Photography by Emma Krasov
The city of Napa in the heart of Northern California wine country is a prime tourist destination, yet surprisingly underexplored. Day trips to Napa from the international travel magnet San Francisco usually end up in a way too familiar to many. A few sips of wine in three or four beautifully decorated tasting rooms, followed by lunch with wine, followed by a few more tastings in beautiful wineries.
For day-trippers this little town might seem like an endless procession of loud team-building and bachelorette parties, but the real face of Napa is much more attractive, and worth a closer look. Staying overnight at The Westin Verasa Napa easily turns into a feast, especially with a newly introduced Five Years Young Package, created in celebration of the hotel’s fifth anniversary.
But let me start from the very beginning. I recently traveled to Napa for a one-night stay at the hotel and a chef’s dinner at its famous La Toque Restaurant in a group of food and wine experts. Understandably, our experiences rotated around the major attractions of the city tied to world-famous award-winning wine and cuisine.
Upon check-in at the Westin, we gathered in its spacious lobby for a quick lunch at BANK Café & Bar. From a list of created in house cocktails I chose the Femme Fatale, made with my favorite St. Germain liqueur and orchid flowers. After I took a snapshot of my magenta-colored drink, I noticed that one of our group members appeared behind it, as if to impersonate its name.
The next thing that caught my attention was the quality of “bar food” served at BANK. Crispy rock shrimp in hoisin-lemongrass sauce on pickled Napa slaw; steak tartar sandwiches sprinkled with smoked sea salt, and jicama ceviche tacos with catch-of-the-day halibut and avocado mousse were obviously coming from a better place than your regular bar grill. I felt like licking my fingers after a slice of toasted bread topped with the tenderest oozing burrata, La Quercia speck, and Moroccan olives.
By the time our group was happily devouring Market Salad with cured meats, Fiscalini cheddar, and mixed greens, and crispy Caesar with grilled skirt steak and caper berries, celebrity chef Ken Frank arrived from the kitchen. “I put the market salad on the menu just to have an opportunity to eat it every day,” he said, and went on, describing his preference for the locally sourced produce. After lunch, the chef took us on a walking tour of his“sources.”
We visited Copia Gardens, located on the premises of a former cultural/culinary/wine tasting center, closed a few years ago and now expected to be repurposed into a community theater. The gardens that surround Copia building did not stay idle after its closing. The city restaurant chefs, led by Frank, made a deal with the land owner, took charge of the grounds, and started growing organic produce for their kitchens – tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, cauliflower, beans, rare kinds of peppers, like espelette, usually imported from France, exotic melons, citrus, and even ficoide glaciale – a relative of eggplant, also called Violette de Florence, and used in salads. “We grow enough cucumbers for every pickle on every burger in Napato last from June till Christmas,” said Frank. “Now we are trying for the whole year.”
Then the chef took us to the lively Oxbow Public Market, named after the NapaRiver oxbow, where both our hotel and the market were located. Oxbow is a very special place where the best wineries, meat producers, cheese makers, pastry shops and vegetable growers of Napa Valley can be found under one roof. Raw oysters, pizzas, tacos, local artisanal beers, fresh-squeezed juices, sophisticated pastries and fragrant coffees can be taken to the dining area on the outside terrace. Coming here after lunch was not a good idea!
Our further advancement into the downtown area revealed more than a dozen tasting rooms, and a recently opened tasting lounge, named after its mailing address, 1313 Main. Owned by Al Jabarin, admittedly a big fan of the number 13, the lounge is furnished with specially designed unique pieces, like plush pink sofa, wet bar sink made out of a solid piece of granite, and even more specially designed conference table composed of four kinds of precious wood – lace wood, blood wood, Columbian mahogany… and with table legs crowned with a carved number 13. Painterly and metalwork 13-themed art decorates the walls, and among the 1300 wines available for purchase at 1313 Main 13 whites and 13 reds are listed on the daily tasting menu. We spent a pleasant afternoon at the lounge, sipping R. H.Coutier champagne in the shaded patio with coffee tables and pillowed benches…
Back at the hotel, we converged by the heated salt water pool teeming with guests of all ages lured out by the sun. In the poolside cabanas some of our group members had scheduled massages from the Gloria Curry Day Spa, located nearby and partnering with the hotel in its wellness program.
I voted for an in-room massage for the sake of a quieter environment. Or maybe, I just wanted to spend more time in my elegant suite, decorated in earthy colors and designed to provide the utmost comfort with a living and dining areas, my favorite brand of a coffee maker in the kitchenette, and a balcony overlooking an oval “wedding” lawn and the river bank with lush vegetation.
