Sweet and Sour Grapes

Beachwood's Napa Valley Grille has some distance to cover.

Wouldn't you expect that a restaurant touting an impressive Californian wine list would be a stickler for proper wine service? I sure would. So I was more than a little surprised when, during a recent visit to the Napa Valley Grille, my $9 serving of 1994 Andretti Cabernet Sauvignon arrived trapped inside a tiny white-wine glass.

"Let me breathe! Let me breathe!" the big red seemed to call out. Fortunately, when we brought the wine's plight to our server's attention, she apologized and had it transferred to a more spacious red-wine glass, where it was able to stretch out and get comfortable.

Still, it was a mistake that would have made flames shoot out of the ears of any true oenophile and gave a sour taste to a meal that had its ups and downs.

The Napa Valley Grille opened at Beachwood Place on November 6. It is part of a California-based chain of trendy restaurants that includes spots in Marino del Rey, Palo Alto, San Diego, Sausalito, and Yountville, in the heart of Napa Valley.

Obviously, the second floor of an Ohio shopping mall doesn't offer quite the same dining experience as those other locations might. Rather than vineyards or ocean views, dinner guests at Beachwood can watch the janitors at the bank across the hall switching lights on and off as they go about their business. Nonetheless, the restaurant's two large dining rooms and bar, decorated in earthy shades of copper, taupe, and peach, manage to evoke some sense of California wine country through the liberal use of vine motifs, black-framed botanical prints, and pretty arrangements of wine bottles and dried gourds and flowers.

Our dinner visit came on the first pleasant Friday following several weeks of wicked winter weather, and apparently we weren't the only folks eager to get out of the house that evening. Even with reservations, we waited ten minutes in the crowded lobby while the staff hurried to prepare tables for the crush of diners. Once seated, we waited another ten minutes before our busy server arrived to take our drink and first-course order, and it was a good twenty minutes more before we saw so much as a slice of bread. While we waited, my companion and I had to shout to make small talk over the din of our fellow diners.

The restaurant's wine list includes more than 200 California wines, most from the Napa Valley, and many not generally found in restaurant cellars. Nineteen vintages are available by the glass, and the remainder come by the bottle and/or half-bottle. We didn't spot any bargain prices among the offerings.

My first choice of wine had been a relatively inexpensive $7.50 glass of Merlot. The Andretti cab, my second choice, was a house special, but despite our server's glowing recommendation, the small portion of wine never developed a full flavor and didn't seem to warrant its hefty price tag.

Things started looking up with the arrival of our two first-course selections.

The sauce on Executive Chef Norbert Peissert's Napa Valley Grille Crab Cakes was mouth-watering. While the two lightly breaded crab cakes were full of delicious shredded rock-crab clawmeat, it was the satin-smooth, citrus-flavored grapefruit beurre blanc that really made this wonderful dish. The crab cakes' crunchy exterior was a wonderful foil for the sweet meat inside, and the tongue-tickling sauce added a real jolt of flavor to the seafood. Several perfect sections of ruby grapefruit, a mound of mild black-bean salsa, and a froufrou of lettuce-like máche added color and texture to the plate.

We also were impressed by our Chicken, Basil, & Pinenut Potstickers--five large, firm wonton-wrapped dumplings stuffed with a mixture of basil and ground chicken, and served on pools of fragrant cilantro pesto and a sweet, slightly thickened sesame-soy vinaigrette. The dumplings were accompanied by a crisp slaw of finely julienned cucumbers, carrots, and red peppers, with sesame seeds and thin slices of ginger.

(On an earlier lunch visit, we had also savored a cup of the restaurant's thick, creamy Smoked Chicken and Wild Rice Soup, chock-full of chicken, carrots, mushrooms, and nutty wild rice.)

Despite prices that range from $14.95 (Roasted Beet & Goat Cheese Ravioli) to $27.95 (a single veal chop), entrees do not include a house salad. However, the menu listed five interesting-sounding salads that could be ordered a la carte. We chose a delightful blend of baby spinach, seedless red grapes, raspberries, and cooked-and-chilled cubed beets, crowned with a disk of warm, hazelnut-encrusted goat cheese and dressed in a smooth, mild balsamic vinaigrette; also, a satisfying though simple salad of organic greens and miniature yellow pear tomatoes dressed in a slightly tangy mustard vinaigrette. Both salads were flawlessly fresh and delicious.

