St. Helena Loves Tourists
There are many ways of showing love, and hospitality is one of the most obvious expressions of it. As guests, we always know if our hosts are happy to have us.
Traveling the wine country of Northern California, my husband and I often passed a town called St. Helena on our way. Once, we stopped for picnic food and were amazed by the variety of wines, cheeses, and pâtés in a modestly looking market. Another time, we came for a friend’s art gallery opening and noticed the remarkable artfulness of this tiny town. The third time, we parked on our way home to get a cup of coffee and discovered it was excellent, freshly brewed, and had pastries hot from the oven to go with it.
At some point, I decided we needed more time to familiarize ourselves with this place, all four square miles of it, which are filled with historic landmarks, antique shops, jewelry boutiques, wineries, theaters, spas, art galleries, and cozy restaurants. Early spring when yellow mustard fields and various fruit trees in white and pink hues were in full bloom seemed like the best time to visit.
The recently opened Wydown Hotel St. Helena on Main Street attracted my attention with its unique combination of historical character, extra-creative yet precise modern design, and abundance of light and air in a fully remodeled Victorian building.
This centrally located boutique establishment with only 12 rooms and plenty of charm is family owned and operated by Mark Hoffmeister, his wife, and their three daughters. Acquired in 2010 and named after Wydown Boulevard in Hoffmeister’s hometown of St. Louis, the hotel underwent a complete renovation, during which the walls were moved, stairwells removed, hallways added, new lobby created, and high-end pieces from Seattle’s Masin’s Fine Furniture installed in every room and common area. It took me some time to get a good look at the whimsical leather armchairs, plush banquettes, and alligator skin-decorated desks in the lobby.
In our room on the second floor, a mirrored, filigreed armoire reflected the sunshine streaming through the bay window, and a perfectly made bed emitted a scent of fine, clean linen. Looking at the wide armchair by the window with a belted faux fur blanket on it, embroidered footstool, and dark walnut side table, all I wanted was to stay in and never rush anywhere anymore. A cup of strong, bloomy espresso from the in-room Keurig coffeemaker was all I needed at the moment.
However, our passes to a spa, provided by the hotel to all its guests, shouldn’t have gone to waste. The late afternoon sun was about to disappear in the encroaching clouds so we quickly unpacked our suitcases and walked to the spa.
Health Spa Napa Valley is a wonderful oasis of health and calm in the middle of the town. The day was unbelievably warm, and while dear husband was enjoying his time in a steam room I did quite a few laps in an open-air, blue pool surrounded by wisteria blossoms and striped beach umbrellas.
There was just enough time to change for dinner and walk to La Condesa Napa Valley, a new, exciting, farm-to-table restaurant and bar a block away from our hotel. Two things are most notable in beautiful St. Helena: Everything is within walking distance (and the walk is always a pleasant one), and many trade names mention Napa Valley. That’s because the town is located in the very heart of Napa Valley’s wine country.
At La Condesa, the menu is inspired by the traditional cuisine of Mexico City. The restaurant’s new executive chef, Chris Mortenson, who used to work at the original location of La Condesa in Austin, Texas, adds Northern California sensibility to his plates with seasonal, locally sourced ingredients. A local farmer is planting several specific items in collaboration with the chef for exclusive use in the restaurant, such as heirloom tomatoes; black radishes; pink, purple, and yellow beets; herbs; lavender; and epazote.
The bar at La Condesa features an extensive collection of more than 200 tequilas and almost 30 mezcals, signature cocktails, margaritas, beer, and wine.
We started our dinner with brightly colored cocktails. The prickly pear margarita with prickly pear purée, lime juice, and a black-lime habanero salt rim showcased Tapatio Blanco and Patron Citronge, and the Spicy Paloma with grapefruit and ginger juice and Jarritos grapefruit soda had Herradura Blanco and gingery Domaine de Canton liqueur at its base.
It would be hard to imagine a more enticing appetizer than guacamole tasting, which includes four kinds of guacamole: traditional, with chipotle puree and toasted almonds, with strawberries and queso fresco (unexpected yet very delicious!), and with local Dungeness crab, apple, and agave dressing. Four tumblers of freshly made salsa are also included in the tasting and can feature a blend with arbor chili, smoked chipotle, habanero, and tomatillo.
Among the small plates, seasonal crab on huarache (thick corn tortilla) with corn sauce, queso fresco, salsa morenita, crema, and picked red onion was a definite winner.
House specialties listed pescado, and fresh fish of the day was a noble sturgeon, no less, served lightly grilled on a bed of cruciferous and red pepper sauce.
I liked my chicken rojo—oak-grilled Mary’s chicken with rojo sauce, charros beans, and pickled corn slaw.
The best I left for last, and that was my favorite, a side dish of elotes—Mexican-style street corn on a stick—bright yellow, grilled, and generously covered with mayo, crumbed cheese, and chipotle flakes. This food is not for decent company and nicely dressed dames. No matter how hard you try to avoid it, your face and dress might get smudged with all the toppings, but it’s worth the risk, and since the restaurant is usually filled to capacity, most likely no one will notice.
For dessert, we shared a succulent boca negra, a spicy, flourless chocolate cake topped with brown sugar-fried banana and house-made ice cream. Chef Mortenson’s handspun ice cream, available in different flavors every day, ranges from avocado tomatillo to grapefruit & tequila.
After dinner, we leisurely walked around enjoying the warmth and the views of downtown St. Helena, the full moon over the Carnegie building, and the blossoming trees of springtime in Napa Valley.
Getting ready for bed, I was anticipating my morning coffee by the bay window of our room in Wydown Hotel, where it felt as though our hosts were happy to have us.
Wydown Hotel is located at 1424 Main Street in St. Helena, California. Call (707) 963-5100 for reservations.
La Condesa is open seven days a week for lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch. It is located at 1320 Main Street. For reservations or more information, call (707) 967-8111.