Stars are back: Reviewer ventures beyond just desserts at Napa Cafe

Meals a delight from start to finish

A Napa specialty is seafood like crab cakes with sweet corn relish with apple smoked bacon and cilantro.

A Napa specialty is seafood like crab cakes with sweet corn relish with apple smoked bacon and cilantro.

I'm a grownup, so I get to start with dessert if I want to -- and I do for this review.

Desserts are generally my least favorite element of the dining experience. I take more pleasure from a light appetizer, a great glass of wine, a delicately cooked piece of fish.

 Napa Cafe has been a mainstay on Sanderlin because of its creative menu and consistency, whether for lunch or dinner.

Photo by Dave Darnell

Napa Cafe has been a mainstay on Sanderlin because of its creative menu and consistency, whether for lunch or dinner.

Napa Cafe chef Ben Adams  prepares herb salmon with sauteed asparagus, roasted red pepper aioli and sweet carrot confit.

Napa Cafe chef Ben Adams prepares herb salmon with sauteed asparagus, roasted red pepper aioli and sweet carrot confit.

A Napa specialty is seafood like crab cakes with sweet corn relish with apple smoked bacon and cilantro.

A Napa specialty is seafood like crab cakes with sweet corn relish with apple smoked bacon and cilantro.

But the absolute perfection of the Key Lime and Mascarpone Cannoli at Napa Cafe took me by surprise. I ordered it because my husband loves Key lime pie; I figured I'd just taste it for quality and let him enjoy it. Instead I ate about half of it -- and I ordered it again when I went for lunch.

Forget everything you know about a cannoli. This is no thick flour shell filled with grainy, heavy, overly sweetened ricotta. The shell is a thin, glassy cylinder of caramelized sugar -- think of the ideal topping on a creme brulee. Piped inside is a velvety smooth, extraordinarily rich mascarpone cream flavored with Key lime. Flakes of toasted coconut and macadamia nuts garnish the plate, and the cannoli is topped with a few dendrobium petals; the presentation is as lovely as the taste.

Enough. Just know that you will only be hurting yourself if you let your meal end without sampling this dessert.

Napa Cafe is a gem of a restaurant. It's remained current and relevant over the years through consistency in quality and service, and by frequently hosting wine dinners to remind folks it's still there and thriving in its corner, tucked away off Sanderlin.

I've never left there unsatisfied. Over the years I've been pleased with fish dishes I typically order when I'm there, but on recent visits, I went with beef.

For dinner I chose the Black Pepper Crust Filet Medallions, and you're unlikely to find a more peppery dish. I adore black pepper; be sure you do, too, before you order this. Two generous and thick medallions came to the table resting on a mound of mashed potatoes. I like a salad with my meal and ordered the baby iceberg half, served with tomato and blue cheese -- it's the retro iceberg wedge updated a bit.

It proved an excellent accompaniment. The dried-cherry port reduction on the beef brought a deep richness to the dish, the pepper a spicy kick, the potatoes a bit of comfort, and the crisp salad a cooling touch to the pepper.

I can't say that my beef was overcooked, but it was just on the verge. I ordered medium-rare and what I got was so slightly past it that it was unworthy of complaint, but worth mentioning here. Next time I'll ask that the kitchen be certain it's just barely to medium-rare -- it can always go back for a minute or two if needed.

The meatloaf at lunch was a dense and hearty portion. Filling, delicious and also very popular. Risotto cakes were a nice change from the standard potato side, and the creamed spinach was plainly decadent -- a few bites and the rest went in a go-box.

Chicken roulades stuffed with goat cheese and topped with a red pepper sauce is available at lunch and dinner. It's straightforward, simple and satisfying.

