May 17-23, 2006

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First Bite


By Brett Ascarelli

One quiet Monday night, my boyfriend and I popped into Hoss Zaré's sprawling eatery in Napa. Mirroring the décor's playfulness--which is crowded with eclectic memorabilia ranging from an old popcorn stand to Ziegfeld Follies glossies--the menu is a collection of California-Mediterranean dishes, boosted by the occasional nod to Zaré's Persian heritage. Just celebrating its first year in business, Zaré is the Napa arm of Hoss Zaré's popular "jewel box" restaurant in San Francisco, and city prices seem to have translated, too.

Appetizers ranged from braised veal cheeks ($13) to sea scallops over roasted shiitake mushrooms with black truffle-lemon vinaigrette, topped with caviar and quail eggs ($13), and from smoked pheasant salad ($12) to Dungeness crab cakes ($13). Entrées included a pan-roasted duck breast with a port and berry reduction and risotto of smoked pancetta, grilled asparagus and orange zest ($23), an herb-crusted filet mignon with walnut and barberry rice pilaf ($25) and red wine braised lamb shank with a preserved lemon and black-eyed bean stew ($25).

While considering our options, we listened as the two women seated near us tried to coax the waiter into giving them free dinners, one of them insisting that she was a food critic. I silently gloated about my preserved integrity, until the waiter consented to bring them out a complimentary serving of chocolate soufflé ($9).

Only faintly hungry after listening to the women's charade, I decided upon two appetizers. The dolmas ($13) epitomize Zaré's creative genius. The grape leaves are stuffed three different ways: with lamb and basmati rice; with Japanese eggplant, citrus split peas and tarragon; and with mozzarella and pine nuts. The cumin-tarragon yogurt sauce drizzled over them all lent a refreshing flavor. I also enjoyed the fragile, thin beef carpaccio ($9), with aged balsamic vinegar, shaved Reggiano and cornichons. My boyfriend loved his butter lettuce salad ($9) with endive, crispy prosciutto and a tarragon-mustard vinaigrette, and his braised Sonoma rabbit entrée ($25), Zaré's version of coq au vin.

On the way out, we meandered over to the full bar (a rarity in Napa) to take a look at Zaré's plans for expansion. Zaré Napa, a dining and special events complex with a Music Man aesthetic, will include three different restaurant environments (a lounge, a cold bar with sashimi and oysters, and a nouvelle cuisine restaurant for fine dining) and a B&B. Hoss Zaré has also got two new brewery schemes up his sleeve, applying to restore San Francisco's defunct Albion Castle brewery and planning to turn Napa's old Hakusan Sake building into a beer-making facility. And why not? The man can do anything--his first name says it all.

Zaré, 5091 Solano Ave., Napa. Lunch and dinner served daily; bar closes at 11pm. 707.257.3318.

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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.