1245 Spring Street @ Oak (one block from Main Street -Hwy 29)
St. Helena, CA 94574
Visited: January 14, 2007 – Dinner
It was time to return and re-visit Martini House, as it had been almost five years since our review. The landscape lighting makes the walk up to the house a little bit magical, setting the tone. Inside, the warm Boulder meets Napa interior is inviting and the Navajo-style rug-covered armchairs are comfortable. The lighting, overall, is soft but they've improved it with directional beams at the table, so that visibility is much better. Service on this visit was excellent, attentive and exacting without being overbearing. The waiter was knowledgeable and accommodating.
Overall the experience was positive. With entrees mostly in the 30s, Martini House is an expensive meal and with that in mind other opportunities abound in Saint Helena-Yountville which might be more or equally satisfying with a lower price tag. I found most of the noted issues in my earlier review were still valid. The cocktail and champagne card is still tucked in the folded napkin, but the bottles are no longer presented to the table before orders are taken. If the check is not yours to pay, then Martini House is a pleasant choice for dinner. We feel no need to return soon. The bar area is still a very happening spot if you need a cozy cocktail destination in St. Helena and I imagine the same patio is heavenly in the summer..
Note: Martini House offers a special Mushroom dinner in early January. The menu tonight was not all-mushroom but had a number of related choices on that theme.
Amuse: Mushroom Mousse Button
slightly sweet, the button of piped mousse sat on a square of puff pastry. Cute presentation but the amuse seemed more like a dessert than a palate warmer...
Cream of Mushroom Soup, Toasted Croutons and Chives
Good. I asked for a spoon to try Jack's soup and was rewarded with a demitasse full of soup. The waiter firmly informed us that the soup contained Himalayan Truffles as he placed the plates in front of us. I wondered what Himalayan Truffles were so I looked it up. Otherwise known as Tuber himalayense they are apparently also called Chinese truffles (although there is a chinese truffle as well). They are cheaper and have less spectrum of nuance than Italian truffles, but have been improving in quality. They seemed like a nice addition to the soup, adding an earthy element.
Chunks of mushroom in the bottom of a creamy soup. Jack did not like the croutons - I thought they didn't do anything for the soup. The contrast of the chunks of mushroom and creaminess of the soup was almost too much. Some of the chunks were on the chewy side. The creamy part of the soup was really good.
Aquavit Cured Salmon, Braised Leeks, Lemon Crème Fraîche, Fines Herbes and Hard Cooked Egg
Lovely presentation. The salmon was bright and fresh. Thinly sliced. The cure was light enhancing the natural flavor of the salmon. The leek was nice. All elements went well together. A bit stronger flavoring in the dots of mousse would have been appreciated as would some bread or potato element.
Roasted Santa Barbara Porcini, Fingerling Potatoes, Caramelized Onions, Fried Parsley and Parmesan
Good. Jack would have liked more mushrooms.
Sonoma Duck Breast and Foie Gras Ravioli, Citrus Braised Endive, Pine Nuts and Currants, Agro Dolce Sauce
From "Sonoma Poultry" (aka Liberty Duck). The large pieces of duck breast were beautifully cooked, making the skin crispy and the meat flavorful. The accompaniment of one foie gras ravioli and a little endive filled with pine nuts and currants was a bit odd - and in fact Jack left it to last to eat. This dish would have been improved with a starch or purée.
Grilled Black Angus Beef Short Rib, Braised Spinach and Winter Vegetables Glazed with Horseradish Cream, Red Wine and Black Peppercorn Reduction
I was worried when I received a Laguiole knife before the dish was served, as traditionally, short ribs fall off the bone. The great news was that I needed the knife. The crispy outside of the well marbled cubes of short ribs offset the great flavor of the meat. The sauce was smoky with hints of bacon and was a great foil to the beef. A few more vegetables would have been appreciated - or some potatoes. The perfectly cooked batons of root vegetables were lovely. Two button mushrooms and a tiny onion were also great. The cascade of horseradish foam was perfect for the dish adding just a hint of flavor while maintaining lightness. Recommended.
