Oxbow Public Market: Where Napa locals go for artisan food

Served up like a wine country smorgasbord, the Oxbow Public Market indulges the appetite for good food to go with great grapes.

After its grand opening in February 2008, the blocklong complex managed to gain a toehold with local clientele while tourism slumped during the recession. Now, devoted patrons throughout Northern California make regular trips to Oxbow to visit their favorite purveyors. Tourists from around the world mix with Napa natives in search of fruity olive oil or handmade, port-laced chocolates.

“Five years ago when the market opened, it was right at the beginning of the economic downturn,” said Napa food promoter Tom Fuller, who served as our guide during a recent visit. “We started with five merchants. It took a couple of years to get going. Then, all of a sudden, business really started buzzing. It just kind of clicked. Now, it’s bustling every day. It’s a fun place to be.”

On the edge of Napa’s downtown in a crook of the Napa River, Oxbow has attracted regulars with a wide assortment of fine foods made locally. Modeled after San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace, Oxbow caters to shoppers who want to sample a lot of different California culinary experiences with no driving between stops.

It’s only 60 miles from Sacramento.

“The folks who put this together really know how to make a good mix,” Fuller said. “They created a local gathering spot that truly reflects the wine and food scene in Napa Valley. When you’re traveling, you want to go where the locals go. In Napa, this is where the locals go.”

On Tuesdays and Saturdays during spring and summer, a lively farmers market surrounds the Oxbow complex. But at any time there are plenty of fresh and artisanal foods to taste and buy, from oysters and pasture-fed lamb to triple-cream brie and, of course, Napa Valley wine.

Some of the merchants are synonymous with Napa Valley. The Model Bakery, which still operates at its century-old original location on St. Helena’s Main Street, makes most of its bread (as well as such treats as amazingly light English muffins) at its state-of-the-art Oxbow bakery. The yeasty scent of its baking bread mingles with the intoxicating aromas from Oxbow’s nearby restaurants such as Kitchen Door and Ca’Momi.

“We can make lots of real good bread here, much more efficiently,” said Sarah Hansen, whose family has owned and operated the Model Bakery for generations. “We still make our pastries at the St. Helena bakery, but we do the bread here. We specialize in artisan breads with organic flour. We do lots of whole grains such as buckwheat dark rye. Typically, we do about 20 different breads, but we’re always in the R&D phase.”

Baguettes and sourdough are best-sellers, she noted. “But our new bacon bread is really good.”

The Model Bakery supplies its baked goods to dozens of Napa-area restaurants. Because these clients want bread and baguettes as fresh as possible for dinnertime, Model does most of its baking in the afternoon instead of early morning.

“It’s unusual,” Hansen said. “We have warm bread at 2 in the afternoon. The locals know it, too. They swing by here to pick some up on their way home from work.”

Interest in gluten-free breads also draws customers to Model. Tempting shoppers are loaves made with buckwheat, spelt, grapeseed and other unusual flours.

“Ancient grains are becoming more popular,” Hansen said. “We’re trying to find (these grains) locally grown, such as in the Sacramento Valley. We try to make our products as local as possible.”

Nearby is the Fatted Calf, the ultimate high-end butcher shop. Its meat experts specialize in charcuterie such as hard salami with fennel and red wine, and Spanish-style chorizo. These cured meats make wonderful filling for some Model breads.

Inside a vaulted warehouse building are dozens of food stalls, anchored by sit-down restaurants. Many visitors gravitate to The Olive Press, where a large assortment of oils is available on tap for customers to pour into their own bottles. Patrons are encouraged to sample 16 varieties, ranging in taste from grassy and floral to buttery smooth.

Nearby, Anette Yazidi offers samples at her Anette’s Chocolates. She and her brother, Brent Madsen, developed their own recipes for tempting treats such as lager beer brittle.

“I always wanted my own dessert and coffee shop,” Yazidi said.

Instead, the siblings developed chocolates for Napa wineries.

“We do a lot with wine,” Yazidi said, noting their truffles laced with port or cabernet. “We also do a lot with herbs and spices – ginger, chile, salt, rosemary, coriander – plus green tea, maple, natural fruit. We like clean flavors that blend well together (with chocolate), but can still taste both. We make them all by hand.”

That hands-on approach, found throughout Oxbow, keeps customers coming back.

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