Made even gloomier by cold, driving rain, the empty store fronts and half-abandoned streets in downtown Napa did nothing to reassure me of imminent economic recovery. On the other hand (Davis City Council, take note), at least a dozen artists have installed their intriguing work in the otherwise empty display windows.
And the city’s abuzz with talk about TV celebrity chefs opening feeding troughs (I mean, bistros and cafés). Television-less, I nodded inanely at the enthusiasm, feigning familiarity with the famous.
But I wasn’t in town to take the economic pulse of the nation or even of Northern California. No, Rebecca and I dried off after our wet town tour and headed out to ride and dine on the Napa Valley Wine Train. Used to Amtrak stations, I was taken aback by the luxurious lounge — including an elaborate bar and gift shop — where we waited to board. Also by the variety of passenger attire — everything from workout clothes to shiny 9-inch heels.
Among the first to hop on the train, Rebecca and I were seated in a refurbished Pullman car, circa 1915 , at a beautifully set, oil-lamp-lit table for two. Very romantic. Within minutes the hors d’oeuvre plates (pickled vegetables, cheese, meats) arrived, along with the bottle of Whitehall Lane Sauvignon Blanc we ordered from the list of interesting Napa wines.
Fresh, citrus-y, and full of life, our choice worked well with our entire meal, which included an impeccable baby lettuce salad, a house-made (train-made) sorbet “intermezzo,” roasted swordfish (accompanied by a potato-vegetable mash) and a vegetarian trio of yam-stuffed gypsy peppers, sweet pea ravioli and grilled zucchini with fresh goat cheese. There were other entrées as well, of course; fellow passengers seemed uniformly pleased.
(During a short session on train history and procedure in the lounge, our host announced that the food was all local and organic, which made me wonder where in the Napa or Capay valleys zucchini and bright red peppers were growing in mid-March. And swordfish? “Stop,” I admonished myself. “Silence that inner skeptic and enjoy the food.”)
All this as our train made its leisurely way up the Napa Valley. Daylight lasted long enough to illuminate the southern portion of the three-hour, 36-mile trip, but by the time we got to our turn-around place — St. Helena — we could see nothing. Frustratingly, the moon was full that night but well-hidden behind the heavy storm clouds. (My advice: wait until the late sunsets of summer — or take the lunch train.)
While we de-coupled and reversed direction, servers escorted us to the lounge car and seated us in well-cushioned swivel chairs for the dessert course (we both chose the chocolate Cabernet cake), while the later diners took over the dining car. After dessert, we toured the train, taking special delight in the busy, efficient kitchen car.
We had fun. Maybe not quite so much fun as the raucous folks in the Murder Mystery Theater car (who urged us to join them when we peeked in), but they paid $145 per person to our $99 (which prices include everything but the wine) — a splurge, but certainly a modest one.
Back in Napa, we popped open our umbrellas and set off in cold, windy rain to the River Terrace Inn, fortunately only two blocks from the depot. The name suggests a quaint, six-room B&B, but it’s quite a large and upscale property — original prints on the wall, luxurious bedding with elegant neutral linens and, in our spacious room at least, a little balcony overlooking the Napa River. The heaviest storm in decades was well muffled by the double-paned windows. (Rates range from $170 to $250 per night — and they offer a Wine Train package. Somewhat more expensive: the even closer-to-the-station Westin Verasa.)
The breakfast buffet at the inn is strictly motel quality, so I’d suggest the short walk to Model Bakery and/or the Oxbow Market, where I can highly recommend Tillman Tea and any number of delicious sweet and savory treats from the many local vendors. We were especially enamored of the roasted fingerling-filled taco with chipotle aioli from C Casa.
Space forces me to put off for another column our excellent experience at the Mason Cellars Tasting room, but I have to mention what seemed to me the most delightful shop in downtown Napa — The Playful Garden, filled with whimsical outdoor art, garden-inspired jewelry and other treats, including a bottle of charmingly labeled Playful Garden Rollicking Red for good customers.
Not planning a 58-minute trip to Napa? Take advantage of our own wine-y treats. This afternoon, the Rolling Fork Blues Revue will start playing at 4 p.m. at Rominger West Winery — to the accompaniment of wines by the glass or bottle and pizza. For dinner, remember Thursday’s half-priced bottles of excellent local wines at Seasons. And come join me anytime between 4:30 and 6:30 p.m. on Tuesdays for wine-tasting at Monticello.
— Contact Susan Leonardi at [email protected] Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com