Openings: Napa’s North Block is the Gorgeous New ‘Destination’ Restaurant We Need Right Now

All images by Maria Calderon photography

Over the last year, with the pandemic having so utterly devastated the hospitality business, there has been a lot of scrambling to downsize plans for new openings – some of which never actually even opened. So it’s particularly heartening to witness the birth of an ambitious new “statement” restaurant in, of all places, Napa, California.

But that’s exactly what’s happened, as former Momofuku Chef Nick Tamburo teamed up with local designer Erin Martin to intrepidly create a genuine destination dining spot, North Block, at a time when people are mostly still afraid to travel. To be sure, located as it is in Yountville, the exalted wine’s region’s most popular town, it will surely rely somewhat on tourism bouncing back in the region; and be assured that visitor numbers will return to previous levels, even if this summer may still prove a bit tricky.

To give an idea of the specialness of North Block’s interiors, Martin actually created bespoke “leather greenery,” which dangles quixotically above diners’ heads, and also commissioned New York based artist Owen Mann to sculpt handmade porcelain magnolia flowers, in various stages of bloom. And remarkably cleverly, “stripes” were created on the wine wall by dipping half the bottles in white paint. (We wish we’d thought of that.)

But Tamburo’s menu readily rises to meet the artfulness of the space, with a Raw & Cured section including Tomales Bay Oysters w/ Yuzu Mignonette, and Big Eye Tuna Crudo w/ Rhubarb, Meyer Lemon & Ginger; a vegetable selection including Grilled Swiss Chard Stuffed w/ Celtuce; an inventive but classic mains like Smoked Lamb Ribs w/ Green Romesco Sauce, and Devil’s Gulch Pork Shoulder w/ Coriander Vinaigrette…all creatively prepared and strikingly presented.

North Block the restaurant is actually part of the beloved, rustic-chic hotel if the same name. So booking a weekend stay can surely go a long way to offsetting the hard reality that no one is going to be traveling to Piedmont or Burgundy any time soon. And so it’s a good excuse to finally discover, or re-discover the oenophilic glories of Napa, as we find our way towards the end of this terrible pandemic.

And so thoroughly intrigued, we engaged GM + Wine Director Andy Wedge for an insider peek at how this amazing new restaurant all came together.

Why is it important to open a real “statement” restaurant at a time when one would think caution and prudence would be more the watchwords in the hospitality business right now?

While the beauty and thoughtfulness of the design may be seen as a statement, as it is certainly distinctive in the Napa Valley, the vibe of North Block is casual and fun. We want to be a restaurant for locals as much as for visitors to Napa. The menu mirrors this philosophy. You can have an excellent wine-by-the-glass and a wood-fired naturally leavened pizza or go big with an amazing local Cabernet and a coursed-out meal.

What made Erin Martin the right designer for the restaurant? And what are some of the things about the finished design do you think she accomplished best?

Erin Martin and her team (based in the Napa Valley), approach their projects with a totally fresh vision. Her designs are classic, yet completely unique, infused with one-of-a-kind pieces and a sense of fun. We knew she would create a timeless space for the restaurant, as she did ten years ago for the hotel, while also crafting a space that didn’t take itself too seriously. From the eye-catching mural to the hand-crafted wait station, there is a distinctive design element at every turn to catch the eye and for guests to enjoy.

Tell us about the artists/artisans involved in creating the interior/atmosphere.

Michael Dute, a Berlin muralist, was commissioned to hand-paint a statement mural of egrets, which are local to the area and bring the feel of North Block’s courtyard inside; while Owen Mann of Ithaca, New York was commissioned to create handmade porcelain magnolia flowers for another wall in various blossoming stages, alongside a few large dahlias, each installed individually. Erin Martin and her team created many one-of-a-kind details found throughout the dining room, such as the leather greenery, which mimics a lush outdoor garden.

How would you best describe the culinary mission at North Block?

With the opening of the restaurant, North Block aims to serve as a singular destination for food, drink, and lodging in Yountville. The restaurant feels like a casual indulgence, but with the warmth of a neighborhood spot. We want to see locals on a regular basis and see travelers return again and again for a second, or even third meal.

How does the food converse with the design to create an overall “statement” at North Block?

Our menu at North Block has a strong point of view. We are always experimenting with local, seasonal ingredients and finding ways to incorporate the special flavors that come from using our Japanese grill and wood-fired oven. While the menu is approachable, curious palates will almost always find something they haven’t tried before – so we keep it interesting and fresh, just like the design of the restaurant.

What are your expectations for the Napa restaurant scene in the coming months?

We anticipate seeing the business momentum continue. There is so much pent-up demand to gather with friends and family, celebrate occasions and simply just travel. I think we can expect a busy summer ahead in the Napa Valley.

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