Winner of the North Bay Calamari Trials Is . . .
Since it was a pretty close contest and none of the squid dishes were completely inedible, I'll start with the runners-up from several months of hunting for the perfect calamari.
8th - Celadon (Napa) was the biggest disappointment since the flash fried calamari with a smoky/spicy glaze and pickled ginger has been raved about so much. But the kitchen came in a clear last place this time. The squid were dry and tough, and as the dish cooled off the glaze turned into gluey cloyingly sweet gunk. It reminded me of pseudo-Chinese fried squid with sugary garlic sauce for Jewish tastes. We pushed this aside. On the other hand, the crab cakes and the spring rolls with plum sauce were delicious.
7th - Foothill Cafe (Napa), even giving 'em extra presentation points for a big portion piled high of what looked like a writhing mass of gorgon's head-like tentacles, the kitchen's timing was off. These were a tad overcooked, too chewy and too greasy to boot. Nicely seasoned batter and good lemony aioli.
6th - Piaceré, Cloverdale's newest fining dining establishment run by a Mexican-American couple who position this as their own style of Italian cooking. Delicately flavored with the natural sweetness that comes from freshness, the squid here was of very good quality, tender and just a little chewy. Dusted and deep-fried, the calamari was a little too greasy, leaving an oily film in the mouth. Clean-tasting oil though. Also, the "spicy" tomato dipping sauce was candy sweet and more like jam than spicy, not providing the acid balance needed here. This dish showed much better with just a squeeze of lemon. The housemade gnocchi here are notable, bathed in a tomato cream sauce with chiffonade of fresh basil and coarsely grated parmesan. Toothsome yet pillowy light at the same time, really tasty. This sauce had enough tartness to counterbalance the weightier elements.
5th - Don Giovanni Bistro (Napa) offered up a generous mound of fritto misto with battered and deep-fried smelt, rock shrimp, calamari, fresh fennel and other goodies. The coating was on the heavy side and greasy, and the aioli would probably be better less stiff. What made this dish so special was the scatter of young and tender whole leaves of fresh and potent French tarragon. The savory and anise-laden flavor notes gave this dish an unusual and delicious signature, even if it did feel like lead weights in the bottom of your stomach.
4th - Café Lucy (Napa) provided a change of pace with roasted, rather than fried, calamari adorning a caesar salad. A light and lemony dressing with plenty of garlic pulled together the romaine, browned bread crumbs, squid and parmesan shavings, plus a handful of cherry tomatoes for color. Cooked this way, the squid stays succulent and vibrant. I've had this dish three times. Once on Lucy's night off, the texture wasn't quite right demonstrating how critical the right hands in the kitchen can be for cooking calamari. But when it's right, this is a super combo.
3rd - Cha Am (Vallejo) was the site of a recent Chowhound get-together of calamari fans. The kitchen's skill shined through in absolutely greaseless, light crisp batter, and tender squid. The honey dipping sauce missed the mark, and I know to ask for a substitute next time.
Tied for First Place are Pairs and Uva, for two very different presentations.
Pairs (Napa) dreamed up the most dramatic take on fried calamari, presenting a jumble of crackly taro shavings, deep-fried lemon slices and squid with some greens as a color accent and all drizzled with lemony aioli. The pale-colored squid was exactly on point with just the right resistance to the bite. The marriage of crunchy taro chips, chewy/tender squid, then a crisp burst of lemon zinginess made every bite a textural and taste sensation.
Uva Trattoria (Napa) was equally excellent but on the other end of the spectrum. Pure and simple here, fried calamari executed perfectly. Served with a spicy rouille and garnished with a few capers for a briny flavor contrast, the coating was thin, light and crisp, no grease, and the squid stayed juicy and bursting with flavor. The dipping sauce was just fine, but a squirt of lemon was all these needed to show their unadorned best. Plus, a half order at $5 would be more than enough as an appetizer for two. It still puzzles me that a kitchen that can hit calamari spot on could also serve that plate of gummy angel hair pasta. This could be a one off.