Thursday, September 8, 2011

Chuck Wanted Comfort Food,…

while I was craving something unusual. Fortunately, we found both at Downtown Joe’s Brewery & Restaurant in—where else—downtown Napa.

“Established in 1993 by owners Joe Ruffino, Joe Peatman and Nancye Peatman, Downtown Joe's has a city of Napa tradition dating back eighty years. Joe Ruffino's grand-mother, Grace Ruffino, opened Ruffino's Restaurant in 1944. The family restaurant flourished through three generations until 2004. Prior to opening Ruffino's, Grace was cooking up Italian fare at The Depot Hotel for the Tamborelli family, who opened the Depot in 1927. The Depot survived until 2006. The location of The Depot, Ruffino's, and Downtown Joe's are all within two blocks from each other in Downtown Napa….The Peatmans bought out the Ruffinos in 2004…. Bernabe Leon and Gaspar Montoya have been a part of the creative kitchen team at Downtown Joe's since its inception in 1994” (

Joe’s offers three dining areas. There is an umbrella covered outdoor area with many seats overlooking the Napa River. There is an upstairs dining room with a large window wall, also overlooking the river. And there is a large bar area with a massive oaken bar dominating the space and providing almost all of the décor. Along one wall hung at least three flat screens and the empty space below them was obviously used as a quasi-bandstand. Unfortu-nately, we didn’t realize that the upstairs room had a commanding view of the river and (low) mountains in the distance, so we opted for the nondescript barroom.

Since Downtown Joe’s also brews their own craft beers, we felt compelled (if not obliged) to sample a couple of their brews. “The brewery at Downtown Joe's was built in 1988 by Chuck Ankeny, the great grandson of Adolf Hamms of Milwaukee. Chuck and brewmaster Brian Hunt aimed to re-establish the great beer brewing tradition of the City of Napa. Joe Peatman and Joe Ruffino bought the brewery in 1993 and re-christened it Downtown Joe's. Joe Ruffino retired in 2004 and now Joe Peatman runs the business” (www.down

My choice was the Lazy Summer American Wheat which is described on the menu as “(a) light, easy drinking ale…about 1/2 wheat and fermented dry. Its style is an American Wheat Beer…It uses Marris Otter malted barley from England as well as English grown Red Wheat. It is hopped with Horizon and US Spalt hops giving it a floral aroma.” Chuck’s choice was the Temptation Dark Ale which is the lightest of the brewery’s dark beers.

I would best describe the menu as pub grub meets California cuisine. And the pub grub is just what Chuck wanted. He started with a bowl of the California Clam Chowder which was loaded with tender clams, but was lacking the bacon or salt pork that gives such character to New England chowders. The addition of diced carrots gave the chowder a slightly sweet flavor.

For his entrée, he went full bore pub food with the Bangers and Mash which came with two mild local sausages and a heaping serving of mashed Yukon gold potatoes drenched in good brown gravy. He was a happy man. As the menu promised, the sausages were mild and not overly seasoned and had a very fine and smooth grain. (Don’t you always suspect that too much seasoning is trying to hide something about the meat?)

The term "bangers" is attributed to the fact that sausages, particularly the kind made during World War II under rationing, were made with water so they were more likely to explode under high heat if not cooked carefully; modern sausages do not have this attribute ( I thought that the potatoes were a bit watery, but then I am not the best judge of mashed potatoes.

While Chuck was eating his chowder, I plowed my way through a dish of Calamari Medley—a lightly fried blend of calamari rings and tentacles. Big deal you’re saying. How many times do we have to read about calamari? Where’s the something unusual? Well, it’s been a long time, since I have had good calamari, and Joe’s did make it unusual by adding battered and fried fennel and broccoli to the dish. The squid—both rings and tentacles—were perfectly cooked. Nary a rubbery bite in the bowl. The downside? A few of the rings tasted a bit of uncooked flour. But better a little flour taste than chewy squid.

And now for the unusual. After being assured by the server that the tuna would come rare, I chose the Seared Ahi Tuna on Wontons with sushi grade ahi encrusted in sunflower seeds and served on fried wontons with micro greens, honey wasabi, and pickled ginger and accompanied by a small bowl of soy and sesame dipping sauce. For me, this was eating at its absolute best.
I placed a small slice of the pickled ginger on the tuna and dipped the whole combination into the sauce.

The result? An immediate explosion of flavors and textures in my mouth. There was the contrast of the crisp fried wonton with the buttery softness of the tuna. (Think the tenderest prime rib you have ever eaten.) I tasted hot, salty, and nutty. And the taste of mild and sweet fish. I persuaded Chuck to take a small taste with the words “This isn’t our mothers’ Chicken of the Sea.” I’m not sure I convinced him.

Well, we both got what we wanted. Comfort managed to mate with the unusual at this 4.0 Addie brew pub.

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