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March 19, 2010

Napa Valley - Day IV

The Avenger Dominic Armato

Napa Valley's a big place. You're going to be doing some driving. Our chariot? A Dodge Avenger. Which is now officially my favorite rental car of all time, simply because it made "To The Avenger!" an entirely appropriate thing to say whenever it was time to leave. It pained me to return that car. Well, maybe a little bit. (Okay, not so much.)

The Avenger figured prominently into our final day, a slow migration south to Oakland International airport, hitting as much tastiness as we could along the way, which, sadly, wasn't much. We... uh... slept in. And just like that, the Fatted Calf would have to wait until next time (tactical error). But lunch is non-optional, and Mustards Grill seemed like a good place for a pit stop.

Caesar SaladDominic Armato

That's the vibe they're going for, anyway, tongue firmly planted in cheek. Mustards is a roadside grill -- an "American Grill" -- and it features the casual cuisine of Cindy Pawlcyn, a local warhorse who's suddenly a little more widely known because of her appearance on Top Chef Masters (she's the one who thought it would be a good idea to make menudo while up against Bayless in the first round). I knew of her before TCM, knew she had her fingers in a number of successful San Francisco eateries, but I didn't know much of her style nor had I had a chance to try any of her restaurants. These days, she runs three joints up in the Napa Valley, of which Mustards is the unofficial flagship. It has a reputation as the kind of place the locals go to eat, though the fact that it has that reputation suggests to me that they probably don't. At least not anymore. But all speculation about the dining habits of the Napa locals aside (feel free to jump in, anybody who actually knows what they're talking about), it's known as a good place to feed yourself when you get tired of fussy presentations and tasting portions, and day four is typically when you start to feel like you could use a big chunk of something, so that's what I got.

Octopus, Salami and Apple SaladDominic Armato

My ladylove started with a straight-up Caesar salad, which I would have jumped on too had it not been for the special I couldn't resist. Full leaves of crisp romaine, chunky croutons, slivered cheese, creamy dressing -- it's not the pinnacle of the form, but it hit the spot. Meanwhile, I went with an octopus salad which was plated with salami, apples and greens. The dish was one of an assortment of "Greek" specials, bright with lemon and oregano, and frankly I thought it was a nice combination. Only problem was that it had the least octopus of any octopus salad I'd ever encountered. Which isn't to say it wasn't good. It was. It just seemed kind of like offering a grilled cheese sandwich and serving a reuben. It was a nice dish, it just left me wanting for octopus.

Ravioli with Chanterelles and KaleDominic Armato

My ladylove followed with ricotta ravioli with chanterelles and kale, and the pasta wasn't bad but the sauce, while tasty, was oddly thin. It was more like ravioli sitting in a soup, except that it wasn't served with a spoon. Just a puzzling choice. There were no such identity problems with my main, however. The Mongolian pork chop is a huge chunk of meat sitting on top of a couple of piles of vegetables, all doused with a ton of sauce. Subtlety, it would seem, is not so much Pawlcyn's thing. The chop was heavily glazed with a syrupy sweet concoction that featured hoisin, and it was swimming in a pool of Chinese mustard sauce that was as sweet as it was pungent, and it was a lot of both. Even the sweet and sour cabbage skewed far towards the sweet end of the spectrum. One bite and it was clear that Pawlcyn was trying to buy my love with sugar. And truthfully, though that would normally annoy me, I found myself okay with it. Excessive sugar is usually a crutch, sure, but this wasn't a bad dish. They get a nice smoky flavor out of the oak grill and the sauce's zip did keep it from simply being a sugary mess. I felt dirty about it, but yeah, I'll cop to it. I enjoyed my pork-glazed sugar.

Mongolian Pork ChopDominic Armato

So, you know, hit and miss with a side of guilty pleasure over at Mustard's Grill. Big on flavor, low on restraint, which is all fine and good, but a couple of puzzling choices that made it less than it could've been. The big upshot was that we'd definitely be leaving Napa with full bellies. Well, mmmmaybe not quite as full as we'd like. Clearly, what we needed was more sugar, so we dropped into Bouchon Bakery again a little further down the road. An entire bakery full of sweets and what do I do? I get another éclair. Coffee, this time, which turned out to be an awesome call. Crazy intensity of flavor. The coffee reduction that went into the pastry cream must've looked like freaking maple syrup. And why stop at sweets? I... uh... picked up another "Cuban" for the plane.

Chocolate ÉclairDominic Armato

And with that, our Napa odyssey -- the first of four where we really had some time to absorb the place a bit -- came to a close. The Avenger conveyed us to the airport and we were on our way. It's interesting, we had some fine meals, but with this trip I was left with the impression that while there's obviously some great food here, it's undeniably a *wine* destination. Yes, I know... duh. But one might presume that the two always walk hand in hand... or at least that wine doesn't walk without the food it's paired with. Napa Valley, however, is not so much a food and wine destination as it is a wine destination with some great food. My point is that this isn't a shared stage. More than a couple of times over the course of our trip, we were told that Napa Valley is growing as a food destination, implying that food is second fiddle, and I'd have to say that our experience supports that. The French Laundry is worthy of a pilgrimage, but otherwise there's nothing I can see that makes Napa Valley unique or even exceptional purely as a food destination. You could eat better an hour and a half down the freeway in San Francisco.

Of course, it isn't purely a food destination. It's stunningly beautiful, the culture is just so darn agreeable, and if you're a wine geek as well you can't do much better. Taking the food nerd's perspective, there are plenty of better places to eat, but there are few more enjoyable places to eat well. And there's no question that you will eat very, very well. Heck, I continued my good eating on the plane ride home. The folks around me looked jealous of my sandwich. They didn't know the half of it.

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

Mustards Grill
www.mustardsgrill.com
7399 St. Helena Highway
Napa, CA 94558
707-944-2424
Mon - Thu11:30 AM - 9:00 PM
Fri11:30 AM - 10:00 PM
Sat11:00 AM - 10:00 PM
Sun11:00 AM - 9:00 PM

Comments

Sounds like an outstanding trip. The only place i'd really plug for next time is Ubuntu. Although they've had some chef shuffles over there, making it hard to couch for what it's like at this moment. But here is how it was when I went:

http://beerandnosh.com/2009/07/ubuntu/

It's not just my favorite vegetarian restaurant. It's one of my favorite restaurants, full stop. What it's not, is health food.

- Jesse

Jesse... Believe it or not, I tried. But we didn't want to trek back down to downtown Napa on our first night after the drive up, and they were closed our second and third nights. It's on the very short list for next time. And the fact that you endorse it pretty much makes it a shoo-in... thanks !

Well, i've never had a meal with the laundry man, so i'm in no position to complain about your choice of places to eat. :-)

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