Saturday, March 23, 2013

Terra (St Helena)

February 2013

1345 Railroad Avenue, St Helena, California, USA
Tel: +1 707 963 8931 

Terra is a long-time Napa Valley favourite for diners. It is located in the small town of St Helena along the Napa Valley wine route and can be found in an old farmhouse building just off the main road. There is a rustic bar (where they serve food as well) on one side of the building and the other side houses the fine dining restaurant. Chefs Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani have created such a reputation with their culinary offerings at Terra that their more recent venture into the big city, Ame, in San Francisco started out very successfully on the back of their renown. Though both their restaurants each have a Michelin star, the dining concept and restaurant setting couldn't be more different. Unlike Ame's modern American/Japanese sophistication in the uber-lux St Regis Hotel, attracting a suited and urbane crowd to its sushi counter or contemporary dining room, Terra felt more European countryside with its exposed stone walls, stone tiled floor and simple wooden furniture.

The food as well was less cosmopolitan that its younger sibling's; at Terra the cuisine was essentially American with strong influences of Old Europe. Despite being in the heart of wine country, we were quite disappointed by the wine list as everything seemed just so expensive. In the end we settled for a rather forgettable (but relatively affordable) Napa Pinot.

We opted for a five and a six course menu of mostly different dishes so that we could try as many of the food as possible.

Dungeness crab croquette: This was disappointing. The croquettes were cold and the skin was quite hard and chewy.

Chilled capellini with American caviar, caper, virgin olive oil and chive: This looked like it would be very nice by unfortunately the capellini was quite tasteless and all the flavours were to be derived from the caviar. For that reason we felt that this dish was quite unbalanced.

Fricassee of sweetbreads and Maine lobster in black truffle sauce with salsify: Two of our favourite foods, sweetbread and lobster, will never disappoint, and this dish was indeed very satisfying.

Umbricelli pasta with ragu of guinea hen, chestnuts and winter truffles: An interesting short twisted pasta, and the rather tasty gamey sauce was very comforting on a cold night.

Broiled sake marinated Alaskan black cod and shrimp dumplings with Shiso broth: This was the same classic dish that we had come to love at Ame, and this was no less impressive. 

Panfried Californian sea bass: A very simple yet well executed fish dish, what was notable was the light seafood broth accompanied by the clam and squid which brought a myriad of flavours to the dish.

Grilled Brandt family strip steak with cheddar cheese potato puffs and glazed carrots: This was also quite good, although not remarkable in its simplicity.

Grilled lamb tenderloin with Jerusalem artichokes, puntarella and black olive anchovy sauce: Another very classic dish, the anchovy sauce sought to even out the naturally strong taste of the lamb, giving quite an interesting deep savoury flavour in addition to that of the lamb.

Assortment of artisanal cheese with fruit and croutons: With the exception of the blue cheese, we didn't really take to the rest of the American cheeses.

Churros with hot chocolate and cajeta: Bringing us fondly back to the memories of our recent Spain trip, the sugared churros and hot chocolate was an unsophisticated yet welcome treat.

Pavlova with tropical fruits, frozen yoghurt and passion fruit sauce: However, the pavlova was a bit of a disaster. The meringue was too big and hard and I had difficulty cracking it open. It was messy and ultimately too unbearably sweet for my liking.

Impressions: For a restaurant in quiet St Helena, the food was reasonably good, although we felt that it was too inconsistent and suffered badly in comparison with its younger sibling, Ame. The restaurant was quite empty that Wednesday night with only three tables occupied, and so the dining room was staffed with only one server, who was warm and friendly throughout. However, it was the lack of energy and enthusiasm of the overall dining experience there which disappointed us. For a similar type of meal we much preferred Redd in Yountville.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Solbar (Calistoga)

February 2013

755 Silverado Trail, Calistoga, Napa Valley, USA
Tel: +1 707 226 0850

At the opposite end of Napa town along the Napa Wine Country trail is Calistoga, a town in an area which relatively dry and arid surrounds contrast with the green and lush scenery of the rest of Napa Valley. And on a blazing hot Tuesday afternoon, we visited the very aptly named Solbar located in the luxury spa resort of Solage. Centrally located within the resort, the restaurant, which has one Michelin star, is in a large barn-like building dominated by a very inviting fireplace. It has a casual set-up and feels more like an upmarket diner than a fine dining establishment (at least during lunchtime).

True to our first impressions, the lunch menu was printed on one single sheet of paper, and consisted of mostly diner-type food like sandwiches and burgers. This was a very welcome change for us from the usual fine dining we had been accustomed to in the previous week, and we were looking forward to kicking back our heels and relaxing with the very casual comfort food.

Solbar had a very interesting wine tasting concept. Instead of the usual bottle of wine or by the glass, they offered us a selection of a flight of wines which followed a specific theme; for example, a flight of three Californian Pinots, Chardonnays, or other varietals. The price was very reasonable and they were very generous with the pour. The Pinot flight I had was notable in the different styles of the same grape varietal from the three different producers. We thought that this was a great idea.

Sliders stacked with bacon, cheddar and ten-hour onions on fresh-baked pain au lait buns: This was supposed to be a starter but came out as two regular sized burgers. The buns were quite amazing and the burgers excellent. It was certainly a meal in itself and a decadent one to boot.

