While downtown Napa is bustling with new restaurants and high profile chefs, the fare at long-established favorites isn’t exactly going begging.
On a recent weeknight, for example, the bustling wait staff and hustling cooks at Angèle collaborated to keep up with the cravings of a full house, inside and out.
At least an hour before sunset, hungry diners began to fill the seats on the attractive riverside patio and belly up to the bar manned by hospitality industry veteran Talani Moranda.
In the compact restaurant kitchen, Angèle’s soft-spoken executive chef Patrick Kelly jockeyed with line cooks to plate rustic, lusty dishes on the eary fall menu — a colorful roasted beet and Asian pear salad on apple puree, sweet creamy corn soup, Big Ranch Farm heirloom tomato salad with sinfully rich burrata, Petrale sole draped with crunchy squash ribbons, pancetta-wrapped game hen with creamed corn, juicy Berkshire pork chop sliced and nestled atop pole beans and smashed Carola potatoes.
Set to celebrate the Main Street eatery’s eighth anniversary in two months, Bettina Rouas says she and her
partner, father Claude Rouas, aren’t worried about all the new restaurants opening nearby, or the fact that high profile guys like Morimoto are packing ’em in just up the street.
“We’re a community of restaurants,” the savvy hospitality industry veteran declares. “We’re all supportive of one another. When we’re full, we send people up the street. (Other restaurateurs) do the same.”
Rouas knows a thing or two about restaurants. She and her sister, Claudia, grew up in them. Their father ran the fashionable Nob Hill haunt, Etoile, while his brother was greeting guests a few blocks away at another popular San Francisco eatery, Fleur de Lys. While in high school, she worked at her father’s Napa Valley venture, Auberge du Soleil, before moving into San Francisco to join front of the house staffs at a pair of well-liked dining destinations, Prego and Ciao.
At 21, Rouas assumed the role of general manager at Undice, at the time a very popular Italian bistro that was part of the early South of Market gentrification. Before she took on management roles back in the valley at The French Laundry, Bistro Don Giovanni and Bistro Jeanty, Rouas spent four years with family in France. She lived in Paris, in an apartment above Chez Angèle, a rustic neighborhood bistro, a name she shares with her beloved grandmother.
“Angèle is my middle name,” Rouas revealed the other evening at the start of dinner service. “I walked by that restaurant every day ... it was inspirational.” She readily admits she dreamed at the time that one day she’d open her own restaurant, a restaurant named Angèle.
And that she did in the winter of 2002, turning a century-old boathouse in the Napa Mill complex into a dining destination popular with locals and visitors alike.
Angèle is “everything I imagined it would be,” she confides. “It’s a labor of love and passion. I’m quite pleased with the way it’s turned out ... and that a lot of the staff has been with me since the beginning.”
Her father still plays an important role in the business, Rouas advises. “We talk on the phone at least once every day. I run things by him all the time ... he’s my mentor.
“He’s as retired as he’ll ever be. He’s still involved in a minor way at Auberge, and he’s (chef) Richard’s (Reddington) partner at Redd (in Yountville), and I know they’re in contact a lot. Now that he sold his home in France, he spends at least six months here every year.”
From farm to table
Chef Patrick Kelly’s sophisticated cooking belies his simple heartland roots.
Although he grew up in Wyoming, the Nebraska native recalls great warm summers on his grandparents farm in the Cornhusker State.
“For a time, that farm fed our family,” he recalls, as chickens, geese, pigs and lambs were raised by his grandparents. “I remember my grandmother did a lot of canning and preserving and she loved to bake. It was there that I drew a strong connection to food — really the simplicity of great food.”
As with many young teens, Kelly found himself at 16 busing restaurant tables. He strived to provide “great service, when you would go out of your way to make someone’s day. I didn’t think at the time that I would pursue a career as a chef though.”
Kelly wound up studying economics at the University of Wyoming. Was he happy about that? No.
“I kept thinking about cooking ... that if I didn’t pursue that career when I was young it would pass me by. A friend of my father was a successful restaurant owner and he encouraged me.” He also convinced his less-than-enthusiastic parents that cooking was a worthwhile career choice.
Kelly enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. His two years of intense studies resulted in Kelly being hired to cook at a respected Chicago eatery, Spiaggia. After a year in the Windy City, Kelly set his sights on California, relocating to the Napa Valley where he signed on for his first stint in the kitchen at Angèle. He spent a couple of years working with executive chef Tripp Mauldin.
Rouas encouraged Kelly to accept an offer to work with chef/restaurateur Roland Passot at acclaimed La Folie in San Francisco. He spent three years in the Polk Street kitchen as Passot’s chef de cuisine.
She feels with Kelly’s return, the menu at Angèle “has moved away from strictly bistro dishes to more classic French cuisine.”
Kelly has a slightly different take. “My goal is to provide warmth in our food ... giving the dishes special attention. I’d like you to think you could be eating at your grandmother’s house.
“We often take the long way. I feel the need to find a balance between ancient cookery and modern technology. We might prepare a dish with the sous vide method (slow cooking in a water bath), but only when it makes sense and it’s the best way to cook an ingredient.
“I also strive to make the dishes reflect my personality and background ... that there’s both sophistication and sexiness to the presentations, so each dish is relevant in today’s dining world.”
Kelly’s words are reflected in a rich yet rustic dish that blends current technology with French culinary tradition. He poaches a duck egg by the sous vide method and teams it with ris de veau, or veal sweetbreads, and lentils, pulled together with a savory puddle of celery root puree.
There’s also a warm salad of savory clams, bay scallops, octopus and sea beans, flavored with squid ink vinaigrette. Other popular appetizers are the chef’s take on a traditional BLT — fried green tomatoes layered with crispy skinned suckling pig and bound together with a tasty green peppercorn sauce, plus a plate of Spanish mackerel served Basque style with romesco sauce, eggplant and Basque peppers.
Appetizers range in price from $9 for salade verte to $18 for foie gras terrine with cajeta caramel.
Ranging in price from $18 for creamy farro prepared in the style of risotto — enriched with patty pan and Ronde de Nice squash and cherry tomatoes — to $34 for hearty faux filet — a square of dry aged ribeye with bone marrow-crusted short ribs — main courses reflect the chef’s recent collaboration at La Folie as well as Rouas’ take on traditional Paris bistro fare.
There’s roasted duck breast with duck confit and a Jonathan apple stuffed with red rice, veal loin and cheeks paired with kohlrabi and celery root, California seabass nestled on a bed of shelling bean succotash, house-cured pancetta-wrapped guinea hen served with boudin noir and potato galette, plus roasted Sonoma quail with cornbread and chorizo stuffing.
Dessert options ($7-$8) include chocolate pot de crème, seasonal clafoutis, bread pudding with Pink Lady apples and vanilla bean ice cream as well as one that’s been on the menu since day one, the very popular banana gratin.
The wine list always features several blends from both sides of the Atlantic served by the carafe, plus a serious collection of Old and New World sparklers, reds and whites.
With warm weather traditionally stretching into fall in the Napa Valley, hungry locals and visitors continue to have the option of dining on the patio or in the cozy, inviting dining room. Locals enjoy grabbing a bite at the popular bar in order to chew the fat — figuratively — with the ingratiating bar crew. A fast-stepping, hard-working staff keeps the tasty food coming at lunch and dinner daily.
Angèle Restaurant & Bar is located at 540 Main St., Napa. For reservations, call 252-8115.