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by Erika Lenkert


A Heavenly Addiction

When friends and I spontaneously decide to lunch in Napa, I always ask my guests where we should go. But it's a rhetorical question. Almost invariably, I already know where we will end up. While there are lots of wonderful places to eat in downtown Napa, the most magical combination of food, atmosphere, and service is found within a small dining room and patio at the southern end of town where Main Street meets the Napa River. Some call it Angèle (ahn-GEL). I call it my second home.

When Food & Wine magazine asked me which of all of the world's restaurants had the best interior, Angèle made my list. It's not that the place is over the top or magnificent in a showy way. It's that owner Bettina Rouas, whose father is behind Auberge du Soleil,  knows how to put the perfect dining environment together—or at least direct a design firm to do it for her.

Not too formal or too casual, it's a cozy combo of taupe-tinted concrete-block walls topped with a raw wood beam ceiling, a chest-high wall that divides dining from the festive full bar where guests perch on bright yellow leather bar stools, pretty potted touches of foliage, and a heated, shaded patio overlooking the Napa River. No matter where you sit you'll have an intimate experience and get a glimpse of the clientele, which includes couples, families, tourists, regulars, and a smattering of visiting celebrities, such as Charles Phan of San Francisco's famed Slanted Door restaurant and Robin Quivers of the Howard Stern Show, whom I spotted during my last two visits.

But for me the star of the show is always the crispy roast chicken with garlic potatoes, little gem lettuce, and roasted garlic jus. Generous but so good I can't help but eat every bite of the partially de-boned half chicken with its impossibly crisp and deliciously salted skin, it's the perfect comfort dish, especially when paired with a frisée salad with a poached egg and warm bacon vinaigrette.

Chef Tripp Mauldin, previously at San Francisco's Michael Mina and the Ritz-Carlton, upholds Bettina's original vision for country French fare with appetizers of classic French onion soup, country-style pate, and glazed sweetbreads with Swiss chard, radishes, and sherry vinegar. Entrees, such as steak Bordelaise (filet mignon with red wine sauce and French fries); crispy duck confit with lentil and frisee salad, and bacon vinaigrette; and salad Niçoise, are rounded out by ubiquitous cravings such as an outstanding hamburger and croque monsieur (the French version of the good old grilled cheese sandwich, only upscale with ham and gruyere on country bread).

Over the past weekend, when I dropped into Angèle for my usual fill of roast chicken (and insanely good banana gratin), I got a good look at the riverfront walk, which is under construction outside Bettina's dining room. I imagined the future foot and bicycle traffic wandering past the windows and patio as diners sip on French wines and enjoy a relaxed meal and thought that while the additional activity may actually improve the charm of the already impossibly charming restaurant, it will make it more difficult for me to drop by unannounced for one of my favorite meals in Napa Valley.

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