Was on Silent Retreat in Montecito…so what?

Garden Pond 2015I usually blog about the restaurants (you’ll see more soon) or wineries (always more to share), but today I wanted to share something a bit more personal and compelling for me as Chef and Co-owner of The Inn On First, a luxury bed and breakfast inn in Napa.

Annually Jamie gives me one week to go away so that I can spend a lot of time in silence and reflection with my BFF from southern California (Linda, whose husband is also generous in letting her go for one week).  We rent a cottage on a 25-acre retreat property, are self-sufficient for the day in terms of breakfast and lunch, and then gather at dinner to cook and share our thoughts about the day.  Each day we independently choose our theme for the day: what’s on our minds or hearts that is calling for attention?  It could be work, relationship, self, family, friends.  It doesn’t matter.  There is no formula.  You spend the day however you choose (reading a book of reflection, walking at the beach, going for a hike, sitting in your room, sitting by the river, enjoying the views, swimming in the pool, drawing pictures) and trust your heart, mind, and body to lead you through the silence.

My overall theme this year was Joy.  It always seems to elude me.  I feel love and peace so often, so why not joy?  I also know that sometimes I have to work at love:  that some days love really is a decision even though I don’t “feel” it.  That I have to work at peace: taking time to sit for five or ten minutes in quiet and solitude, a moment set aside for my heart to settle down for a bit.  So, where is joy in all of this?  And how do I go about working at it?

Over the week of reflection I realized that I have defined joy as effervescence, a giddiness or happiness that bubbles from within.  How wrong I have been!  I realized that joy is the simple action of appreciation, a moment when I am awed by nature, or touched by a friend’s concern, the deep abiding breath you take when you are simply awed by a view from the mountain top.  I came to understand that it is an “ah” (or “aha”) moment when you are not necessarily effervescent but simply in appreciation for what you have before you.  Thanks and gratitude.  Not overflowing, but simply in appreciation and simplicity.

Garden2015I returned home to The Inn On First from retreat and sat in the garden.  I saw the hummingbird feeding from the salvia flowers in the yard, watched the fish swim excitedly in the pond just before I threw in their food, and enjoyed watching a couple sit at a table, conversing and sharing a glass of wine.  I thought about all the ah-some moments I have had here at the inn over the past seven years and I took a deep sigh in gratitude.  Of course, this is my joy.  People, food, wine, nature, Napa.  All of it put before me.  Not in giddiness.  Not effervescent.  Simply grateful and appreciative for what was right in front of me.

The work of joy for me, then, is to take the time throughout my busy and not always joy-filled day to “look” for those ah-some moments: in the laughter of guests at the breakfast table, in the tenderness of a couple sitting quietly hand in hand in the yard, in the joviality of a couple playing chess over a glass of port, in the sound of a guest playing the piano in the living room, in my surprise at the guests who enjoy throwing the ball for my dogs as much as I do, in the delight of guests who share their appreciation with the morning’s selection for breakfast, in the clink of the glass cookie plate cover (meaning someone else has returned to the jar once more for some chocolate love) multiple times over the course of an evening.  All of this brings joy to me.

So don’t be surprised if you find me glancing your way with a smile as you sit in the yard sipping wine, or see me sitting in the yard with a cup of coffee enjoying a moment of quiet gratitude as you return from your day of wine-tasting, or walking by your breakfast table with an appreciative nod as you eat my food with delight.  It’s just me, working at joy, finding it in every ah-some moment put before me here at the inn, hoping that, maybe, you’ll find some too.

 

Aonair: small, intimate winery for those looking to purchase luscious mountain reds

Just ten minutes from The Inn On First, a luxury Bed and Breakfast in Napa, is a winery called Aonair.  Well, actually, it is the tasting room built out of an old stable that overlooks acres of vineyards in the southern hills of Napa.  We were introduced to Aonair by Grant Long, Sr., one of our favorite characters here in Napa Valley.   Grant Long, Sr.I say character because he has plenty of it and it shows in his demeanor and expression, always making you feel that you are the most important person in the room.  Long ago he made an investment into grapes and hillside wineries and eventually brought his son, Grant Long, Jr., into the business, and it is Grant, Jr. who is making wine, and Grant, Jr., who is usually doing the pouring for you.