The breadbasket contained a pleasant housemade herbed focaccia and an equally tasty, dense caramelized-onion-and-raisin black bread from a commercial bakery. Olive oil was provided for dipping but, when asked, the staff brought slabs of butter, which seemed to go better with the slightly sweet black bread.

While we were awaiting our entrees, I had been busy peering around the room and was fascinated to spot several meals garnished with what seemed like long brown bunny ears. I nearly jumped out of my seat when our first dish, Sonoran-Spiced Rare Ahi Tuna, arrived with that same set of antennae rising out of the mashed potatoes. Turned out the "ears" were actually two ungainly vertical slices of roasted banana. A tentative nibble revealed that the dry, crisp slabs had a starchy texture but no discernible taste.

As for the rest of the dish, it contained two small pan-seared tuna filets which were tender, rare as promised, but inexplicably bland despite a colorful dusting of spices. However, their understated taste was more than compensated for by the pile of fiery chipotle-flecked mashed potatoes. My companion and I are both fond of spicy flavors, but this threatened to exceed even our thresholds; if you aren't a fan of hot foods, these dried-jalapeno-peppered potatoes may be something to avoid. Tuna and potatoes both rested on two artfully intermingled sauces--an aromatic green cilantro sauce and a piquant red-pepper coulis--which added flavor, but luckily not much more heat, to the dish.

We were also disappointed in our second entree, a pricey Herb-Crusted Rack of Lamb--two tiny three-bone chops and one even smaller two-bone chop; each scarcely amounted to a mouthful. Two of the chops had been cooked medium-rare, as ordered; the other was very rare. Despite their gentle roasting, the chops were no more than moderately tender and lacked the rich depth of flavor I expect of lamb. The "herbed" crust tasted like plain bread crumbs and added no pizzazz. Even the lovely mahogany demi-glace couldn't do much to raise the lamb above mediocre, although we did relish the custard-like, goat-cheese-flavored "bread pudding" and slightly bitter braised greens that accompanied the meat.

The kitchen seemed to regain its footing with dessert.
We especially liked the silken Butterscotch Creme Brulee. Although not too different from its standard counterpart, the dessert got an extra hit of caramel flavor from the butterscotch syrup mixed into the custard.

A generous square of tiramisu--espresso-soaked ladyfingers layered with sweetened mascarpone cheese--was also good. The Italian treat was topped with grated sweet chocolate and served on a pool of coffee-flavored creme Anglaise which had been prettily garnished with fudge sauce.

(On that earlier visit, we had also tried the unfortunately named but nevertheless delicious Chocolate Ooze Cake, a small round of underbaked chocolate cake sided by vanilla ice cream and served on a tart raspberry coulis, and warm Apple Crumb Tart, a flaky pastry filled with cinnamon-scented apple slices, set on a buttery caramel sauce, and accompanied with a scoop of cinnamon ice cream. We enjoyed them both.)

By the time we finished our meal, two and a half long hours had elapsed, mostly because of the evening's very slow start. As the dining room emptied, service became more prompt and attentive, and we were inclined to dismiss our earlier difficulties as part of a new establishment's growing pains.

As for the food, despite a relative weakness in the main courses, Chef Norbert, Sous Chef David Llewellyn, and their staff certainly impressed us with their sauces, salads, and desserts. Once main dishes consistently demonstrate the same high quality and balance as the rest of the menu, Napa Valley Grille promises to be an elegant, if expensive, alternative to food-court meals at the mall.

Napa Valley Grille. 26300 Cedar Road (Beachwood Place), Beachwood. 216-514-8686. Call for hours.

Smoked Chicken and Wild Rice Soup $4.75

Napa Valley Grille Crab Cakes $9.95

Chicken, Basil, & Pinenut Potstickers $6.95

Warm Hazelnut-Crusted Goat Cheese Salad $7.50

Stone Free Farms Organic Greens $5.50

Sonoran-Spiced Rare Ahi Tuna $21.95

Herb-Crusted Rack of Lamb $25.95

Tiramisu $5.95

Apple Crumb Tart $5.95

Chocolate Ooze Cake $5.95

Creme Brulee $5.95

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