Martini House's opening chef de cuisine Kelly McCown returns as Executive Chef and partner after spending two and a half years as Executive Chef at Sacramento's noted Ella Dining Room and Bar.
We traipsed up to Napa on Friday night for the media preview at Goose & Gander and got a glimpse of what the menu will be like. Though some things about the old Martini House have remained the same--like the awesome downstairs bar, thank goodness--the menu has taken a different and entirely less fussy direction under Chef McCown's expert tutelage.
Cooks line up meatballs in the Goose & Gander kitchen.
The down-to-earth chef has built solid relationships with local farmers and artisans, thanks to more than two decades of experience in some of California's most prominent kitchens, and his menu is simple and ingredient-driven. Though the food appears simple, don't be fooled: fancier items reminiscent of McCown's five years as Executive Chef at Rubicon, like a sous-vide pork chop or an escargot appetizer, humbly deep-fried in panko bread crumbs and served with melted anchovy butter for dipping, do make the occasional appearance.
McCown sported a walking cast due to a broken foot and hopped crazily up and down the line on Friday as he supervised his crew. He brought dishes to the tables where journalists dined family-style, and spoke about the concepts behind his food. "In Japan, they enjoy softer foods; a gelatin component is important there, " he said. "I've noticed that Americans like crunchy things in everything they eat."
And the crunchy component was certainly present in each of the dishes we tried. Along with the aforementioned escargot, which was skewered with deep-fried castelvetrano olives, appetizers included a finger-friendly version of hot wings: duck and chicken meats, boneless, with deep-fried pickle chips on the side and a Green Goddess sauce for dipping.
The crispy element manifested as crackly skin on mild Scottish salmon served with freshly shelled spring peas as a main course.
"It's my interpretation of my Irish mum's salmon with mushy peas," said McCown about the perfectly cooked fish, which melted in my mouth as the skin offset the rest of the dish's soft textures. Another standout entree was a grilled beef coulotte, served with a spicy cilantro salsa verde and panko-breaded onion rings that were fried in duck fat. The richness of the onion rings were nicely complemented by the tender, yet lean beef, and the bright green flavor of cilantro worked surprisingly well to balance what could have easily become a heavy steak dinner.
Scallops with pancetta and fried green tomatoes.
In another entree, scallops were given pub-grub styling--McCown describes his menu as "rustic American pub food." The large Maine scallops were served over fried green tomatoes with a shaving of thick, curled pancetta. A creamy jalapeno-cilantro sauce finished the dish, and the tanginess and richness of the plate called out for one of the restaurant's signature cocktails.
Ahhhh, the cocktails. The legendary Scott Beattie, of Cyrus fame, has worked his magic once again for a new restaurant opening by designing the bar program at Goose & Gander. Beattie, whose recent consulting projects have included designing the cocktail programs for Hog & Rocks and Healdsburg's Spoonbar, has created a list that is both innovative and familiar. Beattie is also familiar with the layout of the land, so to speak--he tended bar at the Martini House way back in 2001. Drinks like the "Bali Spice Old Fashioned," featuring St. George bourbon, orange, cinnamon, clove, and star anise, are so good that you won't want to put them down to have wine with dinner. Goose & Gander is the first restaurant in St. Helena to serve whiskey drinks with "proper" ice--large, hand-carved globes in the Japanese style that nearly fill the entire glass, ensuring that the quality liquor does not get too watered-down. The "Cucumber Collins," with Square One cucumber Vodka, lemon, yuzu, huckleberries, and both fresh and pickled cucumbers is also a winner.
The wines, mostly a local selection of smaller names, are nothing to sneeze at--a second-label DuMol Chardonnay stood out, although it was somewhat interestingly paired with meatballs--but they take the backseat to the cocktail program.
The redesigned building is as comfortable and unpretentious as the food. The outdoor garden area is slated to open in late spring, but the downstairs bar is convivial and the upstairs dining room is welcoming and feels more open than the former decor. Red-leather seating booths and reclaimed redwood tables add to the "duck club" vibe, iron fowl knicknackery adorn the restaurant--but not to excess. Interestingly, Goose & Gander is as of now the only place to serve Panevino's David Katz's crazy-good salumi offerings.
Morsels like duck prosciutto, lamb chorizo, and Provençal salumi dusted with fennel pollen rocked my socks off. Katz's salumi will be available soon for retail purchase, but you can only get it at Goose & Gander for right now. Fans of the old Martini House will not be disappointed with the direction the property has taken, and lovers of nouvelle cuisine will find Goose & Gander a worthwhile destination to dine at in its early days.