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!

October 10

Dabba Food Truck’s Edible Enlightenment

dabba_5_Spice_Logo_RT_final1While there is no way we are going to dethrone Portland Oregon quite yet as this country’s food cart nation, I have been seeing more and more food trucks traversing the streets of Napa Valley. With most of the trucks offering lobster, oysters and chicken, I’ve had no reason to give them a try…until now! truckDabba, whose mission is to make delicious food that nourishes and enriches people’s lives, is the most recent addition to the Napa Valley Food Truck fleet. Dabba is inspired by the much loved Marin based restaurant, Avatar’s. Brother and sister team Ashok Kumar and Kala Ubhi have been feeding their loyal fans bold, fresh “marin-dian” cooking since opening up their doors in 1989. The first time I walked into their Sausalito restaurant and asked for something vegan, Ashok didn’t tell me what I would be eating but to “trust me, you’ll love it”. And guess what? I did! And I happened to be sitting at a table right next to two Marin Humane Society staff members. Talk about make a vegan, animal rights activist feel she was right at home! Well, Dabba has taken Ashok and Kala’s adventurous spirit and brought it right here to us in Napa Valley. One of their other loyal fans, Andy Mercy, came up with the idea of sharing their unique, healthy and boldly delicious food with those of us who don’t live in Marin. He enlisted one of my favorite local Chefs, Michelin-rated Walter Abrams; branded the truck with an adorable orange surfing elephant and the journey began!

Kinda looks like a big metal lunchbox, doesn't it?
Kinda looks like a big metal lunchbox, doesn’t it?

 Dabba is Hindi for lunchbox and was inspired by a complex food delivery system in Mumbai that is run by a network of bicycle delivery men called dabbawalas. For over 100 years they have been delivering dabbas filled with hot, home-cooked lunches right to their customer’s offices and then picking up the empty dabbas to deliver back to the kitchens. An amazing and efficient system if you take a moment to think about it! Though the name Dabba is based on the dabbawalas in Mumbai, the type of Indian food created is inspired from the Punjab region located about 700 miles north of Mumbai in Northwestern India near Pakistan. The local cuisine in Punjab is heavily influenced by the agriculture and farming lifestyle of the ancient Harappan Civilization and is known for extensive vegetarian dishes. Many Punjabi people consume a vegetarian diet that includes basmati rice, locally grown vegetables, lentils and legumes, dairy and paratha – a flatbread made similar to a puff pastry. The Ubhi/Kumar family brought the bold and intricate flavors of Northern India and Chef Abrams teamed with them to add the fresh and healthy choices of Northern California. Chef Abrams spent a year at their Mill Valley restaurant – Avatar’s Punjabi Burritos – jotting down the ingredients of all the recipes they made. These recipes were all in the Chef’s head and had never been written down in the 20 years their restaurants have been open! He then worked on refining the process and created what is now being served at Dabba.

 The first thing you do is pick a style – “taco” or rice bowl (burritos and salads will be added to the menu soon). It is the perfect spot since the base of every meal surfboardstarts out as vegan. Then every order comes with their 25-year old family recipe (that is finally written down thanks to Chef Abrams!) of pickles, chutney, tamarind and spicy cilantro relish. The types of vegetables is constantly changing based on the seasons because they offer local, organic veggies whenever they are available. The vegan taco choices include pumpkin, eggplant, mustard greens and mixed vegetables. The veggies can then be ordered blackened, curry or jerk style (their original  Chef was Jamaican!). This bold, deliciousness is then wrapped in the amazing paratha bread which is made with extra virgin olive oil instead of butter. Chef made me 2 tacos of eggplant, curried kale, pickled carrots, pineapple chutney, tamarind sauce, fresh herbs, spicy chutney and basmati rice. It was bold, intense, delicious and spicy. Absolutely amazing! You can replace the eggplant with pumpkin which I plan to try the next time I head over for lunch!

