Thursday, February 17, 2011

Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen

In St. Helena, there is a little restaurant tucked off the beaten path -- that beaten path being Main St/St. Helena Highway (Hwy 29), the main artery right through town.

This restaurant is run by Cindy Pawlcyn, best known for her mid-valley restaurant "Mustards Grill", but also owner of Go Fish in St. Helena. It can be found one block east of the main road, off of Railroad Ave., more or less right behind the Cameo Cinema. Hence the name: "Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen"

This restaurant has a different vibe than either Mustards or Go Fish (which, in turn, are very different from each other). It goes for the same "classy meets casual" vibe that the other two attempt, and it feels closer to Mustards than to Go Fish. However, Mustards was always more of a "scene" -- after all, you have to actually make an effort to go there (due to its location) and for that reason, if nothing else, it feels more formal.

Backstreet Kitchen feels like more of a locals hangout -- in fact, when I was there that's all it was... the bartender knew people coming in by name, everybody seemed to know what was going on with everybody else. This is the local diner, Napa Valley style.

To be honest, it was a little bizarre. I am a "local" but do not live or work in St. Helena, so I was as much a stranger and tourist there as anybody else could be... not that I felt unwelcome. I showed up for an early dinner at 4:00 (hours are 11:30 to 9:00), so there were only a few people in there... which is good, because they were understaffed due to snow on the mountains preventing some of the employees from "driving over the hill" as they say. [Yes, we have gone from 80 degrees a week ago to snow, hail, and cold rain today]

The decor is sort of Beatrix Potter/French cottage meets jazzy diner... I imagine this is what you'd get if Dr. House, MD decided to live in Giverny. A long chrome counter serves as both a bar (a full bar but also with an emphasis on local wines) and eating counter, which comes in handy for days like today when requesting a "table for one", and the rest of the restaurant is cozy seating areas with small white tables. In a way, this feels more comfortable than either Mustards or Go Fish... light and airy, perhaps a bit feminine but subtly done and not overboard.

I couldn't decide what to get from the menu... I wasn't in the mood for any of the large plates, but I was hungry and wanted some variety. I debated between the duck burger with shiitake mushroom ketchup (a popular choice, as I saw the man next to me order it and directly after someone came in to pick up a carryout order of the same thing), the mushroom tamales (the one "large plate" I considered), a rabbit tostada, and the "Backstreet Fry" of calamari, red onion strings, fennel, and okra. I decided on the last two -- I'm always curious to try fried calamari and see the variations and how well it is done (which can vary wildly from amazing, crisp, and succulent to horrible, like chewing on fishy leather shoelaces).

Of the two dishes (which were much larger than the "small plates" I had thought they might be), the rabbit tostada was more exciting -- it looked delicious, it smelled delicious (I can't put my finger on the aroma given off by the toppings) and it tasted delicious, with plenty of rabbit meat cooked just right in just the right amount of sauce, though a little on the spicy side but I like that.
This is not to fault the Backstreet Fry -- it, too, was very good, with a nice balance of the different ingredients. The calamari was extremely tender, fresh, and juicy -- on par with the great fried calamari at my favorite St. Helena restaurant, Market (a block away). I like fried onion strips, but was more excited by the okra and especially the fried fennel, so I wish there had been more of those in lieu of some of the onions.

I was extremely full by the time I finished all that, so no room for drinks or dessert, but I'll be sure to come back at some point with Sarah. They also have special "Supper Club" events every Wednesday and Thursday, food specials that revolve around a monthly theme. The theme for this month is Indian-and-Portuguese inspired foods; tonight they had a vegetable sambar (curry and rice), a special lentil soup, and a lamb vindaloo or something like that. I was just thinking recently how much Napa could use more Indian/curry options at the restaurants, so this was refreshing to see, but I wasn't in the mood today... maybe I'll check the menu out in a week or two -- I can't afford to do this on a regular basis; my bill for two small plates and water came to about $30, and also unfortunate is that CBK does not have free corkage like Market does (I believe it is $15 here).

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