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Catahoula and Martini House, Napa Valley

Fine | Nov 18, 200206:56 PM

Have eaten many times at Catahoula, always liking some things, disliking others, and finding everything a bit too--rich, heavy, sauced.

Had a perfect meal there the other night! Good lardon (home-cured, I'd have preferred real good bacon, but just a quibble)-frisee-poached egg-salad (10); excellent salad of just-cooked squid with dried beans, greens,and more (12); one of the best pieces of pork in memory--called "porterhouse" and still moist after being cooked till no pink showed--sweet-glazed and wonderfully garnished with, among other delights, corn-y soft grits (23); housemade potato chips (4.50); two quails, also cooked till no longer pink but still juicy, topped with cornmeal-battered onion rings, and sitting on a couple of al dente leaves of collard atop jalapeno cornbread, garnished with whole cooked yellow carrots (23); and a remarkable dessert of cranberry-blackberry sorbet, coconut granita, and pineapple-something ices, all homemade and garnished with two large delicious cookies--one chocolate-raisin, the other buttery with a dab of berry preserve in the center (8.50). Portions were huge.The chef was acting as host on that evening (?!).

Our first visit to Martini House was last May. The menu last week seemed pretty similar, somewhat surprisingly. I ate pretty much the same things and found everything just a tad off in timing, proper temperature, and perhaps as a result, found a slightly excessive oiliness I did not encounter last time. Sauteed Veal Sweetbreads with sorrel puree (tiny dabs along rim of plate), shaved apples, and frisee salad (13) was very good but not drop-dead wonderful; Sauteed Squab Breast and Leg Confit featured delightfully cookie-like pumpkin ravioli (which I'd have preferred without so much of what I think of as "pumpkin pie spice"--a bit intrusive, to my palate), (not a lot of) chopped chestnuts, braised sour cabbage, and spiced beurre rouge (27). Enjoyable but not WOW! An order of Braised Veal Cheeks with celery root puree, truffle sauce, glazed root vegetables and crispy veal trotters was a bit busy and a bit overly rich and strong, as if the chef felt customers would tolerate the unusual ingredients only if they were gooped up so much they couldn't really be tasted. I didn't taste the other dishes, except for a tiny bite of Wild Striped Bass (26), which seemed pleasant enough.

We did all taste each other's $8 desserts: Cornmeal Crepes Huckelberry Compote and White Corn Ice Cream sounded so much better than it tasted: The huckleberry stuff overwhelmed the delicate crepes so one couldn't really taste them; I pass on commenting on Chocolate Napoleon, since it's really not my thing, except to say that the chocolate flavor kind of overwhelmed what sounded like the more appealing elements of the concoction--hazelnut joconde and caramel mousse; acorn squash madeleine--more like cake than true madeleines--with butternut coulis and maple ice cream was pretty creative and interesting, especially the thin, sweet strips of squash atop the ice cream; favorite was pomegranate sorbet with Moscato d'Asti granite and poached butter pear.

We drank a Tavel Rose (26) from the list and an 85 Rubicon we brought. The first bottle of the former was "corked." The red was more "interesting" than delicious--perhaps not ready yet, perhaps an experimental wine.

One odd aspect of this place is the fervor with which the staff pushes wines: the server brought the list to encourage a glass of sweet wine with an order of foie gras and again with desserts. Another: Despite the fact that both the server and the sommelier were female, the wine list was offered only to one of the two males in our party. It would have been nice if instead we'd been asked who wished to see the wine list first. Perhaps by 3002. Perhaps not.

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