Located on Napa's quaint, downtown Main Street, Torc is a modern, lively restaurant with high ceilings and a focus on locally grown ingredients. Chef Sean O'Toole translates the flavors of Napa into beautiful plates with a unique twist: avocado deviled eggs, perhaps, or English pea risotto (garnished with edible flowers topping the green risotto, it's a dish that almost looks like a garden). Heavier items might include Akaushi beef short rib and heritage porchetta. Just looking for a drink? Torc's bar is stunning on its own, and a great spot to settle in for happy hour (Wed-Mon 5-6:30pm), when wine and cocktails are only $6 and those heavenly deviled eggs are only $5.
At this point in the evolution of Napa wine country, it’s pretty tough to get a bad meal, provided you’re willing to spend a few bucks. True, there’s a déja-vu-inducing familiarity to the menus, even of recently opened eateries, beginning with designer nuts and olives at the bar, proceeding to retro starters like iceberg wedge with blue cheese and the omnipresent deviled eggs (see, for example, Sam’s Social Club in Calistoga, Rutherford Grill, and Angèle in Napa, which fries its deviled eggs), and followed by carnacentric standards like short rib and roasted chicken for two with sides of mac ’n’ cheese and Brussels sprouts.
Well, and why not? American-accented and unpretentious, showcasing homey preparations of locally sourced seasonal ingredients—buttressed by a few dependable imports like NY strip and Hudson Valley foie gras—these hearty and comforting dishes provide the perfect scaffolding for the region’s robust wines.
TORC in downtown Napa, open since November of 2013, is a model of how to do this kind of menu up right. Chef/owner Sean O’Toole and his wife Cynthia, who runs the front of the house, are warm and welcoming, and the same is true of the physical place, which formerly was the home of Ubuntu, the Michelin-starred shrine to vegetarianism. It’s a huge room with an open bar and kitchen, and a private dining room on the mezzanine; the surfaces are all wood and stone yet the decibel level is kept to a human scale owing to the soaring ceiling and widely spaced tables. The house style is laid-back but attentive, up-to-date without being precious.
The most intense national spotlight on Napa came when Ubuntu opened in 2007. This vegetarian restaurant and yoga studio was on many national best new restaurant lists. It also launched the career of Jeremy Fox, who is now at Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica, and Aaron London, who this year opened Al’s Place in the Mission, which was named by Bon Appetit magazine as this year’s best new restaurant in the United States.
After sitting empty for more than a year, the Ubuntu space was taken over two years ago by chef Sean O’Toole, who devised a meat-focused menu. In fact, Torc is the Gaelic term for boar.
The handsome interior with rock walls, high ceilings and a wood floor provides a great setting for food that includes not-to-be missed deviled eggs with pickled onions and bacon, and autumn fritto misto that now includes pumpkin blossoms, green beans and black garlic aioli. You can find something simple and satisfying, such as a tomato salad with burrata, basil and tomato vinaigrette, or more refined, such as seared foie gras with salted caramel, daikon and apples.
Main courses include a whole chicken for two, porchetta with squash blossoms and corn ragout; and short ribs with white grits and fennel tomato relish.
Not only is the meatless menu a thing of the past, but the upstairs yoga studio is now a private dining room.
1140 Main St., Napa; (707) 252-3292. www.torcnapa.com. Open for dinner Wednesday through Monday. Full bar. Main courses $17-$31.
Sean and Cynthia O'Toole split duties at this rustic restaurant. Sean runs the kitchen, making hyper-seasonal dishes like porchetta with porcini and roasted chicken for two, the accoutrements for which change at least six times a year, depending on what's at the farmers' market. Cynthia manages the Napa-heavy wine list, with an impressive selection of older Cabs, many from the mid-'90s.
Downtown Napa had already become dining heaven—with big
city–caliber restaurants like Morimoto and La Toque—when Sean O’Toole introduced another stellar round. The menu at O’Toole’s Torc harmoniously roam the world, with dishes like Indian sweet-potato pakora, Japanese hamachi crudo, and heritage porchetta with Mexican huitlacoche
TORC has a playfulness — roasted chicken arriving to table with a bridal bouquet of herbs and the offer to shave truffles on anything (an invitation that led one regular to create an umami-bomb grilled cheese with Sean). Every dish is also extremely well-crafted, layered in flavor. And yet, and yet, each dish remains very respectful of its centerpiece ingredient — the soft-shell crab, the cress, the squab.
