"Surprise me! I'll eat anything!" I told my nice server, Carol, when she asked me if I wanted to hear what was on today's Chef's Tasting Menu at Julia's Kitchen, the comfortable, if somewhat corporate, fine dining room at Copia, the American Center for Wine Food and the Arts, in Napa.
Well, the surprise was that the four-course Chef's Tasting Menu -- where I would expect the kitchen to let loose and try to astonish me -- was so safe and unadventurous, especially compared to the descriptions of several items on the regular menu. I'm reminded that this restaurant is now run by the Patina Group, so, of course, I shouldn't have expected astonishment. That said, I did enjoy my lunch in the country, even as my expectations diminished.
Excellent breads -- thin slices of a rustic white bread studded with green olives, and a darker cranberry-current-walnut bread.
A stunningly simple and perfect amuse-gueule -- a tiny bowl with Summer beans (one fava, one yellow wax and two green beans, perfectly cooked and cut in half) tossed in a Banyuls vinaigrette with maybe three pistachios. I'll have to try this at home, a tad more generously.
The first course was a sauteed sea scallop with small thin discs of melon, in a buttery Verjus vinaigrette, with chopped scallion greens, and drizzled with basil oil, and topped with a fried basil leaf. It was rich, sweet and appealing, but didn't really sing.
The restaurant did offer a wine tasting -- three 2 oz. pours -- to accompany the menu, but none of them sounded very interesting, so I chose a white and a red from the by-the-glass menu instead. The white was a 2003 Trefethen Dry Riesling. It was bone dry and tart with a taste of honey; pleasant but rather one-dimensional, and too dry for either of the seafood courses. I liked it better as an aperitif.
The second course was a chunk of roast salmon, perfectly cooked (rare in the middle), but not very flavorful, on a bed of bright saffron-colored and flavored pearl pasta (little balls, like large couscous), topped with arugula and baby spinach in a lemon vinaigrette. Nice, but...
Then came a Bavette steak (it actually looked to me like skirt steak) with cipollini onions, lentils and some delicious greens from the Copia gardens, that I saw later when strolling around -- "lark's tongue" kale: very small, very green, very frilly leaves. All the components, especially the kale, were quite fine, but again, the dish as a whole was rather lackluster.
Not lackluster was the delicious glass of Monticello Pinot Noir, 2002, from Napa Valley. Lovely cherry flavors that quickly segued into tobacco and saddle leather. Lest anyone think I know anything about wine, I hasten to add that those are about the only flavors I've ever been able to single out and actually name in the Pinots I like best.
Pre-dessert arrived -- a tiny, cylindrical glass with an intense fizzy melon and vanilla ice-cream soda.
My dessert, and punishment for claiming "I eat everything!" was Peanut Three Ways. I tend to be leery of peanuts in any form except salted and dry-roasted. But, as it turned out, I rather enjoyed these delicacies: a peanut gianduja, a tiny rectangle of peanutty-chocolatey goop on a light, crunchy base; a wonderful banana ice-cream with dry-roasted peanuts; and a tiny financier made with crushed peanuts instead of almonds, topped with chocolate. A good espresso topped it off.
The four-course Chef's Tasting Menu is $40. Wine, coffee, bottled water, tax and tip extra.
Maybe I'll save for another posting the big question that remained with me on the drive home -- what on earth is the reason for Copia's existence?