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Bistro Don Giovanni in Napa


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We have reservations on Saturday for Bistro Don Giovanni in Napa.  My friends have been before and greatly enjoyed it, but they're not culinary experts.  I was wondering whether eGulleteers have had the chance to check this place out.

FWIW, it actually garnered 3 stars from the Chronicle review (click).  Considering that French Laundry and Chez Panisse get 4 stars (out of 4, of course), I think this bodes well for my meal at the Bistro.

--V

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I never ate there. It never made my cut.

That said, realize the review is very old.  1997 is a lifetime ago in chef/restaurant years.

Also, alot of local (Napa) chefs and foodies have had their, shall we say, problems, with Michael Bauer and his awareness of and commitment to the Napa food scene.

Go in with an open mind and report back!

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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Yeah, I noticed that the review had been hanging around for a while.  So I figured I'd solicite some more current impressions from fellow eGulleteers.  Of course, I asked the question the day before going and then didn't log in to check back...  Yup, that's thinking ahead.   :wink:

That said, let's see what I can do in the way of a review.  I'm not all that experienced in this review-writing thing, so if I forget an aspect for which someone wants more info, let me know and I'll see what I can do for you.

First of all, the place itself is lovely.  It's surrounded by grape fields (then again, what ISN'T in Napa?) and a couple of very well tended and orchestrated gardens.  There's a clever sculpture of an anthropomorphic wine opener at the main entrance.  It really grabs your eye and gives the place a first impression of playful sophistication.  We ate on the deck/patio, so I didn't take the chance to check out the decor and ambiance of the interior.  The patio, however, was just OK.  The floor was uneven, making the table wobble in a very annoying way.  And, for such an open space, it was surprisingly loud.  Over all though, it was a decent enough environment for a meal.

Speaking of which, maybe I should actually discuss the food.   :smile:   There were five of us in the party, which made for the opportunity to try a lot of different dishes.  And the flavor of the week at Bistro Don Giovanni appears to be fennel.  Fennel in the salad, fennel in the pasta, fennel in the antipasti.  Those of us who like fennel didn't mind, but I did find it odd to find that particular ingredient in so many dishes.  The beet and haricot vert salad was an interesting mix of items.  The earthiness of the beets blended well with the beans, but I think the salad would have benefitted more if it had been simpler.  The other appetizer we ordered was...um...named something which I can't recall.  But it was the standard bread/cheese/meat antipasti you find at Italian places.  It was good, but there wasn't really anything outstanding about it.  One of our party ordered the pasta e fagioli soup.  I didn't have the chance to try it, but it looked like a respectable portion of a fairly hearty soup.  He said it was good, but didn't elaborate on that at all.

Appetites being what they are, we all opted against the traditional Italian antipasti > pasta > carne progression and settled for a mix of pasta and meat at the table.  Everything was quite good.  As often happens, I found that I liked my chosen entree less than just about everyone else's.  Which isn't to say that it was bad.  It just wasn't as good.  In no particular order, we had:

   Morrel risotto with duck confit

   Roasted sole

   Grilled pork chop

   Penne with duck bolognese

   Fettuccini with porcini and pork ragu

My favorite was the pork chop (I had the penne).  It was very juicy and flavorful.  The fettuccini was quite good and obviously fresh.  The ragu had a good flavor, but I have to admit not tasting a lot of it.  Pretty much everything was very good but nothing really stood out as a show-stopper.  The pasta portions were deceptive, but in a good way.  At first they appeared small, but by the end they ended up just the right size.

Dessert was OK.  It's hard to mess up strawberry shortcake, chocolate truffle cake and tiramisu.  Again, nothing stood out as a star, but it was all quite good.  The lemon creme fraiche in the shortcake was very refreshing.  The person who ordered the tiramisu commented that it could have been "a bit less sober."  Not being a big fan of the stuff, I took his word for it.

The service was very helpful and friendly, if a little stand-offish.  When the beet and haricot vert salad arrived without the advertised avocados, the waiter was apologetic and rapidly returned with another salad.  When a half bottle of syrah turned out to be sour, at no point did one of those "Uh huh, sure, just inconvenience me" looks cross over his face.  He just took it away and made another suggestion.  The waiter's assistant was very accomodating when dealing with the wobbling table.

You may notice the lack of a "wine" discussion.  I don't really know a lot about wines or wine lists, so rather than pretend that I do I'll just say:  long list.  Many wines.   :wink:   During the course of the meal we had two bottles of a 1999 Ravenswood Zinfandel.  Again, I don't know a lot about wine, but I enjoyed it.

Over all, I'd have to say it was a good experience.  Not outstanding, of course.  I'd have to say that I feel the three stars in the Chronicle review are no longer valid.  It's still a good restaurant, with good ambiance for a group of friends having a night out, with good food and service.  But it wasn't as outstanding as the old review led me to believe.  I'd probably have to drop the stars to maybe two and a half, but only because two and three quarters aren't possible on the Chron scale.  I would recommend this place to people who will be in the area anyway, but I probably won't go out of my way (coming from Oakland) to try it again.  Not with so many good places so much closer to me.

--V

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V--did you drive all the way home afterward?  If so, is that something you and/or your friends find yourself doing easily--the drive up to Napa for dinner and then drive back to Oakland?

Was the restaurant and patio packed when you were there?

Can you compare it to any other places there that you have eaten at recently--especially others that you might describe as having a "good experience" at or an "outstanding" one at?

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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Yup, we drove home afterwards.  Actually, I drove home afterwards, since I'm the one with the car.   :wink:   But I like driving, so I'd have to say that yes, it's something I can do easily.  I can't speak for all the other members of the party, but I should mention that only half of us were coming from Oakland.  The others live in Vallejo, which is virtually knocking on Napa's door.  I don't mind traveling for food if it's something I feel I can't get in the general Oakland/Berkeley area (and if I don't end up having to park in SF).   Or if it's a special trip--like this one--to try a new place outside of my normal stomping ground.

