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Eden by Way of Napa

Matthew Lightner has arrived in wine country, bringing earthbound but exuberant cooking with him.

SLIDESHOW

Ninebark’s horiatiki.

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Ninebark’s dining room.

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The s’mores.

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In addition to giving us untold scores of Little Gem salads, farm-to-table dining has spawned its own distinct aesthetic, one burgeoning with earthenware bowls of citrus and table centerpieces compiled from foraged flora. In lesser hands, such evocations of the harvest can seem stilted, even hokey. But just as a skilled chef can manipulate nature to conform to his or her culinary vision, a deft designer can dress a dining room as Eden without committing aesthetic sins.

Such is the case at Ninebark, in downtown Napa, where persimmon branches, pendulous with orange fruit, hang like Christmas ornaments on the walls, and a cornucopia of gourds, herbs, and tubers rises from a counter before an open kitchen, a still life in 3-D. Painstakingly staged and achingly pretty, this bountiful backdrop is brought to you by Avroko, the prolific design firm whose commitment to a theme is so complete that even Ninebark’s menus sprout sprigs of greenery.

At the helm of this horn of plenty is Matthew Lightner, who cooked to acclaim at Castagna in Portland, Oregon, before earning two Michelin stars at Atera in New York. When he left the East Coast for wine country, he did so hoping, as he said in an interview, to “immerse myself in products.” Consider that mission accomplished. In a setting suggestive of a farmhouse mated with a Restoration Hardware outlet, the chef offers earthbound but exuberant cooking: forage-chic dishes of urban sophistication for a neighborhood that nods off at 9 o’clock.

Longtime Napa residents will recognize the restaurant’s address as the historic three-story building that once housed Fagiani’s and, more recently, the Thomas. Ninebark’s main dining room now fills the second floor, sandwiched between bars on the first and third (during the colder months, the third-floor bar is open only on Friday and Saturday nights). In the street-level space, de rigueur mason jars stocked with dry goods line shelves above the bar. The drinks themselves are familiar too, though the tequila-and grapefruit-spiked paloma, house-bottled and as pink and bubbly as a middle school girl band, is popped open by the barman on the spot, a presentation that you likely haven’t seen before.

Aside from lubrication, the bar offers sustenance from finger foods to full-on feasts. You can have charcuterie and cheese plates but also a roasted half chicken or a hulking rib eye. There’s some overlap between the menus in the bar and the dining room, but what links the floors more directly is an elevator, which Ninebark relies on in lieu of the steep and creaky stairwell. A host leads you to the lift and presses a button; a short ride later, its doors open onto a scene of beautifully styled rusticity. 

The options here begin with “provisions” ranging from raw oysters and grilled flatbreads to salt cod beignets: honey-drizzled, brandade-stuffed doughnuts that go down comfortingly but expand so quickly in your belly that they leave room for little else. Fortunately, there are better, lighter ways into a meal. Chief among them is the most eclectic pickle plate you’ll ever see, a riotous kaleidoscope of blushing apples, neon-red peppers, yellow-skinned Buddha’s hand, and green beans decorated with flower petals and nasturtium leaves. It’s enough vinegar-soaked produce to last you through the winter, and almost worth it for the spectacle alone. Lightner works similar rococo charm with a starter of grilled broccoli that’s both pleasing to the palate and easy on the eye. The charred stems and florets are garnished with smoked cheddar cheese and green goddess dressing, then covered with shingles of crispy kale leaves. It’s 50 shades of brassicas, and pretty much as sexy as the cabbage family gets.

Though Lightner’s cooking could be classified as farm-to-table, its inventiveness defies straightforward descriptors. “Chicken-and-shrimp dumplings” might make you think pot stickers, but the plump parcels that appear, bathed in chicken gravy, taste more like hearty sausages—their heritage Hamburg, not Shanghai. “Horiatiki” refers to a Greek salad, so you may do a double take when presented with a medley of leafy greens, rose apples, watermelon radish, and blackberries. It’s delicious, but aside from a scattering of feta, what makes it Hellenic is Greek to me.

Then again, what’s in a name? Not nearly enough nuance to convey the subtlety of Lightner’s curry of baby turnips, its coconut milk base brightened with trout roe and dusted with almonds and toasted breadcrumbs. It’s Napa Valley’s most worldly curry.

As long as we’re on language, I’ll speak to the service, which, like the decor, is so carefully thought out that it verges on self-conscious. “Tonight,” one server told me, “we’re celebrating the white truffle.” I could almost hear the phrase being scripted over a staff meal, especially given that only moments earlier a white burgundy had been recommended to me as a “celebration of chablis.” The truffles were being sold as a supplement to any dish. But the roasted pork neck, resting over country gravy, needed no addition; it was a celebration in itself.

Were I to throw a party for a dish, I’d offer one in honor of Ninebark’s modernist s’mores, with their thick cloud of burnt marshmallow breaking over chocolate crumble and smoked chocolate mousse. But I’d keep the licorice-laced raspberry and verbena sorbet off the invite list—the berry syrup puddled beneath it bore an unfestive kinship to cough medicine. 

That dessert, a disappointing finish to an otherwise delightful dinner, arrived one evening just after 8 p.m., as the first seatings were clearing out, taking the dining room’s energy with them. When I stepped out a short while later, no one was stepping in. Ninebark is a lovely stage, and Matthew Lightner is a talented actor, but I can’t help thinking that this show is going to need more late-night extras if it’s going to stay alive.

 

The Ticket: A recommended dinner for two at Ninebark.
House-bottled paloma...........................$12
Gimlet................................................... $12
Pickle plate........................................... $12
Horiatiki................................................ $13
Grilled broccoli with smoked cheddar
and green goddess dressing ............... $12
Chicken-and-shrimp dumplings with
roasted chicken gravy...........................$13
Crispy pork neck with country gravy.... $28
Stew of petrale sole, clams, roasted
potatoes, and delicata squash............. $30
Thousand-layer s’mores...................... $9
TOTAL .................................................$141

Ninebark
813 Main St. (near 3rd St.), Napa, 707-226-7821
Three Stars

 

Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco

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