For his big review this week, Chronicle Food + Home don Michael Bauer took another trip up to Napa, where the sprawling Fish Story has morphed into Basalt. With a new lounge and dining room layout, plus a revamped black-and-white color scheme, the place is "as fresh looking as Napa Valley on a sunny day" and now has a California-inspired Spanish and Mexican menu from chef Esteban Escobar to boot.
Cocktails are at the center of the experience here, although Bauer turns up his nose at the overly sweet mint julep. With its garnish of mint and powdered sugar, Mr. Bauer says it is "a sure recipe for disaster unless you’re partial to sniffing white dust," which is just about the most awkward cocaine reference this reviews reviewer has ever come across. (And anyway, the "Foragers Old Fashioned" with candy cap mushroom sugar sounds more appealing.)
As for the food, appetizers "dominate" and Bauer loves a good radish to complement his pre-dinner cocktail. The clam and chorizo dish was also a hit, as was the "assertive" Dungeness crab salad. Unfortunately things didn’t come together on the main dishes like an over-marinated black cod or the Adobo-charred pork tenderloin in which Bauer like the roasted squash but not the raw squash. Likewise, some masa dumplings were "well executed" but the components "didn’t make a team." Luckily, pastry chef Mindy Beebe’s desserts brought things back into focus. Although Basalt "still seems to be clarifying it’s vision," it still sounds like a better deal that Fish Story was.
Two stars for Basalt and don’t be surprised when the patio is overrun during peak tourist season.
Bauer’s midweek review was a revisit to Aster, Brett Cooper’s Mission spot that was "still trying to find its way" according to 2015 Bauer. A year later, plus some tweaks to the decor and the menu format and Mr. Bauer is now ready to pour out the praise.
Always one for value, Bauer loves the $59 four-course prix fixe menu and everything now comes with "ample" portions and "artful but not overly manipulated presentations." The pork dish with glazed yams, for example, apparently "looks as if it had been styled for the cover of a food magazine." But it’s the starters like a chilled green garlic soup or the sprouted & puffed grains with yogurt and vadouvan that where Cooper shows off his talent for "weaving ingredients so that each has a starring moment before fading just enough to let others capture an instant in the spotlight."
With some improvements in the service, Bauer is handing out three stars for Aster, with three and a half for Cooper’s cuisine.
This week’s Pete Kane review takes us inside Fénix, a restaurant notable for its lotería card wallpaper, the overall attention to detail and the fact that its predecessor TBD made a big deal about cooking everything over an open flame that eventually closed the restaurant and forced it to be reborn, as it were. While the old Moonlight Kingdom vibe has been replaced by colorful tortilla warmers, the food is "basically a hit parade" of Mexican small plates best enjoyed at a "languorous" pace until you "eat yourself to near-catatonia."
With that, Mr. Kane recommends much of the appetizer menu, like the queso fundido and the oxtail sopes, but not the "unappealing" mayocoba bean salad. Where the place really shines though, are the "little tastes" that come along with any of the larger plates like the chicken tinga or the pork shank that "essentially disintegrated on contact with a fork." The tastes are actually about a dozen tiny dishes that could be anything from tortillas for the table to an amuse bouche of chilled tomatillo and asparagus broth, and those are apparently what really make the meal here. Pair those with the classic red wine sangria and suddenly our Alt Weekly food critic doesn’t care that Fénix’s staff apparently eats next door at AQ instead. Overall: positive vibes and a recommendation to please don’t steal the cool luchador tortilla warmers.
Bay Fung Tong
For the Express, Luke Tsai finds old-school Cantonese in the midst of up-and-made-it Uptown Oakland. Bay Fung Tong has been serving "some of the city’s best and most affordable Cantonese for more than a decade," Tsai writes — It also happens to be located just around the corner from Uber’s forthcoming East Bay HQ and is thus ripe for pre-gentrification handwringing. Anyway, the point is: Bay Fun Tong was here before the neighborhood got a name.
Appropriately enough, "Bei fung tong" is the Cantonese term for a shelter used to protect fishing boats during a typhoon. It’s also the style of fried crab, with fermented black beans and pork, that the restaurant specializes in. The titular dish is a standout on the lengthy, "mixed bag" menu but Tsai does have some advice on how to navigate that too: order whatever the "OG," "middle-aged Asian guy" is having. The verdict: great value, and order the fried sand dab.