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Martini House, St. Helena (Napa)

Fine | May 30, 2002 05:39 AM

Had a dazzling meal here recently. Most of the dishes we tried succeeded in combining creativity with deliciousness; so often I find the latter sacrificed for the former.

Chilled Pea Soup with creme fraiche & mint (8) could not have been more delightful. Crispy Veal Sweetbreads, sorrel puree, shaved apples, & frisee salad (12.50) rated a rare WOW from this critical diner: salty, crisp organ meat was beautifully complemented by the other ingredients.

Torchon of Foie Gras, macerated dried strawberries, & hibiscus sauce (20) was good but not drop-dead wonderful. (I much prefer the one taste I permit myself of foie gras to be the sauteed fresh version, not the much more intense pate.) Butter Poached Lobster, roasted apsaragus, & (unnecessary) brown butter hollandaise (17) featured generous quantities of the delectable main ingredient (all portions were extremely generous).

With the main courses, we ran into some difficulties: the otherwise skillful kichen crew apparently were unable (unwilling?) to grill the Double Cut Pork Chop with braised garlic sauce, fiddleheads, sauteed green garlic, & German butterball potatoes (22.50) so that it was cooked through (as requested) but still moist. It came out overcooked. There was an unfamiliar flavor/quality to the meat; it tasted almost smoked. Could it possibly have been brined? I agreed to "medium done" for my Sauteed Squab with grilled wild ramps, mousseron mushrooms, creamed sweet corn, and polenta (28), then had to send it back for a requested 5 minutes more cooking; it came back still a touch pinker than I prefer, but no longer soft or livery. The rest of the dish was wonderful, especially the way the layered creamed corn and polenta combined to resemble a moist corn cake. The mushrooms were the only item on my plate that rated less than raves; they had an odd taste, perhaps characteristic of this heretofore unfamiliar variety.

The attentive reader of this post will note the remarkable array of never-repeated fresh spring ingredients the chef chose to complete each selection. To this diner, that has always represented the ideal of California Cuisine, one seldom realized as thoughtfully as on this menu.

My rhubarb tart, with what was called rhubarb compote but had the texture of raw rhubarb, was fine though it tasted as if someone had dumped some gratuitous melted butter on top. The accompanying vanilla ice cream was good but oh-so rich. A lime parfait with passionfruit was a bit weird and a bit chemical-tasting, rich without satisfying. Both were $8. A selection of fruit sorbets after all that rich food would have been wonderful!

Corkage, termed "donation" on the bill, was $15. A paragraph on the interesting if rather talky commentary on the wine list mentioned that some unmentioned percentage went to farmworker housing, a nice gesture. The list itself merits at least 15 minutes' perusal for any enthusiast. A wonderful, large, and varied selection with fascinating categories.(I didn't begin to have time to evaluate pricing.)

On the lovely warm evening of our visit, the restaurant had set up a number of outdoor tables. Not having known about that option, we were forced to accept our window table inside the dining room, the decor of which I'll leave to those whose vocabularies run more to design terms than mine. (Also, it was a tad too dark to make out all the details.)

Crusty rolls were excellent. Service was quite good.

One of the partners came by to apologize for the problem with my squab, which I thought spoke well for management.

The bill, with 2 espressi and one corkage, came to 154 before tip.

One of the few such high-end spots that I left feeling I'd definitely like to return.

One caveat: If you're too engrossed in conversation to notice the printed card at your place setting, you may think that the smiling server with a bottle of bubbly in each hand is OFFERING a complimentary welcoming flute, but each is listed on that little card with a hefty price.

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