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Posted February 2006

Can Tra Vigne Get Back on Track?

Tra Vigne RestaurantWe 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 chef. “Savor.”

In 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 again.

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 bit. Looking to turn things around, Torralba’s returned to the Napa Valley, though it was bittersweet homecoming for the former chef of Domaine Chandon. 

Recently, 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 Menu

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.

“I like doing extraordinary things with simple foods,” Torralba said.

Standouts 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 most diners.

What happened? What's Next?

Owned 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?

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