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Restaurants & Bars 14

Martini House, St. Helena

Melanie Wong | Apr 9, 200210:05 PM

Last month I joined an impromptu dinner here with friends after a day in the vineyards. I’d had drinks in the casually inviting and beautiful downstairs bar before but this was my first taste of what the kitchen had to offer. I’ll mention that my companions were winery folks and friends of managing partner, Michael Ouellette, which may have helped them snag a last-minute table on a busy weekend and our sommelier, Lisa Minucci, is a personal friend of mine. However, I don’t think any other special favors were granted --- things were so frantic just trying to keep up with the fast pace. A small table was set for us in the downstairs bar for 5:30pm on a Saturday night. As the fifth person squeezed on the end, I was literally sitting in the entrance way and felt like Martini House’s official greeter! Patrons were three and four-deep trying to get a drink at the bar and the servers made some heroic moves to get food to our table through this crowd. Also, to add to the pandemonium, a camera crew from Wine Country Living was interviewing and taping Michael wanting to catch the weekend vibe. Yet, it all added to the fun of the evening. Soon I was settled in and cozy and didn’t notice the occasional blast of cold air from the outside in the midst of such warmth and gaiety. This is definitely the place for the Valley’s beautiful people to party these days.

Our friend from LA who’s in the wine trade drooled over the list, wishing that all his clients had such a wide-ranging and carefully selected offering of fine wines and spirits. My previous visit here I’d tried the flight of four Tokaji Aszu dessert wines from Hungary – when’s the last time you saw that on a wine list? I had also sampled a couple of small batch bourbons. For this dinner we had carried in some wines and also picked a 99 Sancerre “Mont Damnes” from Cotat to start that was more closed in and less effusively aromatic than we expected. Even five dedicated wine geeks can’t always be right.

For a starter, I picked the ahi tuna tartare. Even though it can be sort of a cliché on Californicated menus these days, I wanted something that would marry well with the Sancerre and was also intrigued that lotus root was listed as an ingredient. I made the right decision – it was a huge hit. This was not a sky-high architectural presentation. Rather the tartare was mounded on a pool of celadon and cream-colored cucumber coulis and fenced in by a circle of upright deep-fried lotus root chips. These were cut from the smallest roots I’ve ever seen, not more than 2” across with the characteristic pattern of tubular holes, and added a satisfying crackle to the mix of textures. The fish was very cold and top quality with a firmish flesh that was cut into a large dice. I can’t even describe the elements of the light dressing other than that they were haunting, elusive and didn’t overpower the fresh flavor of the ahi. The American caviar adorned the plates in randomly placed tiny clumps, served up generously and in proportion to the other flavors. The small patch of microgreens added a bit of peppery piquancy and emphasized the raw uncooked flavor of the preparation. The mix of pureed and slivery bits of refreshing cucumber pulled the whole thing together. The taste I’d offered my friend Oliver earned an emphatic nod and a thumbs up while he was still mid-bite.

I had a sample of his treviso and goat cheese salad. While not as exciting, the balance was perfect and the ingredients clearly carefully selected. I also tried Silvio’s tourchon of foie gras which was suitably sinful and rich.

To go with our big red wines, I ordered the braised veal cheeks as an entrée. Again, a listed ingredient, this time crispy trotters, caught my eye. When first presented, the three silver dollar size veal cheeks looked somewhat skimpy as a serving. But after my initial bite of the cheek and the intensely flavored dark and brooding truffle sauce, I turned to Oliver and said, “this is too rich and concentrated to swallow!” He shot me a smug look that wordlessly said, “just watch me,” as he tucked into his own plate of the same entrée. The veal cheeks melted in the mouth – one could hardly call them meat. These seemed to be made of something else not of the flesh that fills the mouth with wondrous flavor and buttery texture. The veal trotter curiosities turned out to be small nuggets of another other worldy substance that were dusted with cornmeal, baked until the surface is crispy, and used as garnish. When bitten into, the liquid-y interior oozed with deliciously unctuous bits of skin, veal confit and just plain melted fat. This was a combined assault of rich textures and flavors that was off the scale! With a grudging nod to vegetable material, there was a wisp of micro-pepper cress, a thin layer of pureed root vegetables anchored the plate and glacéed thin rectangles of root vegetables were strewn like confetti over the whole thing. Even though laced with butter and not exactly “lite”, more of these would have provided a welcome break from the meat-laden flavors.

I could eat but a third of my entrée, but Oliver did achieve the Clean Plate Club mopping up every bit of sauce with the very good bread on his portion. He looked like he would explode when I said we were ready for dessert! I managed to cajole him into sharing a cheese plate with me (“to finish off the rest of our wines”) and chose Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk, Nancy’s Hudson Valley Camembert, and an aged Spanish goat cheese. These were accompanied by a bit of dried fruits and some walnut bread. All were in perfect condition and the portion was more than two people could consume at the end of a heavy meal. The washed rind Red Hawk was actually a better sample than I’ve had directly from the creamery. We did criticize the maker of the Camembert for stealing a name from the old world. My only complaint here would be that the bread should have been warm and/or toasted.

There’s a wonderfully warm and comfortable feeling here and the kitchen managed to live up to radiant glow of the Kuleto interior. The food and the room were so impressive even when sitting in the basement in the doorway and joustled by crowds. I can only imagine how much more spectacular the experience would be seated upstairs and hope to find out soon.

Martini House [Napa County]
1245 Spring Street @ Oak
(Just west of Highway 29, also known as Main Street)
St Helena
(707) 963-2233


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