vegan tacos wrapped in delicious paratha bread
vegan tacos wrapped in delicious paratha bread

Next, Chef followed this vegan yumminess up with the basmati rice bowl. He shared something interesting with me that I had never heard before. The basmati rice is considered the best rice in the world and the longer the rice, the better the quality. How cool! And Dabba uses the extra-long rice to add even more flavor and texture to their meals. My bowl contained a base of long grain basmati and chick peas and then he loaded it with mustard greens, spinach, tofu and blackened veggies that contained pumpkin, zucchini, squash and a few things I just cannot remember. It was just incredible. I brought the rest of the rice bowl home with me and finished it for dinner and it actually tasted even better – the Indian spices had even more time to infuse the tofu and vegetables with their bold flavors!

Add a side of the paratha bread to your rice bowl! Yum!
Add a side of the paratha bread to your rice bowl! Yum!

 Dabba was started as a delicious research and development kitchen for the bricks and mortar restaurant they plan to open soon in San Francisco. When the truck isn’t out looking for the best waves, they are available for festivals and private events in North Bay. It is also parked every Tuesday and Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. in Yountville at Ad Hoc’s Addendum picnic garden. It is a gorgeous, serene little garden full of tables and raised bed gardens. They encourage you to follow them on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter to keep up on schedule changes and their event calendar. You can also order your food online so it is ready for you when you pull into Addendum’s garden!

 

Ad Hoc's beautiful gardens
Ad Hoc’s beautiful gardens

For those of you who have been a loyal reader since I started my blog last August, you may remember Chef Walter Abrams. He is the founder of Apicius Nutrition – they manufacture the delicious and nutritious raw, gluten & dairy-free, non-GMO Hero bars right here in Napa. His story was one of my very first posts! It was such a pleasure to see him and catch up on what has been going on in his life for the last 14 months or so. A new restaurant on wheels that will very soon lead to a new restaurant in S.F., the Hero bars still going strong and now a brand new baby boy! What a wonderful year for Walter and his family!

 addendum signBe sure to visit Dabba very soon. The food is fantastic, the garden setting beautiful with lots of picnic tables and if the food truck is a big success, we may be able to talk Chef and his partners into keeping it here in North Bay indefinitely! Since I can eat only so many tacos, I’m counting on all of you to help me out on this!

Thanks for joining me on yet another delicious Napa Valley adventure and as always…eat, drink and be vegan!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

October 6

St. Clair Brown Winery – Garden to Table Urban Eatery

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After hearing wonderful things about St. Clair Brown Winery from friends, this is what I found on their website –

“To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion, to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich; to study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly, to listen to stars and birds, to babes and sages, with open heart, to bear all cheerfully, to all bravely await occasions, hurry never. In a word, to let the spiritual unbidden and unconscious grow up through the common. This is to be my symphony.”

How could I not fall in love with a winery that has chosen this as their manifesto?! And that was just the beginning of the wonderful things they have to offer. St. Clair Brown Winery and their winemaker Elaine St. Clair make small lot, hand-crafted wines in a state-of-the-art facility in downtown Napa. They have much less space than many of the sprawling wineries so craft their wine in smaller tanks and equipment. Which perfectly suits the production of their 200 (or less) cases of wine. But Elaine’s skills don’t just end as a world-class winemaker. She also holds a degree in Fermentation Science from the University of California at Davis. In addition to winemaking in the 90s, she also co-owned Napa Ale Works and spent a decade brewing award-winning beer. She has since returned to winemaking exclusively until now – clearly, her love for brewing never died! Sharing the same building as their winery, they are currently constructing their own micro-brewery. Once completed, it will provide a 10-barrel, all-grain system that will allow them to produce up to 300 gallons of beer made fresh daily. gardenAcross the street, in what used to be a vacant lot, sits their Garden Eatery which is nestled in the midst of their beautiful culinary garden. Their philosophy is that part of what makes Napa Valley such an amazing place to live is access to so much homegrown and locally sourced produce. Because of this, they made the decision that the grounds would be planted with a completely edible landscape. They teamed with Master Organic Gardener, Peter Jacobsen, of Jacobsen Orchards, to help make this beautiful dream a reality. Peter has been a farmer and orchardist in Napa Valley for over 30 years who grows exclusively for restaurants including several of Napa Valley’s top Michelin rated eateries. His relationships with local Chefs seems to have really spurred the current farm to table attitudes. It is so vital for us to know where our food really comes from! And it gets even sweeter! greenhouseThe garden includes a glass greenhouse that they converted into a small eatery! You can sit inside the greenhouse or at any of the many tables set throughout the garden. Because of the incredible weather in Napa, we all gathered outside to eat, drink and be merry!