Although I didn't take the opportunity to step inside, I can assume from the fact that the patio was packed that the restaurant itself was as well.  Not being a Napa local (and therefore not having a feel for what the locals are like), I couldn't tell whether they were all neighborhood folks or others who, like me, had heard the place was good and wanted to give it a try.  I'm always confident I'll like a place if I see that it's popular with the locals.

Hmm...your last request is a tough one for me.  I'm not sure whether I have the restaurant repetoire to be able to give a good comparison between Bistro Don Giovanni and someplace else I've been recently where I had a good experience.  I was at Bay Wolf the week before, where I feel I got more for my money.  There was slightly better food (much better in the case of the deserts) for the same price if not a little less, friendlier service but equally attentive.  I have to admit though that the atmosphere was better at the Bistro.  The weekend before I was at Steps of Rome and House of Gnocchi in North Beach.  My pasta at the Bistro was better than what I had then, but the service was much better at House of Gnocchi (it's really hard to beat some of the service I've gotten in North Beach).

Overall though, I've had much better experiences--food, drinks, service, ambience--at both Trattoria la Siciliana (on College Ave. in Oakland) and at Kincaid's (in Jack London Square in Oakland) than I had at Bistro Don Giovanni.  It just wasn't anything special...

Hold on.  I've been reading here long enough to know that I need to define how I'm using that term.  "Special," in this context, is something out of the ordinary as far as my current set of experiences are concerned.  If it's food/drink, it has to either be unique or an exceptionally prepared standard.  If it's service, it has to be attentive without looming and friendly without being intrusive.  It might not have been necessary to define this, but it doesn't hurt.  Now back to my regularly scheduled post...

So it wasn't anything special.  The food, though good, wasn't exciting either in its preparation or its originality.  I can get comparable nearby.  I don't see any need to go out of my way to have it again.  And as a matter of fact, if I ever find myself in the Napa area around dinner time again I'm more likely to sally forth and try a different new place than tread this old ground again.

Hrm.  Not sure whether I actually answered any of your questions.  But it's sure a long post, ain't it?   :biggrin:

--V

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  • 1 month later...

I went to Don Giovanni last Spring and really enjoyed it. It seemed more casual than other places I'd been to in Napa, more of a "local" crowd. I can't remember exactly what we ate, but I know everyone was pleasantly suprised.

Funny story -- I was ordering drinks for my group and asked for GlenFarclas, neat. The bartender said it was "--- years old". I wasn't paying attention, so I just nodded. The fill came, and the 40 year old scotch cost $26. I told the bar-keep that the last time I paid $26 for a single drink, it came with a lap dance.

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  • 2 years later...

Again, I'm digging up an ancient thread because it seems like the only one specific to the restaurant.

We had dinner at Don Giovanni last night. The outdoor patio has now been partially converted into year-round seating. The front portion of the patio - the part that overlooks the garden and the vineyards - is still completely open, but the side with the parking lot view has been partially walled in and is a surprisingly enjoyable place to have a meal in the middle of winter. Our table being near the fireplace didn't hurt matters any.

Our meal was ordered family style, which the restaurant is generally quite good at accommodating. This time, however, rather than split up the three pasta dishes we ordered and serving one with the meat dish, they chose to serve three pastas and a meat dish all at once to the three of us. I would have preferred three courses rather than two.

We started our meal with beef carpaccio and fritto misto - the carpaccio is something I always order when I eat there, it's just simple and flavorful. The fritto misto was quite good, the veg was nicely cooked - still a little crunchy, which I enjoyed.

Next came the onslaught of dishes - silk handkerchiefs (delicate sheets of pasta) with wild nettle and walnut sauce, wild mushroom risotto with artichoke hearts, rigatoni with duck and green olive bolognaise, and milk braised rabbit with polenta. The rabbit and risotto were the two standouts. The others at the table thought the risotto was a bit too salty; apparently I prefer more salt than they do, as I found it to be perfectly seasoned. The rabbit was far better than any of us expected from the less-than-compelling description the menu offered. It was very flavorful, nicely tender, and just generally an excellent dish.

A single order of apple and cranberry fruit rustico with vanilla gelato was shared for dessert. It was perfectly fine, though we were all too full by then to really enjoy it.

Don Giovanni is a place I used to visit fairly regularly; it somehow fell off my radar about six months ago. It was nice to return and see that the food is still good and that the place was packed on a Sunday night in January. The restaurant is reasonably priced for a tourist town; dinner can be had for around $50/per person including wine. The wine list is what you'd expect for a restaurant along highway 29 in Napa - they have plenty of options for the trophy wine drinker, but the bulk of the list is reasonably priced, and there are a few really nice Italian wines on the list if you are in search of a wine to go with your meal.

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Dave:

I posted this back in July after eating there. Some of my alternate recs are no longer with us (Green Valley & Piatti), so we did go back last month. I was pleasantly surprised that the entire experience, from food to service, was much better. People have warned me not to go during the season, and I guess it's advice worth taking.

Have you & MsMelkor tried Jude Wilmoth's new "Cook" in St. Helena? It's where Green Valley Cafe was, and he's kept some of the tried & true old recipies, while augmenting with some new offerings. Simple, inexpensive food in a funky neighborhood space (it used to be a drugstore...complete with the counter). Lots of locals! You might enjoy it for a simple lunch or dinner.

"A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti."

- Dr. Hannibal Lecter

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I have eaten there a few times, always for lunch and have always found it very good. Our last meal there however was 2 years back, however. But I would definitely like to return.

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