Hail Mauro, Full Of Grace

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2010-01-15 21.13.11.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

I love to be surprised.  The opening of a real Thai restaurant in downtown Napa made my month.  Further surprises in the Napa restaurant department seemed unlikely, especially given that the other two new places opening in town were both angling for local-friendly comfort food--by definition, not the stuff surprises are made of.   The endless hordes thronging Norman Rose Tavern for quality burgers and fried chicken every night shock no one.  But the discovery of another solid, interesting, and reasonably priced eatery just a block away--with no wait--totally made my weekend.
2010-01-15 21.35.49_Napa_California_US.jpgGrace's Table took over the old Pizza Azzurro space on Second Street, most recently occupied by elements.  At first glance, the menu seems disturbingly all over the place: coq au vin and cassoulet rub shoulders with skillet cornbread, beef empanadas, gnocchi in sage butter sauce, tequila-steamed mussels, shortrib risotto, burgers, and an only-in-California mushroom and chard tamale crowned with green papaya and butternut squash slaw.  The suspiciously accessible prices and menu byline urging diners to "celebrate flavors from around the world" seemed to threaten Cheesecake Factory-style fusion confusion.  

But when we sat down to eat it, the food actually made perfect sense. The menu's creative flavor combinations and globe-trotting inspiration don't blur the lines of good taste.  The delicate and delectable kabocha squash gnocchi with spinach, brown butter, currants, parmesan and sage contained no lemongrass, for example. The beet salad with avocado and mâche remained mercifully free of ponzu sauce, chipotle, and bottarga.  Even the sketchy-sounding vegetarian tamale and slaw (which, naturally, we had to order) turned out to be completely satisfying and harmonious.  The earthiness of the veggies inside played off the delicate sweetness of corn masa, and the tangy lime crema, cascabel chile sauce, and refreshing crunch of that bizarro slaw brightened and lifted the dish to unsuspected heights.  Who knew that raw butternut squash and green papaya could meld so organically and deliciously, or that it would prove a perfect foil for a winter vegetable tamale and bottle of New Zealand sauvignon blanc?

Chef-Owner Mauro Pando drew his menu inspiration from his own Argentine heritage and many years working in Italian and French-inspired restaurants in San Francisco and the Pacific Northwest.  The wine list similarly combines worldly treasures like Argentine malbec, French chardonnay, and unusual Spanish and Italian varietals, with local specialties like Sonoma County bubbly, Napa cab, and Carneros pinot noir from producers with whom the restaurant has personal connection.  The markup is astoundingly modest.

Ours is a global food culture, and many people eat their way around the world on a weekly basis without leaving the country.  Now the Napans don't even need to leave town.

Grace's Table, 1400 Second Street, Napa, (707) 226-6200. Now offering lunch and dinner daily.

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As of March 7, the restaurant is also serving Sunday brunch, and light breakfast during the week. Homemade doughnuts from Mauro's wife's family recipe, scones, baguettes and homemade jams await, along with chilaquiles for the eggily inclined. Their website is also now up and running: http://www.gracestable.net/

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