I reached out to St. Clair Brown Winery before heading over…because that is what I do! Being vegan for almost 5 years, when it comes to what I put inside my body I have got to gather the facts first. I don’t like surprises…especially when I am hungry! I had a really lovely email conversation with St. Clair Brown’s Executive Chef Andreya Nightingale. The menu offers several small plate offerings and even though the menu is small, she strives to include delicious options for us vegans. In fact, her father-in-law has been vegan for 7 years and she loves cooking for him! The menu is constantly changing too based on what is in season and available in the culinary garden. Though some of the ingredients may change she prepares 5 small plates that will always be vegan – hummus with coriander, cumin, paprika, garlic, lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, chickpeas and house-made nut butter; olives with garden herbs, lemon zest and garlic; almonds made with garden herbs and extra virgin olive oil; chocolate bark made with marcona almonds, lavender, rosemary, heritage sea salt and no added sugar; and the PB&J board. PB&J boardThe PB&J board was inspired by her father-in-law who loves his Friday evening PB&J with Cabernet! When I was there, the PB&J was a delicious house-made almond-pecan, cardamom nut butter, apples and pears poached with Syrah and Cabernet, and a small baguette baked by Model Bakery. I was able to taste the olives and almonds which were both delicious. They are made with fresh herbs and lemons picked right out of their garden and the flavors really shine through. The PB&J board is wonderful. Instead of a typical jam, the wine poached fruit was a delicious surprise. And, of course, the chocolate bark was intense, dark and delicious! Chef Nightingale is also testing a house-made vegan cheese similar to Miyoko’s Kitchen in Marin and hopes to launch it on her winter menu! I am very excited about that and will let you know when that happens! And she offers a salad – when I was last there it included roasted beets and carrots tossed in lemon-walnut vinaigrette with shallots, mint and oregano from the garden. Just ask for the salad without the burrata cheese and you have yet another vegan option!

menuTo pair with the small plates, the garden eatery also offers wine by the half glass, glass, half bottle carafe or bottle. The wines include Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Rose, Estate Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. They also offer a tasting flight that include a sampling of four wines – the Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. All made by winemaker Elaine St. Clair and all fined without the use of animal products! And if you find a wine you love, it is available to purchase at the table or in the greenhouse. If you become a wine club member (which I plan to do next visit), you not only get 2 bottles of wine every other month but a free glass of wine whenever you visit the Garden Eatery!

St. Clair Brown Winery’s Garden Eatery is located at 816 Vallejo Street and is open daily from Noon to 8 p.m. Reservations are not required but are always appreciated and can be made through their website’s Contact Us page or by calling 707.255.5591.

I eat and drink aplenty – not only for my pleasure and enjoyment but for my readers. And this experience is hands down one of my absolute favorites! The garden is such a pleasant surprise tucked into this very urban area. The atmosphere is quiet and peaceful, the food is fresh and wonderful and the wine offers exceptional structural balance and layers of complex flavors. Be sure to make time to visit this little diamond in the rough; you will be so glad you did!

Thanks for joining me on my latest dining and wine tasting adventure. And as always…eat, drink and be vegan!