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Michael Amsler

Neighborhood treat: Celadon owner/chef Gary Cole has created an intimate restaurant that caters to locals.

Best-Kept Secret

Napa creekside restaurant a hidden gem

By Paula Harris

UNLESS you're in the know, it can be a challenge trying to find Celadon, an intimate Napa creekside bistro tucked away behind Main Street. The place is hidden behind the Main Street Exchange building--you have to walk out back to locate it.

That's little glitch No. 1. Little glitch No. 2 is that the restaurant (although small) does not take reservations. A sign on the window informs customers that "Celadon is first and foremost a neighborhood restaurant--reservations are not needed or accepted."

But once you get over the little glitches, a meal at Celadon, which is quite moderately priced and specializes in global comfort food, is a rewarding experience.

Celadon has a tile patio area next to the water (it's where the Napa River and Napa Creek converge) that would make a choice al fresco dining spot during the warm months.

Inside there's an unusual triangular-shaped dining room that's casually comfortable, with original stone walls, warm wood, and touches of gray-green celadon color as the main decorating themes.

Friendly touches include overflowing platters of tomatoes and of green apples, a big bowl of wine corks, and vases of creamy lilies and baby's breath.

Celadon is obviously not afraid to tout other restaurants since four posters advertising Berkeley's acclaimed eatery Chez Panisse adorn the walls. Our server tells us the Panisse posters are on display because their colors (yes, there's a little celadon in there) blend so well with the dining room decor.

The completely open little kitchen has a cozy feel as chef-owner Greg Cole and his helpers chop, pour, and garnish. Yet the noise level is low and kitchen vibes are relaxed and easygoing.

The tables are set with smooth brown paper rather than starchy white linens. There's a steady stream of customers, and within an hour of opening, the midweek lunch crowd, a totally mixed clientele that seems to consist of mostly locals, has occupied every seat, including at the counter.

THE MENU is divided into clever categories of small plates (appetizers), green plates (innovative salads), sandwich plates, and big plates (entrées).

A generous plate of calamari ($8) is flash-fried so that the squid are perfectly tender--not at all overcooked and rubbery. The accompanying chipolte chili-ginger glaze is a sweet and spicy counterpoint to the warm, lightly battered calamari, and the delicate pickled ginger slices are the crowning touch. One of the most exciting calamari dishes we've had in ages.

Grilled polenta ($7.50) is cooked with three cheeses (Parmesan, mozzarella, and provolone), mushrooms, and winter greens in a balsamic glaze. Two rounds of crisp grilled polenta are stacked with layers of melting cheese in an oversized bowl. There is a tasty selection of mushrooms, tomatoes, and chard around the edges. The dish manages to be rich and luscious without overtaxing the waistband.

The steamed mussels ($8) are enormous suckers! The dark shells are two inches long and almost as wide and are arranged on the plate like shiny black petals. The orange flesh is thick and meaty, with a salty bite that comes not from the ocean, but from the ingenious addition of applewood smoked bacon. The mussels are served in a garlic, tomato, and white wine broth with garlicky grilled bread on the side.

We would have preferred a lighter version of the pan-roasted half chicken ($13.50) than is served. The bird is flavorful and moist enough, but the pan juices seemed rather oily. They serve the chicken with french fries at lunch, truffled mashed potatoes at dinner. The fries were all right, but we think the mashed potatoes would have been a better partner. And the accompanying watercress would have been better without the creamy vinaigrette dressing that fought with the pan juices.

The steamy, nutritious udon noodle bowl ($12.50) makes a healthful, exciting lunch. Shiitake mushrooms, tofu, carrots, green beans, baby sweetcorn, onions, fresh ginger, bean sprouts, and slivers of seaweed float amiably together in an ocean-scented mushroom broth. Quite a treat for vegetarians.

Bittersweet chocolate paté with zinfandel and berries ($5) consists of thickly halved strawberries decorated with powdered sugar and strawberry purée with great slabs of smooth chocolate resting on top. Ver-r-y good.

With it's unusual blend of world cuisines, superior wine list featuring many Californian selections plus some good offerings (five-ounce pour) by the glass, and friendly professional service by waitstaff in white aprons--Celadon is a fine destination for lunch or dinner.

Just be sure to leave extra time to locate the place and procure a table.


Celadon
500 Main St., Suite G, Napa. 707.254.9690
Hours: Lunch, Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner, Monday-Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m.
Food: Global comfort food
Service: Friendly but very professional
Ambiance: Casual sophistication in intimate bistro setting
Price: Moderate
Wine list: Very good selection (mainly Californian wines)
Overall: 3 stars (out of 4)

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From the January 13-19, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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