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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Wine Country Traveler: Napa's Oxbow Public Market

20111025 Oxbow Public Market

In my two years of living in the city of Napa, my favorite place in it to go has been the Oxbow Public Market. Despite the name, it is a privately-owned business, and not public. And despite the signs indicating the way to the "farm stands," it does not contain farm stands or other temporary vendor stations. But it does function very much like a public square or a traditional European marketplace, serving as a place for people to hang out, eat small bites, and shop--both locals and tourists. Every town needs a communal gathering space, and the Oxbow is ours.

The business model resembles the restored Ferry Building in San Francisco. The architecture is much less grand, and the farmers' market held there certainly pales by comparison, but both are havens for foodies, featuring full-service restaurants, specialty vendors, and shops with food-related items. The Oxbow Public Market has an advantage in that it was actually designed for this usage, and the vendors have deeper spaces in which to manage their businesses.

Tourism in the Napa Valley revolves around wine, gourmet food, and spas. The Oxbow covers these first two. Visitors can follow up a wine tasting at the Wine & Cheese Merchant with an olive oil tasting from the Olive Press, and come home with a lovely antique absinthe spoon and glasses set from Heritage Culinary Artifacts. The food scene here emphasizes local and organic, and both tourist and local can enjoy the reasonably priced, gourmet offerings. For local families, like mine, the casual atmosphere of the climate-controlled pavilion make it a great place to take the stroller and not have to worry about the baby making noise. On Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday evenings, there are lots of families with little ones who come to eat and browse. Why Tuesday? That's locals' night at the Oxbow, when most purveyors offer a discount--you needn't be a local to take advantage of it, though.

Opened in December of 2007, the name Oxbow comes from the curves in the Napa River at this site. It is across a bridge from downtown Napa, but that bridge is across Napa Creek just before it joins the river. On the opposite (east) side of the market, next to the shuttered Copia, stands the bridge crossing the Napa River. The market has a deck area, partially available for all patrons to use, and partially reserved for Hog Island Oyster Company, that looks out on the river, and there is a nice walking path departing from the Oxbow and running behind Copia along the river, but much of that is currently closed, in need of repairs.

A run-down of the current, as of March 2012, selection of vendors at the Oxbow:

C Casa
20101005 Tacos
Fancy Tacos

I'm giving this "Innovative Taqueria" top billing because for so long I failed to realize its merits. There are plenty of inexpensive Mexican restaurants in Napa, and I didn't see any point in paying more for C Casa, especially since I was annoyed that they never had any good locals' night specials. But for the quality of the food they offer, this restaurant is a bargain. The Michelin Guide even says so, recognizing C Casa on their San Francisco area "Bib Gourmand" list, meaning "the restaurant is an inspector’s favorite for good value." And C Casa is much less expensive than the other Napa Valley restaurants that made that list.

Ritual Coffee
20100712 Ritual Latte

Fortunately, we discovered this place early on after moving to Napa. Far and away my favorite espresso drinks in the valley. Most of the coffee I drink is made at home, but when I get out for a latte at Ritual I almost always think, "Damn! That's an amazing latte!" on the first sip. Rich but smooth, not at all bitter, like Starbucks is. We observed that they use organic milk in their lattes--not that they advertise that. They just do.

Three Twins Ice Cream
20120127 Cookies & Cream and Mint  Confetti

Organic, locally produced, incredibly delicious ice cream. For my birthday I got the megasaurous, a 27-scoop ice cream sundae. That put me off eating their, or anybody else's, ice cream, but only for a few weeks.

Pica Pica Maize Kitchen
20100708 Cachapa

A place that features Venezuelan dishes based around gluten-free cornmeal, and also offers a nice selection of alcoholic beverages and drink specials. Probably the best bargain in the Oxbow.

Kara's Cupcakes
20110430 Chocolate-Covered Strawberry  Cupcake

A dozen mini cupcakes is the perfect thing to pick up quickly for entertaining or to bring to an event.

Heritage Culinary Artifacts
20100807 Heritage Culinary  Artifacts

A fascinating place, essentially an antique store of food-related items. It's always fun to look at what they have, although most of it is out of my price range--like $3000 for hanging lamps from an old ice cream parlor.

