TORC, in downtown Napa, serves an eclectic menu of contemporary American cuisine. Chef Sean O’Toole rotates dishes often and features local producers whenever possible. My favorites included his Japanese hamachi crudo—served with winter citrus, yuzu kosho, coriander, and forbidden rice—and the akaushi beef short rib—served with winter root vegetables, potato boulangère, and horseradish.
WHEN THE SMALL PLATES arrive to our prime table at the front of TORC’s dining room in downtown Napa, I’m relieved when I can taste the food delicately placed on the white china. After two full days of wine tastings, my palate is exhausted from sips of bold cabernet sauvignon and bites of creamy cheese. My senses have been overwhelmed by the lush valley and the crisp air, floral and grassy with the promise of spring. The blood orange sunset outside streams through the restaurant’s windows and spotlights our table.
Napa Valley is home to roughly 500 wineries, and as first-time visitors, my girlfriend and I have been in a state of sensory overload since we arrived. Luckily, our mid-March trip places us in wine country outside of the peak harvest season (August through October), leaving us little competition for space in the tasting rooms and restaurants. They were busy, but not packed, and we rarely had trouble making reservations. We had space to linger, to snap photos and spread out on sun-flooded patios.
In the heart of wine country, this restaurant has a serious but accessible wine program to serve both connoisseurs and casual wine drinkers. The ever-growing list has an emphasis on Californian wines, including a large selection of back-vintage Napa Cabernet, to complement the locally sourced food.
From the Sommelier: “Being in the heart of Napa Valley’s wine country is truly an amazing place to be as a restaurateur and a wine director, especially after the recent fires. It’s such an amazing community – one that supports and learns from each other. On any given night we have some of the most amazing wine luminaries dining with us. You can’t help but be inspired.” —Cynthia O’Toole, Torc
Dish We Loved: Akaushi beef short rib with potato boulangère, artichoke, sugar snap peas, and Napa cabernet glaze
The next evening, we dined at TORC in Napa. The high-energy restaurant serves stellar contemporary American cuisine. Chef/owner Sean O’Toole changes the menu frequently and highlights the bounty of Napa’s local farmers and ranchers. He is a huge fan of mushrooms, so you will find many varieties of seasonal — and sometimes locally foraged — fungi in his dishes. Exceptional, protein-rich choices are abundant (wild Bodega Bay king salmon, heritage pork belly, prime dry-aged New York strip), but it’s the attention to detail with his vegetable dishes that made me long to return soon, including the chu-chu eggplant with burrata gratin, Aleppo pepper, and spearmint, and Iacopi Farms (in Half Moon Bay) English peas à la française, with little gem butter-leaf lettuce and Nantes carrots.
Those traveling in a group should head to Torc, the contemporary restaurant nestled in the heart of Napa Valley and owned by Chef Sean O'Toole and his wife, Cynthia O'Toole. The space — a mammoth open dinning room with additional second-floor seating — is always bustling. And for good reason; the food is spectacular, with offerings in a variety of price ranges. Groups can call in advance and order off-menu family-style plates to share, including whole braised 12- to 15-pound beef shank with black perigord truffles for 10 (pre-order for $275); whole roasted halibut tail for four (pre-order for $125); 6-pound lobster Thermidor for four (pre-order for $155), and dry-aged bone-in rib eye (available nightly for $165). There’s also a nightly three-course prix-fixe menu for $46 per person plus $18 for wine pairings. And the daily happy hour, served at the bar until 6:30 p.m., offers an array of hearty, tasty bites including the Bengali sweet potato pakora for $5, $4 beers, and $6 glasses of wine and cocktails.
At Torc, husband and wife duo Sean and Cynthia O’Toole offer the truffles and blue-chip wines of a fine-dining destination without the pomp and hush. Come for handmade pastas, locally raised heritage meats, and vegetable sides featuring produce grown at neighboring farms or foraged by Sean himself. Then settle in to take advantage of Cynthia’s wine list, deep in library vintages of seminal Napa wines like Dominus, and in Old World wine-trade favorites like Allemand Cornas. With a rock n’ roll playlist and a sweeping brick-and-wood room, the space is as welcoming for a quick glass of Vouvray and a bite of crudo at the bar as it is for a full-fledged feast.
The high-energy, modern American eatery, Torc, earned their first Award of Excellence this year. Wine director Cynthia O'Toole has created a list of 325 wines from mainly California and France. She works with chef Sean O'Toole to create a tasting menu paired with wines from her list, which at a mere $64 makes it one of the best tasting menus, with wine, in Wine Country.
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.