A Restaurant Review, Winery Tip, and Jazz Spot: Guess the Town–Benicia or Napa?

Is there anything more proverbially appropriate in the American Culture than the roadie? The day trip, aka road trip taken by car through a beautiful and scenic environment discovering new adventures along the way, is a fantastic way to spend a lazy Sunday. But what happens when you try to substitute an old standard, the Napa Valley, for an up and coming historic town-Benicia?

That was the question I posed my beautiful girlfriend, Susan, when deciding where to go yesterday. We both decided to try Benicia since neither of us had actually been in that little town in years–if ever.

As could be expected, Benicia was not quite what we expected. Benicia has a nice small town feel and it is affordable (by California standards) to own a home. Yet it sits on waterfront acreage more akin to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the 1970’s: very windy, dank waters, mothball fleet throw aways and the background of oil refinery tanks on the hillside. If ever a town looked like somewhere else, Benicia would qualify. . . I was waiting for John Travolta’s “Urban Cowboy” character “Bud”, the Texas oil field roughneck, to come flying out of a barroom door backwards into the street. . . 86ed in the traditional “Old West” fashion. Instead I was hit with a Starbucks and tattooed “families” out for a lazy Sunday afternoon.

It took all of 25 minutes of Benicia to convince us that there was no Grey Pupon in Benicia; but Napa was not very far away. So away we blasted: destination Angele French country bistro on the Napa River.

When a restaurant gets “it right” like Angele did for us, the meal becomes a true memory. We sat on the front terrace, in the 70 degree sunshine, and ordered three small plates made for sharing. A salad, an unbelievable mozzarella-basil baguette, and the killer cheese plate made us both long to live in America’s version of Nice. The wine was equally spectacular as we opened with Duckhorn Savignon Blanc and closed with a hard to find boutique Chardonnay: El Molino. We brought our wine for our lunch which helped save on the freight tremendously. Even more tremendous was the fact that Susan was treating; I knew this was a great woman!

Our waiter was a superstar in his service, friendly demeanor, and extensive food-wine knowledge. Overall Angele rates a Zagat guide 24 (out of 30) rating-excellent!

Peju Winery sits in the middle of Napa Valley in Rutherford, California. It specializes in Cabernets and all things red. But what really separates Peju from the crowd? Their tasting room stays open until 6pm–last to close in the Valley. The service is always friendly if you are respectful and have half a clue about wine.

Unfortunately for the young Japanese contingency waiting to be served, this was not the case. All of the dozen were carded with 3 kids being shown the exit. The rest of the group looked like “Star Trek” convention goers lost at a Nine Inch Nails concert. We were able to recover our status as the final group tasting of the day when I was lucky enough to identify specific characteristics attributable to the vineyard designated bottle of Savignon Blanc our server was touting.

Our final destination of the day turned night was a Calistoga institution: Brannan’s. Brannan’s is a special restaurant known for it’s “Manderin Cosmopolitans”, fantastic food, and eclectic array of jazz talent performing every weekend night.

Mark Young, owner of Brannan’s and 5 other popular restaurants, is the perfect front of the house man. Mark’s restaurants outside of Brannan’s are Bar Vino, Flat Iron Grill, Latitude, and Checkers. More information about these fantastic eateries can be found at www.leftcoastrestaurants.com.

Last night did not disappoint! The jazz 3 piece was tight playing old standards; they were fronted on occasion by a fantastic female singer with powerful pipes.

The one drink and appetizer we shared was just as inspiring as the music. A salad of goat’s cheese on field greens with spit-fired roasted chicken, nuts, and light dressing was perfect for the late night munch.

If you find yourself and a loved one unsure of where to find great food, wine, and song, take a Sunday cruise to Napa. . . Benicia needs a little work for now.