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Cool Fusion

July 15, 1998|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Celadon is the kind of restaurant you might expect to find in St. Helena or Rutherford or Yountville, the famous Napa Valley wine towns along California Highway 29.

Consider the menu: hip Asian eclectic. Consider the chef: 34-year-old Greg Cole, who is attracting national notice for the inventive dishes he calls "global comfort food."

But Celadon is not in the parts of Napa Valley that make it the state's second-largest tourist attraction after Disneyland. It is in downtown Napa, which attracts a small fraction of the tourists racing up Highway 29 to prettier, more celebrated areas of the valley.

For years, downtown Napa has been known as the place where the workers of the wine industry live. That includes many of the chefs of Napa Valley, Cole among them. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York, Cole, who was raised in Westlake Village, worked as a chef at Robert Sinskey Vineyards near Yountville for six years. When he decided to open his own restaurant, he chose downtown Napa, where leases were more affordable.

And there was another reason. He believed Napans were ready for more challenging menus than the traditional American standards served by the city's chain coffee shops, steak places and fast-food restaurants.

He was right. Cole's dishes--steaming Asian noodle bowls, seafood satay with spicy peanut sauce, delicate frogs' legs and bittersweet chocolate pate made with Zinfandel and topped with raspberries--became a hit with the young professionals who work in Napa's offices and county buildings as well as with vintners from posher parts, almost as soon as his restaurant opened 18 months ago. In October, Celadon earned three of four possible stars from the San Francisco Examiner. And Wine Spectator included Cole in a feature about the nation's new generation of promising chefs.

But not everyone in Napa went for Cole's exotic dishes. Some of the town's older and more conservative diners would go to Celadon, look at an Asian noodle bowl and shake their heads. Their idea of a nice meal, Cole realized, is beef, baked potato, maybe creamed spinach and Scotch.

Instead of rejecting or ignoring their comments, Cole found he could empathize with their wariness. "I love steak," he says.

When the opportunity arose for him to open a second restaurant, he decided on a place that might appeal to the "other Napa." He's opening a steakhouse.

It doesn't hurt that steak is enjoying a meaty comeback. Restaurants all over the country have been selling more steak than ever in recent years. Even supercool Los Angeles chef Fred Eric is making plans to open a steakhouse. "Steak is big again everywhere," says Cole, "but it never went out of fashion in Napa. This is a meat-and-potatoes town."

And so, this summer, 100 yards from Celadon, dozens of workers are restoring a 19th century brick building that Cole plans to open in November as Cole's Chop House.

"I want to do a very cool, very hip steakhouse. The kind of place my parents used to walk into in 1959."

Celadon is known as a creative kind of place, but Cole says the Chop House will be simple: "steak on a plate." Where Celadon's decor is spare and airy, the Chop House will have black leather booths and a mahogany bar.

By running two restaurants differing wildly in attitude, ambience and menu, Cole says, he hopes to bridge both his own split tastes and the split personality of Napa, the valley's largest town and its county seat.

At the moment, Napa is still populated largely by winery workers, civil servants and retirees. But it also is becoming a bedroom community for larger cities like Santa Rosa and even San Francisco. As younger professionals move in, they want more than sandwich shops and American Italian cuisine.

The town's demographics are likely to change even more in three years, when wine baron Robert Mondavi plans to open the American Center for Food, Wine and the Arts in downtown Napa, just a few blocks from Cole's restaurants.

The center will be situated on acres of gardens on the banks of the Napa River. Mondavi predicts it will be the tourist magnet the town has never had, attracting 300,000 visitors a year. They will be able to tour exhibits on the history of food and wine, dine in a cafe that will showcase fruits and vegetables from the center's gardens, meet chefs and attend outdoor concerts.

Cole says the center is bound to transform Napa from the valley's sleepy center for government into yet another tourist stop. But he's not counting on it to keep his restaurants busy. "I'm creating neighborhood gathering spots," he says. This is important to him in part because his own hometown, Westlake Village, is a planned community that, he says, "had no history."

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