Napa, California --- The golden crop of mustard greens that symbolize the vineyards of the Napa Valley are beginning to fade, and winemakers are gearing up for another vintage. The restaurant scene here is strong, and continues to grow. The newest in the crop is Angele, open since December along the Napa River in the city of Napa.
With a clean, crisp, simple décor and a large outdoor terrace overlooking the river, Angele features a classic but updated French bistro menu, complete with mounds of crisp and golden French fries, French onion soup and macaroni gratins.
I adored the steamed Manilla clams bathed in a creamy saffron broth, teamed up with giant slices of toasted baguette; as well as the unusual and delicious salad of fresh seasonal asparagus paired with marinated anchovies and seasoned with a Nicoise olive vinaigrette. But the best bet of the evening was a moist filet of striped bass on a bed of creamy flageolet beans, the main player in a red pepper and flageolet stew. Our wine choice, alas, was a bit off the mark: the 2001 Seghesio Zinfandel was unbalanced, with too much acidity to make it a winner.
The grand-daddy of Napa Valley restaurants has to be Terra, the wildly popular and successful restaurant begun in 1988 by Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani, both of whom worked with California superstar chef Wolfgang Puck.
Situated in downtown St Helena in a large stone building built in 1884 as a foundry for small farm tools, the 92-seat dining room has a fine, spacious feel, with service that is friendly and a well-informed, welcoming wait staff.
Hiro was trained at the top Tokyo cooking school and wisely combines his Japanese sensibility and sensitivity with touches of classic French and country Italian. In other hands the combination could be a hodge-podge disaster, but here we warm to his soy vinaigrettes, to sake-marinated fish, and shiso broth. Yes, the menu does read a bit like a United Nations food fest, and includes a currant verjus chutney and Cabernet Sauvignon wine sauce, tapenade and basmati rice in coconut sauce, pancetta vinaigrette and tortelloni, but all is woven together with care and forethought. Hiro has a distinct personality and attitude towards food, and it comes through loud and clear.
My favorite taste of the evening was his now classic broiled sake-marinated Alaskan black cod, served with plump shrimp dumplings in a bright broth flavored with the pungent Japanese herb, shiso. Light but not lightweight, the dish packs in a lot of flavor, and the sheer quality of the cod helps make it a real winner. Equally fine was the first course lobster tortelloni in an oyster mushroom and lobster broth, offset by the color of fresh spinach and the sharpness of fresh tarragon.
In the end, Hiro’s Japanese sensibility wins out and we leave the table with the memory of clean clear crisp flavors, that feel ultimately healthy and wholesome. Our wine choice – the Alban Vineyards Roussanne from the Edna Valley – was a real success, with its exotic flavors of cloves, honeysuckle and mangoes, a fine match for Hiro’s cuisine.
540 Main Street
Telephone: (707) 252 8115
Fax: (707) 252 8239
Open daily. All major credit cards. From $25 to $35 per person, not including service or wine.
1345 Railroad Avenue, (between Adams and Hunt Streets)
St. Helena, CA, 94574-1191
Telephone: (707) 963-8931
Open for dinner only. All major credit cards. A la carte, $40 to $60 per person, not including service or wine