Posted February 2006
Can Tra Vigne Get Back on Track?
We spoke with Chef Eric Torralba in the kitchens of Tra Vigne just before his unplanned departure in February. Things seemed to be going well for Torralba, but in the fast moving world of Wine Country kitchens, things change quickly. The following is a moment in time, during Torralba's last days...which begs the question? What's next for Tra Vigne? And for Torralba?
ST. HELENA —Inside a humble plastic container—the kind you’d
get at a takeout restaurant--a scant cup of what looks to be
black caviar sits quietly glistening on the kitchen counter.
“What do you think this is?” Chef Eric Torralba asks, with a
Gallic smirk. Uh, caviar? Mais, non.
With the hard calloused fingers of a man who works every day
in his own kitchen, Torralba digs a spoon unceremoniously in
black pearls; then brings them eye level. “Look, not caviar.
It is huckleberries—huckleberry caviar!” he beams at his own
culinary trompe l'oeil. The late winter berries have been
spun in a centrifuge, each seed carefully separated in a painstaking
process that takes over an hour to complete. Spooning a
frighteningly generous dollop of the seeds atop of a bowl of
chocolate crème brulee, he pushes it forward, “Eat,” says the
each bite of the custard, the tiny seeds crunch and pop with
the exact effect of caviar. What’s both confusing and exhilarating
is the taste of black fruit and brambles instead of the salty
ocean. It’s hard to come up with anything but, “Wow.” Torrabla
isn’t fazed by the lack of verbal acuity, however. He actually
gets it a lot. This is, after all, the man who brought squeeze
tubes of blue vodka to Bay Area plates.
Between August 2005 and February 2006, Torralba briefly turned his wildly
artistic mind to changes of a quieter kind: fronting Tra Vigne,
one of Napa Valley’s most venerable culinary institutions. With
small signature touches—a dash of lobster “corral” powder, his
house-cured sardines, imaginative departures like calamari-stuffed
ravioli and, of course, the huckleberry caviar—Torralba making
the once-staid Italian restaurant worth getting excited about
Tra Vigne has long been a launch pad for chefs. In the 1980’s,
Tra Vigne boosted the career of Napa celebrity chef Michael Chiarello
into the stratosphere. His combination of nouveau-California
Italian cooking, focus on local ingredients and simple preparation
drew crowds that come looking for Chiarello even today. But after
his late 90’s departure the restaurant’s reputation sagged a
to turn things around, Torralba’s returned to the Napa Valley, though it was bittersweet homecoming for the former chef of Domaine Chandon.
Torralba had tried and failed with an ultra-conceptual restaurant
of his own in Sausalito. Antidote, which closed about a year
ago, was an experiment in deconstructionist cooking that broke
down dishes into components, often leaving diners scratching
their heads. The food was incredible, but the timing, location
and business partnership, just wasn’t a fit. Turns out, Tra Vigne wasn't either. Despite strong attendance and more than a few celebrity dinners, the management recently decided to return to more rustic Italian cuisine and is bringing in a native Italian chef.
The focus of the Torralba's menu, which remained true to Tra Vigne's Italian roots, was one
simple, attainable dishes made with seasonal and painstakingly fresh ingredients.
Entire rooms of the massive kitchen are dedicated to making fresh pasta and
bread; fish, crab and seafood, as well as the main kitchen area where sauté
pans and boiling pots of pasta are handled with speed and precision that
would make a race car pit seem downright disorganized.
like doing extraordinary things with simple foods,” Torralba
tended to be simple: Ravioli Di Barbajuan, butternut squash filled
pasta with leeks and squash sugo; wood-baked pizza with wild
mushrooms and garlic cream; Angolotti di Angello, lamb cheeks
with oyster mushrooms, pecorino and an osso buco reduction. Nothing
on the lunch menu is over $27, with most pastas ranging from
$16.25 to $18.95, making the experience an attainable one for
What happened? What's Next?
by the Real Restaurant Group (who also own Buckeye Roadhouse
and Bix), Tra Vigne has reportedly been one of the highest grossing restaurants in the valley--with a sharp eye on the bottom line. Though Torralba claims he was meeting revenue expectations and bringing in new clientele, it's not totally shocking that a chef with strong opinions and a fairly out-of-the-box cooking style might not last long at the restaurant. Torralba admitted during our interview that he kept many of the stand-bys on the menu to satisfy the vocal opinions of many regulars who wanted to see their favorites week after week. For a chef like Torralba, a static menu is almost untolerable. And though, even to the end, he maintained that all was going well with managment, the fit always seemed, well, a bit odd for the deconstructionist chef.
In the coming weeks, the menu will no doubt change to reflect
the tastes and styles of the new chef--and we'll be there
to find out how things are going. Torralba, meantime, has
plans of his own for a possible new venture and though he's
still tight-lipped about it, we hope he'll continue challenging
the palates and creativity of chefs and diners throughout
the Bay Area.
Have you been to Tra Vigne lately? What do you think about the changes?