The restaurants of St. Helena, Yountville and Napa get all the attention. At the apex of Napa Valley, Calistoga is best known for mud tubs and bubbly water, not food. JoLe is changing that.
The setup for JoLe is perfect. It's on Lincoln Avenue, Calistoga's main street, and it's just off the lobby of the Mount View Hotel and Spa, a boutiquey, 32-room property with a hideaway pool in the back. The four-year-old restaurant has an urbane, masculine aesthetic, with dark wood paneling, a slim bar featuring top-shelf renditions of classic cocktails and big windows that look out onto the sidewalk.
When owners Matt and Sonjia Spector decided to sell their popular Philadelphia restaurant Matyson and move west with kids in tow to open a new restaurant, they looked all over the North Bay. The couple settled on Calistoga because of the small-town vibe and turnkey restaurant space they found, but what they didn't know was that many wine country visitors didn't stray north of St. Helena. The first year of business was hard, says Matt, JoLe's chef.
"If I had a nickel for every time someone said 'I never get up to Calistoga,' I'd be able to open a restaurant in Yountville," says Matt.
But the Spectors don't need to go to Yountville. They've got a great thing going on at JoLe, which turns four years old next month. Before moving to the North Bay, the couple made frequent trips to the area, where Matt says he and his wife (and JoLe's pastry chef) always ordered from the "left side of the menu" when they went out to eat. Focusing on starters and small plates meant being able to try a greater variety of food from the region. Why commit to 20 bites of the same thing when you can have five bites of several different dishes?
As a result, JoLe's menu of internationally influenced American food comprises a dozen or more small- and medium-sized plates that allow visitors to range all over the menu, especially with the help of a dining companion or two. Over 50 wines by the glass invite further exploration. No matter where you go on the menu—left side, right side—you're going to find something good.
I knew JoLe was going to be special when I spied the lamb-tongue Reuben ($12) on the menu outside. That offers a window into Matt's creativity and separates the restaurant from the pizza-and-pasta masses. Matt's talent is to lay out just a few elemental flavors made from impeccably sourced, bracingly fresh ingredients to achieve great results, and just about everything I put my fork into was flat-out delicious.
Let's start with the grilled local asparagus ($12). Simple enough, right? But add a few buttery slices of lardo, a wee fried quail egg and a squeeze of lemon, and you've got something special. The grassy vegetal flavor of the asparagus is layered with the melt-in-your-mouth cured pig fat and delicate richness of the egg, all balanced with lemon, and it's simply delicious.
Then there's the Dungeness crab cocktail ($15). Again, it's a dish you've no doubt had before, but the singularly sweet and briny freshness of the crab meat and addition of a little bergamot-oil-perfumed orange, avocado slices and cucumber create the ultimate crab cocktail.
JoLe's hamburger ($12) is over-the-top but still recognizable as a great burger. It combines truffle-flavored cheese, a fried egg and tomato confit on a great bun—a classic dish made better.
My favorite of all is the smoked pork shoulder ($14) with queso fresco and zucchini tamales. The pork gets smoked and then braised, so it's crackly and caramelized, wonderfully moist and dripping with porky, juicy goodness inside. The tamales, made with fresh masa and folded over into a half-moon shape and pan-fried, come with a wood-oven-roasted tomatillo sauce and a cinnamon-dusted corn fungus sauce. Outstanding.
I could go on but I'll stop with Sonjia Spector's coconut cream pie ($8). She developed the recipe years ago, and it was a hit at Matyson in Philadelphia. When they opened JoLe, she thought she'd give it a rest. But when fans of their old restaurant came all the way to Calistoga, they demanded she reinstate the pie immediately. She relented, and we're better for it. It's ridiculously good with a supremely creamy filling surrounded by a chocolate-ganache-layered macadamia-nut crust. Sonjia guards the recipe well; when Bon Appetit asked to publish the recipe in its popular "RSVP" recipe feature, she declined.
All told, JoLe is an insurgent jewel in the rarely-traversed-by-tourists upvalley, which, thanks to the Spectors, may one day lose its mud-bath reputation to a dining destination. Matt says he and Sonjia have settled into Calistoga and are committed to making a name for themselves in the quiet part of the Napa Valley. "If it's good, people will come," he says.
It is good—and then some.