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[whitespace] Bon appetit: Waitperson Ian Hall greets a diner at Brava Terrace in St. Helena, a popular casual-chic bistro.

Photograph by Michael Amsler


Brava Bravura

St. Helena restaurant serves a vibrant mix

By Paula Harris

IN THE SUMMER months Brava Terrace's romantic garden patio with its cheery canvas umbrellas and leafy trees is the optimum place to dine, but today we request a table by the striking oversize stone fireplace. It's surely the coziest section of the main dining room.

As we enter, the savory aroma of grilling food wafts toward us, but in an appealing, appetizing way. This venerable wine country restaurant is a far cry from a greasy spoon.

Brava Terrace, open since 1990, is a Californian-Mediterranean bistro with a casual elegance. It has a snug lodge-type feel incorporating rustic decor in comfortable warm colors. The walls are alternately deep red and sun-drenched yellow. There's a vaulted ceiling with low beams and track lighting to augment the glow from several pretty metal lamps.

The menu here emphasizes the wine country cooking of France, Italy, and America, using local ingredients. In addition to the regular menu offerings, Brava Terrace serves up different specialty dishes for each night of the week.

For instance, Mondays feature a seafood special from the fish market, Fridays offer sautéed Sonoma rabbit with lentils du pays and sage mustard; and classic coq au vin is served on Sundays.

One of the best features is the intelligent wine list, which helps immensely with food and wine pairings. Each varietal is categorized from lighter, fruitier, and milder to fuller, oakier, and stronger, in a wide range of prices.

Another highlight is the wonderful crusty bread baked daily for the restaurant by sister establishment Napa Ovens in Calistoga.

WE BEGIN with fried calamari and rock shrimp ($7.95), piled in a crisp white linen napkin with folded sides. This comes with a spicy marinara sauce and a house tartar sauce with a hint of lemon. The seafood is delicately prepared and has a light, nonoily crunchiness.

Endive and pear salad ($8.95) features paper-thin slices of pear and fine slivers of fresh chopped endive paired with candied walnuts (which have a great toasted-buttery flavor), all bathed in a light sherry vinaigrette.

It makes a very pleasing starter.

The fried homemade chips ($4.75) are not so welcome. They're covered with melted Danish blue cheese and dark-colored basil pesto--two additions that take the flavor way past merely tangy to unpleasant overkill.

Instead, try the steamed Manila clams, smoked mussels, and pieces of fish of the day ($10.95). This particular day we're blessed with flaky white sea bass and moist pink salmon. The dish comes with tomato cubes, fennel fronds, snipped chives, and a lemon slice, in a pale, delicate chardonnay broth with grilled herb bread on the side.

Add a green salad and you could make a light meal of this steamy fragrant bowlful.

So often the only entrée choice for vegetarians dining out is a feeble-flavored pasta, so it's with some trepidation that we order the penne pasta ($12.50), with "positively no oil or butter," according to the menu description. We're delighted to discover the dish is not bland at all. In fact, the sauce--chock-full of tomatoes reduced in balsamic vinegar and garlic--is zesty and intense with a smattering of fresh sweet basil.

Note: Full-blown vegetarians may be unsettled to discover that both the white bean and vegetable soup and the creamy polenta offered are prepared with chicken stock, so be forewarned.

THE CHICKEN HALF ($15.95) is rather pricy for chicken, even though it's a generous and tasty portion. The bird is roasted with a sweet honey glaze, and it comes with braised leeks and red peppers and extra-smooth mashed potatoes.

The grilled pork chop ($15.75) is unfortunately tough, thick, and chewy. It's studded with tart cranberry halves and napped in a port wine sauce. The accompanying coarse golden polenta and gorgeous roasted root vegetables are the saving graces here.

Brava Terrace offers a rich but simple rendition of coq au vin ($15.95). Two large chicken pieces, potatoes, and mushrooms are stewed in a thick red wine sauce with a sprig of fresh thyme. It's a luscious casserole, but we missed the pearl onions and bacon pieces that often are part of this dish.

For dessert we go chocolate. A bittersweet chocolate mouse cake with raspberry sauce ($5.95)--an impressive chocolate half dome with a soft trufflelike center--hits the mark. As does the chocolate-chip crème brûlée ($5.95), which has a layer of chocolate on the bottom rather than chips throughout and is garnished with fresh slices of citrusy-sweet kumquat.

A glass of plum- and violet-scented Rosenblum 1996 black muscat ($6/glass) offered on the dessert menu is wonderful paired with any of the chocolate desserts.

It's a fitting conclusion to a mostly satisfying meal.


Brava Terrace
Address: 3010 St. Helena Hwy. N., St. Helena; 963-9300
Hours: Thursdays-Tuesdays, noon to 3:30 p.m.; 5:30 to 9 p.m.
Food: Rustic but refined French, Italian, and American influences
Service: Attentive and knowledgeable
Ambiance: Casual-chic bistro
Price: Moderately expensive to expensive
Wine list: Extensive, wine list well designed to help pair food and wine
Overall: 3 stars (out of 4)

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From the April 20-26, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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