Refreshed after a skillful massage that rid me of my “computer-generated” aches at least for the time being, I descended to the hotel lobby, just in time for the Westin’s Unwind wine tasting, supplemented by hors d’oeuvres and live music, and open to the public at no charge.
Not surprisingly, the nightly program has a strong following among the locals, hotel guests, and daily tourists, while benefiting various Napa wineries that change monthly on a 7-day cycle, with each winery presented on a particular day of the week.
Dinner at La Toque Restaurant, serving Michelin-starred French cuisine by Executive Chef and owner Ken Frank was the highlight of our visit. Although the highly popular restaurant remained extremely busy throughout the evening, the chef prepared a special tasting menu for our group, with every dish on it paired with wine by the Lead Sommelier Richard Matuszczak.
“For this dinner I picked my favorite things,” said Frank in his welcome speech, and explained the choice of the first course, Rosti Potato with California White Sturgeon Caviar. “My teenage girlfriend’s mother used to make this for me on Saturday mornings for breakfast, but without the caviar. I think with caviar it’s better.”
Looking at my beautiful plate with a perfectly fried potato latke topped with sour cream, I thought that my grandma used to make this for me on Saturday mornings, and that the chef’s teenage girlfriend mush have been Russian… And of course, it was much better with caviar, also a gourmet staple of Russian cuisine. The dish proved to be simply angelic paired with a glass of Veuve Clicquot.
The second course consisted of a tender spear of grilled white asparagus, seasonal morels and peas, and was paired with an excellent 2004 Pinot Gris, Reserve Personelle, Trimbach, Alsace –brightly-fruity and with balanced acidity.
A giant Pacific Spot Prawn came wrapped in crispy bacon over julienned gingered parsnip and carrot, paired with 2011 Kistler Chardonnay, Les Noisetiers, Sonoma Coast, with over-ripe “hazelnut”richness. Ricotta Ravioli with Butter Beans and Wilted Chocories was another highly comforting and nostalgic chef’s creation, matched with a fun bold red from Italy 2007 Valtellina Superiore, Sassella “Le Tense” Nino Negri. Sliced Niman Ranch Rib Eye with Fiscalini Cheddar Pearl Tapioca and Rutherford Red Wine Sauce was served medium-rare, with chef’s garden’s green beans, cauliflower and carrots, and complimented nicely with a smoky aroma and complex bouquet of 2005 Parador, Cabernet Sauvignon, Hossfeld Vineyard, Napa Valley.
For dessert, the chef treated us to a generous portion of Almond Bostock Cake with Silverado Trail Strawberries and Strawberry Ice Cream, which our distinguished sommelier paired with unique red sparkling from Italy Rosa Regale banfi with pleasantly low alcohol and distinct strawberry taste.
After the night of culinary wonders, our entire group signed up for a morning jog through the sleepy flowering streets of Napa with The Westin Verasa Napa’s Running Concierge. This concierge service is supplemented by the Westin Lending Gear Program in partnership with New Balance, which provides rental sports clothing and running shoes of requested sized delivered to the guests’ rooms.
Before our departure, we gathered for a lavish breakfast at the BANK Café & Bar, feeling that through our short stay at the “little corner of paradise” we’ve learned so much more about Napa and its dwellers.
This year, The Westin Verasa Napa celebrates its fifth anniversary with an exclusive culinary and wellness package, Five Years Young, that incorporates five distinct elements ranging from culinary and viticulture offerings to exercise and spa treatments. Available through December 5, 2013, pricing for the Five Years Young package starts at $499 per night (plus taxes and fees) and includes a 2.5 night stay, early check-in and late check-out, a residential-style room, and a welcome bottle of wine from nearby St. Helena’s Cain Vineyard & Winery. (Called Cain 5, the wine is composed of the five classic red varieties—Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot). Guests will also be treated to five meals, including two breakfasts at BANK Café and Bar, two lunch vouchers for the Oxbow Public Market, and a five-course dinner at the Michelin-starred La Toque restaurant, with special wine pairings selected by Chef Ken Frank and Lead Sommelier Richard Matuszczak. In keeping with Westin’s commitment to wellness, each Five Years Young package includes a 50-minute massage from Gloria Curry Day Spa, offered in-room or poolside in a private cabana, and an invitation to participate in a scenic five-mile hike or run with The Westin Verasa’s onsite Running Concierge. Workout clothes can be rented from The Westin Verasa Napa’s Gear Lending Program, which provides athletic shoes and workout apparel to guests during their stays.