Ca Momi

20120302 Bacon, Carmelized Onions, & Pecorino Romano Pizza

They operate both a winery and this restaurant, which features gourmet pizza and small pastries. It's all good, and they are very warm and family-friendly.

Cheese Merchant, Wine Merchant

20100803 The Good Life

One outfit. You can get flights there for wine tasting and pair them with small food plates. We had them ship wine to Washington D.C. for us, and they surprised us with a bonus bottle.

Whole Spice Company

A great place to pick up gift sets for friends who like to cook, or a specialty spice to try out at home.

The Olive Press
20100702 Olive Oil Samplers

We usually take first time visitors to Napa here for the free olive oil samples, and also have bought gift sets here. Bring in your own bottle and they'll fill it for $1 an ounce.

Tillerman Tea
20100702 Tillerman Tea

You can just buy tea and tea-related items, or have a full tea service at the shop. They sponsor the dragon dancers for Chinese New Year's each year.

20111019 Tea Service

Chinese New Year Celebration

Anette's Chocolates

Their main shop is on First Street, where they also sell ice cream and espresso, but you can get their chocolates and chocolate sauces, and taste the sauces, at the Oxbow.

Oxbow Produce and Grocery

The closest thing to a farm stand at the Oxbow, this is where you can buy your fruits and veggies, and a small selection of items to go along with them.

Five Dot Ranch

Beef purveyors. They have an impressive display case of cuts of beef, but also serve a couple of items ready to eat, such as hot dogs. On St. Patrick's Day they offered a corned beef and cabbage dinner, with the best corned beef I have tasted.

Hog Island Oyster Co.

It looks fantastic and the oysters look delicious. This is the highest priced place to eat in the Oxbow, however, and a bit out of my range. Maybe someday.

Kanaloa Seafood Market

They sell fresh fish and shellfish to cook at home, but don't usually offer anything to eat on the premises.

La Crepe

20120323 Croque Madame

The newest addition to the vendors, I got my first crepes there served up by a man with an outrageous French accent. That was fun.

The Kitchen Door
20110824 Chicken Dinner
Chicken Dinner

Slightly off the main pavilion, they have a large space with large windows and patio access out towards the river. You can order from the counter or get them to come to your table, if you have a large group. Much like the rest of the Oxbow, it's casual and comfortable, yet upscale and gourmet.

Those are the businesses inside the main pavilion, but there is more to the Oxbow complex.

Model Bakery

A branch of the long-established St. Helena business, this full-service bakery also offers sandwiches and Peet's Coffee. They were made famous for their English muffins by the Food Network, and now they limit how many you can buy, and still sell out of them. But I tried those unusual English muffins before the Food Network show, on the advice of an English professor I met in the Mojave desert. They're good, but the food I would recommend from the Model Bakery is the pizza.

Gott's Roadside
20100914 Date Night

It started out as Taylor's Automatic Refresher in St. Helena, which was purchased by the Gott brothers. That spot was made famous by Guy Fieri on Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, but the Gotts also opened restaurants in the Oxbow, and, fittingly, in the Ferry Building in San Francisco. Some of the produce they use on their menu is grown on land adjoining the St. Helena location.

They offer traditional diner and drive-in fare using high quality ingredients, but also have more diverse offerings, such as the ahi tuna tacos. And they offer the best locals' night specials of any merchant at the Oxbow.

We ate there so often when we first moved to Napa that we've had to back off a bit on the frequency, but we still go. I've taken quite a large number of photos at both the St. Helena and Napa locations, which you can see here.

Fatted Calf

I always forget about this place, but have been meaning to check it out to get something to cook at home for dinner some night. Despite the name, they do not specialize in beef steaks, as they did not want to compete directly with Five Dot Ranch. They specialize in sausages, pates, and "other meaty goods."

Napa Valley Adventure Tours

Operating out of a garage-like structure in the back. I don't know anything about them.

More of my photos from Oxbow.


Laura-Marie said...

When I was there, I was so confused trying to throw away my trash! Trying to figure out what gets recycled, whether compostable forks are also recyclable...

Also, I want to meet a food advice giving English professor in the Mojave desert!

Anonymous said...

I too have heard of the Fatted Calf ... I have a friend in Napa that has nothing but good stuff to say about them!

Its so interesting that I search for a new blog and find this article with your mentioning them...

If you get a chance, check out my blog;

Have a good one!


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