Before we get to that dreamy, luscious Chocolate Cream Pie... Let me set the scene for you.
It's nearly 10pm, and you're floating in 92 degree waters in an Olympic-sized pool. Not only are you drifting without a care, but the peace-inducing warmth is further enhanced by the fact that this is no ordinary pool... It's filled with steaming, geyser-fed mineral water and sits under a vast, inky sky glittering with California stars. There's no one else around, and you feel utterly safe on a cushioned floatie. But, before you close your eyes catch a glimpse of the surrounding exoticisms: Flintston-esque palm trees and a surreal steam cloud rising with a soundless hissssss... You are now relaxed. Indian Springs Resort's website says it best:
Situated on 16 beautiful acres planted with olive and palm trees, roses and lavender, the property is blessed with four thermal geysers that produce an extraordinary supply of rich mineral water. Another prized asset is the vast, natural deposit of pure volcanic ash on our acreage. These unique elements have long inspired a tradition of healing and renewal...Oh, yeah, baby. And, it doesn't stop there... because if you live in San Francisco (or if you don't) and you've said, "I'm never going back to Napa because [fill in your lambast against tourists, high-prices, pop-yuppie-hype and general poo-poo-ing HERE]" then, listen up...
You can go to Napa. You can. Would Spicy steer your wrong? I'm a frugal yet indulgent homegrown foodie who has seen the ugly side of a stressful job and more than a few bad meals--which means I know what it means to an honest working stiff who values their time and especially their money yet craves nourishment for the soul, psyche and oh, hello, my stomach. You just want to relax, dammit. And, eat well. And, now you can... in the Napa Valley.
Let me preface this by saying a few things. Calistoga (in the Napa Valley) and its surrounding playground is a vacation for people who either (a) like to drink wine, (b) like to eat or (c) aren't shy about lolling around naked as a jaybird while getting massaged or slathered in mud by a (trained but) total stranger. There aren't a ton of amusements for ambulatory kids. And, yes, to do Napa right it's going to cost you, but probably not nearly as much as you thought. If you have the budget for it, the memories will outlast the missing cash. Let yourself feel good...
Calistoga reaches the Napa County line making it slightly less touristy and developed. The main drag aka Lincoln Avenue is only a few blocks long but it has a bike store and rental, a supermarket, liquor store and a whole bunch of restaurants and bars. But, as far as I'm concerned, the reason to go to Calistoga is to find peace... at Indian Springs Resort.
Despite its brambly sounding moniker, "the Lodge" at Indian Springs is a kid-free haven for guests: Each room has a comfy queen bed, soft sheets, armchair, flatscreen tv, airy modern bathrooms, fancy complimentary toiletries (L'Occitane!) and either an enclosed patio or balcony with a meadow view. Further up the property, past the lifesized chess and checker boards, bocce and shuffleboard courts, are standalone cottages: beautiful studio and multi-room dwellings perfect for families.
And, then, there's the spa services: Mineral mud bath guaranteed to sweat out the toxins. And, THE pool. Did I already mention it's Olympic-sized? With retro-striped cabana curtains, poolside steam room and roaring fireplace, rattan couches, the New York Times (daily!) and all that healing and renewal feels inspired by older, calmer times.
And, then there's the food. Of course, Spicy's been working on her Napa Valley/Wine Country/NorthernCal Eats list for years. But, this last trip to the Valley was a refreshing turn for this spoiled Bay Area palette. A few notes:
Let's start with the "potted" pig at the Farmstead Restaurant at Longmeadow Ranch in St. Helena. Fortunately or not, on this rare occasion, I was so caught up in eating, tasting, texture, chewing and loving every bit that I failed to photograph every course we had ate every meal... So just another farm-to-table restaurant? Well... dammit, it's good. Chef Sheamus Feeley put the pig on the table with a wonderfully fatty and salty pork rillette, served with crunchy, slightly sweet crostini and homemade wine-mustard.
I've never smothered lard on toasted bread with such gusto. Napa's ZD Carneros Chardonnay went with our pig. "I like it when people eat it all," our waitress remarked while clearing our piggy first course. Farmstead's menu is seasonal, but thank God pig doesn't go out of season... lard-ee!
Our lunch mains were fresher-tasting versions of what's featured on many a quality brunch menu in San Francisco. I had short rib hash with farm eggs and root vegetables while Giant Sous Chef had Black Cod with Meyer lemon butter, roasted beets 'n greens. Local, local, local=Fresh, fresh, fresh. It's that simple. Next trip, I'm definitely down for the meatballs 'n marmalade and chicken 'n dumplings. Yet...
