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Lucy in Yountville offers classic comfort food with new chef

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The large dining party next to us at Lucy was having a raucous time. At this elegant restaurant in Yountville’s luxury Bardessono Hotel & Spa, the roaring laughter and rowdy conversation felt out of place, but oddly, quite welcome. It was nice to see life stirring in — shattering, even — what has long been one of the town’s sleepiest spots.

Since opening a decade ago, Lucy has been a curiously quiet destination, surrounded by an architecturally stunning, LEED Platinum-certified property and commanding fine-dining prices where a fall squash-pomegranate soup goes for $14, a beef tenderloin goes for $48 and wines by the glass hover around $16 to $50 ($35 for a pour of 2016 Rombauer Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon that retails for about $65 a bottle).

The food has been reliably satisfactory, yet through a series of chefs, the place has never been a hit with the locals. Breakfast or lunch on the pretty garden patio, cocktails in the chic bar, OK, but dinner visits have always seemed limited to guests staying in the $750-on-average rooms.

The stark décor of the compact, 60-seat restaurant hasn’t helped much. It feels mass-designed, with hard surfaces, spare artwork on the walls and odd, little, cubicle-seating nooks here and there that make those diners feel cut off from the entirely open rest of the room.

New executive chef Jim Leiken hopes to change that. Since joining the team in June, he’s been working to offer an approachable menu sparked with creative touches and seasonal ingredients.

That’s much like most other Wine Country chefs, of course, but Leiken puts an emphasis on comfort cuisine. That pricey beef is classic meat and potatoes plated with fontina-potato croquettes, sautéed chanterelles and Bloomsdale spinach, plus a side of L-1 steak sauce (a Lucy salute to A-1).

It’s a theme that has worked well for him the past, in his most recent post as executive chef for five years at the late, great Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen in St. Helena. Before that, he worked for 15 years at several chef Daniel Boulud restaurants in New York and Palm Beach, Florida.

Mostly, the results are pleasing, with a good balance of classic and New American. There are some fun touches, like the amuse we enjoyed one evening of crispy hot fried green tomatoes paired with sweet piquillo pepper sauce and that same evening’s delightful finish of a banana cream parfait, the tropical, fruity fluff layered with coconut cream and rum caramel sauce for scooping with long, crisp, house-made vanilla wafers ($11).

In between, a few standouts include an ahi appetizer, presented in a rectangular checkerboard of sesame seared fish and compressed, marinated watermelon on a swath of wasabi-avocado purée, all finished with pickled garden cucumber and sweet soy reduction ($17). The fish, cut in large chunks, was a bit sinewy, but the sweet-sour watermelon zing and kiss of wasabi fire made for excellent flavor.

The fall salad is another winner, tumbled with mixed, nicely bitter chicories from Bardessono’s on-site garden, sweet K&J orchard pear, toasted almonds, banyuls vinaigrette and the generous addition of tender smoked duck breast ($15). This dish, like the ahi, shows value, not only for its quality ingredients, but for the shareable portion size.

For a hearty starter, cider braised pork belly showcases autumn flavors as well, the rich meat bright with mustard sabayon on a bed of French lentils crunchy with green apple ($18).

Entrées are generally sophisticated, but sedate. On one visit, our server recommended the house-made orecchiette — the youthful, cheerful staff welcomes guests by sharing their thoughts on the menu — and the ear-shaped pasta was chewy and lightly dressed in fall vegetable ragout, a slick of roasted squash purée, a bit of baby kale and pecorino Toscano ($26). Soothing, though more salt and pepper would have greatly elevated the subdued flavors.

A duo of pork, on the other hand, was powerfully seasoned, the Kurobuta tenderloin and slow-roasted shoulder perfumed with beautiful herbs and paired with thickly sliced, firm, caramelized K&J apples and a cute little iron skillet of grits that could have used more white cheddar and salt under a dollop of bacon marmalade ($36).

Bits of prosciutto, shaved Brussels sprouts and preserved lemon add interest to pan roasted halibut partnered with caramelized sunchoke purée and plump, meaty Iacoppi Farms heirloom butter beans ($38).

Today’s chefs have many extra challenges, often being asked to contort recipes to follow diners’ dietary preferences. Just a few short years ago, I would never think to ask such a thing while reviewing a restaurant; changing anything coming out of the kitchen has long been considered a violation of a critic’s code (just like adding salt to a dish before tasting it). But, for Lucy’s coq au vin with marble potatoes ($38), I “allowed” a guest to tweak it to her rule of no pork, to see how the chef would handle the classic braise in red wine-mushroom-bacon sauce.

It turned out as well as anything can be once deprived of mouthwatering bacon, the roasted local chicken set atop red wine-soaked spinach and wild mushrooms. With crispy golden skin and pan jus, served in a hot skillet, the bird kept my companion happy.

After two visits, including a weekend night, I’m not convinced that Lucy is poised to be a locals’ dinner favorite yet. Cooking is well executed, but the menu remains similar to many other places around town. I like the place, and I love beautiful Bardessono, but after all this time, I’m still dreaming of a more exciting restaurant destination.

Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at carey@careysweet.com.

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