It’s been about six months since three-decade-old Chron critic Michael Bauer has compared a Japanese tasting menu to a warm bath, so here he is at the “simply sublime” Kenzo in Napa, “where everyone looks as if they just had a day at the spa and a skin-smoothing facial.” The restaurant is the downtown Napa showcase for video game tycoon Kenzo Tsujimoto’s $100 million Kenzo Estates winery, and thus Tsujimoto brought in chef Hiroyuki Kanda of the three-Michelin-starred Kanda in Tokyo to create a wallet-pummeling $225 kaiseki menu.
Despite the price, Bauer is “enamored by the purity of the experience,” which is certainly cheaper than a flight to Tokyo and, in our critic’s opinion, just as good if you need to recalibrate your palate toward a more Eastern sensibility. The “less-is-more aesthetic” shows through in dishes like a cube of tofu studded with walnuts and covered in dashi gelee, tuna cold-smoked in straw, or the chawanmushi with so much uni “that it feels like it might be the last indulgent request of dying man.” Aside from some of the best pears he can remember, the rest of the menu gets much more perfunctory descriptions from Bauer (wagyu here, yuzu there, etc) but the “choreographed” and “ceremonial” service is enough to elevate the two-and-a-half-star food to three stars overall.
While he was up in Napa, Bauer also paid a visit to wine country farm-to-table trailblazer Mustards Grill, where revered chef Cindy Pawlcyn first planted a garden out back of a roadhouse nearly 35 years ago. Despite the local sourcing, Mustards “offers a global reach” and a widely-appealing menu with an occasionally excessive wine list and “decent” cocktails.
Although “products are good and the concepts are well conceived,” Bauer thinks the service has an “undercurrent of sloppiness” and the busy atmosphere gives the classic restaurant a “production-line quality.” On the other hand, Pawlcyn’s spirit is still there in the watercress dip, the Espelette aioli, and the “whimsical” chicken wings, and that’s enough for Bauer to forgive the waiter who spilled water on his sweater. Two and a half stars.
In the Marina, Pete Kane rolls into Adriano Paganini’s heavily Mayan-influenced Flores, where the $7 mango and fried dough “chicharras” are not to be missed. The “unexciting” ceviche and “amateurish” huarache, on the other hand, can apparently be skipped and not even a “heap” of Dungeness crab could save the unimaginative tostadas de cangrejo. But chef Alejandro Morgan (Lolinda) redeemed himself with a huitlacoche quesadilla and the “genuinely outstanding” res con chile colorado. On the family-style mains, Kane recommends the pok chuc grilled pork and wraps up dinner with the “basically obligatory” dessert of fresh churros dipped in chocolate.
Overall, Flores is “a spiritual successor to the mysteriously shuttered La Urbana on Divisadero” — the cocktails are “generally excellent,” and the decor is “artfully silly” with a healthy dose of charm (even if the soundtrack was “100 percent reggaeton”). The restaurant is at its best when it aims high, Kane says, but in the end it’s still short on swagger.
While there’s no shortage of wood-fired pizzas in Oakland, Luke Tsai admires the “bajillion-dollar Stefano Ferrera brick oven” and imported pizzaiolo at Lucia’s Pizzeria in Berkeley. According to co-owner and ex-Brooklynite Steve Dumain, the restaurant hopes to combine “very peculiar” tastes with traditional food and the younger, “more playful energy” of hip Brooklyn pizzerias like Roberta’s or Paulie Gee’s. With that in mind, Tsai says Dumain and co-owner Alessandro Uccelli’s dedication to expensive ovens and imported Italian-milled flour speaks for itself.
The crust, Tsai says, “might be the most gorgeous Neapolitan-style crust in town” and the litmus test Margherita pie was an “excellent, straight-ahead version.” For something a little more adventurous, Tsai recommends the Lucia’s Secret with mortadella, pistachios, and stracciatella. Compared to local Cal-Italian spots like Pizzaiolo or Oliveto, Tsai says that Lucia’s has an enjoyably laid-back spirit that feels more like an East Coast slice shop than the sit-down, full-pie joint it really is.