Review of Pilar
Downtown Napa on a Tuesday evening, a party of four walked in at 6:30. We were seated right away in the tight, pale green room three quarters full with hip Napa senior citizens. No early bird specials, No specials at all, as the menu changes nightly.
Tonight six appetizers included two salads, (butter lettuce and baby spinach), sautéed foie gras, bundnerfleish, whole Spanish mackerel, and steamed mussels. We ordered the three latter with an Italian Pinot Grigio that went nicely with our choices and was reasonably priced ($28).
Thinly sliced bundnerfleish, (air dried beef, similar to bresaola), was fanned on a plate and topped with arugula, shaved Parmagiano-Reggiano, and orange scented olive oil. It was best enjoyed by rolling the meat around a little of the salad and eating together as a roll. This would be easily made or duplicated at home and at $11 it was a little pricey, but good.
Two whole Spanish mackerels, each about six inches long, arrived grilled with a small side salad comprised of fennel, cucumber, lemon, and mint. The slightly charred flesh of the mackerel was set off wonderfully by the fresh, cool, aromatic salad. Here the simple fresh flavors were artistically paired to create a depth of flavor and $9 of simple elegance.
Steamed mussels, $10, came in a romesco sauce with Spanish style chorizo and bits of peanuts. The dish started off as any simple mussel dish but grew in flavor with every bite. As we worked our way down the bowl the sauce became more prominent and showed the intelligent addition of peanuts was a winner. Mussels gone, everyone enjoyed the sauce with bread down to the last drop.
Main Courses ranged from $21 for local halibut, to $27 for Colorado rack of lamb. Other dishes offered were grilled hanger steak, Ivory King salmon, oven-roasted guinea hen breast, and a veal rib chop. We ordered an Australian Trevor Jones Shiraz ($63) to go with the lamb and veal. The rack of lamb was not a rack but actually three good-sized chops beautifully cooked (rare), on a bed of barley risotto with Manchego cheese and roasted pears, and a side of broccoli rabe. The lamb was delicious and when paired with Shiraz--a match made in heaven. The risotto, although a little dull in color and texture, ended up having good flavor because of the cheese and roasted pears.
The veal rib chop arrived with roasted German butterball potatoes and peppercress, all in a little veal jus and drizzled with truffle oil. The aroma of the veal, roasted potatoes, rich veal jus and hint of truffle oil makes my mouth water now. The veal was cooked perfect and complemented rather than over powered by the rich and velvety jus and earthy truffle oil.
Five desserts to choose from at $8 each with 4 coming with homemade gelato--baked chocolate mousse with hazelnut/chocolate gelato, coconut soufflé with pineapple gelato, apricot and blackberry financier with vanilla bean gelato, and Fettucine with strawberry gelato. We ordered the Carnaroli rice pudding with Moscato poached golden raisins which displayed how superior ingredients and technique can make comfort food all that much better and send you home with a satisfied smile.
Pilar is small and tight- Your chair back will touch the diner behind you and you feel like you are in the way the moment you walk in the door, until seated. The room gets louder as the evening moves on. Service was attentive, but unhelpful and our server failed to convey any enthusiasm for the food or restaurant. Questions about which appetizers to share, preparation of main courses, and dessert descriptions were met with short, labored responses. As a first time diner, I look to my server for their knowledge and understanding of the menu and this is extremely important when the menu changes daily, especially when the menu contains several spelling errors and a couple of inaccurate dish descriptions.
Despite these small glitches, the food at Pilar shows an Italian flair for fresh seasonal ingredients, fine French techniques in preparations and a Spanish knack for seasoning and experimentation. This winning combination of the chefs training, heritage, and visions will bring me back for more.