Napa Valley restaurant spotlight, St Helena’s Brassica from Cindy Pawlcyn
I remember first eating at Mustards Grill, Cindy Pawlcyn’s first restaurant venture here in the Napa Valley. It was an immediate hit and became the in place to eat along with Mama Ninas in Yountville.
Fish from its opening never seemed to catch on and had only limited success. To rectify this, she has remodelled the space and opened Brassica in the space. Here are some excerpts from L. Pierce Carson in his Napa Valley Register article, Brassica, Restaurant brings diverse Mediterranen kitchen to Napa Valley. Here is a link to Brassica”s menu.
Pawlcyn met Bill Higgins and Bill Upson in Chicago and then hooked up with them in the mid-1970s at MacArthur Park, a once-popular restaurant in San Francisco’s Financial District.
She left that operation in 1979, moving here to join the culinary team at Meadowood Resort. Next she took her talents to one of the valley’s early
temples to culinary yin and yang, Rose et LeFavour, backing up chef/owner Bruce LeFavour.
In 1983, Higgins, Pawlcyn and Upson forever changed the dining scene in the Napa Valley with the opening of Mustards Grill in Yountville, a restaurant that still packs ’em in. For the next 17 years, the trio made headlines by opening a series of well-received restaurants in San Francisco and the North Bay — Tra Vigne, Fog City Diner, Bix, Roti, Buckeye Roadhouse.
So, in early September, Pawlcyn and her culinary team (which includes acclaimed chef Sean Knight) rebranded the St. Helena dining destination as Brassica, a restaurant featuring dishes from the entire Mediterranean region.
The term Brassica refers to members of the mustard family — mustard, kale, rape and turnips — as well as other cruciferous vegetables — broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, radishes and watercress.
The wine bar at Brassica is an informal space with widely spaced rounds and a community table, a comfortable bar for both drinking and dining and cozy window banquettes. The large dining room is a mix of conventional tables and banquettes outfitted with puffy pillows. Maritime-themed accents from the earlier operation have been removed, although the space still reminds this diner of Cape Cod or other Down East dining rooms. And while the weather cooperates, Brassica is serving lunch and dinner on its attractive patio, accented by a wood-burning fireplace that’s just the ticket on cool fall evenings.
Bacalao to baba ghanoush
In designing the Brassica menu, Pawlcyn turned her focus to areas of the Mediterranean often overlooked when chefs are preparing dishes from this large region.
“I wanted to make sure the Eastern Mediterranean and Northern Africa were included, not just the traditional foods of Spain, Italy and France,” she pointed out. “I wanted to feature a lot of other flavors.”
For example, there’s baba ghanoush ($5), one of the offerings on the “tapas to mezze” portion of the menu, a healthy combination of spread and salad served with crispy pita triangles and toasted sesame seeds. In the Levant, baba ghanoush is a sort of salad made of grilled or roasted eggplant with finely diced onions, tomatoes and other vegetables blended in.
Also on the tapas and mezze menu is another twist on the familiar: eggplant fries paired with spiced yogurt for dipping. The small plates here range in price from $4 for fried bacon-wrapped dates to $15 for the grilled lamb T-bonettes with red pepper and pomegranate glaze. Traditional Greek dolmas feature the flavors of pine nuts and mint, while Spanish bacalao fritters are best napped with orange/saffron aioli. Then there’s seared Haloumi cheese sprinkled with Greek oregano, garlic shrimp wearing a coat of espelette pepper and brandy, grilled fig and ricotta bruschetta, chicken drumettes coated with not-too-spicy harissa, and Serrano ham paired with Marcona almonds and the nutty, buttery Basque sheep’s milk cheese, Idiazabal. That same pairing, ham and cheese, is complemented by quince paste on the panino of the day.
The medium-sized plates ($8-$16) include the Syrian bread salad, fattoush, with a dressing that incorporates sumac, a spice providing a very nice, fruity-tart flavor that’s
not quite as overpowering as lemon, and lemon tabouli with sungold tomatoes. A riff on the traditional Italian dish, pork tonnato at Brassica features thin, very tender pork slices topped with a tuna-flavored aioli that also incorporates capers, anchovies and lemon. The thin strips of piquillo pepper and tiny cornichon chunks provided added dimension to the overall flavor.
The large plates range in prices from $19, for fried egg–topped leek and pancetta risotto and coriander and thyme braised rabbit over pappardelle, to $28 for a pair of grilled quail with braised figs and polenta, Moroccan lamb shank with golden raisins, prunes and couscous, or grilled swordfish with broccoli rabe. Also offered are lamb kebabs with roasted tomatoes, poblanos and eggplant, plus slow-braised beef with Pedro Ximénez sherry and cauliflower.
Desserts ($6-$9) also reflect the diverse Mediterranean kitchen. Although it wasn’t a deliberate intent, a fall classic on the dessert menu is also vegan — orange-infused Greek walnut cake with oranges, candied orange peel and candied walnuts. There’s a Provençal apple tart with prune and Armagnac ice cream, vanilla panna cotta, sherry-and-red-wine-poached pear with crème fraîche ice cream, warm chocolate torte and “Five Easy Pieces” — the restaurant’s plate of mini-bites.
A bustling, well-informed staff makes the dining experience all the more pleasant.
Brassica is located at 641 Main St., St. Helena. For reservations, call 963-0700.
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