Mardi Gras = Fat Tuesday (in French). They call it this because it’s the day before Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent’s period of sacrifice. This is why it’s known to be such a day of gluttony, but unfortunately most of us associate it these days with drunken debauchery, beads, and girls flashing just about anyone on the streets of New Orleans.
Anyway, it just so happened that Mardi Gras 2011 was the day I chose to make my inaugural trip to downtown Napa’s newest Wine Bar, Carpe Diem. Originally, I had planned to seize the day with my bestie/frequent Toaster companion, Cass, but she woke up with the flu. I had my heart set on going, though, so I promised to return soon with her and called in a pinch eater – my mom.
Truth be told, I didn’t even realize it was Mardi Gras that I was “seizing” until I came home to write it up. Not to worry, though, I definitely took full advantage of all the kinds of deliciousness someone will undoubtedly be giving up starting today. (I, on the other hand, have decided to give up…wait for it…laziness. I’m not Catholic, but I think that the practice is a cool one and always try to find something interesting to sacrifice each year. This year, I’m going to try to go every day of the next forty doing something active and fun.)
First of all, this place is adorable. It’s on Second Street, right across from the courthouse. For locals who’ve not yet been there: this place has had several previous incarnations, most memorably in recent history, I think, was PJ’s. Conveniently, it’s kitty corner to the Second Street Garage, so there will never be a problem parking – bonus! The entrance is pretty subtle, as the awnings are labeled with the name, but not brazenly so:
(This one’s right over the door to the main entrance, the first one faces the parallel street.)
The door has a cool “CD” instead of actual handles:
And just inside is a bar to the left:
(where I’ll soon be coming back to check out their fantastic happy hour!)
To the right, the rest of the tables.
Directly in front of the entrance is the kitchen, with chef/owner Scott visible as he’s cooking away, facing guests as they enter. His wife, Stephanie, was not only visible but actively mingling with guests on the floor. From the minute we walked in the door to the time we left, the service was impeccable: friendly and genuine, exactly as it ought to be.
Before Carpe Diem opened its doors last June, Stephanie worked for a local winery in neighboring St. Helena. She thought she recognized me from her own restaurant, but it turned out that she just knew my face from having been to my place of business. Either way, she sent us a little amuse bouche on the house, which was a nice touch:
These herb goat cheese-filled, panko-breaded crispy olives are on the regular menu as a small plate and the happy hour menu, and wow. What an amazing start to our meal. I love a good olive, and these ones were some of the best either of us has ever had!
At some point I should mention that while Carpe Diem is considered a wine bar, I have so much more to say about the food than the stellar selection of wine. But suffice it to say that there are many a great glass and bottle from which to choose. Ours this evening: Bridesmaid Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon from California for Mom (never heard of it, but she’s not a big wino, so it was just fine), local Cakebread Sauv Blanc for me – perfect.
Up next was a shot of the daily soup, which was a tomato and white bean with a prawn on top. Because the soup is served as a shot, a cup, or a bowl, the shot wouldn’t normally come with a prawn, but somehow they managed to sneak one in for us anyway. Soup shots are only $1 and a perfect little size if you just want a taste, as you’re apt to do with so many of the yummies on this menu:
We were excited to share the white bean dip with Applewood smoked bacon, broccolini, roasted red pepper, and garlic olive oil, and by the time it arrived we had already figured out we would have to restrain ourselves to keep from licking our plates clean:
We decided to each order our own of the bigger bites and share a bit so that we could taste more of the menu items. Mom had the Mediterranean flatbread (artichoke, red onion, red peppers, kalamatas, spinach, and sundried tomatoes with feta-garlic sauce) which was both plentiful and delicious,
but I resisted the urge to eat more than a few bites in order to make sure I had lots of room for what I’d been most excited about since I looked at the menu on their website: the steak skewers with Maytag blue cheese chipotle sauce, cherry tomatoes, and a bed of arugula:
The meat was cooked so perfectly, I was actually starting to think I might’ve died and gone to heaven. The best part is that since everything is intentionally smaller, tapas-style plates, even with all this yummy food, neither of us was too stuffed to order dessert. (Always a plus in my book, since it’s the sweetest part of life. Cheesy pun intended.)
The dessert choices were tough. Thankfully, I know I’ll be back soon for the others, so I asked the server to help us out. She suggested that the Happy Ending was something of a signature: nutella, flambeed banana, vanilla bean ice cream, rum butter sauce…it was quite light and just enough to satisfy my craving for sweet at the end of an absolutely perfect meal:
Carpe Diem’s menu has just the right number of dishes on it: a large enough selection so as to have something for everyone, and I can’t imagine anyone could go and not thoroughly relish every bite. I just ate there and already I can’t wait to go back and try other things. Our server, Shelby, said that they change their menu every so often to keep it interesting, so I’ll be keeping an eye on their website to look out for new things, too. I told both she and Stephanie that while I already have a clear favorite in town (Fume Bistro, which is another post for another day), Carpe Diem will easily give it a run for its money – perhaps they’ll settle for sharing the title? They’re going to have to, because while I’d heard great things about it, the place still managed to blow my mind. And no – I don’t say that about just anywhere. Obviously, I can’t wait to go back.