Morimoto Leads Downtown Napa Revival

Most people use the terms Napa or Napa Valley to describe the wine country north of San Francisco, but most of the more interesting culinary destinations have traditionally been found in Sonoma, St. Helena, and Yountsville (home of Thomas Keller's restaurants). Downtown Napa was thought of as a place to pass through on your way to nearby vineyards and these other locales.

Things, however, have changed of late: Masaharu Morimoto, Tyler Florence, and the Lark Creek Restaurant Group have all recently opened shop in the new Riverfront complex. Plus other exciting if lower profile dining venues have sprouted through the village streets as well -- such as Michael Gyetvan's Norman Rose Tavern and Azzurro Pizzeria, or the sleek, southern Italian-inspired Oenotri. There's also the gorgeous, world class boutique hotel Avia now anchoring downtown and giving folks reason to stay overnight.

​During our recent west coast swing (described here and here), my wife and I spent just two days in Napa and surrounding country. We stayed at Avia (in a suite with fireplace and soaking tub for two); breakfasted at Bouchon; dined at Morimoto, Norman Rose Tavern and Farmstead Restaurant; paid a quick visit to the C.I.A.'s Greystone campus; toured a honey farm (to be written about in the future); and also managed to sneak in many unbelievably relaxing hours in the mineral pools and mud baths at Indian Springs Resort & Spa. What follows is a quick culinary recap of a few spots, starting with our dazzling dinner at Morimoto.

A spicy king crab appetizer blew us away from the start: Red tobanjan aioli on top of the crab meat mimics the look of the crab shell, but besides the optical illusion, it's amazingly delicious. Actually, before the crab came a dish of lime sorbet with cilantro micro leaf and sesame wafer. Along with it came a tuna carpaccio pizza drizzled with anchovy aioli and garnished with olives and jalapeño. The march of stunning plates continued via main courses of duck duck goose (which comes with duck confit fried rice dotted with cubes of frozen foie gras), and black cod braised in a ginger-soy reduction. Morimoto's own sake ginjo, with caramelized pear aromas, was the smoothest and tastiest sake I've ever had. Service was of the professional-yet-unpretentious sort that one rarely finds in Miami.

Another great meal was found at Norman Rose Tavern, which defines what a great neighborhood restaurant/tavern should be. It starts with a warm, welcoming ambiance and segues into fresh, farm-to-fork, classic American comfort food at affordable prices -- matched with a wide array of local wines and craft beers.Our Five Dot Ranch cheeseburger boasted a distinctively better taste than the norm -- best I've had in a long time. A sandwich of Hobb's bacon, fried organic egg, local romaine, tomato, and mayo was likewise memorable. We downed a couple of local beers (whose names I did not write down or remember) and the two of us were ready to roll.

Farmstead Restaurant, part of Long Meadow Ranch, is located in St. Helena. Chef Sheamus Feeley is, like all chefs here, intent on using meats from grass-fed animals raised at the Ranch, and produce from its own gardens on premise and down the road in Rutherford. It was another great lunch, if a light one: We shared a muffaletta sandwich with bierwurst, soppressata, olive salad, and Jersey milk cheese, and a trio of side dishes -- broccoli with grana; Rancho Gordo flageolet beans; and mac & cheese. There are great wines of course. I tried a 2005 Long Meadow Ranch E.J. Church Reserve Cabernet, but if you bring your own there is no corkage fee -- diners are instead asked to make a $2 donation that goes towards a local "community-building" not-for-profit organization.

​Only other meal we had in Napa was at Chop Suey, a regular old Chinese restaurant in the downtown area that was the only place open late one night. We shared a big bowl of the special house wonton with pork, shrimp, and vegetables (we asked them to drop the shrimp and add more vegetables instead). Unbelievably good! While we were dining, a chef from Morimoto's came in to order food and to introduce himself to the owner. It was a nice, new-neighbor gesture, one that again spotlighted a difference between places we visited out west and those in our own town: Sense of community.

Community. There -- I've said it for the last time. Next week it's back to writing about Miami, and our inimitable sense of caring only for ourselves.

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Miami New Times' restaurant reviewer for the past decade, and the world's indisputable master of disguise.
Contact: Lee Klein