Upscale Bear at Stanly Ranch in Napa Puts Fresh Flavors in Every Bite
My car’s GPS couldn’t find the new Bear restaurant in Napa or even the 712-acre Stanly Ranch on which Bear nestles. Part of the ever-growing Auberge Resorts Collection property that also includes 135 cottages and guest rooms, as well as a wellness center with a hyperbaric oxygen chamber and a Roman-style tepidarium, Bear n’ is not really easy to find.
The GPS insisted that I leave Highway 12 at Carneros and take Cuttings Wharf Road, which does indeed lead to Stanly Crossroad. But it ends in a private residence, then sucks you into the bowels of narrow, winding vineyard roads around Bouchaine vineyards and other remote properties. Take my advice and stay on Hwy 12 just west of Hwy 121, then turn onto Stanly Lane. “Lane” – this is very important.
Also, if you visit Bear in the next few months, be prepared to see lots of resort construction, large trucks, minimal signage, and, hidden behind all this and other buildings, the restaurant. I thanked the friendly workers in a golf cart who eventually guided me out of a construction staging parking lot.
But know this: it is well worth all the little challenges to experience this remarkable restaurant. I have no idea what Bear’s marketing statement means – “to serve to connect creation with consumption” – but I do know that I thoroughly enjoyed dining here, from the picturesque setting and engaging service to the excellent food and drinks.
With its metal roof, stone walls and woodwork, Bear looks like a modern farmhouse. The interior, designed by AvroKO (the designers of the Single Thread restaurant), features a huge lobby bar, a sleek open kitchen and a very nice patio set with beautiful wooden seating. It’s stylish but still relaxed, which is nice for modern diners who want a good meal without committing to hours or dressing up.
As with many restaurants these days, pristine vegetables are an important part of the concept. You pass a lush culinary garden on the way to the restaurant, tended by farm manager Nick Runkle and planted with colorful beans, peppers, squash, tomatoes, greens, herbs and edible flowers.
Indeed, the restaurant’s marketing materials convey a popular message for many plant-based restaurants: “a deep dedication to maintaining the health of local ecosystems through regenerative agricultural practices.” I like this idea, even though the average diner will only care how good the dinner tastes.
An appetizer bowl of raw, canned vegetables proves that you don’t have to resort to fancy kitchen tricks to make a wonderful statement. A mosaic of pristine produce is mostly raw, accented by a few tangy pickled elements, surrounding a ramekin of thick, creamy cashew and miso dip drizzled with olive oil ($17). I snacked on thinly sliced multicolored radishes, bell peppers, tomatillo-like ground cherries, various crunchy root vegetables, and bitter lettuces. I was so smitten that I took the leftovers home.
Given the large portions at Bear, sharing is a theme. A small salad of gem lettuce feeds two people, with a mix of razor-sliced heirloom radishes, tangy green strawberries, a delicate lavender vinaigrette and a finishing touch of tarragon and peppery nasturtiums (23 $).
A starter of salmon crudo easily satisfied both of us, as my mate and I savored every speck of rich fish decorated with dehydrated wisps of silver skin, crunchy slivers of green apple, dollops of yogurt, yuzu kosho fillets, trout roe and dill fronds ($20).
Add a loaf of sourdough bread (you get a whole ball), and any of the appetizers would make a delicious complete lunch for one. You gnaw on the crispy golden crust, then brush the springy crumb with French cultured butter with mashed nasturtiums and buttermilk ($10). I dare you not to devour it all.
Executive Chef Garrison Price keeps the menu lively and international throughout. In a sea of mostly predictable Cal-Cuisine restaurants in Napa and Sonoma counties, it’s refreshing to find impactful ingredients in nearly every dish. Tartare, for example, includes bison framed in colatura (essentially the Italian equivalent of Southeast Asian fish sauce) and crunchy puffed tendon chips that dissolve on the tongue with a meaty kiss (22 $).
A signature kampachi dish also takes twists. Raw, marinated amberjack is served in a pottery bowl, garnished with slices of serrano pepper and lime zest. Here’s the surprise: it’s doused in macadamia milk for a cooling effect ($23).
Roasting tiger prawns over hot coals adds a bit of earthiness without too much smoke; the seafood is finished with sea bean chimichurri and lemon ($34). Sea scallops are dressed in morel-miso butter and bright lime ($48). Too often I find scallops mushy and somehow both dodgy and bland, but this version won me over with its expertly browned searing and sides of crispy snow peas, asparagus and marinated pies.
Price has had an eclectic career, working as Executive Chef of New York’s Mediterranean-inspired il Buco Alimentari & Vineria, New York’s “botanical-focused” Il Fiorista restaurant and florist shop, Jean’s Kauai Grill -Georges Vongerichten in Hawaii and José Andres. China Poblano Mexican-Chinese fusion concept in Hawaii.
So I understand his success with unexpected recipes, like the new potatoes dressed with Fiscalini cheddar, grilled yeast and lightly sweetened caramelized milk powder ($19) or the divine sourdough bread ice cream with yeast caramel and entrée. powder ($14). For some dishes, you just have to trust him and go exploring.
Diners who want more traditional meals can also find them. The lunch burger is delicious, stacked with dry-aged beef, tangy buttery Toma cheese, garlic aioli and bacon jam on a milk bun with crispy potatoes (28 $).
At dinner, you can get a whole pound Berkshire pork porterhouse with touches of fermented cherry mustard ($44) or a 22-ounce rib eye dry-aged for 28 days ($82) which is classic , except for the eightlacoche accent (which I love, because the Mexican “corn smut” mushroom gives a nice sweet and salty mushroom character).
For drinks, the wine list covers all the bases with its international and local selections, but this is the kind of place to dive into the cocktails (all $20). My pick is the Praying Mantis which combines lime infused makrut vodka, coconut washed green chartreuse, lime and lemongrass.
With all its inventive culinary flavors and casual luxury, Bear tops my list of favorite upscale restaurants.
And, now that I really know how to find the place, I’m even happier.
Carey Sweet is a food and restaurant writer based in Sevastopol. Read his restaurant reviews every two weeks in Sonoma Life. Contact her at [email protected].