Sublime degustation peaked at dessert. For a pig lover, what could top "potted" pig on toast? How about a graham cracker crust HOMEMADE WITH LARD AND LOVE? Farmstead's not dealing in white tub Wal-Mart superstore lard that's a suitable substitute for Crisco. This is artisanal lard, people, likely extracted from a single pig named "Eve." But, wherever it came from it is pure flavor and pure fat and it quite possible makes the the best pie crust ever. Our server could not "divulge" the secret to their slightly salty not-too-sweet rich graham crust, but she flinched when GSC guessed lard. And, what's inside this amazing crust? Two inches of dark chocolate pudding and two inches of whipped cream blizzard-ed with chocolate shavings. Giant Sous Chef had the Meyer lemon version of this pie, but why wouldn't you get chocolate? I was so moved by Farmstead's chocolate cream pie, I could only muster a few blurry photos of it--proof of my food-love-haze.
Overpriced dining is usually on the list of Napa complaints. Only second to the snobby locals and even snobbier mega-wineheads shirking box-blush-wine slamming tourists. We'll get into how to avoid all that in a bit, but first... What about Yountville, Thomas Keller, Chiarello and all that hoodity-ha? Certainly, it's a scene... Yountville's Washington street's a who's who of wine country dining and $36+ plate. Yah, pre-TEN-tious.
But, yes, dammit, I went to Ad Hoc. I logged on in a semi-hypnotized state for not one but two reservations with the pithy slogan, If I was never going to eat at French Laundry I was going to eat somewhere Thomas Keller has shed his grace. And, that somewhere was Ad Hoc. And, while it wasn't entirely regrettable, I'm gonna be honest people it was a bit underwhelming...
The (unfortunate) Cons: Salty microgreens salad, ho-hum steak 'n eggs, a skimpy portion of potatoes, blah silver dollar pancakes, only decent coffee drinks and--why is there dessert at brunch?--rum baba. $34 a head is pretty fair, but, but... I wanted to start my meal with Bouchon-esque pastries and some of that yummy white sangria that they were already out of at 1pm... I just wanted it to live up to the hype.
By the time the rum baba arrived the atmosphere was fraught with expectation... Yet, the point is Ad Hoc is homestyle and homemade with the freshest ingredients. And, it's executed with textbook flawlessness... So? Beyond basic techniques, it's all about the ingredients at Ad Hoc--freshly harvested raspberries, garden peas and hand-gathered hen eggs. Wines gushing with NorCal terroir.
It's about simplicity. These are fresh ingredients that you or I can obtain. And, just like Ad Hoc's chef's we can treat fine ingredients with respect and emerge with a similar plate. Got überfresh product? Don't burn it or slice it all weird or use gross, cheap oil to cook it. Maintain the integrity of the your food... and the taste.
My advice: Skip Ad Hoc's brunch and buy Thomas Keller's wonderful cookbook Ad Hoc at Home. With whimsical pictures and text as a guide, Keller teaches can teach you how to turn food into your ally. Remember the French Chef in Rataouille who said, "Anyone can cook?" Can you guess which successful Northern California chef was the consultant on that film? Taking care when shopping for ingredients and following techniques from books like Ad Hoc, you can cook fresh and put out beautiful plates. (At least for brunch. Brunch is easy. Try it!)
By the way, we did clean our plates at Ad Hoc. Of course we did. Don't get me wrong that place is well above and beyond Le Peep grills and Cracker Barrel's offerings, but it's not cheap and certainly over-hyped which is really media's fault anyway by being so demanding on chef's these days--damned Food Network backlash.
And, by the way, if you bring a cookbook to Ad Hoc for Keller to sign, you won't get it signed. The man is essentially Zeus of the food world and as our server informed us he doesn't sign books during service... which makes me wonder if he cooks during service. Because I can't believe anything Keller ever had his hand on would have bored me the way our meal did. And, yes, I understand that someone at Keller's level isn't cooking on the line at Sunday brunch, but really, I wanted this meal to blow my socks off... and it didn't.
However... California's Wine Country is not all about the food is it? No. Absolument pas...
Let Spicy take you to... Schramsberg, home of J. Davies wine estate, $40 wine caves tour. The lucky few'll get the dry-witted Kari as their guide. Spicy's pre-party spot? The one and only, bachelorette-hotspot Domain Chandon...
Spicy and Giant Sous Chef sway sophistiqué in sparkling wine edification.
Meet us in... NAPA, Part II! With Tasty 'Cue!!