Cheese Course Old Wick, Green Hill, Blu de Montviso
All the cheeses were as they should be. The menu offered a nice line-up to choose from. Large portions of each cheese made sharing easy. Both plain and walnut bread was offered. Each cheese had a subtle accompaniment. The Green Hill had a fruit syrup, the Blu had fruit butter and pistachios, and the Old Wick had lightly dressed frisée (which is a perfect pairing - we only wish there had been more if it!) Green Hill is like a camembert with a bloomy rind. Jack really liked it tonight. The blu is a great choice for non-blue lovers. Mild and slightly salty it has a great balance with richness and creaminess. The Old Wick was perfect here. Showing saltiness with hints of nuts. It showed a smoothness and is easy to eat.
Coconut Tapioca with Cinnamon Sugar Beignets
The tapioca was much much heavier than I expected - especially after the light hand of the chef throughout the dinner. The base for the tapioca was creamy and decidedly coconut without being cloying, but very rich. Overall almost too rich. The beignets were great. Little balls of cinnamon sugar coated dough very light and not at all greasy. I don't think they went that well with the heavy tapioca. Even though I enjoyed the dish, I felt that some lightening would improve it.
We took home a nice selection of little cookies which the waiter offered as alternative choice which would travel better than other dessert selections.The tiny chocolate chip cookies were memorable.
2003 Tenuta di Trinoro Le CupoleMaremma Toscana IGT
This is Cabernet Franc-heavy Bordeaux-blend really paired nicely with our main courses. 2-3+
At the Martini House, the mushroom shaped garden lights decorate the short walk to the restaurant. As we approach the door, the patio, which is deserted, looks very inviting and despite the 35 degree temperature I easily imagine the enjoyment of having cocktails there in mid-July.
A half a flight of stairs takes us to the maitre’d. I booked a table for 4, two weeks in advance for 8:30pm. I was informed at the time that they encourage only two seating's of 6pm and 8pm, even though Opentable.com offered other choices. We are shown to our table which is large enough for 6 or 8 in the back corner of the restaurant right beside the wait station and kitchen door. We consider being moved, but the table is so large that we accept the poor location and start to appreciate the décor. The best description would be something like California-Aspen. I’m left with an impression of wood and bits of bright color with rustic elements of twigs and kitschy bocce balls used as shiny ornaments.
At each place, the napkin is folded like an envelope and tucked under the flap is a small invitation offering Champagne for $12 and $15 a glass. Our companions overlook the card as they settle in and the waiter arrives bearing two open bottles of bubbly eager to pour and so $30 later, two glasses of vintage 1992 Pol Roger are now on the table.
Menus arrive and the stage begins to be set for the wine. Jack is ruffled because the lighting at the table is so poor he can’t read the wine list or the menu without positioning them correctly – add that to the poor table factor. The wine list is exemplary for Wine County, offering lots of non-Californian choices and interesting producers and varietals.
Three of us decide to start with the Watercress salad with grapefruit, pecans, blue cheese, and shaved fennel. A Wild Mushroom soup and Ahi Tuna Tartare with American Caviar, Cucumber Coulis and Lotus Root completes the first course. A half bottle of Riesling is decided upon.
For the main course we select Pan Roasted Sonoma Duck Breast with Orange Braised Endive and Green Peppercorn Sauce for $32. A Prime Tenderloin Steak with Sauce Bordelaise, Pommes Finn, Pearl Onions and Glazed Kohlrabi for $36. Braised Veal Cheeks with Glazed Root Vegetables, Crispy Veal Trotters and Black Truffle Sauce for $25. A special Vegetarian pasta dish is to be created by the kitchen as there are no vegetarian offerings on the menu.
An exotic choice of a Madiran (a wine made from Tannat in southwestern France which is generally tannic and rough) is to accompany our meal – as we’ve never seen one on a wine list outside France and our choices tonight are hearty. Our resident wine expert consults the sommelier before finalizing our decision and is assured of our choices.
Our plan in place the first course arrives (after the 1st wine is poured) and both the soup and salad are brought together – we are asked which plate to place directly in front of the recipient. After a second of shock he asks for the soup first. One spoonful and the waiter is recalled to remove the soup and have it heated, as it is at best luke warm. On to the salads… The word warm and salty comes to mind. I was looking for the cool fresh tartness of the grapefruit to play against this but the grapefruit is warm too! An edible but not enjoyable 1st course. The ahi tuna is the star – the cucumber coulis deftly made and the textures and flavors complimenting each other to make for a solid dish. The soup re-arrives and is hot and flavorful but perhaps a little too creamy.
