Monday, May 22, 2006

Julia's Kitchen: Visibly Farm Fresh

500 First Street
Napa, CA 94559
Chef Victor Scargle (formerly chef de cuisine Jardiniere)
Lunch daily except Tuesday 11:30-3:00 pm
Dinner Thursday through Sunday 5:30-9:30 pm

Tried: May 2006

If you want to see Victor Scargle actually prepare your food and ask him and/or his staff questions in the process, the chef's table at Julia's Kitchen is the place to dine. As an extension of the counter by the open kitchen with bar stools, the chef's table allows diners a panoramic view of the chef and his crew at work over the mise en place, expediting table, stove, and oven. The graceful and quietly coordinated action of Scargle's team at work is impressive to see. Though not necessarily a formal fine dining experience, it is certainly a satisfying one.

To start, we received an amuse of smoked duck breast garnished with fresh diced pear. Although I generally prefer non-smoking poultry and seafood, this particular rendition was not bad as the sweet pear was a pleasant counterpoint to the smoky flavor. We then transitioned into the first course of the lunch tasting menu-- poached salmon on a bed of rainbow char stem, cauliflower, yellow beans, asparagus, and carrot, dressed with a verjus vinaigrette. The flavors were clean and beautiful, and the garden freshness of the vegetables (most of which come from the garden right outside the restaurant at COPIA) complemented the sweetness of the soft, moist salmon. The pinot grigio that was paired with the salmon was a bit cloying and sugary, but the dish was perfectly executed.

The poached lobster that followed was also solid. The sweet white corn puree and morel mushrooms sauteed in butter that accompanied the lobster brought out the sweetness and richness of the lobster meat. The red wine reduction that tied everything together was spiced with star anise, lemongrass, and chervil, and matched spectacularly with the Monticello pinot noir that was paired with it.

At this point, the chef served the Sonoma artisan foie gras from the a la carte menu, which we had requested as a supplement to the tasting menu. This is going to sound greedy, but my only criticism of this dish was that there was not enough foie gras. There was barely enough there for me to notice that it was seasoned and seared flawlessly. The huckleberry gastrique, topped with a generous amount of fresh ripe huckleberries, was tasty. Likewise, the buttery brioche and roasted pear puree that accompanied the foie gras worked well, but these otherwise well-executed elements overwhelmed the thin sliver of foie gras, which was and should have been the centerpiece.

The final savory course was pan-roasted ribeye steak, served in slices on top of a mixture of charred brussel sprouts and cipollini onion, accented with bits of pancetta, and accompanied by a potato and cardoon gratin. The gratin was one of the best I have tried, with the gruyere and cream skillfully and smoothly blended with the creamy, soft potato layers and the braised cardoon providing a controlled, gently sharp dimension that cut the richness of the other elements. The only thing I would have liked different was the temperature of the steak, which was on the too-rare side for my taste (my preference is medium rare) and consequently slightly too chewy, but otherwise I loved the flavors and elements of this course.

To conclude, we had a trio of desserts: a mininature hazelnut cheesecake; a shotglass filled with semifreddo and caramel brittle, which tasted like a Snickers bar; and a quenelle of root beer ice cream mixed with salt crystals on a bed of candied peanuts. I appreciated the tastes as much as the novelty of each intriguing dessert incarnation.

Although I found the setting of COPIA a bit antiseptic, I did like touring the herb and vegetable garden in front of the complex, literally right outside Julia's Kitchen, following our decadent lunch. While the tasting menu came out more like a series of multiple dishes than a tasting menu, each dish was well articulated and executed. Service was a bit schizephrenic between casual and formal, and the wine pairings were forgettable, but at $40 for a four-course meal at lunch and $60 for a six-course meal at dinner, it is quite reasonably priced for the level of quality (and quantity-- serving sizes are generous) you get. Enjoy the food and the garden.

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