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Napa Valley Chow report -- very long

r
Ruth Lafler Mar 25, 2002 07:06 PM

Thanks to all of you who gave me suggestions -- unfortunately I didn't really get to as many places as I would have liked, but here are a few highlights:

Dinner Friday night at Terra (St. Helena). I walked in at a little past 7:00 and managed to get a table, but they filled up by 8:00 (late dining on Friday because people are driving up from the Bay Area?).

Although for the most part I enjoyed my meal at the time, in retrospect I don't think it lived up to its reputation.

The high point was the Hamachi and Salmon tartare with lemon ginger wasabi dressing. Fresh, good flavors and textures (although I could have done without the flecks of diced tomato). What really made it work was the sesame crackers that came with it -- ultra thin squares coated on one side with sesame seeds, they had apparently been fried -- almost as if a thin wonton skin had been fried but without puffing or bubbling. They made perfect scoops for the tartare.

Digression: Service is always a worry for a woman dining alone, but it was quite good -- the waiter even comped me a half glass of Sauvingon Blanc to go with the appetizer. However, Terra was guilty of one of the Chowhound Top Ten Restaurant Pet Peeves: the prices were not given during the recitation of specials. It turned out this excellent appetiser was actually cheaper ($11) than most of the regular appetizers on the menu.

I had grilled lamb T-bones for the entree. The lamb was excellent and perfectly cooked. It came with a roasted lamb rib that had been partially deboned and the meaty end dipped in chickpea batter and fried -- it looked a little like a corn dog with the end of the bone sticking out, and created an interesting and delicious contrast between the flavors of grilled medium rare lamb and of fully roasted lamb. However, the plate overall failed: the ricotta potato gnocchi, peas and pancetta with mint never came together. The sauce -- which had little flavor of its own except for a rather unpleasant taste of stock -- didn't meld any of the flavors. The peas were peas. The unbrowned pancetta was rubbery and bland, as were the gnocchi. The mint was in large peices and didn't infuse the other ingredients at all. Thinking back on the flavorless sauce drizzled around the tartare, I'm wondering if there has been some kind of change or breakdown in the kitchen affecting the concept or the excution of the sauces at Terra. Nothing on the dessert menu spoke to me, so I left it at that.

The waiter brought me a glass of Merlot that tasted plummy on its own but faded badly next to the lamb. I was shocked that Terra was only offering two whites and two reds by the glass -- which strikes me as below average even for restaurants that don't have extensive wine lists. But then I got the impression that dining in Napa Valley is geared toward larger parties. Tab with tax but before tip was $47 (one appetizer, one entree, one glass of Merlot).

I'm not much of a breakfast person, so I just dropped into a bakery on my way out of Calistoga Saturday morning. I believe the name was Schat's Bakery (on Lincoln Ave.), and I got the impression it was fairly new -- everything looked wonderful, but I ended up with an individual apple tart that was one of the best I've ever had: warm buttery, crisp flakey pastry shell, cooked apple filling topped with thin slices.

After a long day doing the winery thing, I headed out for an early dinner Saturday night looking for something light and refreshing. After a week of BBQ leftovers and a huge plate of grilled lamb, the thought of another slab of red meat was incredibly unappealing. So I wandered Main St. in St. Helena checking out menus until I hit Roux.

We trashed Michael Bauer for his gushing review of Roux, but after dinner there I'm willing to excuse his babbling. It simply blew the doors off my dinner at Terra, at least food and service wise.

I ended up ordering three appetizers. First, carrot and saffron soup garnish with threads of deep fried carrot -- delicious, although I would have liked a more intense carrot flavor. Then a terrine of squab and rabbit loin with port soaked cherries in the very center, accompanied with the traditional cornichon, olives, toasted buttered baguette slices and a few bites of pear endive salad with goat cheese dressing. Every bite was luscious: rich without being heavy. In the position of the entree was the asparagus risotto, topped with a moan-inducing dollop of Meyer lemon herb mascarpone, which melted into the risotto with a balanced addition of richness and brightness. The risotto was cooked to slightly al dente, but enough so that the flavors and textures of the ingredients had married. In the spirit of the light, refreshing meal, I ended with lemon sorbet with threads of candied lemon peel that was perfect.

Other things that went just right: an amuse bouche of a gougere (a tiny gruyere puff pastry) topped with chopped red pepper; housemade toasted coconut macaroon and Valrhona truffle (more moans) with the bill; and the most wonderful butter with the bread. According to one of the waiters, they had a butter tasting before they opened, and the winner was an unsalted butter from Czechoslovakia -- Jana Valley.

And to win my heart completely, they special brewed some iced tea for me (refilled without me asking). Service was warm and friendly -- frequent checks to see how my meal was going from both the wait and kitchen staff -- people who seemed genuinely to care about whether I was having a wonderful time.

Tab was the same to the dollar as my dinner at Terra (three appetizers, dessert, ice tea, one glass of wine). Or it would have if she had charged me for dessert; when I pointed out the omission to the owner, she said it was her error and forget about it, we went back and forth a minute and I couldn't convince her to re-add the bill -- so I left a huge tip [vbg].

I left wondering if it would be too self-indulgent to come back the next day for lunch.

Lunch next day ended up being roasted beets, seared ahi tuna and roast potatoes with cilantro from Dean and Deluca -- let's just say that I spent way too much time and way too much money there. Hey, it was my birthday! I felt justified buying $33/lb cheese. (Lunch the day before had been Oakville grocery -- let's just say I came home from the weekend with five kinds of cheese I'd never even heard of before and leave it at that). Frankly, although the premium products command high prices, I thought the prices at D&D were very reasonable compared to, for example, The Pasta Shop -- in other words, I don't think D&D is gouging on the mark-up, which was a pleasant surprise.

I ate my lunch in the garden at Copia for the true Napa experience, toured the garden, did a quick spin through the exhibits, sat in on a lecture on late-harvest wines (including a sample -- yum!), and then finally headed home, feeling thoroughly decadent.

  1. c
    Caitlin McGrath Mar 26, 2002 10:30 AM

    Great report. Ruth, you know how to treat yourself well. Happy Birthday!

    1. m
      Melanie Wong Mar 26, 2002 08:17 PM

      Splendid write-up, Ruth. It was so much fun having you join us for the vineyard tours. I really appreciated getting the first blush, in person report on Roux too. I checked, but unfortunately, they're closed on Monday nights.

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