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THE RESTAURANTS

Napa's Newest Appeals

The choicest inns, the best new feasting places in the valley where it's almost always high season.

April 11, 1999|S. IRENE VIRBILA | TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC

YOUNTVILLE, Calif. — Until I went up to the Napa Valley recently, I had forgotten just how beautiful spring is in this verdant slice of California wine country. After three days, I wasn't ready to leave. After four, I didn't want to leave. Ever.

The weather was mercurial--showers followed by gold-spangled sunshine and skies with fat clouds scudding across. The landscape was a palette of rich greens, and while the vines hadn't yet emerged from their winter slumber, drifts of brassy yellow mustard grew at their feet, while lone wild plum trees burst into blossom and color.

Of course, visiting the Napa Valley is all about eating and drinking.

The entire valley is your wine cellar. And you won't have far to drive home. Whenever I head north, I try to fit in a lunch or dinner at the French Laundry. I've had some ravishing meals there, and there's nowhere else I'd rather eat. I'm convinced Thomas Keller's Yountville restaurant is not only the best in California, it may also be the best in the country. It's not an experience for everyone, though. It demands a focus and concentration on food that not every potential diner is interested in giving. And it's notoriously difficult to get a reservation.

Two other personal favorites are Mustards, a roadhouse right beside the St. Helena Highway, and Terra, a pretty stone building with French windows on one of St. Helena's side streets. Mustards has been a valley institution for 16 years. One of the half-dozen Bay Area restaurants (Fog City Diner, Buckeye Roadhouse, etc.) founded by chef Cindy Pawclyn and partners, it's a casual grill with a lively scene. Terra is owned by Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani, both Spago alumni, with a strong focus on local wines and food with Asian influences.

This year brings a welcome new crop of restaurants to try, and some are very, very good. Most of the activity has been in the south end of the valley. That may be because Yountville and St. Helena are close enough to the Bay Area that even if you're not staying in the Napa Valley, you can easily drive up from San Francisco or the East Bay.

The biggest success story is Philippe Jeanty's Bistro Jeanty. I haven't found one person who hasn't fallen completely in love with this charming Yountville bistro. Jeanty was the chef at the Domaine Chandon winery's formal French restaurant just outside Yountville for many years, until he left to open this place last year. With its ochre walls, old French posters and a blackboard chalked with the day's specials, it feels incredibly authentic. And also very personal. The walls are hung with photos of Jeanty as a young boy at cooking school, in the kitchens of some of the first restaurants he worked at in France and at Domaine Chandon.

The chef himself is rarely to be seen, preferring to spend his time in the kitchen, where he's turning out soulful, French country food. Tasting the marvelous lamb tongue salad--chunks of tender pink lamb's tongue tossed with fingerling potatoes, tiny green lentils and herbs in a sharp, mustardy dressing--I know I'm in the hands of someone who understands bistro cooking in his bones. I'm still dreaming of the pickled pigs' feet smothered in chopped onion and parsley, and the chilled salad of ripe pears and endive in a perfect vinaigrette. Oh, and his sumptuous coq au vin, chicken cooked in red wine with tiny pearl onions and mushrooms, tastes as if the sauce has been developing for days. There's a graceful rabbit ragout, too, with nuggets of custardy sweetbreads perfumed with garlic, and sometimes a special of beef daube, the well-marbled beef as dark as chocolate, scattered with spring vegetables and served with good mashed potatoes.

Dessert includes a fabulous chocolate mousse creme bru^lee, a perfect rendition of the rich, ivory-colored custard topped with a layer of fine chocolate mousse and caramelized sugar. I have to confess I had more than my share of the creamy rice pudding garnished with golden raisins plumped in Armagnac.

The shame is that I couldn't eat more. I can't wait to come back for the cassoulet and skate in lemon caper butter and whatever else Jeanty feels like cooking.

Debuting shortly after Bistro Jeanty (it's just up the street, in fact) is Thomas Keller's Bouchon, the casual adjunct to the French Laundry owned by Keller and his brother Joseph. The difference between the two bistros is telling. Keller hired Adam Tihany, the country's foremost restaurant designer, and he's created a polished city bistro with tall red shutters opening onto a small terrace shaded by a handsome awning. Regulars linger at the picture-perfect zinc bar, where a waiter deftly opens oysters and arranges chilled seafood on platters of ice. At the entrance, blood red gladioli are bundled into a stockpot. And as you leave, you can make your own card for the restaurant in a machine that embosses the name and phone number on a piece of yellow paper.

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