YOUNTVILLE, Calif. October, 2013—"It's so lush. Every curve is a postcard. I see painters at their easels on the side of the road," Brix Executive Chef Dave Cruz enthuses about the natural beauty in Napa Valley.
Located in Yountville, Brix Restaurant and Gardens www.brix.com boasts a two-acre garden and orchard surrounded by the 10-acre Brix Vineyard. It’s not easy to stay strong in the hyper-competitive Napa Valley. New restaurants start up all the time, as do vintners. The Kelleher family, owners of Brix and Brix Vineyard have a group of dedicated professionals who keep the crowds coming to Brix.
Planted exclusively with cabernet sauvignon grapes, the Kellehers produce wine under their own label, Kelleher "Brix Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon. The name, Brix, refers to the amount of sugar wine growers monitor as the grapes ripen.
Property Manager Memo Rodriguez takes care of the fertile garden planted with arugula, beets, mizuna, squash, tomatillos, rhubarb and a plenitude of herbs. Apple and pear trees show enough fruit to promise good harvests by fall. The abundant beds only supply about 10% of kitchen requirements and every leaf, root and herb are put to good purpose. Rodriguez coordinates with the chef. “I tell him what’s ready and he lets me know when to harvest,” he says.
Chef Cruz uses what’s fresh to inspire menu items. “There’s something on every plate directly from or inspired by the garden,” he explains. Whatever’s flourishing at Brix is in season everywhere and easily accessible. If anywhere can claim to be farm to table, Brix is it.
Some items come from just over the county line toward Sacramento. Rodriguez shares. “This is still the cooler half of the valley.” So a few vegetables have struggled in the location. Asparagus, corn and, surprisingly, carrots don’t do well. “The roots of the corn got too much water from the other plants,” he explains.
He’s experimenting with citrus. Four orange, four lime, four lemon and two tangerine trees are just three years old now. “The heartiest so far are the Meyer lemon trees. The others suffered more from frost one year.” Rodriguez is content to wait, knowing good fruit can take four or more years to develop. Patience is rewarded when growing food and the learning never stops even for the expert Rodriguez.
The enchanted landscape of lawn, kitchen garden and flowers framed by vineyards is backdropped by the forested Mayacama Mountains. The setting is a popular one for weddings. About three couples a week tie the knot in the Oakville Room, Cottage or the vineyard itself.
Chef Cruz has been in Napa Valley nine years, most recently under Thomas Keller as sous chef for Ad Hoc. "I've been in the restaurant business for 22 years, the first half in the dining room," he says. After growing up in Texas he moved to New York to attend college with his sites on becoming an engineer. Needing to make money, he found work in a restaurant. he enjoyed making people happy with food. He worked as bartender, server and manager. In one location, the chef left unexpectedly and Cruz had to help out in the kitchen. “It clicked with me. Instant gratification and making people happy. I found what I really love to do," he says.
The executive chef appreciates living in Napa Valley for the scenery and the bounty. At home he has his own planters for vegetables, a peach and two fig trees. He also enjoys the camaraderie of the hospitality industry. “It’s more of a community here than a restaurant scene. I’m close to chefs and owners around the valley,” he says.
The food in Brix showcases products. “The Bay area is about the purity of ingredients. We want to showcase the bounty of the earth or the fish. That's it.” Tasting is the best teacher Cruz believes. “You can read and study, but unless you try the oysters you won’t know which are briny, salty or creamy.” He dines out as often as he can and especially on vacation. “A friend and I ate in 14 restaurants in three days while I was in LA,” he says.
Brix menus change every season. “For a place like Brix it’s about what we’re excited about making and drinking, and what we think people will enjoy. It’s like having people at my house,” he says.
Wine is Napa’s raison d’etre and as is ongoing tasting. Brix Wine Director Jeff Creamer chooses the restaurant’s wines by sampling new releases. “We feature many small production wines that are hard to find outside of Napa, so frequent tastings, often with producers I haven’t met before, are important to our program,” he says about keeping the wine list fresh. “The by-the-glass program is similar, but being in wine country, we focus almost exclusively on Napa and Sonoma wines.”
Creamer trains his staff frequently at pre-shift meetings about wine and beverages. “I hold several organized staff tastings throughout the year and a few field trips to local wineries,” he says. Knowledgeable servers are essential and expected in Napa Valley although the director himself visits as many tables as he can.
Carefully tracking by-the-glass sales guides his selection of wines-by-the-glass. “I change the list weekly,” he says. The regular wine list changes from year to year, but many bottles are staples and stay on forever.
When asked for recommendations he asks questions to gauge guests’ preferences. “I like to find out what kids of wine they have enjoyed in the past, whether they are looking for a safe choice or a new experience, and I try to get a sense of their price range without being indiscreet,” he explains.
At Brix, guests, staff, food and beverages are treated with respect making this place a must on any Napa tour.