The Napa Grille
Go: 2444 Madison Road, Hyde Park
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Closed Monday
Prices: Moderate to expensive
Payment: Accept major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Salads, seafood, a few vegetarian options and chicken
I think it's a good idea to pair wine with food. I like wine. I like food. It makes sense. As Hemingway said in A Movable Feast: "Drinking wine was not a snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary."
Correctly coupling these two necessities, however, is a different story.
I've always followed the advice of wine educator Kevin Zraly: It's best to simply pick a wine you like. So when Michael Schiaparelli and I paired up for dueling reviews at The Napa Grille, he had his work cut out for him.
Luckily, Michael's a good teacher and I am the eternal student. For instance, did you know pinot noir grapes need cool nights? Or that the "legs" on a wine glass don't mean a damn thing?
The Napa Grille resides in the space that once held J's Fresh Seafood on the first floor of the Regency Condos. It might be an odd spot for a restaurant, but the hidden location always made me feel a little like I belonged to a private club.
The interior of the new space is fairly homogenized.
There are a lot of tan, unimaginative pictures of wine bottles and a bland soundtrack. The low lighting is probably perfect for a romantic dinner, but it doesn't lend itself to reading the tome of the wine menu Michael began thumbing through as we sat down.
After passing on the wine flights, he settled on a Mumm Blanc de Noir ($11/glass) and the Dr. L Riesling ($9/glass) to accompany our appetizers: the Goat Cheese Roulade with blackberry Thai chili oil ($7) and the Chopped Duck and Fig Salad with baby lettuces and hearts of palm ($9.50). While I never wear and rarely touch anything pink, the Mumm took less than a second to grow on me.
The salad produced a similar effect. In a world of extra-hot, three-pump, no-fat lattes, I often crave simplicity, and it was just the dish to sooth an overtaxed palate. And while the goat cheese roulades came in an unexpected deep-fried form and the chili oil was too tame, the dish reminded Michael of one of his favorite appetizers, and the memory served to fill any shortcomings.
The Grille has an interesting selection of seafood and steaks with a smattering of vegetarian, chicken, pork and lamb options, so it was a little difficult to settle on entrées. We finally committed to the Panko Breaded Eggplant with house-made ricotta and a Vidalia onion beurre blanc ($15) and the Espresso Chili Rubbed Prime Sirloin with chimichurri and roasted new potatoes ($20).
The menu offers traditional and adventurous wine selections for each dish for novices like me, but Michael revisited the tome for our Les Jamelles Cinsault Rosé ($8/glass) and Havens Merlot ($13/glass). My rosé didn't come close to the Pizza Wine of my youth -- a mixture of Pink Catawba and Rosé -- as it was light, dry and delicious.
The restaurant was out of the merlot, but this wasn't communicated to us until Michael had almost finished his steak. Not the best form for a restaurant highlighting their extensive knowledge of wine and food, but it was the only major lapse of the evening. Otherwise the service was friendly and attentive.
The eggplant was a nice change from the heavier traditional eggplant Parmesan; the lemony beurre blanc was perfect for a summer meal. And while the house-made ricotta had little flavor, it did lend a nice texture to the dish. The steak was tender and the rub had the zesty quality we hadn't found in our roulade appetizer.
Side dishes at the Grille come separate from the entrées. We had planned to try the haricots verts ($4), but unfortunately the wine incident made us forget this plan.
For dessert we indulged in a flight of three homemade ice creams and sorbets ($7) with coffee, which was served in a French press. As I struggled to find some middle ground between key lime sorbet and goat cheese ice cream for our third selection, Michael astutely noted, "I don't think there is a halfway point." We settled on caramelized pear and voted the key lime as the star of the threesome.
I left Napa Grille feeling reasonably contented with our meal. By Jove, maybe all that pink wine did make a difference. ©