Press Democrat Article by Carey Sweet
The first time I visited Olive & Hay in Napa, it was July 2020, not long after its opening. I remember the evening clearly. We had a reprieve from stay-home orders. The weather was perfect for outdoor dining. The staff was happy to see us, and we were happy to see them, sharing the giddiness of being with people outside of grocery stores.
And I remember the food, because it was delicious, and a bit different. It was modern Italian comfort cuisine, simple in essence but so well-crafted with fine local ingredients that it felt sophisticated. I wanted to review the place then, but as the dining landscape turned to takeout, a review then didn’t seem fair to a higher-end spot that had debuted during such a challenging time.
Flash forward — or crawl slowly — to April 2021. When I revisited the restaurant recently, it seemed nothing had changed. There was the happy staff and the first-rate food. The original chef, Jose Mejia, is still serving his casual menu, including several of the same dishes I’d enjoyed way back when. Now we can eat either in the 50%-capacity dining room or on the umbrella-shaded patio.
Set in the Meritage Resort and Spa in south Napa, the space is airy and open, with an exposition kitchen, white walls and ceilings with wood rafters, white metal and wicker chairs and potted trees. It’s a bit stark, but the decor carries the restaurant through for its daily breakfast and lunch, plus weekend brunch, then into dinner.
At dinner, the menu is brief — four appetizers, three pizzas, four pastas, four entrees and three sides. Your server may tell you meals are presented family-style, for sharing. I don’t agree — many portions are pretty much single servings — but the variety of choices is good.
Right now, I’m stuck on the superb salads, some of the largest plates here. Picture the twist on a panzanella, served here in a colorful tumble of sugar snap peas, cucumber, crisp asparagus, Napa’s Hen Pen Ranch greens, olive oil toasted country bread croutons and Skyhill Napa Valley Farms goat feta. I do miss not having tomatoes tossed in, but I understand — it’s not tomato season — and I do love the fiery kick of chopped serrano pepper and black pepper buttermilk dressing ($16).
I could eat the Big Italian Salad every day. Its ingredients vary by what’s fresh from the farm, but I’ve had in it a mix of local sweet lettuces and bitter chicories, tangy marinated artichoke chunks, chickpeas, cannellini beans, cubed feta, thin-sliced salami, leaf-on micro radishes and carrots and finely sliced pepperoncini shimmering with Italian dressing ($16). The dish is like an elegant chop salad, bringing a range of flavors and textures with every bite, and the dressing is so good I hunted down the recipe to make at home. Tip: you’ll need garlic, red bell pepper, lemon juice and chardonnay vinegar among the usual fresh herbs and olive oil.
The housemade meatballs ($17) clearly aren’t meant to be shared either, since I want all of the dense golf ball-size orbs for myself. You carve forkfuls of the herb-laced meat, being sure to scoop up some thick tomato conserva sauce, a bit of Solo Di Bruna Italian aged Parmigiano Reggiano and a dusting of rosemary breadcrumbs. Then you plop it all on a torn piece of ciabatta toast brushed with a hint of garlic and olive oil and eat it all in one bite.
My server told me the small dollop of burrata is imported from Italy (though two creameries in West County make excellent, real Italian water buffalo burrata). For summer, the silky cheese was plated with yellow and green summer squash sott’olio (olive oil preserved), aprium (a hybrid of apricots and plums), crispy fried squash flowers and grilled bread ($14). The soft, sweet aprium slices were the perfect foil and the thin-sliced yellow squash added some nice, firm texture, but the chunks of smoky, vinegary marinated brown squash were a bit too harsh.
For spring, the cheese is smothered in Meyer lemon jam made from the resort’s fruit trees, plus an odd finish of strongly flavored chives and sesame seeds ($14). It was too busy: sitting in a pond of olive oil, the burrata’s clean flavor was lost to all its add-ons.
As expected from a refined kitchen, pasta is also housemade and accouterments change with the seasons. This past summer, I appreciated the delicacy of lacy thin tagliatelle, bold with lots of herbs, sliced moons of al dente zucchini, tart bits of roasted cherry tomato, slips of leafy greens, soft green beans and rosy beet chunks in a light, basil pistachio pesto sprinkled with Solo Di Bruna cheese ($22).
This spring, I went for a classic that works year-round, a tangle of spaghetti draped with the same thick conserva as the meatballs: melted mozzarella and housemade calabrese sausage ($23). It’s very pleasing, if you like the hearty, chewy salami-style flavor (I do). You’ll also want to order a loaf of the housemade Italian bread that is so poofy it’s almost a souffle, dusted with spices and paired with whipped olive oil ($7), because the pasta portion is dainty.
The other week, I enjoyed dinner at another new restaurant in Yountville, and my companion commented that some people tease him when he orders chicken at a restaurant, calling the choice bland. But we both agreed that perfectly roasted chicken is divine, for its juiciness and crackly rich skin.
The Olive & Hay version is an example of such good cooking. The half bird is served in its metal skillet, roasted to dark bronze with highly seasoned skin that’s tempting to eat with your fingers like savory candy. Cut a chunk of chicken off the bone, drag it through the oft-changing sauces like cacciatore or mustard-infused jus collected in the bottom of the pan and you’ve got a very satisfying dinner.
Just note that at $36, it is a pricey dish for poultry and usually includes only some vegetables like asparagus or carrots and onions. Your bill will add up when you tack on a side, say, of caramelized Brussels sprouts sprinkled with sweet bacon lardons and maple agrodolce ($10).
If your grandma was a talented cook, she might have made (or still makes, lucky you) cozy desserts like the olive oil cake ($11) sometimes offered here. It looks weird, being green, but soothes like a comforting poundcake, brightened with Suisun Valley’s Tenbrink Farms stone fruit and crème fraîche drizzled in more olive oil.
The little round marvels known as Italian bombolloni doughnuts are another delightful option, hot and fluffy for dipping in warm gianduja chocolate sauce ($11).
For my small quibbles with a few of Olive & Hay’s dishes, I should be clear that I really like this restaurant. Add it to your dining list for any day trip to Napa, and if you’re a local, stop in and give it a try. I’m sure you’ll want to revisit it soon, too.
Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.