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Napa Valley Grille for dinner

cvc | Nov 29, 200402:09 AM

Growing up on the Westside and attending UCLA, I can speak to the past pleasures of dining in Westwood Village. Whether family outings at The Chatam, or the first foray into Indian cuisine via Paul Bhalla's, or even that weekend burger at Woody's, Westwood was the perfect college community for good eats and first run movies. Much of that has changed over the years but with the opening of Napa Valley Grille and Palomino, a Whole Foods Market, and Peet's where once sat the Bratskellar, there's been a ray of hope that things were on the upswing. Alas, my first visits to NVG and Palomino when they first opened only supported my coporate restaurant fears-sleek settings, great locations, mediocre food-until now. Napa Valley Grille, at least, just became the biggest restaurant surprise since Eric Klein took over the kitchen at Maple Drive.

With out-of-towners to entertain at the end of a Thanksgiving weekend, we thought we'd avoid the crowds at the Grove and Century City, and get a bite and a movie in Westwood. Afterall, hadn't we heard that Anne Conness and Natasha MacAller (executive chef and pastry chef, respectively) from Em Bistro had recently taken over the kitchen? We loved their take on American cooking there.

Appetizers included perfectly seared scallops with a warm peppery relish and a wonderful tuna tartare with avocado and wasabi. I went onto the clam chowder that was served tableside for $9 with Littlenecks in the shell and a nice chunky broth of potatoes, vegetables and applewood smoked bacon. Others had the asparagus soup with mushrooms, a goat cheese salad with a wonderful vinaigrette and a good Caesar, all for around $9 each. The server steered me to the New Zealand Snapper for $20 that had just been added to the menu. Lightly seared with a cauliflower gratin and green beans, it was fresh and flavorful. Others had the crispy chicken with a light addition of gruyere and prosciutto, served with Brussel sprouts and mashed potatoes for $17.

We finished with a pumpkin bread pudding with homemade maple ice cream and pumpkin seed brittle that could become a holiday tradition. Other desserts included a wonderful Heirloom apple crisp with vanilla ice cream, a green plum tart with creme fraiche and a chocolate trio that included a small truffle cake, chocolate ice milk and a chocolate pistachio pudding. Desserts were $8 and bountiful.

Wine offerings by the glass included a William Hill Chard and a Cameron 'Mercury Rising' both for $10, but there are many selections.

As The Water Grill downtown has proved, there's much to be said for corporate comfort in the dining room when the kitchen is in hands this good. We arrived without reservation and were treated as if we did. There was a large party in a private dining area. Everyone was pleasant and it's reassuring to sense that management and service staff act as one.

My only minor complaint is the faint opera music in the background. It's noticeable enough to be distracting rather than distinctive. This is a big open restaurant and a more upbeat contemporary sound would be better. We compared it to that 'e' in Grille. Why is it there?

Otherwise, Westwood just became our new destination dining spot.

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