1050 Charter Oak Avenue, St. Helena, CA 94754.
Have you ever heard the expression "the way to a man's heart is through his stomach"? Well I think it can definitely apply to women too. Just two weeks ago was my birthday and Mr.S. advised me that he was taking me out to celebrate...but that the destination was a surprise. I initially figured it was somewhere local like The Kitchen, Mulvaney's or Formoli's...you know the usual suspects, but then my ears perked up when he advised me that we would have to leave Sacramento by 5:30 because it was a bit of a drive. This bit of news excited me and I quickly determined that the restaurant location must be in Tahoe, San Francisco or Napa since we weren't staying overnight. Well, I hit pay dirt on the third guess...it was Napa, or St. Helena to be exact. Mr.S. had booked us a table at Tra Vigne. Before I launch into my big long description of our night, I want to point out two things:
1) If you want to take your date/significant other/spouse/whatever on a romantic evening out-- go here. It's worth the drive and your date will love you.
2) I didn't take any photos of the food because a) it was too dark out on the patio b) I was on a romantic date, guys! C'mon!
We arrived at Tra Vigne around 7pm, a bit earlier than our reservation, the hostess didn't bat an eye. She was cheery and polite and told us they had reserved an extra nice table for us for our special occasion and asked if we would mind waiting a few minutes. No problem. We headed to the bar and tried to grab a drink but it was three deep at the bar and there was nowhere to sit so we meandered back to the parlor and sat down. Shortly after, we were called up. The hostess advised that she had a nice two-top by the window or we could have a table on the balcony overlooking the courtyard. We went for the outdoor table since it was a nice night (and the restaurant had thoughtfully put heat lamps out). The view from our table was beautiful, we could see the thousands of twinkle lights illuminating the courtyard, hear the trickle of their small water fountain and watch the hustle and bustle of the patrons dining below us. Our waiter, Joshua, came by shortly after we sat down and took our drink orders. There a lot of terrific sounding cocktails on their menu and a lengthy wine list but I decided to go classic. I ordered Tra Vigne's Manhattan. It was made with one of my favorite bourbons (Buffalo Trace) and absolutely delectable. For our appetizer, Mr.S. wanted the Mozzarella Cheese Al Minuto and I wanted the Arancini Alla Bolognese. We couldn't decide, so we got both and I'm glad we did, both were delicious! The mozzarella is handmade the minute it's ordered, mixed with a house olive oil made in the Napa Valley, then sliced table side (while it's still warm) and placed on bruschetta. It's fantastic. If you love fresh cheese, this is a must try! The arancini were piping hot, crispy risotto balls stuffed with warm, gooey cheese and served with a rich slow-cooked pork sugo, spicy tomato sauce. Amaze-balls is what they should call them. They were like a savory flavor bomb. I could have eaten another plate of them by myself.
Now I'm going to interject here to say that I'm glad Mr.S. and I are not indecisive orderers because our waiter was not very helpful, nor did he seem knowledgeable about the menu. I'll even dare say- he wasn't friendly. He was a bit snooty and seemed much more engrossed in the table of boozy old people behind us. Whatever, it's Napa. I didn't get too riled up because we had- Oscar. I'm not quite sure what Oscar's title was- server's assistant, bus boy, expediter? It didn't matter because we considered him a dining rockstar. He was super personable, funny, and excited to tell us about the various menu offerings. He really knew how to take a regular dining experience and bump it up to world class service. (He even gave me an ingenious cooking tip that I'm now dying to try out.) Now don't get me wrong, he wasn't chatting our ear off or anything...Oscar knew how to balance how much to talk with us so that we felt welcome and how much so that it didn't horn in on our romantic evening out. Tra Vigne should clone him. I'm serious, he's top notch.
Ok, back to the food. For dinner, Mr.S. opted for the braised beef short ribs served with a creamy three-cheese polenta, natural jus and a horseradish gremolata. He gave me a bite and it was positively heavenly. The ribs were cooked to a tender perfection and had this wonderful subtle smoky taste that made you crave more. Wow! I ordered the wood oven roasted whole fish, which that night was branzino. Now I make a mean branzino at home (both grilled and roasted) but having a wood fire oven that goes to 600 degrees? Well son, that kicks your fish dish up to a whole other level. The skin had this amazing all over char that you just can't get in a home oven or grill...and the fish itself (which Oscar deboned for me) was tender and moist. I really enjoyed the dish, although I could have done without the accompanying grilled radicchio and mache salad. I'm not much for bitter greens. I would have preferred some roasted vegetables instead like carrots, Brussels sprouts, or even perhaps their duck fat potatoes. Duck fat potatoes, they go with everything...anyone who'd turn down a side of those is just plumb crazy. Now I want to just take a quick minute to point out that the portion-sizes at Tra Vigne are perfect...generous without being gluttonous and not piddly where you'd have to pick up something to eat on the way home.
You'd think after a feast like that, we'd skip dessert. No way! For dessert, the kind folks at Tra Vigne sent a butterscotch panna cotta out. This bit of bliss had sea salt caramel and crème fraiche mixed in it. Yes, there was a mini dessert orgasm at our table (picture Meg Ryan in "When Harry Met Sally"). But the best part of the dish were the incredible rosemary-hazelnut cookies that accompanied the panna cotta. I think they are hands down one of the best cookies I've ever nibbled on. Now if all that wasn't enough, we also ordered a cannoli. Sweet ricotta cheese, chocolate bits and toasted pistachios...Sweet Baby Jesus, it was good!
It truly was a fantastic night. Scrumptious food, outstanding drinks, a romantic al fresco setting in the heart of the wine country and of course--- delightful company. In my book that's the perfect way to celebrate a birthday and from the content sighs I heard coming from the diners around us, I'm sure we were not the only ones impressed with the magic of Tra Vigne.
[ Thank you, Mr.S.! ]