When I say it is small, even the name “Aonair” gives it away, meaning “One Man” in Gaelic.    Driving back through the estates hidden in the hills you enter the security gate, drive up the long driveway, park, walk to the tasting room and then turn and behold the view.  Just perfect. Aonair Aonair Views

He only uses Napa mountain fruit for his reds, which means bright fruit flavors with robust character. We tried his Merlot (taste of raspberries with a light earthy tone), Cabernet Sauvignon (soft and subtle on the nose with blackberry and cherry notes, using whole berry fermentation), and Bordeaux Blend (big, bright fruit flavors).  All were delicious.

He also had a White Wine Blend (Sauvignon Blanc Clone-Semillon-Muscat) which we enjoyed as well as a Grenache, with fruit harvested out of the Sierra foothills from one of the oldest vineyards in California.  You can purchase a few bottles while you are there but to be guaranteed this wine for the future will require signing up for wine allocations (which we did, we liked it that much).  Wines generally range from $35 to $85 per bottle.

What to do for Cinco (okay, Cuatro) de Mayo? Visit a winery of course!

Just a fifteen minute drive from The Inn On First, a romantic Bed and Breakfast inn in Napa, is Ceja Vineyards.  This family knows how to put on a party and you don’t want to miss it if you’re going to be in town.  Details below:

Cinco de Mayo at Ceja Vineyards

In honor of Cinco de Mayo, Ceja Vineyards hosts a festive afternoon filled with a live Mariachi band, Ballet Folklórico performances, authentic Mexican cuisine from Amelia’s kitchen, bocce ball, dancing and of course Ceja vino!

It’s from 2 to 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 4 at Ceja Carneros Estate, 1016 Las Amigas Rd.

Cost is $80.

RSVP to jennifer@cejavineyards.com or call 255-3954.

Addendum is open for the season! Get your picnic baskets ready for lunch….

Per Paul Franson, our Napa “in the know” columnist and writer has informed us that Thomas Keller’s Addendum is open for the season, only a fifteen minute drive from your favorite luxury Napa bed and breakfast inn, The Inn On First.

Addendum behind Ad Hoc in Yountville serves take-out lunches Thursday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. They also have some tables you can use for a picnic.

While fried chicken remains on the menu (our favorite item on the menu),  chef Thomas Keller and the Ad Hoc team have decide to take BBQ more seriously with the recent purchase of a new Rolltisserie Smoker, which is one of 40 in the country.

Ad Hoc’s chef de cuisine Katie Hagan-Whelchel and TKRG chef de cuisine Devin Knell have spent weeks perfecting their “mop ‘n smoke” technique and BBQ recipes that will be available at Addendum throughout the year.

All meat is smoked with hickory and Napa Valley grape vines cuttings.  We provide you with the picnic basket and ice packs; you fill it with your favorite BBQ items and we’ll send you to one of our great picnic spots in the valley.

Torc: restaurants come and go…I hope this one stays.

A ten-minute walk from The Inn On First, a luxury lodging property in Napa, is the restaurant called Torc.  It opened a few months ago and I wanted to give it awhile before tempting fate with such an eclectic menu.  We shared the evening with our friends, Don and Kathy, so that meant more bites to enjoy.

Beginning with the artichoke soup with mint and lemon, I was in love with the velvety finish.  The portions are not large (we had read about this beforehand) and yet when I saw what was put in front of me I appreciated that they seemed just perfect for dining on multiple courses.  The Kampachi Crudo was incredible, a white fish with a citrus sauce and avocado, as was the Roasted Beets with Burrata and a Sherry-Maple glaze.  Growing up on canned beets I thought I would never try them again.  Since trying roasted fresh beets my heart has been changed, and Torc delivered it with gusto.

