July 16

Napa Valley Vegan at the 2016 Taste of Napa!

festival NV useHi friends! You have no idea how happy I am to be back. My life has been so full of joy, stress, loss and excitement over the last several months. Overwhelming! After five years out of the business, in February, my husband and I decided that it was time for me to get back to work selling real estate. We realized that after 5 years with his current company, his career was dying a very slow (often painful) death and living paycheck to paycheck had finally lost its allure! I began reading 1,800 pages of California real estate practices, procedures and legal aspects. Yep, it was as mind numbing as it sounds! On the last day of March, while on my way to pick up my passes to the amazing Sonoma Film Festival, I was rear ended by a 95-year-old man. My first thought was, “Wow! Kudos to you for still being licensed and independent”. My second thought was “F@ck! My back hurts.” Luckily, within a couple weeks my back and range of motion in my neck were almost back to normal. The downside was that since I had both of my hands on the steering wheel at the moment of impact, both of my wrists were sprained and swollen. That has taken much longer to heal but they are finally almost never sore or swollen. YAY! Within a couple days of this excitement, we got a call from our property manager to let us know that our landlord had recently passed away and we now had 60 days to vacate the home we had lived in for almost three years. We were sad for his family and knowing the current rental market in Napa just a little concerned about finding a place in just 2 months. On top of that, rent had increased by about 20% since the last time we had signed a lease. Sheesh! The hits just keep on a coming! And then things got really sad. My mother-in-law Jenelle, who had been ill and battling Parkinson’s disease for a couple years, finally lost her battle. In so many ways it was a relief to see her finally at peace and no longer suffering but that is easy for me to say. My husband lost his Mom. Now with both of his parents gone his sister Barb is the only person on this planet that has known him his entire life. Sad times. But just as quickly as it seemed that everything was going wrong, wonderful things were happening too! Though the real estate board is still weeks away from processing my application for the exam (I guess everyone wants to be an agent again!), with the help of a friend, I found a job at a small local real estate office. I’m working as an administrative assistant until I’m licensed. I wouldn’t call it interesting or exciting but it is helping me get used to being back in the work force. And thanks to another friend, we found the perfect little oasis in Old Town Napa. A charming little home with the sweetest backyard full of towhees, hummingbirds, bumble bees, butterflies and a little opossum we named Dixie after one of my favorite 90s bands Possum Dixon. In fact, I’m sitting outside right now with my lovely little doggie Violet sitting in my lap! And did I mention that I’m less than 2 blocks to Fuller Park and downtown?!!

TasteLogo400pxTo celebrate my return, I’m participating in Napa Valley’s annual music, food, wine and art festival – Festival Napa Valley (formerly known as Festival del Sole). Tomorrow, I’ll be covering the 2016 Taste of Napa. The event is being held at the new Cairdean Estate upvalley in beautiful St. Helena. Cairdean Estate offers estate wine tasting, dining, shopping and a perfect destination to meet up with friends! It was one of my favorite locations for screening films at the 2015 Napa Valley Film Fest. The event will be featuring dozens of exclusive wineries and just about every local Chef you could imagine including Alpha Omega, Caymus Vineyards, Cliff Lede Vineyards (one of my favorite spots in Napa!), Baldacci Family Vineyards (oh, another favorite), The Hess Collection (a definite favorite!) Aroma Indian Cuisine, Basalt and Carpe Diem. What does that mean to us vegans, you ask? Well…that’s why I’m going to be there. Just like last year, I will be tasting and sipping and chatting up every Chef and winemaker I can meet. It’s a tough job but I am here for you! My next blog post and videos will feature all the vegan-friendly moments so you can enjoy yourself on your next visit to Napa Valley!

I’ve missed you all and am so grateful that you are reading this post. I can’t wait to share the 11th Annual Festival Napa Valley with you! And as always…eat, drink and be vegan

March 23

JuJu’s Mediterranean Kitchen -Bursting With Flavor, Health & Love!

IMG_3547My first experience with JuJu’s Mediterranean Kitchen was several years ago. Steve and I were very new to Napa and noticed JuJu’s after leaving our insurance agent’s office. JuJu’s is tucked back on California Way and unless you’re taking a short cut to California Boulevard, at the time, there wasn’t really any reason to head down California Way. When we went in, we met Joumana Shweiky (JuJu), for the first time. She was very friendly but explained that they didn’t offer much in the way of restaurant services but were more into catering. We headed off from there and I have to admit I looked at it longingly every time I drove by over the years! Fast forward four years, and my Facebook friend, Cassandra, mentioned that JuJu’s Mediterranean Kitchen had plenty of clearly labeled vegan choices on their menu and that I should add them to my Eat! page. So I did what anybody interested in learning more about a restaurant would do, I checked the Yelp reviews! Sure enough…JuJu’s still offered their catering services but since my last visit have added tables and are now offering sit down service. Yay!

 

Yum! The Mezza Combo plate!
Yum! The Mezza Combo plate!

