Lucy in Yountville offers classic comfort food with new chef
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).