After a frantic search, we finally found our best table manners in a kitchen cupboard and took them with us to St. Helena in the Napa Valley.
The destination was the renewed Wine Spectator Greystone restaurant (everybody needs a corporate sponsor), a spacious and dramatically handsome indoor space with a circular open kitchen ideal for patrons’ looky-looing. Outside, the adjacent patio is an ideal perch to view the rolling, grapevine-laden hills of one of the world’s most famous wine-making regions.
The restaurant is inside the Greystone building, since 1993 home to a branch campus of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, N.Y. Other branch campuses are in San Antonio and Singapore.
Occupying 117,000 square feet, Greystone is a haunted mansion-looking stone structure built in 1889 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. Along the way, it was a Christian Brothers winery for 44 years (1945-89).
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Some context: The Greystone campus primarily offers two-year associate degrees in “culinary arts and in baking and pastry arts,” in the French style. The faculty is made up of 24 veteran chef-instructors. Chefs from around the world regularly converge on the campus to lecture the 200 or so students, and a number of food-industry conferences are held there.
“We keep active in the industry,” said Thomas Bensel, CIA-Greystone managing director and a graduate of the Hyde Park campus. “That’s part of what makes us viable and relevant.”
All that big-time cred is good news for us, because the most senior of the campus’s students run the restaurant’s lunch program. Dinner is handled by non-faculty professional chefs.
We were shown to a table with a great view of the dining room, and made frequent trips to the open kitchen to watch busy cooks in tall toques and white jackets turn out the likes of flat iron steak, game hens, rock shrimp and chorizo, and duck breast with polenta. That working-kitchen scene is a big part of the dining experience, but don’t expect any over-the-top drama a la the new chef-as-enfant-terrible movie “Burnt.” Which, come to think of it, would be even more entertaining.
Our lunch menu showed seasonally influenced small and large plates and side dishes largely made with locally sourced ingredients, including some from the CIA’s farm and garden ($7 to $29). There are plenty of wines by the bottle and glass, six signature cocktails, craft brews, cider and flights of sparking and still wines and beers.
Some of the intriguing ingredients used in the kitchen aren’t often seen in mainstream restaurants, such as avocado cream, quince compote, parsley chimichurri, malt vinegar powder, fried capers, charred red onions, quail eggs, house-made crème fraîche and verjus gastrique, a sweet-and-sour sauce made with the juice of unripened grapes.
The service was concerned and professional, and the dishes were excellent, but … the rock fish in the otherwise flawless cioppino was way oversalted (oops!), and we thought the cucumber-avocado-red onion salad was a taste and textural mismatch.
A starter salad of Asian pear and peppery arugula with goat cheese, pickled jalapeño and crisped quinoa was tanged with a judicious splash of fresh-tasting lemon-herb dressing. Butternut squash gnocchi were paired with a mix of tender mushrooms in a delicious herb sauce that made the dish sublime.
Our favorite item was, surprisingly, a grilled cheese sandwich on perfectly browned sourdough, encasing creamy Dutch sheep’s-milk cheese, house-cured bacon and not-too-sweet peach-rosemary jam. A close second was Greystone’s version of cioppino. The dark, deeply flavored broth contained charred tomato and bonito flakes, and held an al-dente squid filled with a tantalizing scallop-fish-breadcrumb-herb “farce” (French for “stuffing”), and a scallop, clams and rock shrimp, with grilled sourdough for dipping.
We finished with an assortment of cheeses, candied walnuts, fruit compote and thin crackers, and an overwhelming urge to get into a kitchen and cook something.
Wine Spectator Greystone
Where: Greystone building, Culinary Institute of America campus, 2555 Main St., St. Helena
Hours: Lunch is 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; dinner is 5:30-8:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. Closed for lunch Nov. 25-28 and Dec. 18-Jan. 4.
How much: $$$-$$$$
Information: 707-967-1010, www.ciachef.edu/california. For cooking demonstrations, tours ($10), 707-967-2320