(Napa, CA) I knew this year, I wanted to surprise Juliet for her birthday. Fact is, I’m not very good at planning surprise parties but this year, somehow, I managed to keep it a secret. Weeks before we traveled to California, I booked a Vista Dome lunch on the Napa Valley Wine Train. Despite her desperate pleas, I didn’t spill the beans. We drove in the morning to Napa from Santa Rosa, and it wasn’t until we were nearly there that she had any inkling of our afternoon plans...
We arrive to the depot well in advance. Inside, we pick up our tickets and are instructed to wait until our section is called before boarding. In meantime, we are told, have a seat on the well-worn couches and prepare for an impromptu early morning wine tasting. Servers mill around and distribute a white and a red, while a lady instructs us how to taste and reveals the identities of the wines. It’s old hat for us, so we take the experience with a sense of humor then wait to board.
Finally, we are the last to be called. The Vista Dome is the best car on the train, with a raised dining area enclosed by glass walls and ceiling so we can view the countryside while we travel. Our servers are top-notch and the four-course lunch is the best assembly of dishes the resident chef, Kelly Macdonald, has to offer. We opt for wine pairings with each course.
We sip our complimentary glass of bubbly (Gloria Ferrer, I believe) then place our order for hor d’oeuvres. I begin with the Flourless Yam Ravioli stuffed with house-smoked goat cheese and topped with grape relish. It’s very fresh-tasting, though I’m not picking up the smoke flavor at all. It’s a fun play on a salad, with some high-note flavors. Still, I’m a little jealous of Juliet’s grilled shrimp, which are amazing. The 2009 Conundrum (Caymus Vineyards) does go nicely with the ravioli, though.
On to the first course, we both gravitate to the soup du jour, which is a creamed asparagus. It is heavy, rich with cream, and velvety goodness. It is followed quickly by the entree. Going against my better judgement, because I’ve already had quite a lot of beef on this trip, I can’t help but order the Grilled and Roasted Beef Tenderloin on gorgonzola toast with a vegetable saute in a cabernet beef demi sauce. It arrives exactly as advertised, thick cuts of tenderloin drenched in wine sauce, flanked by fresh asparagus and carrots. The steak is a little more overdone that I’d like and has taken on that peculiar grainy character of beef when it approaches the consistency of liver, but the sauce does help with that. I imagine it just sat a few minutes too long in back before coming to the table. The carrots are incredible, and the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon (Terra Valentine) really enlivens the whole dish.
At this stage, we have a little downtime before dessert so decide to explore the rest of the train. We head downstairs, then proceed toward the rear. We go through car after car, each with its own theme and own gaggle of people. One car has older diners while another has younger people obviously in the mood to party, and yet another has visitors from a foreign country. It seems the Wine Train attracts all types. We finally reach the caboose just in time to see the engine that had been pulling us come back around to the end to reverse the trip. We quickly make our way to the other end—passing the busy, packed kitchen—and ride awhile on the back of the train while we depart northern Napa. Finally, we make our way back to our table.
I finish the meal with Grand Marnier Cheesecake, topped with a heavy plum sauce and orange zest. A nice ice wine pairs wonderfully, all syrupy sweetness that I need to wash away with a double espresso. In the end, the food is a notch above that we found on the Bateaux river boats in Paris, and while the ride isn’t filled with as much wonder, I think we both enjoy the level of service more. Riding the rails in wine country is highly recommended.
I am growing impatient to learn our destination. I see signs for the infamous Oxbow Public Market and I wonder if the plan is to wander the various stalls and graze for lunch. Then I see the sign for The Napa Valley Wine Train. Mystery solved!
After a somewhat rudimentary wine tasting tutorial in the station, they begin to board and I see that Jeremy has splurged for Vista Dome seats. Our railcar has plush reserved booths and a raised glass dome ceiling allowing unobstructed views.
Our server pours us a glass of sparkling wine, explaining the various courses and wine pairing options. The train pulls out of the station and our adventure begins!
I start with the grilled shrimp with scallop ceviche in a lobster jus with salmon roe. Three colossal shrimp top shaved scallops, julienned radish, fennel, and delicate cuke slices. I've never been a big fan of salmon roe. It's just too big and pulpy for me and I find it unpleasant to bite into one and have salty fish juice explode in my mouth. The shrimp and scallops are sweet and succulent. Excepting the roe, everything else in the dish is heavenly as is the 2009 ZD Chardonnay pairing.
The next course is a cream of asparagus soup. It's a springtime shade of green, not dingy or drab like some cream of asparagus soups I've had in the past. And it tastes of clean, bright veg, not smothered and covered up by cream and butter though I am sure there's some of both in the ingredient list. Our server suggests a 2009 Hagafen Riesling from the Devoto Vineyard to pair. The Riesling is dry and crisp, not at all sweet. I've heard people say that no wine goes with artichokes or asparagus, but this one works well with cream of asparagus soup!
Despite a hankering for lamb or beef, I decide to step out of my comfort zone and go for something I'd never usually order -- swordfish. I've only had swordfish twice and both times found it oily, grey and overly fishy tasting. In addition, I'm not an aficionado of saffron, finding it excessively metallic. So when our server describes the fresh fish course as a swordfish filet with risotto in a saffron cream sauce, my first instinct is to shy away. But I decide to try it and am not disappointed. The swordfish is white and pristine, not at all oily or fishy tasting. The risotto is perfectly cooked and has finely diced red and orange peppers; I've diced peppers into brunoise or 1/32nd of an inch and I can appreciate the labor that went in to this dish. The saffron cream sauce is mild with no tinny aftertaste. The accompanying carrots and asparagus are tender-crisp. Our server recommends the 2009 Conundrum from Caymus Vineyards and it compliments the fish while cutting the richness of the cream sauce. I've expanded my horizons a bit here and am eager to try both swordfish and saffron again.
The train stops for a short break and we get a chance to tour the other cars and hang out on the caboose for a bit. We head back to our booth in time for dessert, Grand Marnier cheesecake with plum sauce and orange zest garnish. It's lush and velvety, but I can't finish because I'm stuffed. Our server delivers a large chocolate truffle (Grand Marnier flavored coincidentally enough) with a lit candle in it for my birthday. I split it with Jeremy because it's just too much. The Napa Valley Wine Train is a wonderful treat, perfect for a special occasion.