Where have all the big plates gone? Napa's Wine Garden and other eateries make small the new big.
By Heather Irwin
Doesn't anyone serve normal portions anymore? Because when it comes to plate size, small is the new big--as in micro-sized portions that arrive on doll-sized dishes. Not that I'm complaining all that loudly, mind you. I like the idea of lots of little noshes made for sharing. But it must be acknowledged that all this miniature plate-wrangling comes with inevitable food foibles that have reached near epidemic proportions around the North Bay.
For example, there's the "What sounds good to you?" syndrome marked by everyone ordering semibland small plates that each thinks the group will like. Compromise is never a good idea, in my book. I say screw the guy who can't stomach garlic or cilantro. He can order the cheese plate and shut up already.
There's also the "Oh, I couldn't eat another bite" behavior displayed by the ravenously hungry who are politely suffering out of misplaced modesty and goodwill. These folks are marked by their wan and distraught look after a small-plate dinner. Being hungry, however, is better than being labeled the "nonsharer"--that unfortunate who appears pained at the idea of others sticking their forks in her meal, and insists on ordering her own plate with a pinched, prissy face. (Yeah, you know who you are.)
The most common ailment we've found, however, is the embarrassing itching and burning of the "Eyes bigger than my wallet" affliction. This is typically caused by anxiety over not having enough food (see above) or overly zealous waiters looking for a big tip. Watch for these signs: items that seem like a heck of a deal (steak for $8!) and include large portions of microgreens or anything heirloom. These inevitably end up draining your pockets of that pesky cash when adding up the stack of cute but costly little plates before you.
Tragically, science has yet to find a cure for these (and other) small-plate faux pas. The good news, however, is that new menu labels, such as those at Yountville's newest restaurant, Wine Garden, are going a long way toward making small-plate dining safe again.
Neatly organized into six sections, chef Michael Bilger's menu deftly alerts eaters to the rough phylum and class of each of the dishes. The "Ocean and Stream" section, for example, lists six types of seafood plates. "Field and Farm" covers the veggie and cheese landscape. "Ranch and Range" is all about meat, and so on.
Owned by the Nords, one of Napa's premier grape-growing families, Wine Garden is a showcase of their grapes and local(ish) ingredients like Hog Island oysters, quail, pork and field greens. Focusing primarily on American cuisine, the menu takes a dip south with ingredients like okra, cornmeal, bourbon and succotash, but ends up firmly in the fresh, local, adorable NorCal food genre.
Start with oysters (prepared three ways: raw, fried or grilled), regardless of your personal issues about the slimy little buggers. The standout winner is the crispy cornmeal crust topped with chili aioli and little pickled veggies ($10). Four come in an order and are easily one of the best items on the menu, with a knockout combination of crunch, zingy greens and splash of sauce spicier than your grandmother in fishnets.
Here's where the dinner gets really fun. The restaurant offers a decanter of either still or sparkling water (choose sparkling), distilled in-house. Yep, homemade water just like mama used to brew. After your whistle is wetted, check out the wine list, led by a selection of "Fun Flights." Dorky name, cool idea.
The flights reflect varietal and terroir pairings from local wineries that use the Nord family's grapes. With a selection of about 30 wines by the glass from Mumm, Charles Krug, Destino, Elyse, Mayo, Sterling, Merryvale and August Briggs, this is a terrific chance to sample some pretty amazing wines. The "Light and Toasty" flight ($12) was a great first flight, with the absolutely peachy Sauvignon Blanc (Flying Horse, '03), the oaky yet fruit-forward St. Supery '01 Chardonnay and the slightly fuller Destino '02 Chardonnay.
