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Yountville's casual Protéa puts Latin America on a plate

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NAPA SPICE  Protéa draws on chef Anita Cartagena’s diverse culinary roots. - FLORA TSAPOVSKY
  • Flora Tsapovsky
  • NAPA SPICE Protéa draws on chef Anita Cartagena’s diverse culinary roots.

How do you form an opinion about a restaurant that changes its menu daily? Protéa, a newly opened restaurant in Yountville, poses this riddle of identity.

A small only a few steps from the legendary Ad Hoc, Protéa is the work of chef Anita Cartagena, previously of Ciccio, also in Yountville. Ciccio is all about Italian authenticity, powered by a wood-burning stove. At Protéa, Cartagena, who was born in Puerto Rico, is aiming to pave her own path with traditional and creative Latin American dishes as well as modern nods to Californian cuisine.

Featuring rooftop and outdoor seating and only a few counter seats inside, Protéa clearly positions itself as a casual, daytime spot, meant to be enjoyed under the Napa Valley sun. The decor is simple and bright, with colorful tiles and an eye-catching blue and yellow entryway. The setup is casual—fast service meets elevated menu. You order at the counter and take a number with you, and the food is brought out on metal trays. The menu is a hodgepodge of cuisines and directions, with a strong presence of Mexican hits like tostadas, tacos, empanadas and quesadillas. In addition to those, a Greek salad, french fries and even shrimp ramen stir-fry play along.

We started with two appetizers, coconut shrimp ($14) and Parmesan parsley fries with avocado mousse ($6), which showcased Protéa's mix-and-match cuisines. The shrimp, big and impressive, were crusted in coconut flakes and deep-fried, and served with what the menu described as Bacardi rum piña colada sauce. In reality, the silky yellow sauce had an acidic-sweet quality to it, which went perfectly with the barely salty shrimp.

And while the words "coconut shrimp" didn't do the appetizer justice, the hyped-up fries were a bit of a letdown. Sprinkled with Parmesan cheese and flecks of parsley, the straightforward fries were served with runny, lemony guacamole—not as creamy and rich as mousse would suggest. Dipping fries in avocado turned out to be good, but it's still a rather unremarkable dish.

The pickled steak tacos ($13 for three) were refreshing and satisfying. The medium-sized tacos contained juicy chunks of sirloin, pickled with lime and chilies, tangy tomatillo purée, crispy romaine and crunchy pickled onions. Fresh corn tortillas sealed the deal. I think everything is better with tomatillos, yet you rarely see fresh ones garnishing tacos, so extra points to Cartagena there.

The braised short rib bowl ($15) featured boneless ribs that fell apart at the touch of a fork. They were cooked in a flavorful red wine with tomatoes, carrots and onions and served over steamed bomba rice and garnished with arugula and sweet plantains. The homey, delicious beef, perfectly cooked rice and excellent plantains were all stellar, but didn't come together as a whole.

Yountville needs an easy-going, casual and unbuttoned restaurant like Protéa, and the vibrant, ever-changing menu will keep locals coming. All the place needs is a little consistency and sharper focus on Cartagena's clear talent for Latin American cuisine.

Protéa, 6488 Washington St., Yountville. 707.415.5035.

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