Like a Pollock splatter, TORC's open kitchen and honest integration of flavors invite us to enter the conversation of the meal unselfconsciously. But make no mistake, it is the language of a master.
We ended our day at downtown Napa’s Torc, a smart-looking restaurant that we wished we had in New York—if not for the inventive, unpretentious food, for the cool logo featuring a boar. We wondered about that, and learned from Chef Sean O’Toole (who once worked in New York), that “torc”—an ancient Gaelic word for boar—also symbolizes feasting with friends. As the torc also appears on the O’Toole family coat of arms, it seemed destined . . . .
The seasonal menu is driven by a mosaic of ingredients: Dungeness crab with yuzu kosho, “Fairytale Pumpkin Soup” with hedgehog mushrooms, and steelhead trout with fresh garbanzo beans. We left convinced that Napa’s gain was NYC’s loss.
Chefs spend all week planning and overseeing the execution of elaborate dishes for the pleasure of the dining public. We have often wondered, what do chefs cook, eat and pour on their days off? In this series, Chefs Cook at Home, we visit the personal kitchens of some of our favorite chefs, to see—and taste—what they're up to in their downtime.
Sean O'Toole does not want to wash dishes or spend all day coddling a sauce when he's in his home kitchen. "A day off involves a lot of sleep," says O'Toole with a laugh. "TORC is a young restaurant—we opened about a year ago—and I don't take many days off. When I'm cooking at home, I'm usually cooking grilled stuff, always on charcoal or mesquite. We'll do a piece of beef, maybe a nice dry-aged rib eye or a New York strip, with a Little Gem [lettuce] salad dressed with good oil and vinegar."
TORC occupies the space in downtown Napa that was once home to the Michelin-starred Ubuntu. O'Toole is a native of Boston who grew up working in the hotel and restaurant business. In a career that's taken him to New York, Paris and San Francisco, he has cooked for Floyd Cardoz, Daniel Boulud, Alain Ducasse, Laurent Gras and Ron Siegel. He was the opening chef at Bardessono in the Napa Valley town of Yountville and held operations management roles at the Michael Mina group and at Quince and Cotogna in San Francisco before opening TORC with his wife, Cynthia. She has written a wine list that's balanced between Napa and Old World selections, with a few standout bottlings from other regions.
The recipe below is a much-simplified version of a roast chicken dish for two from the TORC menu. "When you cook six and a half days a week, you want to do something really simple, but at the same time tasty and elegant," says O'Toole. A compound butter under the skin gives the bird intrigue and layers of warm, spicy, nutty and herbal flavors, but at the end of the day, it's a comfortable dish that requires little fussing. Sean and Cynthia enjoy it with a Syrah from Cayuse winery, or another Syrah from Washington, as the wine's big structure stands up to the buttery chicken while an olive/herbal element is echoed in the vegetables.
In November of 2013, Torc took over the address formerly inhabited by Ubuntu. And as much as we miss the late shrine to vegetarianism, Torc's food is every bit as destination worthy. Here are some of our favorites from chef Sean O'Toole (Cotogna, Quince).
Dish Standouts: The concept of Louisiana Gulf shrimp "cocktail" ($15), essentially a cool, creamy horseradish panna cotta doused in spicy tomato sauce and topped with shrimp, is a creative twist on a classic. Although the flavor felt a bit muted in the cold preparation, it was still refreshingly unique. Plump Louisiana white shrimp shine in lush grits ($19) graced with green garlic, piquillo peppers and Southern tasso ham.
Dessert Wows: We tried three desserts and loved all of them, which doesn't often happen. For starters, we could swim in house brown butter ice cream ($7). The most layered dessert was a nectarine praline tart ($9), drizzled in praline spread with a mound of smoked lemon cream on top and olive oil cake inside — unusual, nuanced and delicious. Same goes for the lively strawberry parfait ($9; pictured at top), partnered with strawberry ice cream and dotted with rhubarb jam. The highlight on the plate is a sour-tart greek yogurt "roll" easily sopped up with vibrantly purple hibiscus angel food cake.