The city that wine and flood-defences transformed.
In a striking demonstration of how the city of Napa has changed over the past decade, here is an interesting fact. It is possible to buy a cappuccino almost anywhere along Main and First Streets, but when I asked the receptionist at the Archer Hotel where we staying where was the nearest pharmacy, I was told that I would need a cab to get there. ‘That will be the CVS, which is just over three miles away', she informed me.
The transformation of downtown Napa has been as dramatic as it has been swift. Napa lies in an ideal position to pick up the growth in wine tourism as it is the first substantial conurbation the visitor to Napa Valley from San Francisco metropolis encounters on Highway 29. But its appeal to hoteliers and restaurateurs has been hampered until recently by one major physical flaw: the Napa river would, on occasion, overflow and flood the whole of the downtown area.
Such an eventuality was enough to put off many until the citizens of Napa decided to raise taxes and remodel the course of the Napa River. This community effort is marked by a prominent sign at the bridge across the river close to the the old Copia site now taken over by the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) and the Oxbow Public Market.
This has been enough to unleash an enormous amount of investment in Napa, an area in which, as one American friend put it, ‘you could have picked up the whole of downtown for not that many dollars 20 years ago’. Today, downtown Napa is very different.
The most conspicuous manifestation of this is the Archer Hotel on First Street, one of seven boutique hotels across the US managed by Lodgeworks LP of Wichita, Kansas. This hotel, opened in November 2017, is chic. It boasts a copy of two of the staff’s favourite books in each of its elegant bedrooms: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince and our very own Jancis Robinson’s The 24-Hour Wine Expert. The management also knows how to charge: the room rate for our large double room was US$1,250 a night, although this was admittedly during Premiere Napa Valley week when the valley was certainly humming. (Our main picture is of the historic Gordon Building on First Street.)
Hospitality is provided by a Charlie Palmer Steakhouse (a place we eschewed, having flown in from Argentina) and their breakfast offering is mundane. Far more colour and character is provided by the ABC Cafe (the Alexis Baking Company and Cafe) over on Third Street. Opened in 1985, this cafe has on its menu anything and everything you may want to eat before noon. Place your order at the counter; pay and take a stand with a single card on it (mine was the Jack of Spades) to indicate where you are sitting; and wait for your order. All served with a smile.
For everything vinous, head back to First Street and into the modern development just to the left of the Archer Hotel, to Compline. Also opened in 2017 by Ryan Stetins and Matt Stamp MS, this is one of those places that manages to do a whole host of things effortlessly: at the front is their wine shop; behind are a couple of large blackboard menus displaying not just their food – miso soup, salads, a Liberty Farms duck breast with rutabaga, and a winter mushroom risotto – but also that night’s list of fascinating wines by the glass, whites from Austria, rosés from Etna and fortified from Banyuls. This is also the place that this highly enthusiastic couple have made home for anyone studying the WSET Diploma course or the more exhausting, and exhaustive, MW course. [Their shelves focus on wines retailing under $35 a bottle; California wines are thin on the ground – JR]
The past six years or so have seen a huge growth in the number of restaurants serving Japanese food in Napa, with little competition from anything Chinese, sadly. This is in part because of the high demand in Japan for the top wines of California (Japan has been the biggest single market for Colgin and Harlan wines outside California, for example). Despite some talk in Beijing from CITIC (the country’s sovereign wealth fund) about creating a Chinese Napa Valley with restaurants to match to attract the Chinese tourists, nothing has come of this. Perhaps, once coronavirus is eradicated, this manifestation of ‘soft power’ will bear fruit. I could, for example, imagine something similar happening in London’s Chinatown, an area that has been starved of investment for decades.
On consecutive nights we ate at Japanese restaurants Miminashi and Morimoto. Perhaps this was badly judged, because I lost my heart to the former and remained totally indifferent to the latter.
Miminashi is the creation of chef Curtis di Fede and his wife Jessica, and is bustling, friendly and fun from the moment you walk in. Modelled on a Japanese izakaya, the interior with its poplar ceilings that represent interlocking pagodas is seductive. Our table was in a booth also made out of poplar that facilitated our illuminating conversation with Napa native, Turley winemaker and owner of Sandlands Vineyards Tegan Passalacqua.
The menu is printed on a piece of paper that doubles as a placemat and is full of fascinating dishes: a beautifully dressed little gem salad enlivened with slices of radishes and pickled ginger; a succulent collar of hamachi, or amberjack, that I have to confess to eating virtually all of; and an okonomiyaki, a savoury Japanese pancake here encompassing bacon, Napa cabbage, kimchi and several other ingredients. Their soft-serve ice cream, also available from a counter outside, should not be missed.
By contrast, Morimoto occupies a large, open hall-like space and was also very busy on the Tuesday after Valentine’s Night. But despite a bottle of good sake, neither the place nor the food excited me. Their version of bone marrow was anaemic and their braised octopus dish lacked any particularly exciting flavours. The conversation around the table, with our California specialist Elaine Chukan Brown, was good, however.
Down at the bottom of Main Street and still going strong after 18 years in the Hatt Building is Angèle restaurant. A plaque at the site reads: Albert Hatt, a Napa merchant was born in Prussia. His Hatt Building, constructed in 1878, is the largest brick industrial building in Napa. It is actually four contiguous brick structures built over a period of 40 years with bricks made from Napa River clay.
Bettina Rouas opened this restaurant, named after her late mother, to serve the simple French cuisine that is so universally appealing. We enjoyed devilled eggs with black truffles, veal sweetbreads with green peppercorns, mussels with French fries, and a rich caramel crème pot topped with crème fraîche. These dishes, familiar to Europeans, must seem like a welcome novelty for those who more often eat American or new Californian cuisine.
Finally, our last lunch was from various food stands in the excellent Oxbow Public Market, where, in the shade from the blazing sun, we enjoyed Mexican food from the Casa stand, an oyster po’boy sandwich from the Hog Island Oyster Company and excellent coffees from Ritual Roasters.