UPDATE: The restaurant management unexpectedly closed this high-profile spot in summer 2016, saying it was “temporary” but no signs of when it will reopen or what will happen to the talents of Chef Matthew Lightner.
There’s been a lot of activity in wine country lately, and a lot of chefs are creating quite some buzz (and not the kind you get from drinking too much wine).
One of them is Chef Matthew Lightner, a two-Michelin-star chef from New York’s Atera (and previously Portland’s Castagna) who arrived in Napa to help the AvroKO Hospitality Group open Ninebark restaurant last October.
Lightner has brought his local ingredients-driven approach to cooking along with his fine-dining background to the somewhat casual restaurant in downtown Napa. The building, which is the former Fagiani’s and the Thomas space, is squeezed into three floors — a bar on the first floor, the main dining room on the second floor and additional seating at the rooftop bar on top.
Last weekend I finally made reservations for dinner at Ninebark, which is named for an indigenous shrub from Napa, and went for Sunday dinner with my niece Margot. I didn’t realize, though, that the restaurant only offers a chef’s family style dinner called Sunday Suppers. It’s about six to nine courses for $70 served family style. The menu is pre-determined by the chef, although they do ask about dietary restrictions when you make your reservations, and again when you’re seated.
This is the most amazing time to visit wine country because you really get a true summer day, not like the typically cooler summer days in San Francisco. So we were excited when we were seated at a table in the patio of the rooftop bar, giving us an amazing al fresco dining experience.
Here’s a look at what arrived at our table. Since there wasn’t a written menu, I have to rely on memory on what was on the plate.
As an amuse, we got these lollipops. When you bite into it, you get a burst of juice from a cherry tomato that’s under what looked like cotton candy but wasn’t really. I’m not sure what it was because all I got was the tomato juice, but it was refreshing for summer.
This lovely focaccia bread with parmesan and herbs came to the table and it was so comforting and warm. But don’t you think it’s a lot to start a meal? This really looked like a starter for six. Still, it was so fresh and easy to eat, fluffy inside with a strong parmesan flavor.
I wish I could remember more about the accompanying flavors surrounding this foie gras dish, but it doesn’t really matter because the foie gras was the star. Silky smooth, the foie was so luxurious. There were these thin crackers (not pictured) that we spread it on, but they were on the thin side. Margot did feel this was too rich for her, but not me. I ate most of it, although we couldn’t finish it all because, again, don’t you think this is a lot of foie for two people? (I think we would have been fine with just one slab of foie gras to share.)
This ceviche course was perfectly done, with a mix of summer corn and fried squash blossom on top. I loved the meatiness of the fish, and the perfect balance of citrus that didn’t overpower the fish. It was one of the better ceviches I’ve had in awhile.
When this plate came out, I almost thought it was gnocchi, but this is a plate of summer squash scooped out by a melon baller to make these little balls that were served in a tomato sauce with cheese. It was an interesting dish, though the flavors weren’t necessarily innovative. This would be great for the vegetarians in the family.
This was the one dish I don’t totally remember what it was, which is probably a sign of how memorable it was. I do remember that we were encouraged to use our fingers to pick up this grilled vegetable (pretty sure they were little gems) and dip in a very light broth that was at the bottom of the bowl.
Our main course of meat and potatoes looked simple, but it was amazingly perfect in texture and flavor. First off, the meat (which our waiter said was from Oregon but made I think he said by Amish farmers?) was cooked so tender it was like cutting into butter, at just the right rareness. I’m pretty sure that was creamed corn that came with it, and then the potatoes were incredibly tender and seemed like they were also just bathed in butter.
Dessert was the only time when we could make some decisions. At the start of the meal, we were told for our sundae, we could select two toppings. I chose pound cakes and salted caramel, and it was an enjoyable bowl of cream and cubes of pound cake. Margot wasn’t as happy with her toppings, which was like a granola mix.
The setting and food is amazing, and I would say the only slight downside to dinner is that service didn’t seem as polished as it could be. Our waiter, who was nice and professional, seemed a bit awkward and also forgot about us after dessert so it took us awhile just to get our bill. But I guess with the beautiful weather, it was nice to just lay back and enjoy the Napa sunset.
The last bite
Even though I dined at Ninebark with a pre-set menu, I was happy with the food and can imagine the ala carte menu being just as refined and creative. The presentation is first rate and the preparations were on point. Service needs to live up to the level of the food, but Ninebark overall is a star in the Napa dining scene.
The rating: 3 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: Ninebark, 813 Main St., Napa, Calif. PH: 707.226.7821. Open Tuesday through Saturday from 5:30 p.m.; and Sunday supper menu from 5 p.m. Reservations, major credit cards accepted. www.ninebark-napa.com
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