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The Oxbow Experience: Eat, Drink & Learn

By Rayne Wolfe/ Food & Drink writer

Part Wine Country foodie heaven, part dining destination, with a little magic pinch of the souk, Oxbow Public Market in downtown Napa has grown into a Wine Country culinary magnet.

There is something for everyone within 40,000 sq. ft. of retail. Within the massive main building there are over twenty retail and restaurant spaces including two butcher shops, a fish market, artisan cheese and wine shop, spice market, chocolate company, olive oil purveyor, multiple bakeries and dessert stops, coffee and tea shops, an entire fresh oyster bar and a visually stunning spice market, Whole Spice, run by Ronit and Shuli Madmone.

"We sell every type of spice anyone could ever want and many of our spices are gluten free. People really like that," said Ronit Madmone.

Nigh Karnjanaphit, who helps customers at Whole Spice, said that some of the most popular items are hand blended dry rubs for meat. It's not unusual for a shopper to discuss the type of meat they just purchased and ask for advice on spicing it up a bit. I picked up a small amount of asafetida, a rather intense ingredient for Indian Cuisine, not commonly found in groceries. Known for it's super-pungent eye-watering aroma, I remembered to put it in my trunk for the drive home, or die of sensory overload.

Speaking of sensory overload, I nearly succumbed to it just walking around Oxbow. First of all, the architecture is amazing. Opened by founder, Steve Carlin in Dec. 2007 at 610 and 644 First Street, the main building features an airy, open-span interior. Many tenants have hung massive objects de art high up in their spaces, like oyster boats and full-sized art cows. With so much visual stimulation inside it's possible to overlook several outside seating areas including the amazing deck right on the Napa River. Taking up the better part of a city block, one must walk around to realize that restaurants, bakeries, pizza places and the super popular Gott's Roadside Tray Gourmet diner and the Kitchen Door restaurant are just a few steps from the marketplace, which is elevated above street level.

Did I mention, there are cupcakes, too?

At Kara's Cupcakes everything is prepared from scratch using locally sourced ingredients. Because they bake throughout the day, their cupcakes are fresh out of the oven and perfectly iced.

Or check out The Model Bakery for artisan breads and pastries. A touchstone in downtown St. Helena for over 80 years, it now welcomes a loyal following at the Oxbow Annex.

Of course, I had to scope out the coffee situation. Rumor has it; Ritual has a strenuous barista training camp. From the looks of the drink pick-up line, I believe it.

That's where I met Mendi Wagoner of Napa, standing in line. Since drinking Ritual's coffee she has sworn off all other coffee sources. Sometimes, she admitted, she even buys an extra cup in the evening to microwave the next morning at home.

"And it's still better than anything I've ever had," she said smiling. "This is my one true addiction. I don't know what they do, or how they do it, all I know is this is the only coffee for me. If I'm out of town I won't even set foot in a Starbucks anymore. I can't do it."

If you prefer tea, the uber-elegant Tillerman Tea shop looks like something straight out of 1920's Shanghai. It offers over 60 loose-leafed teas in addition to a "house flight" of five teas: Green, oolong, black, jasmine and puerh. They also offer tea education with complimentary monthly classes or, by reservation; there are private tea tastings that encompasses ceremonial and cultural elements.

There is also a fresh juice bar, an entire fruit and vegetable market, a little flower cart, a honey bar, and housewares galore. Oh, and an amazing artisan chocolate store, Anette's Chocolates AND Kanaloa Seafood AND the Pica Pica Maize Kitchen and Bar that was recently featured on Guy Fieri's Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. Trust me; It's no dive. Pica Pica has great Venezuelan snacks and meals.

For Jason Stom, visiting from Southern California, Oxbow Public Market was one place he wanted to check out in Napa. In fact, he visited more than once.

"First, I heard it had an organic market and that got my attention. Then we tried Gott's yesterday and I had a great bacon cheeseburger and these amazing long zucchini fries. Today we ate inside and had a great meal. I also bought some spices to take home," said Stom.

And I must note that one of my favorite local treat makers, Three Twins Ice Cream, has set up shop in Oxbow. Don't leave without trying their delicious organic ice cream made in Petaluma.

It struck me that I felt particularly at home at Oxbow. Was it because everyone was smiling, asking questions about entertaining, food and amazing things to drink? Was it because there are no annoying shopping carts or public address messages floating through the air? Was it the smiling butchers? The friendly oyster shucker? Maybe, it was the combination of all those things, plus the luscious opportunity to eat, drink and learn in such a relaxing and welcoming atmosphere.

Oxbow Public Market is open 7 days a week with most purveyors open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. with later hours on Tuesdays for Locals' Night. Restaurant and dessert places are open until 9 p.m. every night. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years.