurant at Meadowood and was asked to be chef when Kostow and his business partner, Nathanial Dorn, opened the more casual Charter Oak in 2017.
Since then she and the team have created one of the most creative expressions of what I think of as the next Napa Valley cuisine. For perspective, this year’s Food and Wine list had six female chefs and only three male chefs on the list. In contrast, in 2017 that ratio was flipped and in 2016 there was only one woman included.
St. Helena adds to the Top Restaurant list
The San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100 Restaurants for 2018 saw no net gain in the number of Napa Valley restaurants listed (nine), but there was some controversy when Yountville’s Bottega was included because the chef-owner, Michael Chiarello, has been embroiled in sexual-harassment and labor-violations accusations.
Beyond Bottega, Yountville’s Ad Hoc and The French Laundry were also included, but the culinary hamlet saw the loss of two restaurants (Ciccio and Redd) from this year’s list. The city of Napa remained steady with Miminashi and Oenotri, while St. Helena saw the biggest gains with the addition of the Acacia House and The Charter Oak. The town’s list retained the inclusion of The Restaurant at Meadowood and Terra/Bar Terra.
Chef partners part ways at St. Helena Cook
Highlighting the challenges of restaurant partnerships, Chef Ryder and Misha Zetts have departed from Cook and Cook Tavern in St. Helena. A year earlier they and the owners of the restaurant — Jude and Megan Wilmoth — had formed a partnership. Details of the dissolution remain murky and both parties have been closed-lipped, but suffice it to say, having too many cooks in the kitchen is never an easy endeavor.
In Calistoga, Sommelier Scott Turnbull left Solbar and is now at The Restaurant at Meadowood. Beyond his excitement to join what is one of the strongest wine programs in the Napa Valley and the experience of working with some of the best wines on the planet, Turnbull is excited to continue his pursuit of the coveted Master Sommelier rating from the Court of Master Sommeliers. We wish him luck and hope he will soon join the ranks of the rarefied few who have achieved such expertise in wine and wine service.
Changes in Calistoga
Calistoga’s Boskos Trattoria has been sold to Peter Chiang, whose family also purchased The Pink Mansion bed and breakfast last year when he moved into the Meadowbrook Farm vineyard property. The plans for the beautiful old stone building remain tightly under wraps. In other Calistoga news, Lovina has recently renovated its space and updated their menu, including a daily brunch offering. After what seemed like an eternity, the Main Street bridge construction is now completed on the Calistoga Inn side of the road, and they’ve taken the opportunity to beautify what had always been one of the best outdoor-seating restaurants in the Napa Valley.
Just off the lobby of the Mount View Hotel and Spa, the owners, Michael and Stephanie Woods, have opened what they’ve named Indie Blue Salon. This charming Art Deco-inspired space with a French, brasserie-style bar will serve Taylor Lane Coffee and fresh baked croissants from Sonoma’s Red Bird Bakery daily until 10 a.m. In the afternoon and evening they will serve wine from regional vintners including ONEHOPE Wines, a company that provides a portion of their profits to environmental causes and children’s need charities.
Hotels for sale
In hotel news, both the Calistoga Ranch and Las Alcobas are for sale. No word yet if they have buyers. The Acacia House restaurant by Chris Constentino located in Las Alcobas will reportedly remain in place even after the sale. Because of restrictions to the site’s permit, the restaurant at the Calistoga Ranch — The Lakehouse restaurant — is not open to the public, but there is no word on how or if the food offerings would change under any new ownership. Earlier this year, Charlie Palmer sold his interest in St. Helena’s Harvest Inn and Harvest Table restaurant to his partners, Rick Kaufman and Andrew Garay. The current owners have now joined forces with new partners — the Woodside Hotel Group — and have retained Chef Spencer Wolff. The menu and food offerings are expected to change in the coming months.
Adding to its dominion over Yountville, the Thomas Keller Group has purchased yet another restaurant in the tiny town, bringing the number to four (The French Laundry, Ad Hoc, Bouchon Bistro and now what was formally Hurley’s, sold earlier this year). Expectations are that Keller et. al will open a new high-end Mexican-cuisine-inspired restaurant in the coming months.
Napa’s exciting and eclectic food scene
The food scene in the city of Napa continues to explode. Although my go-to establishment remains Angèle Restaurant and Bar and Oenotri, the town has evolved to include a rich selection of ethnic-inspired options, including the Gran Electrica Mexican restaurant, the first of which was located in New York and received a Michelin Bib Gourmand rating; La Taberna, which serves expressive Spanish pintxos (small dishes); and Miminashi and Kenzo, who focus on producing expressive Japanese cuisine. The super-sports bar NapaSport has turned sports bars on their head with a range of items that would make any gourmand root for the team, and Stone Brewing—Napa is figuring out its menu and place within its new Napa ethos, while over at Compline and Cadet they’ve found a semi-urban-hip wine-inspired spirit that would give even the most sober sommelier a reason to grin.
Best new view
The best new view award goes to Charlie Palmer’s Sky and Vine Rooftop Bar atop the Archer Hotel that has given Napa a super-urban energy boost. Go there to have breakfast, lunch or dinner. Or better yet, go there for the “Reverse Happy Hour” from 9 p.m. to closing, where you can enjoy half-price drinks (beer, wine and select cocktails) and a reduced-price bar-snack menu while you take in a new perspective of the Napa Valley view.
I will be writing these general updates for both food and wine occasionally. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Instagram at @local_tastes if you have news to share about Napa Valley’s ever-changing food and wine scene.
Originally published in the Napa Register, June 2018