Chef Octavio Barrera isn't exactly a gushing conversationalist when he sits down for an interview with me one recent sunny fall afternoon. We're parked at a comfortable table on the patio, under the lacy shade of trees, and he's brought me a bottle of chilled Pellegrino, which he politely pours into my glass.
He smiles at me, properly chef-handsome with his dark hair, dark eyes and a well-groomed goatee, then folds his hands in front of him.
I grin at him, poise my pen and wait. I've just asked him what I think, after the countless celebrity chef interviews I've conducted over my years as a restaurant writer, is the ultimate interview floodgate: "Tell me about yourself."
Normally, this is the cue for a chef to let loose with all kinds of fantastic childhood stories. Romantic tales are most common: dragging on Mother's apron as she whipped up feasts fit for royalty using only a humble chicken (raised in her own yard, of course, with its neck wrenched by her very own slender hands), herbs (plucked seconds ago from her own garden) and perhaps a tablespoon of olive oil (pressed from a tree she raised from a sapling that she hid in her bosom as she voyaged from some faraway homeland).
Except now. Barrera smiles silently, the seconds ticking slowly by, until I finally prompt, "Your background. How did you get into cooking? Why did you want to be a chef?"
His mouth flickers upward, he nods happily and my pen fingers grip in anticipation.
"I like to cook," he says.
The topic I'm pursuing is Barrera's new restaurant, Cuvée Napa. Since opening last April, the restaurant hasn't exactly received a flurry of glowing media coverage. Its accolades in the few publications that mentioned it included words like "familiar," "comfortable" and "giving diners what they want." Its food has been described as "standard fare" and "pleasant." Its theme is defined on Cuvée's own website simply as "new American favorites."
Yet I've come here, drawn like some bistro groupie, not so much for the menu--the typical chicken, salmon, lamb, steak and such--but because the space has a blessed address.
It's cradled in the bosom of Napa's burgeoning downtown, in the heart of the city's rapidly growing culinary epicenter made up by the COPIA campus, sophisticated restaurants like N.V. and Pilar, and trendy wine bars like the new Stave.
More importantly, for a recent Arizona transplant like me, it's the former home of Restaurant Budo.
As NorCal foodies will remember, Budo was the fanciful Asian-California creation opened by chef James McDevitt in 2004. McDevitt, like me, was a Valley of the Sun escapee, and when he left Scottsdale for Napa, it was like someone had stolen our favorite toy. In the late '90s and early '00s, McDevitt's Scottsdale eatery, Restaurant Hapa, was the place for creative dining in Arizona, offering something we desert rats had never really seen before: fusion cuisine.
Upon hearing his new home was in Napa, I, like other Arizona food writers, imagined an Oz--über-glamorous wine country! Budo was to be next to a "luxury boutique resort," I recall reading, "part of the COPIA culinary showcase." One Phoenix restaurant writer gushed that McDevitt was "heading to Napa big time . . . making a national splash." It was quite the circus.
Except now I'm here, and that "resort" is just the River Terrace Inn, looking like a nice roadside hotel. McDevitt's fusion concept was a bit too outrageous for down-home Napa, it seems; while critics liked the place, the dining crowds never showed, and after the New Year's floods did their damage, McDevitt closed it this spring and moved to Le Cirque in New York.
So now I'm sitting in a restaurant that, while quite charming, looks like any other restaurant. Gone is the lavish interior that was Budo, the refined dining room stripped down to more causal banquettes and wood tables. There are no breathtaking dishes, like Budo's signature rack of baby veal with crisp sweetbreads in a pool of fresh water-chestnut purée and edamame foam. On any given night, Cuvée caters to folks noshing on staples like fried calamari, iceberg wedge salads, pork chops and spice-rubbed skirt steak.
And I'm trying to pull a lavish, Food Network-style story out of a chef who obviously would much rather be back in his kitchen, working.
So where's the hook? I ask Barrera. What makes this place special?
He looks at me like I'm from another planet. As we've been chatting, his restaurant has been filling up with diners. Reservations are a must.
"I like to cook," the St. Helena native repeats. "I just do it better than anyone. Wine country, modern American food. It's what people here want to eat."
While other chefs may jump through crazy culinary hoops to gain acclaim in their town's rapidly expanding spotlight, Barrera is pure Napa. He focuses on simple but stunning chipotle-honey barbecue ribs with orange and jicama salad, buffalo mozzarella with marinated sweet peppers, and grilled lamb sirloin with ratatouille. He emphasizes big rib-stickers like filet mignon with grilled zucchini and wild mushroom red wine sauce, and eternal favorites like a hulking, beefy, 14-ounce rib-eye fancied just a tad with Argentine chimichurri sauce and paired with thick herb fries.
Cuvée is all about local diners, Barrera explains. Regulars who want a neighborhood place where the chef shops the farmers market around the corner, and offers specials like "3 [courses] for $30 Wednesdays" and a daily "Napa cheese steak" with a pint of beer for just $8.
After my first dinner there, I finally get it. When food is this sumptuous, it doesn't require a "big time" splash or circus. This is real, gorgeous Napa cooking. It's why the place is packed.
Finally, I do get Barrera to admit that, yes, he did have a beloved grandmother who loved to cook for her huge family. And, yes, he got a kick out of helping her out at her many parties. He's got that fabled chicken dish, too; his is pan-roasted golden in lemon herb butter, flooded with natural juices and paired with grilled corn, sweet peas and fava bean succotash.
But ultimately, he's not here to help me--a silly newbie from Scottsdale--craft a romantic chapter in my Napa-Oz novel. He's got a busy kitchen to tend.
Address: 1650 Soscol Ave., Napa
Hours: Open for lunch, Monday-Friday; dinner, nightly
From chef Octavio Barrera, Cuvée Napa
Barrera makes his chorizo from scratch, but home kitchens will appreciate the ease of store-bought. For an even easier recipe, use packaged roasted tomatoes.
2 pounds Manila clams, cleaned
6 ounces best quality chorizo sausage
2/3 c. roasted Roma tomatoes
2 tbsp. garlic, sliced nickel thick
8 ounces extra virgin olive oil
1 medium Yukon gold potato, parboiled until soft, cut into small cubes
6 ounces dry white wine such as a Spanish Albariño
salt and pepper to taste.
One day in advance, roast tomatoes. Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Cut a small amount of each end off tomatoes, then cut in half crosswise. Stand each tomato half cut-side up on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Drizzle each tomato with olive oil, salt and pepper, and a pinch of dry oregano. Place in oven for two hours or until shriveled and 1/3 original size. Slide skin off tomatoes, crush them roughly in your hands and set aside in refrigerator.
Remove chorizo from casing and crumble meat into a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Let cook until fat has rendered and meat is cooked, but not fried crisp. Set aside.
Fry potato in 2 ounces olive oil in a nonstick skillet until brown and crispy. Season with salt and pepper, then remove from pan and drain on paper towels.
In a medium-heavy saucepan with a lid, add 4 ounces olive oil and heat to medium. Add garlic and cook until lightly brown, approximately 45 seconds (if garlic gets too dark, it will be bitter). Add chorizo and roasted tomatoes, and continue cooking for another 45 seconds. Add clams and white wine. Cover and cook until clams open. Season with salt and pepper and add potatoes. Give the dish a quick stir, then divide evenly into warm soup platters. Drizzle remaining olive oil over dish and serve. Serves two as a main dish, four as an appetizer.
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