Meals on Rails: Dining Aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train

Making our way to our table in the dining car on board the Wine Train.

For a few weeks a couple of months ago, I had this idea in my head that it would be fun, adventurous, and unique to travel solo from New York City to San Francisco on a train.  I had a whole plan mapped out in my head (and, ok, in a few spreadsheets)–I’d make stops in Chicago and Denver for a few nights each–and it would be amazing and old-timey and romantic.

Baby lettuce, goat cheese, and candied walnut salad with cider-honey vinaigrette. Yum.

And then everyone I knew said something to the effect of ‘that sounds awful’.  It seems ‘the golden age of rail travel’ is long past.  That is, unless you are spending an afternoon on the Napa Valley Wine Train.

This is the train experience I was looking for–and as an added bonus, it only took three hours–not three days.  As I was escorted to my linen-covered, silver-set dining table, I was immediately pleased that I’d chosen this over three nights cross-country in coach.

The train started to move mid-salad course, and my travel companion smiled and said ‘the rocking makes it seem so authentic’.  I laughed as I finished off my baby lettuce, candied walnut, and goat cheese salad.  You wouldn’t get that on Amtrak, that’s for sure.  The honey-cider vinaigrette was a pleasant balance of sweet and sour and it played off the sweetness of the walnuts and the tartness of the goat cheese quite well.  It was a great start to a lovely meal.

For my entree I chose the grilled salmon, mainly because it was served with a shrimp risotto.  I’m a bit of a risotto fanatic–but I’m also a huge risotto snob.  It is the single dish I’ve sent back more times than all other dishes combined.  Risotto is a challenge in any environment, and I was interested to see how it turned out when turned out from a kitchen on a moving train.

The risotto verdict–it was perfectly cooked.  I was beyond impressed.  Additionally, the salmon was perfectly cooked as well–definitely not overcooked but not too rare either.  It actually tasted grilled, though I wonder how they manage that on, again, a moving train.

The vegetarian selection, a combination of grilled zucchini, yam-stuffed peppers, and sweet pea ravioli. Also yum.

My friend that I was traveling with is a vegetarian, so she ordered the one vegetarian dish on the menu–a sweet pea ravioli.  She loved it, and was thrilled with the presentation and the uniqueness of a yam-stuffed pepper.  Of course, for research sake I had to try a bite, and I have to admit–it was one of the best ravioli I’ve tasted.  You wouldn’t think that sweet peas would go well with a red sauce–but you’d be wrong.  It was fantastic.

My grilled salmon with sauteed greens and bay shrimp risotto. You guessed it--yum once more!

Dessert promised to be enjoyable no matter what we ordered, as it was to be enjoyed in the lounge car as we watched the vineyards roll along.  How could that be bad, right?  The real question is how could that be better?  The answer–if you are doing it while eating creme brulee and chocolate caramel tort.

Dining Tip:  There are two options offered for dessert.  If you are dining with someone else, order both of them and share.  Even if, like me, that person isn’t your significant other.  There are no such things as cooties when creme brulee is involved.

The creme brulee was perfect–not too eggy, not too pudding-y, lots of vanilla and a perfectly bruleed sugar crust.  I’ve not had better creme brulee anywhere–and I always order it.  The chocolate tort was insanely rich and, to be honest, really could have used a glass of good dry red wine to accompany it.  Now if only there were some wine on this train…oh wait.  There is!

Overall, I was more than impressed with the food offered on board the Napa Valley Wine Train.  I wasn’t expecting much–after all, I watch Top Chef.  I know how difficult it is to cook on board a moving vehicle.  But the Wine Train chefs are doing something right.  In fact, they are doing many things right–from candied walnuts to bay shrimp risotto.


Please note:  This has been the second in a series of Napa Valley Wine Train posts. To read a review of the experience as a whole, please click HERE.  The third post, to be published in a couple of weeks, will be dedicated to the winery tours themselves.  

Disclaimer:  My friend and I were given complimentary passage on the Wine Train in exchange for blog coverage of the experience.  However, as always, all opinions are my own.  


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