January 24-30, 2007

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First Bite


By Carey Sweet

All we wanted was an oyster potpie, as touted by Siena, the elegant California-Tuscan restaurant at the new Meritage Resort in Napa.

"Rich and creamy," purrs the restaurant's online menu, promising plump pastry stocked with salsify, carrots, English peas and oyster mushrooms. The savory dish is listed as a luncheon appetizer, and on a chilly, gray winter day, it sounded like heaven.

But we were arriving for dinner, so I called Siena, begging them to save us a couple of pies. That would be a special request, the hostess answering the phone cheerfully replied, but after checking with the chef, she reported he would be delighted to do so. That chef would be Jeffrey Longenecker, recently relocated from Sea Ranch Lodge, and known for his local, seasonal, terroir-informed approach to cooking.

It was the best oyster potpie I could have imagined. Poor chef Longenecker--it was no mean feat for him to get it to me. First hint of a predicament: We were greeted as the "potpie party," and told that our dishes were ready if we were. We sipped our complimentary cava (now there's a fine amuse), nibbled salted breadsticks dipped in fancy Rutherford and Italian olive oils, and wondered--pre-made pies? Say it ain't so.

Minutes later, we were told, happily no, Chef would need time to make them, did we want salads? My answer will always be yes. Siena sends out a superb platter of whole romaine leaves ($8), curled with smoky prosciutto di Parma, shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano, and what would have been way too much creamy garlic dressing if the thick, rich stuff weren't so good. A tower of thin-sliced roasted beets and rutabagas ($8) is a sophisticated mix, too, triple-punched with pungent mustard greens, preserved Meyer lemon and smoky white truffle vinaigrette.

We ordered entrées, a maple roasted duck breast ($30) with dried cherry bread pudding, candied yams and root vegetables; and sorrel-wrapped ahi tuna puttanesca ($27) with fontina polenta cake, haystack potatoes and Kalamata-caper-anchovy sauce.

Our waiter intervened. Our pies were full entrées themselves, he warned, wondering where we got the idea they were appetizers. Or that they were even on the menu at all, he suddenly announced, since he'd never heard of them. (Nor had chef, by the way, evidently creating these recipes out of thin air just for us).

Perhaps someone ought to check the Meritage website, I stuttered.

All was forgiven the second the pies arrived. These were beyond glorious, an upscale salute to comfort food. A heavy cast iron crock bubbled with silky bisque so richly creamed and buttered that it shimmered with each spoonful of enoki mushroom, carrot and meaty mollusk. A thick cap of puff pastry shattered in buttery flakes on top, giving way to steaming, doughy innards, and when the pastry was gone, we dunked chunks of fresh-baked rosemary-kissed bread. Thrilled as we were with the chef's special attention, the pies were also pricey; we hardly expected our lovely "lunch appetizers" to be $30 each. But apparently, the kitchen didn't either.

Siena, inside the Meritage Resort, 875 Bordeaux Way, Napa. Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily; brunch Sundays. 707.259.0633.

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Quick-and-dirty dashes through North Bay restaurants. These aren't your standard "bring five friends and order everything on the menu" dining reviews.