UP the valley from the city of Napa, Calif., sit two culinary destinations, thanks to acclaimed restaurants that call them home: Yountville (the French Laundry, among others) and St. Helena (Terra, among others). Napa, of course, hosts its share of wine enthusiasts, but hasn’t been able to compete with its neighbors when it comes to what’s on the plate.
Part of the problem has been the Napa River’s tendency to flood the city’s downtown, a phenomenon that long deterred investment in the area (the last major deluge was in 2005). But recent flood control efforts have helped shore up the banks, and the downtown stretch along the riverfront has roared to life, opening the field for some heavy-duty entrants in the world of fine dining.
The splashy new Riverfront development — two blocks of commercial and residential space — is playing host to several high-profile restaurants opening this year, two from Food Network stars and a third from a chef with a Bib Gourmand commendation (for meals for less than $40) from the Michelin Guide. In late July, the ”Iron Chef” staple Masaharu Morimoto opened Morimoto Napa (610 Main Street; 707-252-1600; morimotonapa.com), a contemporary Japanese restaurant and sushi bar along the river walk. The high-ceilinged space has large windows and water views, but most diners will prefer a seat at the 10-seat sushi bar that faces the open kitchen.
”I chose Napa because no one is expecting a Japanese restaurant here, and I like a challenge,” Mr. Morimoto said. The sushi is artfully and expertly presented, but the real standouts are dishes like kakuni — pork belly cooked for 10 hours and served over rice congee — and rich, brothy ramen.
Hot on Mr. Morimoto’s heels is Tyler Florence, who plans to open Tyler Florence Rotisserie & Wine (710-740 Main Street; tylerflorence.com) in early October. The restaurant’s design is inspired by classic Parisian rotisseries; the space also hosts a wine shop and cafe.
In late September, the Bay Area-based Lark Creek Restaurant Group will expand with Fish Story (790 Main Street; 707-251-5600; fishstorynapa.com), run by Stephen Barber, a Bib Gourmand designee for BarBersQ, also in Napa. The focus of the new venture is sustainable seafood: Dungeness crab, Monterey Bay calamari, Arctic char. The restaurant will include a 12-foot iced raw bar and live fish tanks.
New tenants have also set up shop across the river at Oxbow Public Market, which opened in 2007, leading the way for the riverfront’s food revival. In July, Graham Zanow, formerly of the French Laundry, opened Graham’s Take-Away Foods (610 First Street; 707-226-6529). The casual, locally sourced shop sells prepared comfort food like roast chicken, organic meatloaf and fresh salads.
”You usually don’t do really, really well unless you get in when the market is on the up and up, before it hits its peak,” Mr. Zanow said. ”It’s been all about upvalley for so long — St. Helena, Yountville. And now Napa is starting to get credibility.”
PHOTO: A fortified riverfront has led to a restaurant revival. (PHOTOGRAPH BY NOAH BERGER FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES)