This week, I’m serving as a paid spokesperson for Hilton HHonors’ Seven Tickets to Paradise Sweepstakes. The contest, which is open to Hilton HHonors members, features seven prize packages and ends on Aug. 31. I previewed one of the prizes, the “Your Ticket To Dine,” in Napa Valley this past weekend.
Napa Valley has been such a big tourist destination for so many years that it’s often dismissed by travelers who are always seeking newer (grape) stomping grounds. But with so many vineyards – more than 400 – and the countless restaurants that accompany them, Napa Valley will always have something surprising for the wine-loving tourist. I’ve made at least six trips to Napa (and several to Sonoma) – and have yet get bored.
The biggest surprise that I’ve noticed on two recent visits is how cool downtown Napa has become. Even five years ago, tourists would gravitate toward Yountville, Rutherford and the northern end of the valley when they visited. But in recent years, hot restaurants, hotels and galleries have opened in Napa itself, revitalizing the downtown and turning it into a worthy destination. You can even take a tour on the Napa River (perhaps the only way to see some of the city’s fabulous riverside homes).Photo by prayitno, Flickr Creative Commons
The Oxbow Public Market was perhaps the earliest sign that downtown Napa was on the rise. Opened in 2007, the market goes far beyond produce and has food stalls that are so good, you might find yourself skipping the reservation. It’s like visiting a gourmet cafeteria, where everything is made with the best ingredients (and you can get outstanding wines by the glass with your meal).
When I was at Oxbow earlier this year, I tried the flatbread at Kitchen Door, a casual restaurant by chef Todd Humphries, who has a long track record of success in San Francisco and Napa Valley (He’s slightly obsessed with mushrooms so look for menu items that feature his favored funghi).
Open since 2010, Napa’s Riverfront is even newer than the Oxbow Market. Architecturally, the new construction complex doesn’t fit the historic vibe of Napa’s downtown; it looks more like the type of mixed use developments that you see in office-park style suburbs such as Renton, Virginia than the other small towns in the Valley. The space hasn’t entirely filled up yet, as evidenced by the vacancy signs on some of the storefronts.
But the restaurants that are there seem to be flourishing. I visited Fish Story back in February and was impressed with the service, as well as the range of seafood, all of it sustainable according to the guidelines established by the Monterey Aquarium (I always keep my eye out for restaurants that follow this trend).
On this visit, I went to Morimoto Napa, the latest restaurant from sushi impresario Masaharu Morimoto. One of my quintessential foodie memories is visiting the first Morimoto in Philadelphia, where my friend and I were served an omakase meal – complete with sake pairings – by the Iron Chef himself (that was long before he opened satellite restaurants in New York, Boca Raton, and Waikiki). I haven’t been to his restaurants in years, however, so I was looking forward to seeing what his chefs would put forth in California’s Foodie Central.
Unlike the white-walled Philly restaurant, Morimoto Napa had much more of a Vegas vibe, with an emphasis on creative cocktails. Most of the diners around us were ordering non-sushi dishes, it seemed, and so I was a little worried that the food would be more gimmicky and less delicious than I remembered.
Luckily, I had nothing to fear. Our group tasted a wide selection of the menu, ranging from wagyu beef carpaccio to yellowtail “pastrami” to the calamari salad. Standouts for me included the rock shrimp, served with both a spicy kochujan sauce and a wasabi aioli, and the bone marrow, delivered to the table in a presentation straight out of the Flintstones. By the time my lobster entree came around, I was too full to do it justice (it was a little heavy on the garam masala for my taste).
What’s awesome about downtown Napa is that you don’t need to book with a “name” chef to have a great meal out. Even the smaller bistros have amazing wine lists, and chefs that are eager to impress with their interpretations of California cuisine. You’ll still want to make a reservation, though; I overhead one tourist complaining about a 90 minute wait
Case in point: Oenotri. Open since 2010, the restaurant shines with its pizzas (the crust, just chewy and salty enough) and housemade salumi. The restaurant also wins my award for perhaps the scariest cardio dish I’ve ever seen: bacon-wrapped squab liver. I took one bite and felt my pulse rate skyrocket.
On my last visit, I had a great meal at Norman Rose, where I spotted photographer Baron Wolman (whose photos from early issues of Rolling Stone magazine is on permanent display at Markham Vineyards). More than one local also recommended Carpe Diem, a wine bar where you can order well-ranked vintages, such as a 2003 Cab from Dunn Vineyards, by the glass. I’ll have to go there next time I’m in town.
Because we were sponsored by Hilton HHonors, we stayed at the Embassy Suites Napa Valley. While it’s not quite within walking distance of Napa, it’s a quick 15 minute cab ride. The property just finished its renovation this year, and with flowers gardens and swans in its inside courtyard, it looks more like an independent resort than a typical Embassy Suites. True to the brand, however, breakfast is included, as is a nightly manager reception with snacks and free drinks. On the weekend we were there, the hotel was at full capacity, and this Happy Hour was packed. I would definitely come back here for a trip, particularly if I could save money and use my husband’s Hilton HHonors points to do so (hey, it would free up more money for wines at Carpe Diem).
Now, about the contest: The prize package includes airfare to Napa Valley and five nights at Embassy Suites, as well as $1,000 to spend on dining and activities such as hot air ballooning. You also receive 500,000 Hilton HHonors points, so really, if you win, you’ll be redeeming the prize on vacations down the line (if Napa isn’t your thing, there’s six other prize packages that offer trips to Bali, Palm Springs, Hollywood and Costa Rica).
Besides the contest, Hilton HHonors is also offering a Great Getaway sale, where you can save up to 40 percent on stays completed by Sept. 30. It’s good at any of the 10 brands in the Hilton Worldwide portfolio. Book before Sept. 10.