I was nearly as taken with the crispy artichokes appetizer as I was with the dessert. The quartered hearts are battered and fried, served hot and topped with a tangle of fried leek strips, lemon aioli and a few pieces of sun dried tomatoes (which could easily be omitted). I adore artichokes and resent being served canned ones in a restaurant, particularly as they can be purchased in the far superior frozen form. I tasted again and again. I could detect a slight vinegary note, but ultimately couldn't convince myself either way on whether these were canned or frozen. I later asked and found out they are canned, but the quality is superb.

The wine list is extensive, though it would be nice to see a few bottles around $25 or so. Selections by the glass are limited to a handful of reds and whites and a Loan rosé from Australia, a thoroughly enjoyable wine.

We'll start with dessert and end with it, too. Though it was necessary to try the cannoli twice -- you have to be certain something is as good as you think -- we also ordered the buttermilk pie at lunch. It's more cheesecake than pie, just a bit lighter and served atop a squiggle of brown sugar sauce. I left with no doubt that when at Napa, I'll be eating dessert.

-- Jennifer Biggs: 529-5223

NAPA CAFE

Overall Rating:

Food:

Service:

Atmosphere:

Address: 5101 Sanderlin

Telephone: (901) 683-0441

Hours: Lunch: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.. Dinner: Monday through Thursday, 5-9 and until 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

Category: Upscale

Handicapped access: Yes

Alcoholic beverages: Full bar

Reviewer's choice: Black Pepper Crust Filet Medallions ($29); The Gourmand's Meatloaf ($12); Key Lime Mascarpone Cannoli ($7); Buttermilk Pie ($7)

NEW DINING REVIEW RATING SYSTEM

We have returned to a star rating system for restaurant reviews, although it's a different one than you might remember.

We're still using the four-star scale: One star is good; two is very good; three is excellent; and four is extraordinary. However, we are now rating food, service and atmosphere separately, with the food score counting twice in the tally. This way, restaurants with good food get a boost, though atmosphere and service still count.

Here's the math: Napa Cafe received three stars each for food, service, atmosphere. With food counting twice, that's 3+3+3+3 =12; divided by 4, that's 3 stars.

Uneven results are rounded up or down.

We're also putting restaurants in categories so we can compare apples to apples, so to speak. We'll have an upscale, casual, and cheap eats categories. Upscale means that most of the entree items are $25 and above. Casual restaurants fall into the $11-$24 range per entree; cheap eats are those that offer meals for $10 and less.

Let us know what you think.

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Comments » 4

johnscruggs#213953 writes:

Bravo for bringing back the star system and a well written review!

John Scruggs Jr.

pburnette writes:

Congratulations on such a great review. My family has been coming to Napa Cafe for years now and we have enjoyed our dining experience every single time. We always have terrific service and great food. I brought my brother-in-law in this week for a lunch date. He has been visiting from Arizona. He had the Napa burger and I had the chicken salad. Throughout lunch, even though he ate every bite of his burger, he was eyeballing the meatloaf and mashed potatoes that was being served at a table next to us. He said he was definitely going to have to come back before he leaves. It was such a great experience and of course we had to top off our lunch with the very delicious buttermilk pie. As always, it was a fabulous dining treat. Therefore, I am so pleased to see such a wonderful review. Go Napa! We'll be in again soon.

macietraviesa writes:

In the last several months I have eaten at Napa Cafe 4-5 times. Each time the service has been impeccable and the food was absolutely divine. I especially liked the crab cakes, the chicken salad, the salmon, and the buttermilk pie. I plan on returning to eat there many times in the future. It is one of my favorite places in town and I send kudos to the new chef there (5-6 months now?), Ben Adams.
My husband and I ate dinner there on Valentines's Day and were very pleased with the set menu and as we eat out often were quite familiar with this practice of having such a menu on special occasions. I was delighted with the chef's choices that night.
Keep up with the good work, Napa!

ThePatagonianToothfish writes:

Yes! I'm thrilled that you guys brought back the star system. As for this review, your descriptions and critiques of the dishes were great. I hope that this is the start of a new chapter in the CA dining section :)

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