Saturday, October 03, 2015

West Coast Vacation: Napa and Yountville - Day 1

Our planning for this vacation took place over several weeks in July and August.  We initially agreed on the start and end points, then started filling in the details.  The itinerary was pretty fluid for a while as we reviewed the road atlas and consulted Google Maps to identify what seemed like reasonable stopping points along the way.  It began to firm up as we started booking the AirBnB locations.  We made some choices about places we would not see, like San Francisco, which we had visited several years ago.  But the decision to stay in the Napa Valley was nonnegotiable.  We both wanted to visit some vineyards, and Mary was determined to eat at a Thomas Keller restaurant.

Thomas Keller is a renowned chef and restauranteur.  His premier restaurant, The French Laundry, in Yountville, CA, has been awarded three stars by the Michelin Guide and has received numerous other awards.  It’s one of those places that dedicated foodies have on their bucket lists.  We gave it serious consideration for a while.  It’s a very expensive place to eat – the seven course tasting menu costs $295 per person.  The price includes tip, but not wine.  Add another three hundred for wine.

But we could make a case for it.  We told ourselves it would be a “once in a lifetime” meal on a “once in a lifetime” vacation.  And we were convinced…for a few days.
Then we took a hard look at the menu.  It changes daily, so we wouldn’t have been able to predict exactly what we’d get.  But every time we looked at the menu, we realized that there was something on it that one of us didn’t like.  There were options, but some came with “supplements” – additional charges.

And then we thought hard about the price.  Over a thousand dollars for one meal?  Really?  Who are we kidding?  Reluctantly, we scratched The French Laundry from our itinerary.  We’ll go there when we win the lottery.

Fortunately, Thomas Keller also owns three other restaurants in Yountville – Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery and ad hoc.  We decided that Bouchon would be our special meal for the trip.  It was still a splurge, but wouldn’t require us to take out a loan for dinner.

While that decision was being made, we were also booking accommodations.  We found the Writer’s Retreat in Napa, CA on AirBnB and decided that it met our basic requirement for a one-of-a-kind, quirky place to stay.  Booked it.

What we didn’t realize, until we arrived in the area, was that the restaurant and the room were in different towns.  Not too far apart – about 10 miles – just enough to register on the inconvenience meter. 
Image from Google Maps

Getting to Napa from Carmel took a few hours and got us onto an interstate highway for the first time on this trip.  (We had not missed the interstate system!) We took Hwy 1 northeast out of Carmel and Monterey.  We were quickly out in farm country.  We passed through Castroville, “the Artichoke Capital of the World”, then cut across Hwy 152 to the 101 freeway.  We went through Gilroy, “the Garlic Capital of the World”.  (I swear I could smell garlic in the air before we got to Gilory!)

Along the way, we saw this guy and had to snap a picture.

So, Katie and Sarah, we wanted you to know that your convertibles are not just sporty toys.  They’re practical, too.  You can drop the top, load up your box of tools and stepladder, and go on off to hang sheetrock or paint houses.

The 101 took us east of Silicon Valley.  We considered taking a short detour into Cupertino to give some face-to-face feedback on the latest IOS release to Tim Cook at Apple, but our schedule was pretty tight.  (Look for it in an email, Tim.)

We continued east to I-680 which took us north, bypassing all the urban congestion on the east side of San Francisco Bay – San Jose, Milpitas, Fremont, Hayward, San Leandro and Oakland.

We arrived in Yountville around noon.  We couldn’t get into the AirBnB for a couple hours, so figured we’d get lunch and look around town.  It was a really hot day, up around 95 degrees.  Everywhere we went in California, people told us about the excessive heat, usually adding, “but it’s supposed to be much cooler next week”.  We parked along the main drag, Washington Street, next to a beautifully tended garden. 

We guessed that it was the kitchen garden for the French Laundry and Bouchon.  We walked down Washington Street, through a small, well-tended, local park that had some amusing features.


After passing several tasting rooms and restaurants, we stopped at the Pacific Blues Café and ate big sandwiches, washed down with iced tea.

After lunch we dug out the address of the AirBnB and realized our planning error.  The Writer’s Retreat was 10 miles back south in Napa.  It took a few minutes to get there, but we were delighted with what we found. 

The Writer’s Retreat is a one room cabin on a secluded side street (really a gravel road).  It’s tricky to get to, but once there you feel like you’re a thousand miles from civilization. 

It was probably the smallest of the all the places we stayed, but still very comfortable. 

The watercolors on the wall were done by Monroe, the owner. 

We decided to do a simple, casual dinner, knowing that the next day was our big meal at Bouchon.  We started searching for something local in Napa.  There were several good prospects, but one was too intriguing to pass up. 

Clemente’s is a family-owned Italian take-out place that has been operating in the area since around 1925.  It was originally owned by the Tamburelli family and operated as the Depot Restaurant.  Clemente Cittoni started work there as a bus boy in 1961 and worked up to become a part owner.  Somewhere along the way, it became Clemente’s and moved to its current location – inside a local liquor store. 

We found the place and were enthusiastically greeted by Joanne Cittoni, Clemente’s daughter, now one of the owners.  I think everyone working there was a member of the extended Cittoni family.

When she learned we were visiting, she took over.  “Look, here’s what you’re gonna need – You need a half dozen ravioli’s, a half dozen malfatti.”  (“Malfatti” is Italian for “mistake”.  These were Invented by Mrs Tamburelli years before, when she ran out of prepared ravioli and had a full restaurant.  It is a ball of ravioli filling, rolled in flour, boiled and doused in tomato sauce.)  “And you’re gonna need some gnocchis and some sweet breads.”  We just stood there, smiling and nodding.  We paid our bill at the checkout counter of the liquor store and carried out our dinner.

As it turned out, the story was more compelling than the food, but that’s the chance we take.  There's always tomorrow!

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