By Stacey Bressler
Welcome to the Diner’s Journal. If you are a new reader, let me explain a few things. I am a Napa Valley resident who loves good food and wine. My husband and I eat out often and through this column I try to pass on the kind of information I would give to a friend who asked me about a restaurant I had visited. The opinions are my own and are based on my personal preferences rather than any scientific study. So, now that you know what to expect, let’s talk about Terra.
Terra is something of an institution in Napa Valley. Tucked away off the main drag in a beautiful old building with exposed stone walls and soft lighting, it is what most people envision a perfect wine country restaurant to be. The owners, chefs and spouses Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani, are local celebrities who have been on TV, written a cookbook, been featured in many articles, and celebrated by food critics and gourmets throughout the world. Hiro was named the “Best California Chef” by the prestigious James Beard Foundation in 2003. Hiro and Lissa met when working at Spago in Los Angeles in 1983 and have been running Terra for more than sixteen years.
Terra is what I call a “special occasion” restaurant, which means it is pricey but worth it. The menu contains beautifully prepared dinners, most of which I would not attempt to make at home. On my most recent visit, I started with one of the daily special appetizers, unagi. I realize that eel is not everyone’s favorite food, but if you are a fan of unagi, this is one of the best preparations around. The eel is barbequed in the traditional Japanese fashion and then placed on a bed of beets and greens. The presentation is three mounds on a long white platter. The flavor is smoky and sweet with the smooth texture of the eel contrasting perfectly with the crunchy beets.
The others in my party savored their appetizers, too. A creamy soup made with Jerusalem artichokes and Laura Chenel goat cheese was richly decadent. The flavor was earthy yet subtle. My husband stuck with one of his favorites, the fried rock shrimp with organic greens. These little “popcorn” shrimp are beautifully seasoned and go down way too easily. I could eat a million of them. The greens are crispy and very fresh tasting. The appetizer called “duck, duck, duck” consists of three preparations – rillettes, giblets confit salad, and a foie gras torchon. There are few things in the world I like better than foie gras, and this one does not disappoint. It is outrageously rich and melts in your mouth – just as it should. Now that the state of California has banned the production of foie gras and will be phasing out its appearance on our menus, I am on a personal campaign to eat as much of this stuff as I can before it is taken from my local tables. Please don’t tell this to any of the physicians who treat me.
While most of the appetizers are pricey, in the $10 - $18 range, they are wonderful. In fact, I think Terra excels at this course. Sometimes my dinner here will consist of three appetizers instead of an entrée. But the main courses are wonderful, too.
My favorite entrée is the broiled sake marinated Alaskan black cod and shrimp dumplings in Shiso broth. It’s hard not to order this every time I dine at Terra, but I try to branch out occasionally. I am certainly not alone in my affection for this wonderful, moist, sweet fish and its tasty companions. Two of the diners at my table found it irresistible. The recipe for this dish is included in the Terra cookbook (Terra: Cooking from the Heart of Napa Valley, which is available at the restaurant, on their Web site, from Amazon.com, or at your local bookstore). Interestingly, I’ve been able to successfully duplicate this dish at home. Kudos to Hiro and Lissa for an excellent cookbook that allows even an amateur like me to faithfully recreate a fabulous dish like this!
When I last dined at Terra, I tried the braised veal cheeks with cavolo nero (black cabbage) on fontina cheese polenta with crispy sweetbreads because I thought it would be a better match with my Cabernet than the black cod. I was pleased, though my favorite part of the dish was the sweetbreads and there weren’t many of them. My husband opted for the lobster risotto, a daily special. I had to wrestle my fork in for a taste of that creamy rich concoction with a nicely sized lobster tail on top. Yum! The pan roasted Maine lobster with Hokkaido scallops in wine butter sauce with salmon pearls looked fantastic when it went by; I made a note to order that next time. At $29.50, the pan roasted lobster and scallops is the highest priced entrée on the menu with most of the rest in the $25 - $29 range.
With such rich and satisfying appetizers and main courses, it is easy to skip dessert; unless, of course, you are a chocoholic. I am told that the chocolate truffle cake with espresso ice cream is ethereal. The tira mi su also seems to be very popular. Terra offers a cheese course which is a nice alternative for those who prefer a savory end-of-meal course.
Reservations are a must at Terra. The wine list is well-chosen though favoring the more expensive end of the spectrum. Corkage is $20 per bottle, but corkage is waived 1 for 1 with every bottle purchased from the list. You should go to Terra with the understanding that you will be spending about $100 per person, but you are likely to enjoy a terrific meal
1345 Railroad Ave.
St. Helena, CA 94574