Besides the addition of 4 or 5 tables, JuJu’s Mediterranean Kitchen is much as I remember it from my first visit. A large open kitchen, a small market specializing in Middle Eastern products, a large glass front cooler displaying house made salads sold by the pint and a very homey atmosphere. JuJu is just as friendly and welcoming as I remember. With the Lebanese music playing in the background, Steve and I both felt like we were sitting down in her kitchen at home. Though she was busy cooking, she took time out to go over the menu with me. This is really a vegan’s food heaven. There are 7 mezza favorites that can be purchased for just $5 for a ½ pint that range from Mujadara – a blend of lentils, cracked wheat & caramelized onions; Tabuli made with chopped parsley, fresh mint & cracked IMG_3545wheat; freshly made Dolmas wrapped with grape leaves and stuffed with a savory mix of rice, fresh mint & pomegranate molasses, Hummus and much more! I’m going to stop for just a moment here and mention that her Dolmas are the best I have ever eaten! JuJu’s Signature dishes include a Mezza Combo Plate (just mention that you are vegan and she will substitute grilled veggies for the non-vegan baba ganough), a Falafel Plate and she will also make Veggie Kabobs if you ask! The vegan wraps include the Falafel Wrap and the Greek Wrap (if you skip the feta). The Fatoosh Salad is vegan and the Mediterranean, Kale & Greek Salads can be with some slight adjustments. And then comes the A La Carte section – of the 16 choices, 8 are vegan! The Hummus plate, Foul M’Damas plate, grilled Tomato & Onion Skewer, side of olives, pita bread, garlic cilantro home fries, Falafel with tahini sauce and IMG_1632Dolmas. Steve and I enjoyed the Mezza Combo plate – a perfect taste of the Mediterranean with homemade Hummus, Muhamara, Mujadara, Falafel, Dolma and Tabuli served with warm pita bread. I loved having a little bit of everything on my plate. As I mentioned, the grilled veggies made a lovely substitution for the non-vegan baba ganough. I especially enjoyed the hummus, mujadara, tabuli and the dolmas!

 

Though JuJu has been a part of Napa Valley for 30 years, she is originally from Lebanon so the flavor of the food is very authentic. It is all made fresh daily using local produce, exotic spices, extra virgin olive oil and the Chef’s love! Some of her favorite things are to entertain and cook and introduce others to new cultures. This is really reflected in the IMG_3561experience I had when I visited her restaurant. She proudly talked about her 6 children who all grew up in St. Helena and are now lawyers, teachers, fashion designers and world travelers. I really loved that she shared with me her cookbook Soup for Syria. With so much physical distance between Syria and the U.S., I admit that I am somewhat disconnected from the turmoil and suffering that is happening. It does seem that the world has failed the Syrian refugees; the world’s wealthiest countries have turned their backs on this humanitarian disaster. While JuJu’s home country Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq have opened their borders to more than four million refugees. This has created a huge need for food relief. To assist, many world-acclaimed chefs and cookbook authors from around the world have come together to help alleviate the hunger of the Syrians by contributing a recipe. It is another great example that we don’t need to wait for our government to make a decision. We can help change the world all on or own!

 

Hanging out with JuJu
Hanging out with JuJu

With two decades of experience in the very demanding Napa Valley culinary industry, JuJu’s Mediterranean Kitchen is well worth the stop whether you are looking for casual dining, catering, lunch or dinner take-out or you need a boxed lunch for your next wine tasting excursion. JuJu’s is located at 3375 California Way and is open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m to 8 p.m. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I did and as always…eat, drink and be vegan!

 

*You may have noticed that I am a big fan of Mediterranean food. I’ve enjoyed it from Small World Café and Heritage Eats to Tarla Mediterranean Grill and JuJu’s Kitchen. I’d love to hear your feedback on your favorite spot in Napa Valley for Mediterranean food. Please leave your comments below!

 

 

 

March 11

Napkins Bar + Grill – Something For Everyone!

IMG_1536 (1)Though some may say Napkins has a bit of an identity crisis, proprietor Ali Yildirim sees it much differently. Napkins offers “something for everyone…we do it all.” Whether you are looking to enjoy brunch al fresco, bellying up to the bar for beer & pub grub, dining with your honey on date night, dancing the night away with your BFFs, or joining a big group of friends to cheer for your favorite team, Napkins really does have it all! And that includes delicious vegan options too! When I sat down to enjoy lunch with Ali, he let our server, Becky, know that he was going to be vegan for the “next 30 minutes.” Thirty minutes turned into an hour and a half of talking, eating and sipping wine. And though Ali grew up in a culture that ate a lot of meat, he not only sees the benefits of following a vegan philosophy but admires us for it! He just kept raving about how good his vegan lunch was and how “you don’t feel heavy, you feel fresh…it’s not a sacrifice to give up something that benefits your body and your mind.” Well, I couldn’t have said it better myself!

