Monday, March 26, 2012

Place Review: Oxbow Public Market

Having a few spare hours in downtown Napa on a recent Friday morning, I visited the Oxbow Public Market for breakfast. Public markets aren’t an essential part of a good urban place, but when the demographics and the setting are right, public markets can raise the urban experience to another level.

I’d read positive comments about the Oxbow Public Market, including comparisons to the San Francisco Ferry Building Marketplace. The Oxbow founder was involved in the development of the Ferry Building Marketplace. He also had two decades with the locally beloved Oakville Grocery. So the Oxbow roots were promising.

While the Ferry Building provides an interior space that is nearly incomparable with its soaring heights and sense of history, the volumes and detailing of Oxbow provide a similar experience on a smaller scale. The clerestory provides natural light that evokes historic public markets such as Covent Gardens. The individual stalls are arranged such that there is sufficient room to amble without constantly stepping around others, but sufficiently close that every few steps brings another surprise, sometimes visual and sometimes aromatic.

After my first loop of the market, I decided on breakfast at C Casa, a self-described innovative tacqueria. I was thrilled with my selection of the huevos rancheros. I’ve tired of the dish in recent years, finding the increasingly typical preparation to be uninspired. But the C Casa version succeeded on several levels. The corn tortillas were thick and seemed freshly made, which gave a rich corn flavor. They were warmed, not fried, providing a flavorful bed for black beans, pico de gallo, corn relish, avocado, and two perfectly prepared over-medium eggs. It was a simple dish, but the ingredients combined in new and exciting ways with each forkful. I was sorry to finish my breakfast.

Breakfast complete, I again wandered the market. Being a distance from home, it wasn’t a good time to shop, but I could fantasize about having a nearby home or vacation rental where I could prepare meals with the foodstuffs that were on display.

My inside tour complete, I looked at the outside of the market. I was less impressed. The exterior architecture didn’t say public market to me. If anything, it struck me as an elementary school in an affluent neighborhood. A nicely detailed and well-proportioned elementary school, but still a school and not a public market.

Also, the floor of the public market is oddly high above the street, perhaps four feet. Without looking at the grading constraints or the expected flood levels, I don’t know what drove the design decision, but a public market should feel within the flow of the community. The vertical offset made the Oxbow Public Market seem more of a place apart.

Even more importantly, the public market, although only a few hundred yards from downtown Napa, didn’t seem to have a strong pedestrian connection. It was still early spring during my visit, but the weather was good, the market was busy, and yet there were few pedestrians on the sidewalk. It appeared that most shoppers had arrived by car.

I could spot two reasons why the pedestrian link might be weaker than hoped. First, the walk from downtown includes a bridge. The bridge is nicely detailed, but crosses an old channel of the Napa River. Long ago, the river took a loop to the east, hence the “Oxbow” name, leaving the old channel as a backwater and occasional floodway. The resulting vista from the bridge looks on uninteresting still water surrounded by mudflats. Pedestrians need constant reasons to keep walking. A flood channel doesn’t meet the need.

Second, the straightness of First Street doesn’t allow the public market place to be seen as a destination. Even in a car, one is nearly at the public market before its presence is evident.

If money were no object (although it always is), I’d offer two solutions. One, an inflatable rubber dam at the downtown end of the flood channel and a handful of swans would add visual interest from the bridge and keep the pedestrians moving. Two, even if it required a variance from the City sign ordinance, the public market could install a large sign with “Oxbow Public Market” along the ridgeline of the building. It would be visible from downtown and would begin to connect the two.

Even the intrepid pedestrians who reach the market on foot could be treated better. Much of the public market street frontage is parking lots. A single row of grapevines isn’t sufficient compensation for having to walk next to a parking lot. If the building had been built parallel to the street with the parking lots behind, it would have been a better pedestrian experience. Also, the settlement of the pavers in the tree wells plus the spreading grass from the landscaping provides a walking route that is too narrow for more than a single pedestrian.

A day after my first visit, I was again in Napa during the morning hours, so tried another breakfast at Oxbow. This time, I chose Gott’s Roadside, which is under the rubric of the public market, but occupies a site outside the main building. The owner of Gott’s acquired long-time St. Helena favorite, Taylor’s Refresher, changed the name, and expanded to include the Ferry Building Marketplace and the Oxbow Public Market.

I loved the ambiance of Gott’s Roadside. The clean lines of a 1950s diner, interesting menu selections that reflected the Napa Valley interest in good ingredients, and attentive, friendly service.

Unfortunately, my breakfast choice didn’t measure up to my anticipation. The concept sounded great, a sandwich of fried chicken, scrambled eggs, cheddar cheese, and jalapeno mayonnaise on thickly cut bread. Perhaps it was my palate, but the ingredients didn’t work well together. The chicken was lost in combination, adding texture, but little flavor. The scrambled eggs, prepared in the flat and folded approach reminiscent of a fast food breakfast, seemed inconsistent with the gourmet diner approach of Gott’s. And by the time I finished, the bread was becoming soggy.

Unlike C Casa where the final dish seemed better than the sum of the parts, the reverse was true at Gott’s. The sandwich seemed unworthy of the good ingredients.

But the overall approach and apparent philosophy of Gott’s remained sufficiently appealing that I’m eager to visit again. I truly hope that the remainder of the menu will better fulfill the promise of the concept.

I walked through the main market building to see if the Saturday crowds had grown from the already good Friday crowds. I didn’t note much difference. However, it was a rainy Saturday that may have affected the turnout. I’ll return in the spring after Oxbow begins hosting a semi-weekly farmers market. That should give me a better opportunity to assess how the residents and tourists are accepting the Oxbow Public Market.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

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