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Martini House Review (Long)

MikeW | Feb 10, 200405:34 PM

Had a belated anniversary celebration in Napa this weekend and had two fine meals. The best was at Martini House in St. Helena. While I had heard good things, the meal far exceeded my expectations.

I heard mixed things about the décor, but l liked it, a bit like an old lodge, with a downstairs bar you reach through a stairway in the middle of the dining room. We arrived a bit early and started downstairs in “the cellar”. We ordered a cocktail and glass of Domaine Hippylyte Sancerre, a wonderful Sancerre. I noticed a blood orange cocktail that seemed popular and would have tried it but we had to drive. They offered a long,long list of cocktails.

We were seated about fifteen minutes after our 7:30 reservation and immediately given the wine list. The list is immense, 40 pages, broken down my many different categories such as women winemakers, high elevation wines. I love reading wine lists but even I had to admit this was a little overwhelming. I only got through about three quarters through it before I realized further study would risk furor from my dining companion.

After being seated we decided on the menu before choosing wine. We ordered a salad of arugula, frisee, currants, pine nuts and Laura Chenel goat cheese with hazelnut vinaigrette, grilled sardines, duck breast and venison.

After ordering, we asked to see the sommelier rather than deal with the huge list. She recommended a beautiful Dirler 2001 Tokay Pinot Gris Reserve to pair with the salad. A great wine, a good, not great match. The natural match would have been the Sancerre but we felt like trying something different.

On to the food, the salad was the weakest dish of the night by far. Not to say it wasn’t good, it just wasn’t a standout. Not the most peppery arugula. The saving grace was the wonderful creamy goat cheese.

From there, things really got going. The next course was Grilled Monterey Bay Sardines with sectioned grapefruit. A very simple preparation with whole grilled sardines, cooked in their juices. We filleted them ourselves at the table. The dish was spectacular in its simplicity. I am not a canned sardine lover and these fresh sardines tasted of the sea, with the sharpness of the grapefruit a nice contrast. To pair we had one of the oddest wines I have had in a while, a 2001 Moscato Giallo, Bologani from Trentino-Alto Aldige. The wine smelled of dirty gym clothes, but not in a bad way. More in the way stinky cheese is great. This wine paired perfectly with the Sardines.

For our entrees, the sommelier recommended several Italian wines in our price range (and one a bit out of it) and we ultimately let her decide. She of course chose something just above our price cut off with our blessing (why do they always do that). The wine was a 1995 Conterno Barolo Ginestra, $75 off the list, about $45-50 retail. The wine was decanted and was very open upon pouring. This was a beautiful wine, with slight herbal overtones. A bit tannic on opening, the wine smoothed out and was very enjoyable with the entrees. I think this wine would be even better in about three years.

Back to the food. I had a Seared Rare New Zealand Venison Loin with Huckleberry Coulis, Mushroom-Foie Gras Ravioli and Butternut Squash Cake. All I can say is, every restaurant in San Francisco should take notes as to how to serve venison. This was spectacular, two medallions of venison that were fork tender. The meat itself was immensely flavorful and would have been wonderful on its own. I am not always a fan of sweet sauces with venison but the huckleberry compote was restrained and not overly sweet, nor did it fill the plate and overwhelm. Mushroom foie gras ravioli was three medium sized ravioli filled with a chopped mushroom foie gras mixture. Very rich and a wonderful accompaniment. The ravioli were served on a round butternut squash cake that must have been infused with a pound of butter. This really was a perfect dish in every way, and at $26, very well priced.

The other entree was its equal. A Duck Breast with Potato Dumplings, Bacon Lardons, Savoy Cabbage in a Green Peppercorn Sauce. First, the duck was cooked perfectly to medium rare, with a crisp skin. Two large half moon shaped pieces, served atop the savoy cabbage. The skin of the duck was perfect, with a slight crispness and incredible concentration of flavor. The duck itself was spectacular. Not sure how else to describe it, it was just perfect. It didn't need a sauce.

The accompanying potato dumplings must have been pan fried after cooking, as they had a wonderful browned crust. Imagine the best peirogi you ever had. The savoy cabbage was just good, not spectacular, but there was so much going on the plate I didn't mind. Finally, the green peppercorn sauce was a nice accompaniment to the duck, not overly seasoned or peppery so as to not take away from the duck. The duck was well worth the $26.50 price.

The Barolo was a great match to the entrees, and we saved a bit for dessert, the cheese course.

We sampled three, a Red Hawk washed rind Triple Cream from Petaluma, A Ouray Jersey Cow Milk with Butter Tones from NY and a Crozier Blue Cheese. I have never heard of or had Crozier, but will look for it now. I believe it was an Irish Goat's Milk blue and it was super creamy and not overly salty. Great blue. The Red Hawk was from Cowgirl Creamery and apparently won several awards. I see why, also a great cheese. The Ouray was nice but didn’t distinguish itself. The cheese course was served with some sliced bread.

Finally, we ordered a peppermint tea. Nice tea service, with loose leaves in the teapot. So many restaurants cut corners here but that was not the case.

For those of you on an unlimited budget, they offer Ch. d'Yquem for $50 a glass. While tempted after several glasses of wine, I came to my senses and realized I am not on an unlimited budget. They also offer a flight to heaven, with the d’Yquem and two other dessert wines, including a German trockenberenauslese for $50. Pretty unique flight. Many ports, etc are also offered.

Overall Martini House probably most reminded me of Boulevard, which I am a fan of. Not quite as loud and boisterous as Boulevard, but still pretty busy. The big difference is prices, entrees were about 25% less expensive. Overall, a great, great meal, the best I have had in months, and probably in the top 5 in the last year. If you are in St. Helena, I highly recommend it.

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