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Global market

Josh Sens | Photos: Ed Anderson | October 19, 2011 | Story Restaurants

In my family, we abide by two strict culinary rules: Never cut a bagel toward your face, and beware of menus that cross too many time zones.

The latter regulation comes from my childhood in New England, where a few traumatic meals at a Mexican-Italian restaurant gave rise first to intestinal distress and then, soon after, to this conviction: Some cuisines, like certain in-laws, shouldn’t mix.

Old experiences in mind, I approached Kitchen Door with some trepidation, having scanned the menu of Todd Humphries’s latest venture and found that it read like a shelf of Let’s Go guidebooks, with nods to sites as disparate as Italy and Indochina, Middle America and the Middle East.

What Humphries was calling multiethnic comfort food stirred up recollections of terrifying postcollegiate parties to which guests were asked to “bring a dish from your home country.” We’d show up in an optimistic, it’s-a-small-world spirit, only to recoil from the anarchy on our plates.

On the upside, though, this was Humphries, a chef whose playful cooking I’d enjoyed at the now defunct Martini House in St. Helena. That he’d opted to relocate to Napa’s Oxbow Market was not as troubling as it might once have seemed. This gourmet emporium started its life as the Ferry Building–lite with the low energy of a sluggish shopping center, but lately has been picking up, emerging as something of a locals’ hangout: an organic operation in the pre–“pesticide free” sense of the word.

There was, in other words, cause for both hope and worry. All that remained was to do a bit of eating. So I drove to Napa and discovered that my stomach-knotting fears had been for naught.

There is no kitchen door at Kitchen Door. The cooks work behind a counter, in an airy space that has been done up like the set of a wine country cooking show. Copper pots dangle from the ceiling. Edison lights, encased in wire-whisk fixtures, hang over self-consciously scuffed-up wooden tables.

There also is no table service at Kitchen Door. You pay a cashier, collect your silverware, and wait for a server to show up with your order and field any follow-up requests.

Feeling very much the culinary Kofi Annan, I started with pho ga—its broth scented with star anise, its flavors bright and lighter than the chicken noodle soups of the Vietnamese haunts I frequent in Oakland—then left Asia behind for an Armenian lahmajune, a kind of pizza piled high with spicy ground lamb, harissa-heated yogurt, and enough lettuce, tomatoes, and pickled onions that it was really not so easy, as the menu suggests, to simply fold and eat.

The lahmajune’s crust—perfectly blistered, with the tiniest air pockets—was no different from the crust of the hen-of-the-woods mushroom pizza, a nice Northern Italian number, perfumed with rosemary and enriched with provolone and parmesan cream. And it was pretty much the same as the herb-flecked flatbread that came with the house charcuterie plate, which, not surprisingly, was a globe-trotting trio: marbled cotta, peppery salami, and a third distinctive cut spiked with Chinese five-spice powder.

By “just cooking stuff he likes to eat,” to borrow a phrase employed by my server, Humphries isn’t chasing trends. Nor is he offering the classic trappings many travelers look for in a Napa getaway—he has chosen a location with no expansive views of vineyards and opted for a format that brings no disquisitions from a sommelier. The Oxbow is nice, but it’s still a mall. And counter service, though a casual match for the Kitchen Door’s aesthetic, will never cut it for some patrons.

That breed of diner may not deem the restaurant worthy of a long drive. For locals, though, or day-
trippers on a drive-by, Kitchen Door comes through, not just with its convenience but with the care it applies to its eclectic compositions. On one of my visits, a shaved-celery salad was a finely made mosaic, overlaid with candied pecans, pungent gorgonzola, and date slivers whose sweetness sparred with a plucky white-
balsamic vinaigrette. Next came a “chicken dinner,” an old-fashioned name for a dish with a fixed place in Americana. Humphries’s version is iconic: the roasted bird tender and bronzed, the centerpiece on a canvas of peas and carrots, with roast potatoes to complete the picture. Add Mom and apple pie to the image, and you’d have a meal that would make John Boehner weep. Full disclosure: I sniffed a bit at the lack of pan juices, which would have brought the meat and veggies into greater harmony.

Indeed, not everything is spot-on. On his trip through Italy, Humphries stumbles over eggplant parmesan, which comes undercooked and direly undersalted. But he rights himself with the accompanying pasta: handmade fettuccine of a perfectly pliant texture, glistening with sweet-and-tangy tomato sauce.

For dessert, Kitchen Door adheres to a new California law that requires all laid-back restaurants to offer Straus Family Creamery soft-serve ice cream. Like marital sex, the vanilla and chocolate swirls are sweet but predictable, and apt to leave you eager to try something else.

Let me suggest something with a fuller body: the candy cap mushroom bread pudding, splashed with loving spoonfuls of maple crème anglaise. Studded with raisins, with just a hint of earthiness from the mushrooms, the pudding is so moist and decadent, you might not want to divvy it up with your partner.

There’s no prohibition against that.

Kitchen Door
610 1st St. (at soscol Ave.), Napa
Wheelchair Accessible HH½


Photography by: