Day 2b: Sonoma Farmer’s Market & Mamma Tanino’s

Food Adventures, Napa & Sonoma

After visiting Lancaster Estate and Medlock Ames we were just about dead tired, quickly hopping back into the security of the car and its air conditioned heaven. Healdsburg was a good hour away from the city of Sonoma and we were expecting to arrive in time for the Sonoma Tuesday Night Farmer’s Market. After checking into the nearby hotel, we took a brief stroll to the park in front of city hall where the farmer’s market was located.

The entire block and surrounding neighborhood were bustling with people enjoying the sun and mingling around the tented shops. Stalls of produce from nearby farms lined the walkway around the city hall building carrying a variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables. The colors were spectacular and we were enjoying the beautiful day so much that we had forgotten to take photos of the area.

Having drank most of the day and filling up on wine, we had forgotten to eat very much for lunch and were famished. At 6:30pm and without a reservation at any restaurant, we should’ve known better than to try walking into the restaurants that enclosed Sonoma Square. We decided to try Mamma Tanino’s – a place a little out of the way that we found on Yelp, a homely-looking, literal hole-in-the-wall in the corner of a strip mall. The patrons seemed to be an older, more local crowd. The interior was a warm, cozy space with an obnoxious yellow glow that enveloped every nook and cranny. This glow, while warm, took a terrible toll on the quality of our photos, but please bear with us.

Alice found out an interesting piece of information about Chef Gaetano that we didn’t want to speculate about its accuracy: he was accepted into culinary school at the age of 13 and graduated at 15. We managed to verify this information with his wife Kimberly who runs the front of the house.

Without further adieu…the noms:

Housemade Focaccia

The table bread was a simple fresh-baked focaccia that was extra toasted and a little burnt on its extremities. We didn’t mind too much, and I myself am a fan of slightly charred bread. Alice found a piece that tasted like pizza crust, in a good way.

Appetizer: Calamaretti Fritti

Fried calamari was very crispy but the batter was unevenly coated and didn’t adhere well to the calamari. The homemade pomodoro sauce had a little kick that kicked me in the…taste bud. The creamy tartar sauce with capers wasn’t all that special but I’m glad we were given the choice of two different dipping sauces.

Pappardelle Bolognese

Alice had the homemade, hand-cut pappardelle accompanied by a ragu-style sauce with beef, beef stock, carrots, and mushrooms. Just a little al dente to give it a more firm texture, making it a hearty and winning combination.

Gnocchetti Piemontese

I ordered another one of their homemade dishes – hand-cut mini gnocchi with a creamy tomato sauce. Texture was more like a cloud than a pillow, extra light and fluffy. I was able to polish off the entire dish and was left wanting more but that’s not to say that the portion was too small – it was just that good.

Tiramisu

I have to admit that this was definitely not that great of a tiramisu. There was a little too much marscapone and it was made using both rum and kahlua. When it came down to it, the tiramisu had a strange sour taste to it, perhaps from the kahlua or perhaps from the marscapone, but we couldn’t tell. Either way, the tartness tasted a bit awkward.

All in all, Mamma Tanino’s was a great find. It’s unfortunate that their location in the forlorn strip mall seems to have a negative impact on their business. People of Sonoma, swing by and give them a try! The pasta dishes are awesome and the service, courtesy of Kimberly, is very friendly.

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Check out Mamma Tanino’s Ristorante: www.mammataninos.com

500 W. Napa St. Suite 512
Sonoma CA, 95476

See their Yelp reviews here!

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Day 2a: Napa & Sonoma – Alexis Baking Co, Lancaster Estate, Medlock Ames

Food Adventures, Napa & Sonoma

Day two! We had scheduled two winery tours in Healdsburg so before heading there, we started off our day with a delicious brunch at the Alexis Baking Company (ABC) in Napa. It’s a quaint little bakery located across from a row of Victorian style homes reminiscent of Haight Ashbury in SF — thanks to the Yelp reviewer who pointed out the adorable purple house immediately across the street, we found the place very easily!

Huevos Rancheros with Poached Eggs

Unsure of what to get, Martin asked the girl behind the counter for the most popular dish on the menu, which turned out to be the huevos rancheros with poached eggs. Crispy tostada-like fried tortillas slathered with a black bean spread, layered with gooey melted cheese, and generously topped with lots of salsa above and below the perfectly poached egg. It was awesome watching Martin cut into the whites as the yolk slowly oozed over the dish. Delicious. Martin seemed to really enjoy it and shared only one bite for me to sample!

Cinnamon French Toast with Fresh Peaches

No matter — I had opted for one of the daily specials: cinnamon French toast topped with fresh peaches. The girl behind the counter seemed really excited about this one, proclaiming that it’s made from thick slices of the fresh baked cinnamon bread which is, as she put it, amazing. Amazing, indeed! To me, there’s something about fresh baked bread that makes it just indescribably delicious. Fresh baked bread that’s been dredged in egg batter, pan fried to get a crispy crust, dusted with powdered sugar, and served with farm fresh white and yellow peach slices — absolutely wonderful! It was sweet enough for me to not even need the syrup, and I thoroughly enjoyed every fluffy and crispy, sweet and tart, cinnamony and eggy bite.

Perplexing bathrooms

Random side note — was I the only one who stood and paused for a moment to decide which restroom to use? The doughnut or the eclair… which will you choose??

The Lancaster Estate coat of arms lion’s head

Onward we journeyed, saying goodbye to Napa and heading up north to Healdsburg where we met Liz at the Lancaster Estate. It turned out to be a private tour for just the two of us as Liz drove us through the vineyard and told us about the history of the 5 turned 50 acre estate as we tasted the 2011 Sauvignon Blanc.

Lancaster Estate – I love the perfectly straight rows!

Each row of vines was carefully positioned to catch the right amount of sun, and we saw beautiful rows cascading over the hillside. Absolutely beautiful! It was a warm day out so we were thankful for the reprieve of the wine cave, a temperature controlled cellar that houses the tasting room, a dining area for private events, and barrels and barrels of wine at various stages in production. The aroma of fermenting wine and oak barrels fills the cave as we wandered through the atria.

The Tasting Room

Eventually, we circled back to the tasting room to try their stunning reds — a Cuvée, a Cabernet Sauvignon, and the Nicole’s Proprietary Blend. Made simply from the best grapes of the season, the Nicole’s was incredible and, understandably so, completely sold out every year. The tasting flight made a believer out of me, as I’m usually partial to white and sweeter wines.

Puppy!

After selecting a bottle of their 2008 Estate Cab to bring home, we bid adieu to Liz and drove on to the Medlock Ames Ranch. Home to the main vineyard, the processing facility, a small tasting room, and an adorable garden, the ranch was gorgeous. There we were greeted by an adorable dog belonging to one of the workers and found our guide Lauren. It turned out that mainly wine club members visited the ranch and most other visitors visited the larger tasting room located off the main roads in a less rural part of Healdsburg. Personally, I was very glad to have found this ranch!

The hillside of the Medlock Ames vineyard

Lauren led on a great walking tour of the estate and told us about the history of the Bell Mountain region in which it is situated. We wandered up to the small organic garden that they maintain, a flourishing little plot of land with dozens of fruits and vegetable varieties.

Amazing strawberry

Have you ever eaten a bright red strawberry straight off the vine, warmed by the summer sun? It’s like a bite of sunshine. Succulent, sweet, and simply awesome.

Candy-sweet cherry tomatoes!

Lauren also offered samples of the cherry tomatoes (sweet as candy!), purple peppers that resembled Thai chilies, and even sauvignon blanc grapes off the vines. A wonderful tasting experience and we haven’t even gotten to the wines yet!

The Whites

Since it was just the two of us, Lauren offered us a tasting of all nine bottles that she had readily opened. First the whites — we made our way through 2010 and 2011 Sauvignon Blanc, 2010 Chardonnay, and a 2011 Rosé. I really liked both vintages of the Sauvignon Blanc and I have a feeling that the upcoming late harvest she hinted about will be fantastic.

The Reds

Then we moved on to the reds, starting with a 2008 house Bordeaux blend simply named Red, followed by a 2007 Merlot and a vertical tasting of 2004, 2006, and 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon. All a bit too full bodied for me, but Martin enjoyed this part, especially the vertical tasting. We had learned during our short time in Napa and Sonoma that 2007 was pretty much a good year for every winemaker, but we were starting to see that some winemakers were able to work their magic on the 2008 vintages as well.

Beautiful oak barrels ready for the upcoming harvest!

Our visits to Lancaster Estate and Medlock Ames were wonderful off-the-beaten-path adventures in wine country and we would definitely recommend paying them both a visit if you’re in the area. And be sure to start your morning with a delicious breakfast at Alexis Baking Company first! Many thanks to all of the new friends who made our day such a wonderful experience in Napa and Healdsburg.

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Check out Alexis Baking Company: alexisbakingcompany.com

1517 3rd St
Napa, CA 94559

See their Yelp reviews here!

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Check out Lancaster Estate: lancaster-estate.com

15001 Chalk Hill Rd
Healdsburg, CA 95448

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Check out Medlock Ames: medlockames.com

13414 Chalk Hill Road
Healdsburg, CA 95448

Day 1: Napa – Trains, Wine Tastings, and Steaks

Food Adventures, Napa & Sonoma

For our two-year dating anniversary, Martin and I decided to take a week off and journey across northern California – wine tasting in Napa and Sonoma, dining at local hot spots, visiting oyster farms and a creamery, and strolling through roadside fruit stands and farmer’s markets. The vineyards, with their rows and rows of perfectly straight and symmetrical formations of grape vines, appealed to my OCD tendencies as we zoomed past, watching the seemingly endless lines play tricks on our eyes.

All aboard!

Our first stop in Napa was the Napa Valley Wine Train Station. Touristy, I know, but who could resist the promises of a gourmet lunch aboard a vintage restored locomotive that cruises through Wine Country and serves as a giant designated driver for the inevitable winery tour and tastings? We sure couldn’t.

The wine started flowing early as we ticket holders partook in the first tasting at the station itself… at 10:30am. Shortly after, we boarded the Le Petit Gourmet dining car to feast on our three-course lunch, accompanied by a lovely couple who was celebrating their honeymoon. The food itself was a bit unremarkable, but I was impressed by what the cooks were able to accomplish aboard a moving vehicle.

Broccoli Soup

Halibut Special

Beef Tenderloin

The cream of broccoli soup was good but overwhelmingly cheesy. Martin had the beef tenderloin, which looked stunning but had a strange texture (probably from being prepared en masse and steaming a bit in a catering chafe or something); I had the halibut off-menu special which was drizzled with a delicious orange flavored beurre blanc but the halibut itself was sadly overcooked.

Before we knew it, we had arrived at the Grgich Hills Estate and welcomed to the so-called “petting zoo” consisting of a few small rows to show off the many varieties of grapes grown on the Estate. It was at this point that we learned we arrived in Napa at the perfect time of year (in my opinion) – when the grapes are still on the vines and undergoing veraison (the process of turning color from green to purple, with some bunches caught in the middle holding grapes of both colors, which I thought is just lovely!) and just before the valley gets too busy with harvesting and “crush” season.

So many French oak barrels!

We were escorted over to the crush pad and on through to the cellar where barrels and barrels of pressed grapes were slowly turning into wine. Eventually we made our way to the tasting room where we sampled some of Grgich Hills’ newest releases, including a fascinating sauvignon blanc that had strong jalapeno notes. I ended up purchasing a bottle of the 2009 Violetta, the delicious late harvest wine that was paired with our dessert at the Melisse foie dinner.

Creme Brulee

Chocolate Tart

Soon the train arrived to take us back to Napa, and on the return voyage we enjoyed our dessert course. Martin selected the chocolate pecan tart which was topped with a wonderfully decadent ganache which was the only good thing about the it since the crust was thick and hard. I chose the crème brulee and was again impressed by the kitchen’s ability to work on a moving train when my spoon broke through the caramelized sugar with a beautiful cracking sound.

