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.
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.