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March 18, 2010

Napa Valley - Day III

Mac and Cheese Dominic Armato

UPDATE : Martini House has closed

On day three, we lost all motivation to do anything other than sleep and eat.

This isn't to suggest that we were doing a whole lot of other things on days one and two, but on day three, we emphatically resolved to do even less of them. This was partly a matter of desire, as the realization struck that this would be our last day without little ones underfoot, and partially a matter of necessity, as my ladylove wasn't feeling quite up to snuff and pumping her full of alcohol seemed like it might not be the best idea. So we rolled out of bed late in the morning, with a little disappointment I cancelled our winery appointments for the day (not too much disappointment -- the promise of sleep is incredibly seductive these days), and we took a quick jaunt down to St. Helena to look around and grab lunch at Market, about which I'd heard some good things.

Bay Shrimp CocktailDominic Armato

Market's a pretty laid back little joint, right on the main drag in downtown St. Helena. Though clean and almost a little elegant, it never projects an upscale vibe, particularly at lunchtime when sandwiches dominate the menu. But I can see how it might come across as a little less casual and a little more classy at night when the lights are dimmed and folks dress accordingly. The menu's pretty typical for what I've seen in the valley... New American, very seasonal, the usual. Of course, it provided me with an immediate issue because I'm not a big mac and cheese guy, and yet mac and cheese is a dish that they're known for. After hemming and hawing for a bit, our server sensed my consternation and offered to start us off with a side of it. Perfect! I didn't regret not having it for my main, but I can see how many would. It's a very loose, creamy rendition with cheddar, Parmigiano Reggiano, plenty of minced herbs and a horde of tiny bits of crisp bacon, with a breadcrumb top. Upscale mac and cheese interpretations are a dime a dozen these days, and for all I know these guys were way ahead of the trend, but either way there's no denying that it's a particularly enjoyable rendition thereof.

Fish and ChipsDominic Armato

While my ladylove went with a beet and blood orange salad -- perfectly delicious, if exactly what you'd expect -- I attacked their bay shrimp cocktail. It's got some punch, which wouldn't have surprised me if I'd bothered to do my research and learned that the chef/owner, Eduardo Martinez, is a native of Mexico. It may not be what I think of as your run-of-the-mill mariscos (because, you know, I've traveled extensively through Mexico and am an authority on such matters </sarcasm>), but that's clearly where it is in spirit, with tomatoes, avocado, lime and plenty of chiles. A good shrimp cocktail. Too bad half of the chips were chewy. Sticking with the seafood vibe, I'd been craving fish and chips ever since the Pete's Fish & Chips fiasco, so that's where I went for my main. Three cigar-shaped fingers of freshly-battered cod came on a pile of thin and crispy fries, with all of the usual suspects for dipping. I'm not sure if the fact that it came across as a little more refined than your average F&C was a function of substituting champagne for beer in the batter, or the fish's slender torpedo shape, but it felt just a little fancy. Pure fish and chips at its heart, well-executed, but with a touch of refinement, reflecting its environment. We enjoyed Market. It wasn't especially memorable, but it was a perfectly pleasant and classy lunch spot for a gasto-vacation.

Mushroom Mousse with Porcini CrispDominic Armato

After lunch we wandered down the street to Woodhouse Chocolates, where I was lax in my duties and neglected to take any photos of the wares, but I can attest to the fact that they were both photoworthy and exceptionally delicious. And thus sated, we returned to our temporary abode and crashed out until a scant hour before dinnertime. Following The French Laundry simply isn't fair, and for the task I chose Martini House, a name that somehow feels awkward to me without a definite article in front of it, but apparently that's their official appellation, perhaps because it refers to the establishment's original owner, Walter Martini, rather than the cocktail with which he shares his name. Martini House is undeniably old school, which shouldn't come as any surprise since its official history dates back to 1923. It has a sort of rustic lodge vibe, dim and warm with stone and oak and Native American design elements strewn here and there. It doesn't feel put on. It just feels like the place has been around for a while. But what intrigued me about Martini House, other than the amount of love it seemed to engender on a number of food boards, was that chef Todd Humphries is apparently a total mushroom freak, and in addition to a seasonal tasting, he always offers a mushroom menu. If it weren't already known, the man doesn't wait long to betray his mycological tendencies. Each course is listed by the focal mushroom's scientific name. Clearly, I'm obligated to do the same.

Cream of Mushroom SoupDominic Armato

Of course, this meant that my dinner selection was a foregone conclusion. Well, except for one issue. In puzzling fashion, the cream of mushroom soup that's become something of a house signature dish isn't actually a part of the mushroom tasting. Huh. No matter. Next to its listing on the a la carte menu is an option for a demitasse serving of the soup for $3. Perfect! We'll start with that, please. Though in fact, we started with an amuse of button mushroom mousse on puff pastry with a porcini crisp. A silky mousse bracketed by two crisp elements, the button mushroom's uncomplicated flavor shining through, it was a very nice amuse and I especially like that Humphries doesn't hesitate to utilize the lowly button mushroom. We then moved on to the cream of mushroom soup, which probably deserves its reputation. The mushroom flavor is potent, derived -- I suspect -- from a careful mixture thereof, and it's matched by a bracing jolt of sherry, yet the soup isn't so heavy as to be cumbersome. Served scalding hot with a light froth on top, the demitasse cup somehow seemed even more appropriate than a bowl.