We returned to the station and wanted to continue our Napa adventure, so we hopped in our car and drove up the 29 ourselves to squeeze in a few more wineries before closing time. Our first stop – Domaine Chandon. As we approached the building, we crossed an adorable wooden bridge overlooking a manmade pond and a beautiful landscape of plants and flowers. The tasting room was a partially enclosed building that welcomed the gorgeous sunshine passing over the gardens immediately adjacent. Thanks to my Yelp Check-In offer, we got 2 for 1 tastings and selected the Reserve Tasting series.

A big fan of bubbly, I was most looking forward to trying the winery exclusive 2006 Mt Veeder Vintage Brut. I love reading the descriptions, especially when my palate happens to detect similar subtleties, and such was the case with this one. It was described as having the flavor of toasted brioche, and indeed it did!

The Oakville Cab we ended up bringing home

Onward to Robert Mondavi Winery just before the tasting room closed. We shared a tasting this time, and Martin enjoyed sampling both the 2009 Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon and the 2009 Oakville cab, ultimately deciding to bring home a bottle of the Oakville. I loved the 2010 Moscato d’Oro and snagged that as well as a bottle of 2001 Botrytis, the last late harvest that they bottled. As you can see, I’m a big fan of sweet and/or sparkling wines so words like “late harvest” or “ice wine” or “moscato” are key buzzwords.

The grapes undergoing veraison (changing color from green to purple).

Wine Country slows its pace after 5pm when most tasting rooms close their doors. It was a perfect chance for us to check into our hotel and get refreshed for our anniversary dinner at Cole’s Chop House. We heard great things about CCH on Yelp and were looking forward to some meaty goodness. Located just off the main hustle and bustle of downtown Napa, CCH has an industrial look to it with its high, exposed ceilings.

12oz Rib Eye

10oz Filet Mignon

We opted to skip the appetizers and dive straight into the meat – 12 oz rib eye for me, 10 oz filet mignon for Martin, both rare. (Props to CCH for clearly defining the cooking temperatures!)

Potato Gratin

Sauteed Spinach

The sides are served family-style a la carte, reminiscent of Lawry’s Prime Rib. We decided to share the off-menu Yukon gold potato gratin and the spinach sautéed with garlic instead of creamed. The steaks arrived perfectly cooked to temperature and beautifully charred, but each steak looked a bit forlorn sitting in the center of such a large plate. I guess we’re just partial to a more complete, plated presentation that we’re so accustomed to. The potatoes in the gratin were tender and layered generously with gruyere, and we found ourselves passive-aggressively fighting over the toasted crunchy top layer. The spinach didn’t really have much garlic flavor, although we later found whole cloves tucked away among the leaves which was unfortunate.

Crisp with farm-fresh nectarines and raspberries, served a la mode

For dessert, our server Brett told us about that day’s off-menu special – a white nectarine and raspberry fruit crisp served a la mode with vanilla gelato. Hot-out-of-the-oven dessert topped with ice cream? SOLD! The crisp arrived piping hot with a wonderful oat and cinnamon crumble lying atop a smoldering mixture of fruit. The gelato had just started to melt over the crumble and lent just the right amount of creamy sweetness to balance the tartness of the fruit. It was absolutely delectable. Partway through I secretly wished I had a second one all to myself.

The decor of the place was definitely more rustic and looked better at night with the high ceiling dimly lit by indirect-facing bulbs. There were two elements about the interior, however, that left something to be desired — the wood with glass panel dividers that separated the bar area and the main dining room reminded Martin of the ones typically used at Chinese restaurants and the double red lights hanging over the top of the mantle of the bar looked a bit demonic and turned out to be incredibly distracting.

Regardless, we enjoyed ourselves and especially loved our dessert. It was a great way to celebrate our two-year anniversary!

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Check out Cole’s Chop House: coleschophouse.com

1122 Main St
Napa, CA 94559

See their Yelp reviews here!