Kitchen Door in Napa is casual, food wonderful, prices great
Food this good shouldn't cost so little.
I'm talking about the food at the Kitchen Door, the brand-new restaurant at the Oxbow Public Market in Napa. It offers the best price-to-quality ratio of any restaurant in Wine Country.
Chef Todd Humphries and restaurateur Richard Miyashiro call their place a soft-service restaurant, an about-face from their work together at the very upscale Martini House in St. Helena. Soft-service means no reservations, no tablecloths, no waiters. You order at the counter from the menu listed on large, overhead, lighted panels, as you would at a lunchroom. You carry a stand with your order number on it, paper napkins and utensils to your seats and one or another of a roving squad of servers brings your food promptly.
Tables are mostly long and communal, although there are a few tables that seat four, and there's patio seating outside along with stools at the wine and beer bar, where the back shelves are made from reclaimed bleachers. The kitchen is open and you can see the fire flickering in the wood-fired oven — and there's a wood-fired rotisserie and grill. Floor-to-ceiling glass walls let in north light so the overall effect is warm, well-lit and comfortable.
While the restaurant is casual, the food is carefully thought out and reveals Humphries' long history of working in high-class kitchens like The Quilted Giraffe and Lespinasse in New York City, Campton Place in San Francisco, and Martini House. Though his talents are now turned to handmade multiethnic comfort foods, he treats these dishes with the craft he honed in those temples of gastronomy. Chef de Cuisine Chris Litts renders Humphries' creations with great care. The result is the best lunchroom food you'll ever have — and at prices you can afford. The wine list is small but sophisticated, and there's no corkage, so bring a bottle. If you do, "Give the chef a taste," as the wine list suggests.
This place is going to go bananas when the public finds out about it.
For instance, the French Fries ($3.25 ****) are simply perfect in every respect. The taste is pure and clean and speaks of new oil, but there is no residual oil on the fries. They are slender, lithe and toothsome, not fat, dumpy or mealy. You will have a hard time keeping your fingers from straying back to the fries' paper tub.
Daily specials recently included wild salmon cured in aquavit and served on flatbread with sour cream, cucumber, capers, red onion and fennel for $13, and porcini mushroom salad with little mozzarella balls, cherry tomatoes, pesto and arugula for $13.50.
Some people claim Shisito Peppers ($6.75 ***) aren't spicy, but they're wrong. Kitchen Door's roasted shisitos are just softened, not blistered and burnt, as too many cooks prepare them. They're a little salty, sprinkled with lime juice, a pretty medium green, and one was hot enough to set off a short spasm of hiccups. Shaved Celery Salad ($7 ***1/2) cooled things down quickly, with its thin-sliced celery stalks, little yellow-green leaves from the inner part of the bunch, gorgonzola cheese, candied pecans, dates and creamy white balsamic vinaigrette.
You may have tried Beef Carpaccio ($10.95 ***1/2) before, but nothing as scrumptious as these micro-thin slices of raw steak flavored with Himalayan truffle puree, topped with little potato crisps and soft, mild baby arugula leaves and drizzled with lemon aioli. The Herbed Flat Bread ($2.95 ***) served at Kitchen Door is like a cross between pizza dough and naan, but better than either. It glistens with a touch of olive oil and is redolent of parsley, thyme and rosemary. The flat bread also serves as the base for Lahmajune ($14.50 ****), the second-priciest dish on the menu and still the best bargain. It's a meal in itself, billed as an "Armenian Fold and Eat." You can fold it, but unless you have a mouth like a mastiff, you're not going to get it into your mouth. The bread holds spiced ground lamb grilled into flat patties, parsley, baby beet leaves, mint, thin zucchini rounds, tomato wedges, red onion, chopped romaine, salad greens, yogurt and enough harissa to give it some pop. You will dream about this for days after you eat one.
Chicken Dinner ($14.50 ***1/2) consists of a generously proportioned half-chicken, all in one piece, yet so expertly cooked that the breast is still juicy even as the leg and thigh are also perfect. Peas, carrots, and small new potatoes and pan jus complete the plate.
For dessert, Candy Cap Mushroom Bread Pudding ($6.95 ****) is a great choice. Candy caps taste like maple syrup and here Humphries, a true mycophile, works them into a perfect eggy, sweet, bread pudding. Golden raisins, Zante currants, and cr?e anglaise finish this wonderful dessert.
To sum up: Kitchen Door is all the flavor without all the fancy.
Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review column for the Sonoma Living section. You can reach him at email@example.com.