Gaziantep, Turkey

Ali grew up in Turkey’s Southeast Anatolian Region in beautiful Gaziantep, famous for olive groves, vineyards, pistachios and baklava.  Known as the “Paris of the East”, not only was Gaziantep recognized as one of the 2015 European Destinations of Excellence but it was also included in the UNESCO Creative Cities network in the field of gastronomy! Coming from such a gastronomical city, it is no wonder that Ali eventually began opening restaurants. His entire family works in the hospitality business – primarily hotels and restaurants – so it makes sense that is where he got his start. Even though family hires family, he had to start out at the bottom just like the rest of us. He began washing dishes but knew he was destined for more. While working, he began studying hotel/restaurant management. Upon graduation, Ali got his first General Manager job at Camel Beach and Sunset Restaurant in Stunning Bodrum, TurkeyBodrum on the Aegean Sea. He loved his job and the mediterranean climate but his love for people, new cultures and cuisines was a huge driving force.  Ali never believed that he “belonged to one country, one religion or one border” so when Celebrity Cruise Lines began recruiting, he knew what he had to do. With just one day notice to get to Istanbul for his interview, Ali got a haircut, purchased a new suit and spent all night on the bus! Of the 22 people who interviewed for the position, only 3 were hired…and Ali was one of them. And you’ll never guess what his first job was…yep, he was a bus boy again! He then spent the next 5 years honing his skills and visiting country after country; over 50 to be exact! He would head inland and spend his time with the locals immersing himself in their culture, enjoying their food.

IMG_1537Executive Chef Erasto Jacinto joined Napkins in 2014 and his career started out a bit like Ali’s. Chef arrived in California in 1986 and joined Mustards Grill as the dishwasher. He grew with Mustards Grill, became Chef and helped them become the legend (for non-vegans anyway!) they are today. In 2012, after 26 years with Mustards, he journeyed out on his own before finally making Napkins his new home. Chef grew up on an organic farm in Mexico. He and his family grew many crops that included corn, beans and wheat. He feels it is “so bad that people started using that [pesticides]. It ruins the soil.” Chef Jacinto’s goals for Napkins include working directly with local farmers to create a farm to table experience for his guests. He is also using his love for veggies to add new vegan options to his menu!

In the midst of all of this talking, I started my meal with their beautiful, sweet beet salad. I had to ask Ali what he thought of the salad minus the bacon and goat cheese that is usually on it and his comment was, “way better, I should hang out with you guys more often!” Then Chef made a plate of delicious roasted vegetables – squash, eggplant, mushrooms…how can something so simple be so delicious and IMG_1547satisfying? We finished off the meal with a sweet, light dairy-free orange sorbet. It was really a perfect finish to my meal.

And here is some exciting news. The last time I was in Napkins, Ali and I discussed the possibility of Napkins adding a vegan option or two to their menu. This really got him thinking and he has decided it is time to make some changes. In addition to adding vegan-friendly entrees to the menu, he also wants to label everything that is vegetarian, vegan and that can be made vegan! Hurray! They change their menu seasonally so this is the perfect time to make this all happen. Ali explained it to me like this, “every kitchen has vegetables. Anyone who calls themselves a full restaurant and can’t handle a vegan, maybe they are in the wrong business. You have your burner, you have your Chef, you have your items.” Are you beginning to love this guy as much as I am?

IMG_1548Although Ali is no longer a part of Tarla Mediterranean Grill, he had a vision for downtown Napa when he helped open the restaurant in 2011. His amazing vision of Napa’s growth includes his belief that by 2025, Napa will compete with areas like Tuscany as a destination. The addition of at least three vegan restaurants in downtown Napa is also a part of his vision for Napa’s future. He has even thought about opening a small vegetarian/vegan restaurant that will seat 20-30 diners and offer beer and wine. He feels that a vegan restaurant would do very well in downtown Napa. “I have the courage, I think I have the knowledge and I have the team.” Ali believes that with education people are getting concerned about the food we eat and the treatment of animals. And his thoughts regarding mainstream acceptance, “Being vegetarian is normal now. Vegan will be the same thing in 5 years.”

I had the pleasure of meeting Ali over four years ago when I was brand new to Napa. The vegan options were very IMG_3453limited at the time and my husband and I found ourselves at the newly opened Tarla Mediterranean Grill. He and his partners were there that day and we struck up a conversation. He was friendly and really excited to help us and make sure we had a wonderful vegan meal. Steve and I were both really grateful for the delicious food and good conversation. But it wasn’t until I sat down with Ali recently to interview him for my blog that I realized what an extraordinary person he is. Open, loving, accepting and happy are the first few words that come to mind. So whether you are coming in for a glass (or bottle) of wine, a cocktail, brunch, lunch with friends, a sophisticated but straight forward vegan meal, a Warriors game or a night of dancing, Napkins Bar & Grill truly does have something for everyone The next time you’re in, please let Ali know that you read about him on my blog. I know he will love that! And I truly believe that if anyone can open a vegan restaurant and make it a big success…Ali is our guy!

I hope to see you down at Napkins very soon. I’ll be the red head out on the dance floor sipping a Forbidden Sour! We’ll have a dance and as always…eat, drink and be vegan!