We also tried the Deviled Eggs, and the Pakora, as well as the Jamon Iberica, all great small starter appetizers for the meal.  Jamie had read about the Coconut Rice and the flavor on that dish was subtle and fun to eat.  We also enjoyed the Pork with the Cheddar Grits and a Buccatini Pasta with a Lamb Bolognese.  We enjoyed all of it.  Prices for apps and sides run $5 to $15, and the entrees are from $14 to $29.

Torc is willing to accommodate changes to dishes to present Vegans, Vegetarians, and Gluten-Free guests.  That is something not every restaurant in Napa offers.  The menu changes seasonally so I am looking forward to some really great meals in the future.

The new Fish Story: you don’t want to miss it

Only a 10-minute walk from The Inn On First, a provider of romantic lodging in Napa, is a restaurant called Fish Story.  They opened two years ago and chose to follow the Monterey Bay Aquarium lists for sustainable fish that are good for dining.  It was good but I could make almost everything on the menu at home; and when I want to eat out I generally look for chefs that will teach me, or tantalize my palate, or offer me things I would never do at home.

When the new chef came one month ago we were intrigued by the new menu.  Celebrating our 20th anniversary of our first date we decided to give the restaurant a try.  I texted a friend immediately after dinner: “Just go!”  Everything we had was delicious.

Jamie started with the tuna tartare with sourdough crisps and balsamic vinegar glee with a violet mustard.  Every bite was incredibly wonderful with little bursts of the gelee that would shine through the tartare.  I was tempted by the cold green garlic soup that was light, refreshing, and creamy goodness in a bowl.  For a main course Jamie ordered the Lobster “pot au feu”, a fish stew with a large lobster tail in the center, mussels, clams, and a luscious sauce to be sopped up with the hot bread they bring to table.  I ordered the sturgeon and it was perfectly cooked, a bit meaty and every bite tender, with this bed of leeks underneath that was a great complement to the fish as well as wild escargot bites that were incredibly tender.  I didn’t want my meal to end.

For dessert we enjoyed the soft vanilla ice cream with caramel sauce and it was a perfect ending to a delightful meal.  The wine list for March was 1/2 off (their version of March Madness) so we splurged on a Storybook Zinfandel that was perfect with our meal.  First courses run $9 to $15, and entrees $17 to $38.  If you’re looking for some incredible flavors to go with fish, this is a great place to dine.

One last note: on the menu they state that “many items can be prepared in a vegan, vegetarian, or gluten-free fashion.”  That really impressed me as so many of our guests are looking for alternative cuisines due to dietary restrictions.

Duende: dinner on your way to or from Oakland Airport

Now The Inn On First, a romantic bed and breakfast inn in Napa, may be 60 miles from the Oakland airport, but that doesn’t mean we don’t get out there to try new and exciting cuisine that guests might be able to enjoy to or from the airport. High, high, high on my list is Duende, a spanish restaurant that specializes in tapas and paella. Located in Oakland, right off the freeway, the atmosphere is fun and exciting, casual and engaging. Specialty cocktails abound, but I always like to try some Spanish wine I haven’t had before, this time a Temperanillo that was bold, smooth, and just perfect with the rabbit paella. Now this isn’t just any paella. This is very traditional paella, the kind you have to wait 30 minutes for while you enjoy a salad or other tapas. The kind of paella whose rice is al dente, and that has those delicious brown bits on the bottom of the pan that you can’t wait to scrape off and onto your plate. It is a paella you will not soon forget. Although they are only open for dinner (5:30 pm to 11 pm), I highly recommend it as your dining spot if your schedule allows.

Storybook Mountain Winery: Zinfandel Lovers Pay Heed

Storybook TreeStorybook Mountain Winery  Storybook Mountain Winery sits at the northern end of the Napa Valley, about a fifty-five minute drive from The Inn On First, a premier lodging property in Napa.  Best known for Zinfandel, it has been named repeatedly as one of Wine and Spirits Magazine’s favorite wineries for Zinfandel.  Guests of the inn have also raved about this place.

Founded by two brothers named Grimm in the late 1800′s, it closed around prohibition, opened again for a short time until a fire in the 60′s cleared out the buildings.  It wasn’t until years later (70′s) that the current owners came and renamed the place with a whimsical name to reflect the winery’s past history.  They were told at the time that Zinfandel was best with the particular soil type found at the winery, and the advice they were given has proven its veracity.

