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Where the wine shines


It's all about the wine at Lulu's Kitchen in Napa, although the place also is a small-plates restaurant. That's because Lulu's is located within the larger context of 1313 Main, a lounge and wine bar of considerable delights.

The wine lists -#8212; there are several -#8212; are so astounding that the food almost becomes an afterthought.

The ambiance is sexy, urbane and comfortable, with cool jazz on the sound system and seats at tables and at the wine bar. Servers with ready smiles keep things moving until the room fills up, after which you may wait a bit for someone to notice that your table is crowded with finished plates and clear them away.

Tuesdays from 4 to 10 p.m. is Locals' Night, although you don't have to be a local to participate. Champagne Veuve Cliquot is served -#8212; $10 for a glass of yellow label and $25 for a glass of 2004 La Grande Dame -#8212; along with small bites that vary week to week.

Chef Isaac Coles and sous chef Evan Doyle keep wine in mind when preparing Lulu's food, but they don't presume to pair their creations, leaving that task to the sophisticated palates of their patrons. For starters, they've put together six "Bites."

The first bite lists <strong>Mac and Cheese</strong> ($4, 2 stars) as pan-fried, but the thick mix of commercial pasta and cheese was burned black and bitter on the bottom. The dish uses four delicious cheeses, though, and laces them with pancetta alongside an apple-celery slaw.

A <strong>Lobster Roll</strong> ($4, 3 stars) was bite-sized but buttery-good, with Maine lobster piled on a house-made bun the size of a silver dollar. We split it three ways at our table and wished we'd ordered three of them.

<strong>Moo Shoo Mushroom</strong> ($10, 3 stars) wrapped the subtle flavor of forest mushrooms in a thin rice flour pancake tweaked with a little vinegar and drizzled with a hoisin sauce brightened with yuzu.

The hit of the night, everyone agreed, was the <strong>Smoked Sturgeon Salad</strong> ($15, 3.5 stars) of braised greens enhanced by a bacon-mustard vinaigrette. Bits of egg and pickled onion threw sparks of interesting flavor complements, while the three little slabs of lightly-smoked sturgeon filet gave meaty substance to the greens.

A small dish of <strong>Short Rib Cassoulet</strong> ($15, 1.5 stars) was less successful. The cassoulet's rich sauce made with duck and bacon had a satisfying meatiness, but Christmas lima beans were a little stiff -#8212; what some might call al dente but seemed under-done. The bigger problem was that the braised short-rib meat was chewy and stringy rather than falling-apart, melt-in-your-mouth tender.

For dessert, <strong>S'mores Semifreddo</strong> ($8, 2.5 stars) made a pleasant finish of frozen custard, graham cracker crumbs, and chocolate sauce, all topped with baby marshmallows.

If you're wine savvy, you will be impressed by the part of the wine list called "Prestige Wines by the Glass," and most impressed by three wines called "The Flight of Your Life." They include a 2009 Domaine de la Romanee Conti, from the Grand Cru Richebourg vineyard in Burgundy; a 1981 Chateau Petrus, the most expensive of all the Bordeaux reds, especially when 32 years old; and 2003 Colgin IX Bordeaux blend from the Napa Valley. One-ounce glasses of the three are $300, 2-ounce glasses are $600, and regular 5-ounce pours of the three are $1,500. The bargain on this page is a 2-ounce glass of 1997 Chateau d'Yquem for $85, because Yquem is a foretaste of heaven while we're still here on earth.

Then there's a page of a dozen moderately priced wine flights. Example: The Chard-Array for $19, consisting of small tastes of 2012 Failla Sonoma Coast, 2010 Schweiger Spring Mountain, and 2011 Cru 32 Sonoma Coast chardonnays. After the flights menu are two pages of 30 wines by the glass, each available as 2-ounce and 5-ounce pours.

If all of this doesn't quell your wine fever, ask to see the book of wines by the bottle. It's a thick tome with just about anything you'd want.

<strong>To sum up:</strong> Come mostly for the wine list.

<em>Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review column for the Sonoma Living section. You can reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net.</em>