February 7-13, 2007

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First Bite

Go Fish

By Carey Sweet

Before I even step foot inside the new Go Fish in St. Helena, I'm prepared to like this restaurant. How could I not? The upscale seafood emporium is über-chef Cindy Pawlcyn's latest endeavor (she of the beloved Mustards Grill and Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen). Her partners here are top talents in their own rights, with Victor Scargle as executive chef (recently lured away from COPIA's Julia's Kitchen) overseeing the kitchen and Ken Tominaga (owner of Hana Japanese Restaurant in Rohnert Park) running the sushi bar.

As soon as I'm shown my seat, I think: I'm going to enjoy this dinner.

"We've reserved a very special, VIP table for you," the hostess says, directing my companion and me to an elegant banquette done up in crisp white linen, nautical blue fabric and yellow striped pillows. She's fibbing, I imagine, but service is so smooth that my pal and I do feel pretty fancy, sipping our Iron Horse Viognier ($10 a glass) and studying the menu with its array of daily fresh catch, plus seasonal specialties like black cod, haddock and Dungeness crab.

I order fish and chips ($9) and announce, "This is fun." My buddy agrees. Pawlcyn and crew have done a fine job of mixing comfortable with classy, in both dishes and ambiance. Throw on some jeans and stop in for a grilled tuna burger ($15)? We could do that. We'd be just as appropriate dressing up and dining on day boat scallops with Sonoma foie gras ($27).

The "fish" is rich, properly oily fried smelt, and the "chips" are lovely little potato matchsticks of crispy, salty bliss. Next, my pal and I nibble on tiny but perfect portions of house-cured salmon ($12) dotted with crème fraîche and rolled into miniature chive blinis. We marvel at how, even as the eatery fills up with chatty diners, the noise never bothers.

Ordering entrées is a challenge. It all looks so appealing. My companion goes for an elegant classic of sautéed sole, the silky fish ($18) accented with fennel purée and lemon caper brown butter. I tuck into a clever riff on surf and turf ($26), pairing a petite chunk of ahi with cubes of firm, crisped veal sweetbreads paired with wild mushrooms, leek rosti (potato pancake), ruby port sauce and, in the only misstep of the evening, quite a bit too much salt.

Dessert arrives, and I wonder, why don't more chefs create such jewels as Go Fish's light-as-air quince doughnut, paired with fragrant lemon verbena panna cotta and huckleberry compote ($7)? Probably because so few have the talent to pull it off as exceptionally as this.

We pay the remarkably reasonable bill and leave, already scoping out seats for our next Go Fish meal. It'll be at the 16-seat sushi bar, where we'll start with a rainbow roll ($18). Then, we'll move into a tasting platter of oysters, clams and a choice of prawns, crab or lobster ($21). We definitely want the lobster, shrimp and shiitake wontons in spicy ginger-scallion broth. And what will dessert be? We haven't decided yet. But we do know this: We'll like it.

Go Fish, 641 Main Street, St. Helena. Open for lunch and dinner daily. 707.963.0700.

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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.