When people started calling Yountville “Kellerville” I got a little concerned. Thomas Keller is certainly the most famous chef in Napa, and yeah, he’s amazing. But variety is the spice of life – and certainly of dining, no?
So it’s exciting to highlight two new non-Keller eating extravaganzas that have opened their doors in Yountville, both of them as trip-worthy as any Keller concept.
1. Cantinetta Piero
As of today, the newest arrival is Cantinetta Piero, located in spanking new Hotel Luca. Just opened this winter, Hotel Luca is the northward outpost of hotelier David Fink, who’s best known for two Carmel favorites, Aubergine and Cantinetta Luca. And in fact, Cantinetta Piero’s kitchen is helmed by chef Jason Balestrieri, who drives up several days a week from his sister restaurant.
While Bay Area foodies might chafe at the idea of a top Napa Valley restaurant being run by a part-time out-of-towner, the truth is Balestrieri’s menu of Italian-inspired dishes nevertheless takes much of its inspiration from local produce, cheese, beef and pork. And I thought his approach was a breath of fresh air – hearty, lively, informal, fun, and anything but pretentious.
Meat is the operative word here, as Balestrieri’s house-made salume is the undisputed star of the show. A plank-laid selection of eight varieties, six of them cured on premises, is a must-eat unless, of course, you’re vegetarian. In which case the local muscles and other seafood are given similarly inspired attention.
Cantinetta Piero has plenty of modern flourishes tucked within the trappings of tradition. Visitors are greeted at the entrance with a stunning wine display in which choice bottles are framed by striking tile mosaics. One entire wall is made up of floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors that let in the Tuscan-inspired golden light of the courtyard and in good weather allow the courtyard to be an extension of the dining room. The courtyard also features a Scottsdale-style outdoor fireplace lounge, the perfect place to retire to with your after-dinner drinks.
Chef Sean O’Toole is as Irish as his name suggests, hailing from the Boston area. But you wouldn’t know it from his food – just as you wouldn’t know he spent almost 20 years perfecting French cuisine at places like the Ritz-Carlton, Fifth Floor, Masa’s, Alain Ducasse’s Mix, and in France itself. Because the food at Bardessono, located in the ultra-green Bardessono Hotel and Spa, isn’t noticeably French. Nor, despite the hotel’s Italian name (which comes, actually, from the family name of the property’s former owners), is it Italian.
Instead, it’s an eclectic collection of dishes so “locavore” in nature that most are named after the farms, ranches, and oceans from which their ingredients hail. There’s the “Star Route Farm beet salad,” the “Fort Bragg sablefish,” the “Pozzi Napa Valley lamb,” the “Liberty Farm duck,” and the “Marin Sun Farm beef.” Having spent many hours at the Star Route Farm produce stand at my local farmer’s market and having waved at the cows of Marin Sun Farm while visiting Pt. Reyes, I’m touched by the nods to local farm families.
It’s not just the food at Bardessono that feels hip, casual and uber-local, though — the atmosphere in the high-ceilinged dining room is lighthearted and friendly, with a wall of fire flickering at one end, lively bar at the other, and a long family style table along one wall. This spring Bardessono is offering a prix fixe four-course Sunday Supper that’s got to be the deal of the day at $39.
One last thought: It’s Spring, and the wild mustard is carpeting the vineyards; what better time for a country drive to Napa with a great meal waiting when you get there?