Pleurotus EryngiiDominic Armato

My first course of the mushroom tasting, Pleurotus Eryngii, could, I suppose, best be described as a salad, but only in the broadest sense of the term. It consisted of olive oil poached king trumpet mushrooms with dabs of whipped mascarpone, artichoke, slivers of radish and enormous olives, dressed with Meyer lemon. Unsurprisingly, given Humphries' reputation, the mushrooms are skillfully handled. The olive oil poaching preserves their delicate flavor and dense texture, making them rather satisfying as the centerpiece, which they are. The centerpiece, that is. Which is something I greatly appreciate. Though strewn about with a myriad of (well-matched) compatriots, there was no question about what anchored the dish.

Morchella EsculentaDominic Armato

Next up, Morchella Esculenta. Morels. And what's not to love about morels? The funky appearance, unusual texture, flavor that brings the forest floor along with it... small wonder they're so prized (not to mention expensive since, like truffles, they stubbornly resist cultivation). Here, they were simply sautéed and laid upon a sunchoke soup, creamy in texture if not overly so in flavor, and finished with a drizzle of honey. In the case of morels, it was a wise choice, I think, to keep the rest of the dish fairly uncomplicated. Sunchokes and cream are natural partners for morels. The honey struck me as less conventional, but I definitely enjoyed what it brought to the dish. The flavor of the morels didn't come out quite as much as I would have hoped, and whether this was a matter of product or process, I don't know. But an enjoyable, well-conceived dish.

Grifola FrondosaDominic Armato

The star of the menu, a singular fist-sized Grifola Frondosa (hen of the woods or maitake), was dropped into an Indian-spiced palette. Sitting atop a creamed cauliflower puree with potatoes, caramelized cauliflower florets and diced turmeric-spiced apple with cumin, cardamom and some other usual suspects, I believe, the mushroom itself was really beautifully done. Pan-roasted, it had taken on a very deep, intense flavor and the edges -- of which there are many on a maitake -- had been lightly crisped to provide a great texture. The combination of flavors was certainly no great reach, but the dish was beautifully prepared and presented, and I appreciated that the chef took pains to design a satisfying dish, which is always a little more difficult when it comes to vegetarian entrees.

Lactarius RubidusDominic Armato

Dessert took advantage of what I consider to be one of the coolest foods ever, Lactarius Rubidus, the candy cap mushroom. I actually wrote about candy caps a while back, including a recipe for the dessert that clinched Iron Chef Mushroom for me. Candy caps are a pretty typical-looking and tasting red mushroom when fresh, but as they dry, they take on an intense maple flavor. Make something with powdered candy cap mushrooms, and people will swear up and down that there's maple syrup in it. While I did cheesecake, Humphries did a panna cotta with caramelized banana and candied bacon. Maple, banana, bacon... of course it worked well. And while the surprise that I expect catches many was lost on me, I loved seeing a great use of one of my favorite ingredients.

I really had a lovely meal at Martini House. Being only 24 hours removed from The French Laundry kind of skews your calibration a bit, but I suppose one of the best ways to follow a dinner like that is to have something a little unconventional, done uncommonly well, and that's exactly what the mushroom tasting was. My only complaint would have been that I could have used another course or two, perhaps partly because it was a completely vegetarian tasting to which I'm somewhat unaccustomed, but as is always the case with these types of things, your mileage may vary. At $64, including the soup we requested, I certainly don't mean to criticize price performance. I wouldn't hesitate to go back not just for the mushrooms, but to try some other items on what looks like a rather nice menu as well. Of course, if you're especially keen on mushrooms, that pretty much makes Martini House impossible to skip.

Our last full day in the Napa Valley was complete... but we still managed to do a little damage on the way out the door. Day four tomorrow.

Napa - Day I   |   Napa - Day II   |   The French Laundry   |   Napa - Day III   |   Napa - Day IV

Market
www.marketsthelena.com
1347 Main Street
St. Helena, CA 94574
707-963-3799
Sun - Thu11:30 AM - 9:00 PM
Fri - Sat11:30 AM - 10:00 PM
Martini House
www.martinihouse.com
1245 Spring Street
St. Helena, CA 94574
707-963-2233
Mon - Thu5:30 PM - 9:00 PM 
Fri - Sat11:30 AM - 3:00 PM5:30 PM - 10:00 PM
Sun11:30 AM - 3:00 PM5:30 PM - 9:00 PM

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