Let's start with something seemingly inconsequential, like coffee. Most decent restaurants serve good cups of coffee but not good decaf coffee, which can be flat and bland.
And yet as we ended a late dinner with coffee at Goose & Gander, the smart new restaurant that replaces Martini House on St. Helena's Spring Street, the decaf was as good as regular, its rich aroma and full-bodied flavor a gift to us coffee lovers who don't want to lie awake all night jazzed on caffeine.
We shouldn't have been surprised, having sampled the menu. This is high-end, American gastropub cooking from chef Kelly McCown, who used to cook here when it was Martini House and has returned to the revamped space.
If you dined at Martini House, you'll remember that the d?or was a raucous collection of all sorts of oddities jammed into, hung upon, or set on every crevice and surface of the dining room.
All that is gone, replaced by mostly bare red walls. Duck and goose decoys march on the wall above the open-kitchen pass-through along with several pairs of binoculars, giving the room a spare, hunting-lodge look. The result is that the lack of bric-a-brac lets sound bounce around; when the dining room is full, which is almost every night, it can be unpleasantly loud. If the weather is nice, there's a pretty patio outside with lots of seating where you can avoid the hubbub.
Things are crowded but not nearly as loud downstairs in the bar, where master mixologist Scott Beattie devises drinks that are as good to look at as to drink. The Scarlett Gander, for instance, is a fuchsia-colored cocktail containing Hangar One Buddha's Hand vodka, lemon, mint, shiso, ginger, galangal (a relative of ginger) and rhubarb. Beattie's drinks are typically like nothing you've had before, yet wonderfully delicious in unique ways.
There's a fine wine list with dozens upon dozens of current and near-current releases, plus a separate list of pricier, well-aged wines. The 2010 Stony Hill Riesling at $34 and the 2009 Buehler Cabernet Sauvignon for $56 are good wines at a reasonable markup. Corkage is $20, waived if you also buy a bottle from the wine list.
While all of the seven entrees are carefully cooked with great flavor in mind, equal attention is paid to the small plates, and it could be even more fun to string a few of these together and make a meal.
Start with the Mushroom "Wellington" Spring Rolls ($6 **?), in which a mixture of mushrooms and prosciutto is baked in pastry cut on the bias. These savory bites have a rich earthiness that echoes the wild-bird, hunting-lodge d?or and precedes more ethereal delights to come, such as the Wood-Grilled White Prawns ($17 ***?). Caramelized onions in a tomato and pepper piperade sweeten five plump, slightly spicy, panko-crunchy prawns that glisten from an olive-oil aioli. Several slender spears of asparagus lie next to the prawns. If you have nothing else at Goose & Gander, try these prawns, for the flavors come together in a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
On the other hand, the elements of the Seared Scallops ($14 **) were like the proverbial horseman who rode off in all directions. One direction was the flavor of fried green tomatoes, another crispy pancetta, yet another jalape?-cilantro sauce, and another was mashed avocado — with the seared scallops playing the role of the horseman. While the individual ingredients were good, there was no coherence.