Last Call for Martini House...

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Martini House sign.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

For nine years, Martini House has been the place for a sophisticated night out in downtown St. Helena.  The romantic garden patio, Pat Kuleto interiors, and semi-secret Cellar Bar offered a comfortable scene for everyone, and chef-owner Todd Humphries' seasonal wine country menu consistently hit the spot in every context.  The restaurant earned a Michelin star in 2008, three stars from the San Francisco Chronicle, and was constantly touted as one of the best special occasion spots in the Napa Valley.  

When the news broke last week that the restaurant had been sold and would be closing October 30, a shock wave of dismay and mourning struck the Bay Area.  Owners Todd Humphries, Pat Kuleto, and Richard Miyashiro have sold Martini House to restaurateurs Brian Bennett and Paul Fleming (a founder of P.F. Chang's and owner of several other successful restaurants), who plan to re-open a new restaurant concept in the Craftsman-style space after a period of closure.  Humphries and Miyashiro are also rumored to be plotting a new restaurant venture, possibly in burgeoning downtown Napa, but Martini House as we know it will be gone at the end of this month.
My immediate reaction to the news was to book a final pilgrimage to the corner of Spring and Oak Streets.  I wanted to bask again in the Martini House magic I remembered, and also  experience the famous foraged mushroom tasting menu Chef Humphries offers in the fall and winter.  This funghi extravaganza is four courses of impeccably executed seasonal cuisine, with each dish starring a different rare mushroom.  The staggering variety of the mushroom flavors and a globe-trotting range of culinary influences kept each course exciting, delicious, and utterly unique.

The night of my visit, the mushroom menu kicked off with the perfect amuse-bouche: a tiny mushroom shaped puff pastry bite of button mushroom mousse, capped with a porcini mushroom crisp.  The depth and variety of mushroom flavor was astounding, and fun to experience through the different textures of the single bite.

martini house salad.jpgA first course salad with cured tomato, romano beans, lightly pickled chanterelles, and watercress presented a very different celebration of earthy flavors.  The slightly creamy, tarragon-scented dressing softened the bite of the peppery watercress and punchy chanterelles, and amplified the fresh flavor of the romano beans and intense tomatoes, bringing the disparate components into delicious harmony.

Our second course took an entirely different path to nirvana, combining Manila clams, coconut curry, cilantro, and ginger-braised matsutake mushrooms.  This was hands down the most delicious matsutake dish I have ever eaten.  Ginger fused seamlessly with the delicate aroma of the mushrooms, brightening and broadening the flavor without any of the searing heat that ginger often imparts.  In a surprise twist, the toothsome succulence of the mushrooms also matched the texture of the clams precisely, like twins separated at birth and reunited after a lifetime apart.  The rich curry broth boasted layers of spices and flavors, with gingery notes shining through to complement both the briny and the earthy aspects of the dish.  Not a single speck of edible matter remained in the bowl (or the breadbasket) when we were done.

martini house fettucini.jpgWith such a showstopper as course number two, we feared the third course would fall a little flat... until we saw that the chef had infused the next offering with obscene amounts of Himalayan truffles and parmesan cream.  That bowl of fettuccine reeked of seduction and truffly lust.  The elaborate folds and crevices of the roasted cauliflower mushroom proved perfect receptacles for the heady sauce, and brought a fascinating texture to each bite.  The ruffles and ridges of the mushroom reminded me of curly kale, but felt more similar to chewy seaweed or curly tripe.

Had the menu not already revealed what dessert had in store, I would not have been able to restrain myself with the truffle pasta.  The promise of candy cap mushroom panna cotta with crispy bacon and caramelized banana, however, prevailed.  Candy cap mushrooms are a little-known variety with a mild maple flavor when fresh, that intensifies dramatically when dried.  Until our waiter assured us that these mushrooms were the only flavoring in the panna cotta, we were convinced the recipe relied on maple syrup for its intense aroma and complex flavor.  Paired with smoky bacon, caramelized banana slices and a waffle cone crisp, this dessert was classic breakfast in high definition.  Crisp, clear, and focused, it changed the entire experience... forever.

martini house cotta.jpgHow can I return to eating pedestrian maple syrup and bacon?  How can I order a mushroom dish without comparing it, however unfairly, with this meal?  My final visit to Martini House served only to underscore the greatness of the institution, and deepen my sadness at its passing.  I think I may need another final pilgrimage or two before I'm ready to say goodbye.

Martini House
is open for lunch Friday through Sunday, and dinner daily.  Final service will be October 30, 2010.  1245 Spring Street at Oak. 707-963-2233. 

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