The Madiran was opened with the white and are glasses are ready for our 2nd course. It is tight and tannic with a little volatile acidity on the nose. Too hard, to be enjoyable by itself. The main courses arrive. My duck is one half breast split in half with a slightly crispy skin and pink meat is which neither too rare or well done. Very flavorful. The sauce has a total of 5 tiny green peppercorns – to my disappointment. The braised Endive is limp and uninviting. “Where’s the starch?” my subconscious asks, eyeing the Pommes Finn with the steak. The steak is underdone and cold, so it too re-visits the kitchen for a redo. The Veal Cheeks are good but don’t meet our very high standards set at Les Florets in Gigondas, they are well braised but not quite succulent enough. Pleasant but not satisfying in that hearty way you would expect – perhaps too elegant for the ingredients. The pasta looks inviting but it is left unfinished.
The manager visits us apologizing for the steak and soup and shortly after our plates are cleared, a complimentary cheese plate is set in the middle of the table with 3 tiny pieces of cheese and 4 huge pieces of walnut bread. The cheeses are then identified – the first one a round ash coated goat cheese we are told is Saint-Marcellin – I disagree and the waiter decides I must be right, that the swipe of creamy cheese resembling brie must be the overripe Saint Marcellin, a tiny slice of Fourme D’Ambert, a French blue, completes the plate. Each cheese is accompanied by a flavor enhancer – the Saint Marcellin, a stiff honeyed syrup, the Fourme D’Ambert a wonderful concentrated apple puree. The goat cheese which I believe was Selles-Sur Cher - I can’t recall but I think it was served with walnuts. The pairings were excellent choices. Three selections are usually $10.
The dessert menus arrive promptly and the waiter inquiries 3 or 4 times in the next 15 minutes as to our interest, despite our attempts to get him to wait until we’ve had a chance to look over the menus.
A trip downstairs to the restrooms gives a glimpse of the very busy and very cozy bar – which looks very inviting if it wasn’t so crowded. The ladies room has the theme of the frog prince with a mural on the wall and an appropriately gold framed piece of text from the story.
Back at the table, we ultimately decide on the Grapefruit sorbet and Granite and the Chocolate Crepe Soufflé with Coconut Dacquoise, Banana Ice Cream, and Candied Kumquats at $8 each. I order the Lemon Verbena Tisane and Jack has the "Trentino dessert wine" which turns out to be a Vin Santo. The desserts arrive and we dig in – the grapefruit ices are refreshing and we wish for summer – the perfect dessert for June or August, it is making us colder thinking about our future journey to our car. The chocolate Crepe is a hard tuille-like fluted bowl filled with excellent quality pudding-like mousse. The candied kumquats are appropriated by Jack but we all get a taste of their tart sweetness with the other element of banana ice cream before they disappear. The coconut “dacquoise” is devoid of the layers of it’s namesake and exists here as a chewy grainy coconut meringue disk on which sits the tuille cup. It is unanimous that none of the elements on the plate work together as they should and the tuille-like crepe is completely flavorless and inedible. It is left almost in it’s entirety on the edge of plate. The waiter is informed as he clears the plates and he immediately offers to remove it from the bill.
Wrap-up: The duck seemed high at $32 as is the tiny steak at $36. With the complimentary courses and excluding wine, the cost was $215 - hefty for a dinner for four.
We really liked the ambience of the restaurant and the wine list. There seemed to be a lot of thought put into the cheese course, the use of seasonal ingredients and the presentation but overall the food was disappointing and the cost excessive for the quality presented. The good ideas seem to be clouded by a lack of follow-through.
I’m still annoyed that after booking 2 weeks in advance we got the worst table in the restaurant. I think that seasonal cuisine should represent both produce of the season and the season itself. Would we return? Not likely on our own volition. Perhaps if we had an out of town visitor who liked wines of the world or if we are looking for a bar to hang out in, or cocktails on the terrace.
You may notice that we do not give out a lot of praise. Having been to so many high-quality restaurants, it's pretty tough to impress us.
Most of our reviews are based on just one visit. We neither have the time nor the money (or often, the inclination) to visit most restaurants multiple times. So, please keep in mind that a single-visit review is a snapshot - the restaurant may be "on it" that day - or not. If the meal has a calamity involved (foreign objects in the food, wine poured on us, etc.) we try not to let it shade the overall review.
We pay for the food and beverages; restaurants never comp us. We try to be discreet about taking photos so that the staff doesn't notice/get an idea we're going to do a review. We rarely take notes in the restaurant.
Like the rest of our website, we update our restaurant review pages based upon subsequent visits.