By Carey Sweet
Editor's note: First Bite is a new concept in restaurant writing. This is not a go-three-times, try-everything-on-the-menu report; rather, this is a quick snapshot of a single experience. We invite you to come along with our writers as they—informed, intelligent eaters like yourselves—have a simple meal at an area restaurant, just like you do.
After N.V. abruptly closed last August, Napa area diners wondered what had become of chef-owner Peter Halikas. Just a few weeks later, he reappeared along with his entire staff at Brix, up the road in Yountville.
He revamped the kitchen at the 11-year-old property, then introduced his signature menu, featuring an eclectic Mediterranean-California-French blend with Asian accents. I put the place on my "must visit" list and promptly got too busy to go.
And by the time I finally got there last week, I was too late. Surprise: Halikas had suddenly departed just days before, and in his place was a new executive chef, Carlos Canada. Gone was the Asian flair, and in its place was a pretty straightforward California bill of fare.
Too bad. Instead of the highly sophisticated Sonoma lamb shoulder sous vide with parsnip purée, icicle radishes and fennel jus or the sexy-sounding Fuyu persimmon and pineapple quince salad in vanilla-raspberry balsamic vinaigrette that I had been anticipating, I had tamer choices like roasted rack of lamb ($32) and Boston butter lettuce salad in Champagne vinaigrette ($9). A fine meal, to be sure, but not the exciting promise that had lured me for a 45-minute drive through a rain storm.
An appetizer of PEI mussels ($14) was a highly promising start, bringing almost a dozen plump mollusks bathed in a spicy saffron broth studded with fennel and chorizo—very dunkable with grilled sourdough. The butter lettuce salad slowed things down, an ordinary mound of oversalted greens sprinkled in pine nuts, sliced grapes and julienne Asian pear with no noticeable Champagne sparkle. Then the pizza ($14) came, and it was beautiful, the fluffy crust disappearing under an avalanche of slinky-chewy trumpet mushrooms, dollops of fresh mozzarella, tomato, basil and fiery peppered house-made fennel sausage.
The dayboat scallops ($30) were expertly pan-seared, glistening in brown butter atop a buttery swirl of cauliflower purée studded with capers and crowns of broccoli romanesco. Rack of lamb (no longer on the menu), meanwhile, was three rosy-hued chops moistened with a mild black olive jus over a mound of juicy chard and superbly cheesy spring onion potato gratin.
It was all very nice but highly conventional in this big restaurant that seems more suited for tourists than for fine dining (there's even a gift shop at the entrance, as well as a massive private party space). A gorgeous, giant garden framed by the dining room windows hints of potential pristine vegetable orgies, but what we got was drowned in butter, oil or so much garlic that any earthy nuance was lost.
We ended with a good but entirely predictable chocolate chip cookie sundae ($9), the cookie crumbled into the ice cream and swirled with chocolate fudge and whipped cream.
At the time Halikas took over Brix, he told me that he hoped to liven up what was an ordinary menu in an extraordinary property. Here's hoping chef Canada, or whoever takes the gauntlet next, keeps that dream alive.
Brix, 7377 St. Helena Hwy., Napa. Open for lunch and dinner daily. 707.944.2749.
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