Along a 35-mile (56km) stretch of Hwy. 29 north of San Francisco, the hillsides look precisely grooved with slope-hugging vineyards that produce some of the world's finest wines. The heart of California's wine country, Napa Valley is a beautiful stretch of rolling countryside -- witness all those hot-air balloons overhead, with tourists sipping champagne as they gawk at the views. With its abundance of vineyard tours, wine tastings, luxury inns, and spas -- it's only to be expected that sybaritic Napa Valley would also have superb food.
At the southern end of the valley in Napa, the region's gateway town, the wine-country culinary scene starts off on a wholesome, organic note with Ubuntu (1140 Main St.; tel. 707/251-5656; www.ubuntunapa.com). Ubuntu describes itself as a vegetable restaurant, rather than just a vegetarian restaurant. Chef Jeremy Fox is staunchly committed to cooking with local farm produce, much of it from Ubuntu's own biodynamic garden. With creative dishes such as poblano stuffed with smoked corn and chÃ?Â¨vre, or French bean and grilled panzanella, even meat-eaters leave satisfied. The restaurant itself -- which is attached to a yoga studio -- looks sleek and contemporary, though it's completely made from recycled wood and reclaimed furnishings, reducing Ubuntu's carbon footprint.
The next town up the valley, Yountville rose to culinary fame years ago with Thomas Keller's spectacular The French Laundry. Not everyone can swing a French Laundry reservation, but you can also sample Thomas Keller's food at his more casual brasserie Bouchon (6534 Washington St.; tel. 707/944-8037; www.bouchonbistro.com). Expect superb renditions of French onion soup, steak frites, steamed mussels, croque madame, and other French classics (try the expensive and rich foie gras pâté, made on-site). The former chef at nearby Auberge de Soleil, Richard Reddington now presides over his own stunning restaurant, Redd (6480 Washington St.; tel. 707/944-2222; www.reddnapavalley.com). The pristine minimalist decor of the dining room sets off memorable dishes based on local produce, such as sashimi hamachi with edamame, cucumber, ginger, and sticky rice, or glazed pork belly with apple purée, burdock, and soy caramel. On the grounds of the Domaine Chandon winery, Étoile (1 California Dr.; tel. 800/736-2892 or 707/204-7529; www.chandon.com) is the wave of the future. Etoile hold its own with any stand-alone restaurant in town, with dishes such as tuna tartare with sous-vide yolk, pink lady apple, and Persian cucumber, or a Madeira-braised veal with sweetbreads, sorrel, and red mustard, served in a casually elegant glass-enclosed dining room under a barrel-vaulted wood ceiling. All dishes are carefully paired with Chandon wines, of course.
A short drive farther north, St. Helena brims with small-town charm, great shopping, and fine food. At high-end Terra (1345 Railroad Ave.; tel. 707/963-8931; www.terrarestaurant.com), East meets West in a romantic fieldstone-walled dining room where Japanese chef Hiro Sone serves Asian-inspired dishes featuring California's agricultural bounty: broiled sake-marinated cod with shrimp dumplings and shiso broth, or grilled quail with bacon bread pudding, sautéed foie gras, figs, and vin cotto sauce. On a humbler scale, the gourmet burger shack Gott's Roadside -- formerly Taylor's Automatic Refresher -- (933 Main St.; tel. 707/963-3486; www.gottsroadside.com) has been around since 1949. Taylor's updated diner menu -- ahi tuna burgers, tacos, salads, and classic shakes -- draws huge lines of tourists, who love ordering at the counter or feasting alfresco at picnic tables.
At the top of the valley, the hot-springs spa town Calistoga still has a sort of scroungy Wild West appeal. Right on the main street, the All Seasons (1400 Lincoln Ave.; tel. 707/942-9111; www.allseasonsnapavalley.net) maintains the laid-back aura of a wine bar. Dishes include crispy skin chicken with black truffle chicken jus or cornmeal-crusted diver scallops with summer vegetable succotash. The wine shop next door supports the bistro's wine list, which is impressive -- because, after all, this is Napa Valley.
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