Pairing well with our next dish from the aptly named "Ocean and Stream" section was the trout almondine with summer beans ($10), which our server steered us toward, but the Boy had his heart set on the Florida rock shrimp hush puppies with spicy remoulade ($9). Boy's spidey-sense on this dish was right on, as we were subsequently presented with a pile of shrimp-filled mouth poppers topped with fried lemon peel and a kicky sauce that both bit and cooled with creaminess. My only critique is the lack of local seafood (ahi, Idaho trout, Maine crab, Florida shrimp, Alaskan halibut are offered), though that argument, I'm told, depends on the day, as the menu changes with what's fresh.
Acquiescing to the Boy's dagger eyes at our not having ordered the Pinot Noir flight, we ordered the Pinot Cubed flight, with an unfiltered and very funky (not in a good way) Green Truck '02. The "oh my God" moment of the night was the first sip of the Elyse '02, followed by the August Briggs '02. Sheer heaven.
Hopping back from heaven to the Garden (which you'll see on the acre or so of land surrounding the restaurant), we next tried the fried green tomatoes and okra with pickled vegetables ($7) from the "Field and Farm" section. I'm not that familiar with fried green tomatoes, but anything covered in cornmeal and fried up crispylike tends to be OK in my book. The tomatoes (which were sort of red and green) were soft and warm, with lots of tangy flavor, and the okra (again, not a staple in my house) was, well, very okra-y--sort of green and grass-flavored. Realizing that perhaps we were working the fry cook a bit hard, we considered how the BLT salad ($7) makes good use of seasonal heirloom tomatoes, Point Reyes blue cheese and bacon. Mmmm, bacon.
Making our way through the menu, it was a toss up between the molasses glazed pork belly with a Santa Rosa plum compote ($10) or the grilled hangar steak ($13). What edged the steak out front was its pairing with a pile of sweet and succulent red onions and the bacon and chive "smashers" (mashed potatoes, roughly, to you and me).
On the side, the macaroni gratin with Vermont cheddar, ham and cherry tomatoes ($5) was an evil sin of a dish but a fitting addition. Bubbling tantalizingly in its little copper pot, the Boy dared me--dared me, ha!--to eat it single-handedly. Though my stomach failed me and I ended up in shame, I would have gladly licked the pot clean if I could have.
For dessert (the pain! the agony! where's my spoon?), the peach upside-down cake with ginger ice cream and bourbon vanilla sauce ($10) nearly cost me my hand as the Boy lunged, licked and savored this down-home dessert. The snap of the ginger ice cream saved it from being overly saccharine and gooey. I was more interested, however, in the "Ode to the Diner" (a reference to the restaurant's former life as the Yountville Diner), featuring two buttermilk milkshakes topped with candied cherries ($6).
Two small additional side notes about the Wine Garden make me love it even more. First off, unlike most other Yountville eateries, kids are welcome here, and not in a "we'll tolerate the brats" way. There is a funky little kids menu that includes a hand-dipped corn dog (the Boy had to promise not to order it) and seven-year-old-approved chicken fingers and veggie sticks. How very refreshing.
Additionally, check out the bathroom. Though I can only speak for the women's room, it's worth looking up at the domed ceiling which is topped with a cork and a corkscrew coming through it. Suddenly, you're in a wine bottle, er, restroom. Either way, it's fun. Just remember to wash your hands.
Wine Garden, 6476 Washington St., Yountville. Open daily, 11am-11pm. 707.945.1002.
Other Small Sizers
Barndiva (231 Center St., Healdsburg, 707.431.0100) has a similar style of breaking up the small-plates menu, though its plates are categorized by "Light," "Spicy" or "Comfort." By choosing your meal according to similar ingredients or themes like sandwiches or fish, you can order your food by mood.
Willi's Seafood (403 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg, 707.433.9191) features killer small plates of seafood like spicy calamari, tuna tartare with coconut milk and a lobster roll sandwich.
In October, the former Popina Restaurant in Sonoma will reopen as 707 with a small-plate menu broken up into sections similar to the Wine Garden's ("Dairy," "Ranch," "Farm," etc.). We'll look forward to chef Randy's triumphant return (and hope that his prices will be a little more manageable to us peons this time).
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From the October 6-12, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.