May 3-9, 2006

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First Bite

Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen

By Gretchen Giles

Three hours after embarking on a Sunday afternoon Napa Valley "field trip" that had started in Calistoga, we'd only made it as far south as St. Helena. Exhausted from the gritty exertions of trying to wander through every art gallery, boutique, bakery, spa, shoe store and restaurant in both towns, we badly need succor, a comfortable seat and, lawd knows, a beer. What we didn't want was a fussy meal that would leave us too full for the dinner the teenagers back home were expecting that night or too poor for the milk they would tediously demand with their cereal the next morning. So naturally, we hied it off the high street directly into a restaurant owned by of one of Northern California's most acclaimed chefs, Cindy Pawlcyn.

Situated in an old two-story house a block off the bustle of Highway 29, Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen is as comfortable as it sounds. Furnished in linens and stripes, decorated with collectible kitchen objects and massed photographs, it features a sweet hidden courtyard nestled by the front door. And on this particular Sunday, falling into Cindy's was like being a welcomed guest at a weekend house party.

Young couples in baseball caps studied newspapers spread across their tables, a game unwound soundlessly on the bar's TV, a mother and toddler played with plastic animal toys as they awaited their meal. We opted to sit in the even more casual environs of the bar and, after ordering a life-giving Lagunitas IPA ($4.95), gave the menu consideration ordinarily reserved for the works of Dostoevsky.

With executive chef Pablo Jacinto, Pawlcyn has developed what she terms a "Food of the Americas" menu that utilizes the freshest ingredients with the melting pot of influences that is quintessentially American. The menu therefore features stuffed piquillo peppers filled with braised beef and napped with charred tomato sauce ($9) as well as a rabbit tostada ($11.25). The "large plates" find mushroom tamales filled with grits and chard and Yucatecan salsa ($14.95) and a spice-rubbed quail ($21.95). Salads range from such standards as the meal-sized Cobb ($15.95) to a peppery bed of greens with rare-grilled ahi ($16.25).

The baseball-capped young folks spooned ahi absently into their mouths, the mother and toddler fairly clapped their hands in sync to the arrival of the Laura Chenel goat cheese ravioli ($10.25; entrée-sized, $16.95) and we--OK, we had burgers. But such burgers! Weighing in at a full half-pound of Niman Ranch beef, these babies ($10.95) were coddled in Cindy's wood-burning oven and served with crisp, perfect fries and a side of housemade pickles like grandma never made. Cindy's also offers fun and fancy cocktails, an ice cream fountain and such desserts as an ever-changing sorbet menu ($6.50) and a grownup interpretation of the S'more ($7).

Every Thursday from 6:30pm to 8:30pm through June, the restaurant features a celebrity bartender in the guise of an area winemaker who will go tableside to pour his or her wines and also try a hand at making such libations as the Idaho Baked Potato martini (Chopin potato vodka with a splash of scotch--yow!). Michael Terrien of Molnar Family Vineyards is up May 4; Pam Staff of Crocker & Starr, May 11; and Dave and Deneen Brown of Brown Estate team up May 18; and so on.

Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen, 1327 Railroad Ave., St. Helena. Summer hours are now on! Open daily, 11:30am to 10pm. 707.963.1200.

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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.