The fiddlehead ferns looked like fashion models, curved and slender, on display beside the blushing beets and round-bottomed fennel bulbs. Customers gushed. Photographers clicked pictures. Not since Adam ate the apple had so much fuss been made over something freshly picked.
To appreciate the hoopla, you had to understand that the moment marked a new phase at the Oxbow Public Market, a gourmet mecca in downtown Napa, an outpost meant to augur a new way of shopping for food. Conceived by Steve Carlin--a grocery store magnate who oversaw the development of San Francisco's Ferry Building Marketplace--Oxbow embodies the conscientious omnivore's aesthetic: hormone-free meat, seasonal and locally grown organic produce. It showcases the riches of the wine country, a region that yields much more than grapes. Inside the market, which sits on the banks of the Napa River and began its soft opening late last year, upscale offerings include a charcuterie, a fish market and wine merchants. There's also an outpost of Taylor's Automatic Refresher. Hog Island Oyster Co. plans to open in September.
Oxbow Market's Tastiest Shops
Folio Enoteca & Winery: The Mondavi family runs this wine bar and bistro. The oak barrels on display are filled with aging vintages, part of a miniature on- site winery. (707) 256-3700, www.foliowine.com. Tillerman Tea: Tea masters David Wong and David Campbell deal in rich loose-leaf teas from China, Taiwan and Japan. Tastings and tea appreciation classes are offered. (707) 265-0200, www.tillermantea.com. Three Twins Ice Cream: Mocha Difference is one of the ever-changing flavors. The sweet shop tries to make a difference too: Dishes and spoons are compostable. (707) 257-8946, www.threetwinsicecream.com. Whole Spice: Spices are beautifully displayed in this small shop, which also offers custom spice blends. (707) 256-0700, www.wholespice.com.
But on this sunny morning in May, the big news was happening outside: the official opening of the market's farm stands. Every day, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., stalls along the walkway will be given over to the region's bounty, which today included artichokes and English peas from Riverdog Farm, a small producer in the Yolo County town of Guinda, and asparagus and ramps from nearby Full Belly Farm.
As a small crowd gathered around one of the stalls, Morgan Robinson, a chef who runs his own catering business in Napa, dropped by to stock up on provisions. A few of those shapely fiddleheads. Some leggy leeks. Robinson was impressed. "You can see it, you can feel it, you can touch it, you can taste it," he said. "It's food people selling to other foodies. What more could you want than that?"--Oxbow Public Market, 610 and 644 1st St., Napa; www.oxbowpublicmarket.com.