Review: Perfect date night: Sunset dinner on the Wine Train

THE WINE TRAIN departs daily from downtown Napa. Courtesy photo

THE WINE TRAIN departs daily from downtown Napa.
Courtesy photo

THE NAPA VALLEY WINE TRAIN offers a variety of ways to enjoy a ride on the historic train that ambles through the region at a leisurely pace between downtown Napa and Calistoga. Enjoy a wine tasting event on board, stop for a winery tour en route, or take part in a murder mystery dinner. Any way you choose, you’ll also enjoy a gourmet multi-course lunch or dinner prepared by chef Kelly MacDonald along the way.

For a romantic night out with that special someone, I recommend the Champagne Vista Dome Sunset Dinner ride. For starters, the vista dome car is set apart from the rest of the train. There is a greater sense of privacy without the steady flow of passengers squeezing between your table and the one across the aisle.

Also, unlike most other Wine Train excursions, for the sunset dinner a party of two is seated at a private booth, rather than sharing a table with another couple.

That’s not to say that it’s no fun to share. In fact, the mystery dinner and other wine-tasting tours are preferable when you’re in the mood to be sociable. If romance is Priority One, though, the sunset dinner is the ticket.

Our tour in the Vista Dome car started off with a complimentary glass of Mumm’s sparkling wine, an extra dry and delicate bubbly. We were then asked to choose selections from the Wine Train’s four-course dinner menu. On Friday, choices included pan-seared quail or grilled shrimp hors d’oeuvres, apple endive salad or soup du jour, beef tenderloin, salmon piccata, pork tenderloin or vegetable polenta entree, and chocolate torte, crème brulee or white chocolate raspberry cheesecake dessert.

The menu also includes wine pairing recommendations for each course, and for the entree, an additional Special of the Day.

THE WINE TRAIN'S Vista Dome car. Courtesy photo

THE WINE TRAIN’S Vista Dome car.
Courtesy photo

By the time our first course arrived, the sun had begun to set on the procession of vineyards outside the beautiful picture windows of the dome car, casting a beautiful golden glow on the green fields and trees as the train rumbled forward.

Entrees were served around 8:30 p.m., shortly after the sun dipped below the horizon as the daylight quickly began to fade, lending the car a romantic-restaurant kind of ambience. After the main course, there was time to explore the rest of the train, as it was stopped for a time to allow the engineer and conductor to prepare for the return trip.

If you head out to the caboose at that point, you can watch from a small balcony as the two work to couple the engine car to what will become the front of the train for the ride back to the station.

The food served on the Wine Train is generally excellent. Meat is cooked perfectly to order and is consistently of the highest quality. Plates are artfully presented, garnished with freshly made sauces and other fine accompaniments. On Friday, the thick wedge of beef tenderloin was served with a vegetable assortment and topped with a Cabernet reduction sauce and red onion marmalade. Other entree selections were almond-encrusted salmon piccata with lemon-sauteed potatoes and red-wine carrots; mustard-rubbed pork tenderloin with sweet and savory potato sauté, blue cheese chips and grape sauce; and grilled polenta with gorgonzola, summer vegetables and seared tomato-herb coulis.

Our beef entree was exquisite, cooked to perfection and well paired with its Cabernet reduction, but the polenta dish arrived somewhat stale, as if it had been left out too long after cooking, and some of its accompanying grilled vegetables were too charred to eat. I did find this to be a rare exception, having tasted many dishes in the past and talked with many other diners on previous Wine Train excursions. It is the only time I have been able to find fault with any of the food served on the train.

The dessert choices Friday included a white chocolate-raspberry cheesecake, a chocolate torte with a side of gelato, and my favorite, a perfectly prepared crème brulee topped with large fresh blueberries. All parties appeared to be thoroughly pleased with their final course.

Our train pulled into the Napa station around 10 p.m., concluding a thoroughly enjoyable evening ride. Guests were then able to view their personal souvenir photos inside the station, with the option to purchase a custom keepsake or simply noting their individual photo ID numbers to view and share their digital portraits online, at no charge.

The Wine Train is a fun way to enjoy the Napa Valley. With more than a dozen different ways to incorporate the train ride with your wine tasting experience, it should be easy to find something suitable for any occasion. Check out the website at www.winetrain.com and explore all the options.

My first choice for a romantic date would be the Champagne Vista Dome dinner, but the seasonally available moonlight ride sounds like a pretty good bet as well.

If You Go
In addition to the sunset dinner, which is available Friday through Sunday evenings, the Napa Valley Wine Train also offers a Moonlight Escape dinner during each full moon, the next one falling on Saturday, Aug. 29. The Champagne Vista Dome Sunset Dinner cruise is $199 per person; the Moonlight Escape $229. The Wine Train also offers daily lunch tours starting at $124 per person. Call 800-427-4124 or visit www.winetrain.com for information and reservations.

Elizabeth Warnimont is a freelance writer specializing in the performing arts. She holds a bachelor’s degree in literature from UC-Santa Barbara.

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