We had dinner at the newly opened Olive & Hay at the Meritage Resort in Napa in early March of this year.
The signature restaurant at the Meritage had gone through several identity changes since the resort opened in 2006, beginning with the somewhat forgettable Siena. But with the opening of Olive & Hay, it seemed like the resort finally had found a plan — and a menu — that would tempt locals as well as visitors to drop in for a meal.
In a light-filled, casual dining room, Chef de Cuisine Jose Mejia and Sous Chef John Carney, led a team all working in a open kitchen to turn out a menu of Italian classics, all given their own special twist. We sampled everything from the huge Italian salad — a garden on a plate to roasted chicken with a tomato-based cacciatore sauce and the Olive and Hay version of pasta cabonara to the tiramisu and cream puffs with warm chocolate sauce desserts.
And I was about to write that the team had created a great combination of friendly atmosphere and excellent food when COVID-19 shut down the world, and the article went on hold. Of what use is an article about a great new restaurant that has just had to temporarily shut its doors?
In June as restaurants were carefully reopening, Olive & Hay issued another media invitation to a reopening dinner on July 15. Of course, by the time that day had arrived, the coronavirus cases were surging in Napa, and indoor dining was closed down again.
One can only think it’s a good thing that chefs are such creative humans — the restaurant pivoted once more and the media dinner went forward, just moved outside.
The walled patio adjoining the restaurant is lined with citrus trees, creating a pleasant, sheltered but open air ambiance. The tables, sheltered by umbrellas, were far more than six feet apart — but you could wave to friends not seen for months.
Mejia has kept the menu simple for now, focused on dishes that resonate comfort kicked up a notch or two. Three house-made pizzas are Margherita ($21), Pepperoni ($22) and Calabria with house-made Calabrese sausage, smoked mozzarella, honey and Solo Di Bruna parmigiana reggiano cheese.
The sausage is also featured in the spaghetti ($23) with tomato conserva. The other pasta dish is a vegetarian tagliatelli ($22) with basil pistachio pesto, market vegetables and sun-dried cherry tomatoes.
Three main dishes are the succulent roast chicken, ($35) which is served in a sturdy cooking pot and covered with a richly flavored cacciatore sauce, and New York strip steak ($46) served with a Bordelaise sauce and a Hasselback potato, that is sliced almost all the way through, seasoned between the slices, which fan out as it is cooked. It’s a wonderful, if more-time consuming baked potato, one of those dishes that is nice to have someone else, such as a chef, prepare for you. They also offer a catch of the day fish entree.
In the sides and salads department, Mejia has kept one of the most popular dishes on the menu, his Big Italian Salad, ($16) an enormous serving for at least two of lettuce and chicory with seasonal vegetables, marinated artichokes and beans, and salami.
It’s the dressing that intrigues people — what is this flavor, that is both fresh and familiar? Mejia explains that he devoted hours to getting the herbs and seasonings just right to recreate his version of the that bottled Italian dressing, considerably improved with his choices of ingredients, but still a flash from the past, if that happens to be the salad dressing your parents liked.
They are also offering a seasonal heirloom tomato salad ($15) and burrata with summer squash, grilled bread and a squash blossom ($14). Eggplant Parmesan is ($11) a side of garlic-parmesan fries is $10, and highly recommended is the giant house-made meatball ($17).
Desserts are the classic tiramisu ($10), gelato ($6) and a local stone fruit, macerated and served on an olive oil cake ($11).
The wine list is excellent and comprises mostly Napa-Sonoma-Mendocino wines as well as beers and cocktails.
One sometimes tends to think of hotel restaurants as being there for the visitors. But right now, with all the challenges of these times, there is a two-fold appeal to the Olive & Hay. The good food and comfortable setting, of course, but also just think: to sit on a patio at a hotel, eating excellent Italian food — you could almost feel like you are out on an adventure, traveling.
Olive & Hay at the Meritage Resort and Spa, 875 Bordeaux Way, serves breakfast daily 7 to 11 a.m. Dinner is served 5:30 to 9 p.m on Thursday, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 5:30 to 9 p.m. on Sunday.
Call 707-251-3090 for reservations or take-out.
Dressing for The Big Italian Salad at Olive & Hay
Chef Jose Mejia
3 ½ Tbs. garlic
⅔ cups red bell pepper
⅔ cups shallot
3 ⅓ Tbs thyme-picked-no stems
3 ⅓ Tbs oregano-picked-no stems
1 ¾ cups Olive & Hay olive oil
½ cup chardonnay vinegar
⅓ cups fresh lemon juice
1 ⅔ Tbs. salt
1 ⅔ Tbs. sugar
Take all of set 1 and rough chop, then place inside a food processor. Process a couple of times, scraping down the sides as to ensure everything becomes the same size.
Mix set 2 in another container until incorporated, and then add half of it to the processor with set 1. Process for a few seconds, then add the rest of set 2.
Process all for 30 seconds, then dress your salad.