Storybook View Storybook Picnic

We were given a tour of the property which, amazingly, is only tended to by four vineyard workers; they bring in no outside help.  So you can imagine how carefully the vines are tended to throughout the year.  Once up the small hillside you begin to understand the beauty of the northern Napa Valley, north of Calistoga.  Forested hillsides surround you versus the broad plain of the southern Napa Valley.

Storybook Wines Storybook Caves

Entering the caves we were led to the final tasting room under the hillside where we enjoyed a selection of their wines: the Napa Estate Zinfandel (100% Zinfandel, with cherry tones, balanced fruit and oak), Antaeus (50% Zinfandel, then blended, big fruit flavor with a bit more oak than the first, with a nice oak finish), the Napa Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (very fruit forward, light tannins, toasted wood finish), and the Napa Estate Viognier (beautiful floral, honey nose, little acidity, not buttery, not oaken, just right).

Wines range from $36 to $90.  Picnicking is allowed prior to or after your tasting in a grassy knoll surrounded by redwood trees.  Reservations are a must, and they are closed on Sundays.

Carpe Diem Restaurant: how we love you

Only a ten minute walk from The Inn On First, a Bed and Breakfast Inn in Napa, is the wine bar and restaurant, Carpe Diem.  Specializing in innovative, fun, and interesting small and large plates, their menu changes all the time, which means you need to eat there regularly or you might miss some spectacular dishes.

Our last visit brought some new flavors in the form of the Winter Kale salad with blood orange vinaigrette and pomegranate seeds, as well as the Butternut Squash Risotto Balls.  I would recommend both of these.  The Tamales, filled with braised pork short rib meat, were light and luscious.  The tacos, filled with pork belly and asian slaw, continue to delight us (they change the filling daily: imagine Shrimp Pad Thai, or Filet Mignon with Pomegranate Glaze, as two small samples of their changing taco of the day filling).  The last dish we ordered was the Lamb with Harissa in a clay pot with Israeli couscous, small bites of tender lamb matched perfectly with chewy and tender large couscous kernels, tomatoes, and sauce.  Of course, dessert wouldn’t be complete without the Twix Bar, with the homemade shortbread dipped in dark chocolate and sea salt, sitting atop a scoop of salted caramel ice cream with house made caramel sauce.

As a wine bar and restaurant, this place is always crowded and reservations are a must.  Expect lots of people, a great staff that is both knowledgeable and helpful with both food and wine selections.

We are asked all the time: name us your top restaurants in Napa.  This is definitely one of them.

Brix Restaurant: still delivering quality food and service

Always a pleasure to return to old favorites, and Brix Restaurant is one of those places.  Only a fifteen minute drive from The Inn On First, a romantic Bed and Breakfast Inn in Napa, it continues to deliver on both quality food and service.  We usually dine for lunch as we love the patio seating that overlooks the Brix Gardens and the mountains, but we went for dinner instead, to share a meal with some friends in town, Sarah and Danny.

We started with the mixed green salad, beet salad with walnut crisps and feta (loved it), and the pork belly as appetizers.  How they get the pork belly to be that delicious and tender is something I still strive for in my own cooking regimen.  The leg of lamb was so wonderful, perfectly cooked.  Not something I usually order, but it looked so delicious at another table I ordered it for myself and was glad I did.  The steelhead trout was the other special of the night, delicious in every day, grilled to perfection.  The burger, of course, a standard there, is always fun to order, and Jamie was oh so glad to have brussels sprouts with his dinner (you know I’m a hater, but can stand it if they are at the opposite end of the table).

Dessert was the weak link this visit, a caramel ice cream sandwich that didn’t quite live up to its hype.  It was tasty; just not what I expected based upon the description on the menu. For cocktail lovers, there is a full bar, and they carry a wide range of Napa wines by the glass.  For the four of us, including wine, the total bill was $325.00.  We thought it was worth every penny.