Chicken noodle soup, farfalline, sweet potato, pulled chicken hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, sage: The chicken noodle soup was a much more healthy option, and was a combination of a chicken soup and minestrone. It was full of flavour and would, we would imagine, be a great starter especially on a cold day.

The new standard crispy chicken sandwich with vinegar slaw and red-eye mayo on a griddled soft hoagie roll served on fingerling potato salad: The crispy chicken sandwich was highly recommended by our server and didn't disappoint. This was my dream comfort food and reminded me so much of the KFC Zinger burger which I crave in the middle of the night from time to time; except that this one had much higher quality ingredients and was less greasy.

Solbar Reuben, house corned beef and sauerkraut, rye bread with Russian dressing and swiss cheese, salt and vinegar potato chips: Another American diner classic, the Reuben with its fresh corned beef and the tangy dressing sauerkraut was also a winner.

Pecan pie with buttermilk sorbet: By that time, finding space for dessert was a bit of a struggle, but we tried anyway. The pecan pie was very good but ultimately too heavy a dessert after such a meat and carb loaded lunch.

Impressions: We thought that this would be the ultimate comfort food restaurant in Napa Valley. We loved the casual feel of the place, the friendly and enthusiastic service and the great 'junk' food on offer. We'd imagine that the dinner menu would be quite different (i.e. more serious) but some of the things we had here for lunch, notably the sliders and the chicken sandwich, are items which we still crave from time to time.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Redd and Redd Wood (Yountville)

February 2013

6480 Washington Street, Yountville, Napa Valley, USA
Tel: +1 707 944 2222

Yountville, a small idyllic hamlet in the heart of the wine region of Napa Valley is famous for having the most number of Michelin stars per capita in the US. Home of the famous French Laundry, it boasts of many other renowned eateries of Thomas Keller such as Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery and Ad Hoc. However, despite Chef Keller's almost absolute dominance over the small but bustling dining scene in this small town, a recent upstart called Richard Reddington has been rapidly making waves and garnering critical acclaim with his two restaurants within a very short period of time. His fine dining restaurant, Redd, has one Michelin star and positions itself as a very viable alternative to French Laundry. In that respect, Redd serves produce-driven Californian cuisine in a chic casual setting (as opposed to the formal ambience of French Laundry and the very casual French bistro feel of Bouchon).  It is housed in a one-storey building with large windows allowing diners a clear view of the street (and also passerbys on the street a good look at the diners).

We were there on a Monday evening in the heart of winter and the restaurant was running at full capacity. We were given a nice corner table with a window view of the street. Despite the bustle of a full house, the very dim lighting (which resulted in great difficulties in taking any decent photographs of the food) and adequately spaced tables resulted in quite a cozy and romantic ambience. The wine list was quite short with an expected focus on Californian wines. It was stated in the menu that bread would be served on request, which was quite a novel and sensible idea especially in the context of our meal that night (we had gorged ourselves on bread from Bouchon and Bouchon Bakery earlier in the day and couldn't possibly eat any more bread). The a la carte menu had a good selection of dishes showcasing the regional cuisine of fresh salads, seafood and local game.

We started out with the dungeness crab salad (with winter greens, mint, citrus and brioche croutons) with its very sweet crab meat, and the equally notable maine lobster risotto (with meyer lemon confit and truffle oil) which were both excellent.

The classic roast chicken (with marble potatoes, mushrooms, green garlic, celery root and mustard sauce) was very good but what was really memorable was the pork tenderloin (prepared with bacon, chestnut, salsify, brussel sprouts and maple jus), which was cooked to perfection with a delicious deglaze worthy of the best French restaurants.

We also loved the butterscotch pudding with vanilla anglaise, toffee and pretzel bits. This was in fact a very simple dessert but it was sinfully delightful.

We thought this was a very good restaurant, with very friendly service, a relaxing and pleasant environment and excellent food. We had not heard of Richard Reddington before this trip and our experience here piqued our interest in visiting his other establishment in town, Redd Wood, as well.

Unlike Redd, which is located along the main thoroughfare of Yountville, Redd Wood is at a much more secluded part of town (though not far from the town centre). It is further down a quiet road from the French Laundry, and is next to a new boutique hotel, North Block Hotel. The design theme here is industrial chic, and a large bar dominates the dining room.

Redd Wood is essentially a hip bar and pizza parlour, and it was a welcome change for us to be having pub food after almost 2 weeks of mostly fine dining. But despite that, we found the food at Redd Wood to be excellent. Unlike many other gastropubs, Redd Wood did not resort to gimmicks to justify its branding as a upmarket pub. There were no fancy truffle, foie gras, caviar or lobster renditions of pub grub, just popular favourites like buffalo wings and pizza done simply yet very well. The cocktails here were very good too, and our negronis were mixed perfectly.

Having enjoyed the butterscotch dessert at Redd, we had to try the butterscotch pot de creme with coffee whip, which was quite similar and also very good.

Impressions: The Redd restaurant duo impressed us. It was very honest-to-goodness American food which was prepared and presented to a very high standard. Both Redd and Redd Wood were very good alternatives to the more serious Thomas Keller restaurants and added to the variety of the dining scene in Yountville.