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Born in the US, raised on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, lived in Italy, the US, and Canada. Lover of language, travel, colour, and the natural world.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Indulging in Napa

This past weekend my parents and I took a day trip to Napa, a.k.a. California’s very own Tuscany, and the heart of wine country. Napa is rolling hills of fertile soils sown with grape vineyards, long driveways that curve up the sides of hills lined with Cypress trees, and enormous wineries with accompanying mansions. Many of the wineries are open to the public, so visitors make a day of it, driving from one winery to the next tasting wine and cheese, and stopping at one of the many restaurants offering a wide variety of delicious, often locally grown food.

My parents and I are not wine drinkers, but we do love the view of an endless sea of grape vines trailing off in perfect rows of sun-struck green and red-tinged braids of colours, and lit up by the golden fall sun and contrasted against the clear blue sky above. Napa is also known for hot springs that are scattered across the valley in profusion, and provide visitors with breaks between the drinking and eating that fills the rest of the day and night. 

My parents and I wanted to check out a restaurant called Mustards Grill (http://www.mustardsgrill.com/), which is the mother ship eatery of master chef and avid gardener Cindy Pawlcyn, who named the grill after the wild mustard flowers that bloom in Napa’s vineyards every spring. Cindy is considered a pioneer in the development of wine country cuisine, and went on to open two other restaurants in Napa Valley: Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen and Go Fish. My mother had wanted to dine at Mustards because she was excited about being able to take a stroll through the grill’s adjoining two-acre organic garden that provides 20% of the restaurants produce year-round. Unfortunately, not realizing how popular her restaurants are, my parents and I made the mistake of waiting to make a reservation until Saturday morning, which meant the first lunch reservation opening was at 3 – a bit late for lunch dining. Fortunately, Mustards website provided links to Cindy’s two other restaurants, so we opted to eat at Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen. 

Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen (http://www.cindysbackstreetkitchen.com/) is located in the quaint town of St. Helena, nestled right in the middle of Napa Valley. It feels small and cosy despite having a rather large floor plan with seating outside in a garden filled with colourful blossoms, indoor ground floor seating as well as upstairs dining. Before being served what struck me most about Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen was how simple the décor was and how light seemed to saturate the space from every direction. In many ways it reminded me in style of the many whitewashed stone tavernas that I have eaten at on the Greek islands. 

The menu was one page but had a wide array of vegetarian, meat, fish and gluten-free options. They also had a number of creative, refreshing non-alchoholic drinks. I ordered a “No-heat-O,” which was a combination of fresh lime juice, an extremely generous amount of fresh mint leaves, sugar cane juice and sparkling water. Unlike many drinks that have mint in them, this one really tasted like mint, and was delicious. So good in fact that I ordered a second! 

Before our meal, our server brought us a basket of fresh, warm bread with butter. They did not have any gluten free bread, which was a disappointment, but my parents said the bread was excellent. For starters my mom and I had papaya and avocado salad -- tangy and creamy – perfect for a late summer/early fall day. 

I ordered wild mushroom tamales for my mail course and it was one of the best meals I have ever had. The tamale was wrapped in chard and filled and garnished with at least three different varieties of mushrooms that were juicy and richly flavourful. The stuffing also included blanched almonds and garlic. The dish had a tomato sauce over it that was also delicious. I have to say that this was one of the most exceptional dishes I have ever eaten. And the presentation of the meal was a work of art. High points for the entrée!

We did check out the dessert menu, but we were all too full to seriously consider ordering anything from it. I did notice that there was only one gluten free option – so not a lot of choice there.

After lunch we walked up and down St.Helena’s streets enjoying the funky/classy shops, trying on colourful free-trade jewellery, browsing the books in a used book store, and enjoying the modern art and furniture stores (including one place that had an eclectic mix of things: an inlaid carved bone coffee table, a ruby pendant on a gold chain, an intricately hand-carved Moroccan table and a hand-woven wall hanging/throw that combined rusts, ruby, oranges and crimsons to create a tapestry that, had it not been for the price tag, we would have snatched up immediately).

Our meanderings culminated at a local coffee joint that serves up some pretty good freshly ground joe and unsweetened mango iced tea which I will probably pass on next time (I have yet to understand why all iced tea in California is unsweetened). The place had a welcoming warm atmosphere though, and outdoor seating for warmer days. 

We decided to spend the rest of the afternoon out enjoying the beautiful scenery of Napa, so we got directions from a fellow working in an outdoors recreation shop to nearby Lake Hennessey, wine country’s trout and bass fishing Mecca. It was about 6 or 7 miles out of town, along a narrow road that winded through beautiful grape vineyard countryside. Unfortunately the directions we were given did not take us to a place that we could access the fire road that apparently circles the lake, so we had to walk along the paved road, which had little shade. Still, the lake was stunningly beautiful and amazingly peaceful. 

Many of the trees, which were enormous and beautiful, were being attacked by some sort of parasite that looked like a hairy kind of moss. 

The air was filled with birds, which made me wish I had brought my binoculars. And the only two other people there were both fishing. We even saw a snow crane arc gracefully over the surface of the water, its wide wings fluid like white silk. 

It landed high up in the branches of a pine on the shore – a white mirage resting high up in the tree limbs.

We left the lake as the sun started sinking into the earth, and stopped in Calistoga (well known for its hot springs) for another hot drink before hitting the road. The coffee shop was next door to a tax office that had a fantastic array of old typewriters in its display window. 

The coffee shop itself was colourful and eclectic, and afforded a great view of everything happening on the town’s hopping main street. They even had what seemed to me like a great service policy, and one I cannot imagine seeing anywhere but California: 

We left and headed back to Sacramento watching the tangerine and peach coloured sunset stretch long across the furrowed hillsides in the rear view mirror. 

Overall a super day. Note to self: must return to Napa soon to indulge in some hot spring pampering. And maybe next time I’ll book myself a reservation ahead of time at Mustards.


  1. Great post, Ariana. Despite having been born not far from it,I don't ever recall visiting the Napa area, but your description certainly makes it sound inviting.

  2. Thanks so much for the comment. And yes, I would highly recommend visiting Napa. Its landscape has a way of drawing you in and making it very hard to leave again!