[Sidebar] January 6 - 13, 2000
[Food Reviews]
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Napa Valley Grille

Raising the stakes on mall dining

by Ian Donnis

111 Providence Place, Providence, 270-6272
Lunch, Mon-Sat, 11:30 a.m.- 4 p.m.
Sun brunch, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
Dinner, Mon-Thurs, 5 -10 p.m., Fri-Sat, 5:30 -10:30 p.m., Sun, 2-9 p.m.
Major credit cards
No access (one step to entrance)

It's a slightly surreal experience to savor a bowl of steamed littlenecks in this newcomer's dining room while glimpsing, through a partially draped window, shoppers climbing an escalator toward the interior of Providence Place. There are four other Napa Valley Grilles around the US and, to a fair degree, places like this are more about marketing than food. But, hey, if that means you can get roasted beet and goat cheese ravioli for lunch at the mall, I'm not going to complain.

Offering what it bills as the cuisine of northern California's wine country, Napa Valley Grille is one of five brands operated by the California Cafe Restaurant Company. Located along the former Francis Street, the grille is divided into two sections: a very long carpeted dining room punctuated by a mural of the Napa Valley hills, and a more casual lounge area with a nice downtown view, tall industrial-style ceilings and a mix of booths, marble counters and tables with high chairs. There's a strong emphasis on wine, both as a decorative element and in the impressive selection of some 300 bottles, mostly from California and priced upwards of $25.

Napa Valley is pricey at night, when most of the eight main courses and five grilled specialties start at $18.95, including braised lamb shank and cinnamon smoked duck, and run toward the mid-$20s. Lunch, by contrast, is more affordable with a variety of sandwiches, pastas and main courses grouped between $7.95 and $12.95 (for the fettucine jambalaya or lobster club). Either way, diners start with a bottle of extra virgin olive oil at table side and an appealing basket with soft slices of something akin to focaccia and a chewier French-inspired bread.

Plump and tender chardonnay steamed clams ($10.95), available for both lunch and dinner and served in a compelling lemony, buttery broth, provide a good introduction from executive chef John Caputo's kitchen. The dinner appetizer of ahi tuna tartare with ocean salad, wasabi cream and tobiko caviar ($9.95) is handsomely presented as a small tower of tuna pieces, but wanted for flavor. Other dinner appetizers include five salads, Napa Valley crab cakes ($9.95), curried glazed oysters ($9.95), and wild mushroom and walnut bisque in a goat cheese crostini cup ($3.50 for a cup, $4.95 for a bowl).

During a dinner visit, as the strange choice of elevator music played in the background, I chose the olive-crusted rack of lamb with goat cheese bread pudding and garlic demi ($25.95), while a friend selected the applewood roasted rack of pork with sweet potato gratin, garlicky greens, and apricot-pear-onion compote ($18.95). Both dishes were toothsome and satisfying, although the lamb's olive crust didn't materialize and the pork's exterior was tougher than my friend would have liked. Our dinner was made more enjoyable by Napa Valley's selection of some 20 wines by the glass, including the amiable Ravenswood zinfandel vintners blend ($6.50).

For dessert, brioche bread pudding with caramelized bananas, maple walnut ice cream and Foster sauce ($6.50) was beautifully restrained, a delicious treat that impressed with design and execution, rather than overwhelming size.

The service at Napa Valley Grille would benefit from similar restraint. During my dinner visit, our waiter's enthusiasm and knowledge were palpable, but it was annoying when he repeatedly asked, "Is everything delicious?" On another occasion, a different server interrupted us every few minutes and irked my guest by trying to tuck a napkin into his lap.

Returning for lunch, I was excited by the prospect of the aforementioned roasted beet and goat cheese ravioli ($9.95). The unfairly maligned vegetable takes on rich flavor when roasted and seemed like an ideal foil for the creaminess of goat cheese. Served just this side of lukewarm, the dish was still tasty, although I was disappointed that the ravioli's filling included just a little color from the beets, rather than actual chunks of the vegetable.

On another mid-day visit, the sesame and nori crusted salmon ($10.95) was pleasant, although an accompanying basil noodle salad, purportedly with miso dressing, was bland. Much more flavorful and satisfying was the wild rice meat loaf ($10.95), made with beef, veal and pork, and served with garlic mashed potatoes, green beans and mushroom gravy. It's this kind of dish, along with some of those steamed clams and a nice glass of wine, that showcases Napa Valley Grille's appeal.f the house across the street goes on the market, you'll know where to find me.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis[a]phx.com.

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