If anybody’s earned the right to fix you dinner, it’s Cindy Pawlcyn.
Born into a Midwestern family of good cooks, Pawlcyn began her culinary adventures at age 8. By the time she was 13, the earnest youngster was earning money for her efforts in a commercial kitchen. She’s been cooking hither, thither and yon ever since.
“So, how long is that — 100 years, right?” Pawlcyn joked in response to a question about time spent cooking for others.
She recalled meeting the partners in a business that eventually led to her current status as one of the valley’s best-known and respected chef/restaurateurs.
Pawlcyn met Bill Higgins and Bill Upson in Chicago and then hooked up with them in the mid-1970s at MacArthur Park, a once-popular restaurant in San Francisco’s Financial District.
She left that operation in 1979, moving here to join the culinary team at Meadowood Resort. Next she took her talents to one of the valley’s early temples to culinary yin and yang, Rose et LeFavour, backing up chef/owner Bruce LeFavour.
In 1983, Higgins, Pawlcyn and Upson forever changed the dining scene in the Napa Valley with the opening of Mustards Grill in Yountville, a restaurant that still packs ’em in. For the next 17 years, the trio made headlines by opening a series of well-received restaurants in San Francisco and the North Bay — Tra Vigne, Fog City Diner, Bix, Roti, Buckeye Roadhouse.
With the arrival of the new millennium, Pawlcyn decided to turn a new leaf, withdrawing from the partnership and winding up as sole proprietor of Mustards Grill. In 2001, she launched Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen in St. Helena, and five years later teamed up with Tokyo-trained sushi master Ken Tominaga to open a second St. Helena eatery, Go Fish.
Just prior to dinner service at her latest operation, Brassica — a Mediterranean-themed restaurant that replaced Go Fish in early September — Pawlcyn took a few minutes to talk about a career she admits might be subtitled “Never a dull moment.”
In addition to the three local restaurants, Pawlcyn oversees the culinary outlets at Monterey Bay Aquarium, an enterprise that has taken the lead in promoting sustainability in the seafood industry.
She said sustainability was not a top priority with Tominaga and it became an issue that led to dissolving the partnership at Go Fish.
“Go Fish was making money, but nothing to write home about,” Pawlcyn candidly admitted. She noted that Go Fish was often perceived as “just a sushi restaurant” even though the menu offered substantially more than raw fish.
“If there was a group going out to lunch or dinner and one member didn’t like sushi, then the group would go somewhere else to accommodate that person — that was what we found ourselves up against,” she added. “So we became a restaurant for a special meal or occasion” — with repeat business on a once-every-two-weeks or once-a-month basis.
“Visitors — especially Asians and Europeans — loved us, but we wanted to please the local population as well.”
So, in early September, Pawlcyn and her culinary team (which includes acclaimed chef Sean Knight) rebranded the St. Helena dining destination as Brassica, a restaurant featuring dishes from the entire Mediterranean region.
The term Brassica refers to members of the mustard family — mustard, kale, rape and turnips — as well as other cruciferous vegetables — broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, radishes and watercress.
“I wanted the name to be related in some way to Mustards (Grill),” Pawlcyn quipped, “but I knew Ketchup was not a good name.”
She said the suggestion to rename the restaurant Brassica came from her husband, John Watanabe.
Asked if operating three restaurants in the Napa Valley is a bit daunting, Pawlcyn replied: “When I’m really exhausted, I wish I’d been a brain surgeon.
“Actually, I love to make people happy ... I find I can do that when I cook for them. (The new operation) keeps the creative juices flowing ... (and) allows me to cook new things.”
When she’s not in the kitchen, one can often find Pawlcyn in her garden or working with ceramics. She’s a cookbook collector as well as a collector of varied forms of art.
“If I wind up with too much art at home, I can always fill up the restaurants (with the latest acquisitions).”
Adding to the homespun Brassica decor is Pawlcyn’s collection of one-of-a-kind, food-related hand-drawn cartoons from England’s Glenn Baxter. “I love Charles Addams and Baxter has that same twisted sense of humor,” she said.
The wine bar at Brassica is an informal space with widely spaced rounds and a community table, a comfortable bar for both drinking and dining and cozy window banquettes. The large dining room is a mix of conventional tables and banquettes outfitted with puffy pillows. Maritime-themed accents from the earlier operation have been removed, although the space still reminds this diner of Cape Cod or other Down East dining rooms. And while the weather cooperates, Brassica is serving lunch and dinner on its attractive patio, accented by a wood-burning fireplace that’s just the ticket on cool fall evenings.
Bacalao to baba ghanoush
In designing the Brassica menu, Pawlcyn turned her focus to areas of the Mediterranean often overlooked when chefs are preparing dishes from this large region.
“I wanted to make sure the Eastern Mediterranean and Northern Africa were included, not just the traditional foods of Spain, Italy and France,” she pointed out. “I wanted to feature a lot of other flavors.”
For example, there’s baba ghanoush ($5), one of the offerings on the “tapas to mezze” portion of the menu, a healthy combination of spread and salad served with crispy pita triangles and toasted sesame seeds. In the Levant, baba ghanoush is a sort of salad made of grilled or roasted eggplant with finely diced onions, tomatoes and other vegetables blended in.
Dating from the time of the pharaohs, ful is the national dish of Egypt. Accompanied by hard-boiled egg, red onions and pita bread, hummus with ful ($8) is a dish that is a must for Brassica diners. Paired with a generous serving of hummus, ful consists of cooked and mashed fava beans served with olive oil, chopped parsley, onion, garlic and, in Pawlcyn’s kitchen, plenty of lemon juice.
Then there’s Greek trahana, a “dumplingish, tangy” pasta — a fermented mixture of semolina, sheep’s milk yogurt and milk, usually made into a thick stew with eggplant and tomato. Pawlcyn serves it two ways, in a Greek stew ($15) as well as with addictive wine-braised pork that incorporates wild Greek oregano, garlic, sweet roasted red peppers and topped with the slightly sour trahana to bring together all the flavors offered in the dish ($22).
“I like the idea of small plates and shareable dishes,” Pawlcyn noted. “I think people are getting into this style of dining, sharing more, not only small plates but larger dishes as well. Our menu features small, medium and large plates and we encourage people to share.”
Also on the tapas and mezze menu is another twist on the familiar: eggplant fries paired with spiced yogurt for dipping. The small plates here range in price from $4 for fried bacon-wrapped dates to $15 for the grilled lamb T-bonettes with red pepper and pomegranate glaze. Traditional Greek dolmas feature the flavors of pine nuts and mint, while Spanish bacalao fritters are best napped with orange/saffron aioli. Then there’s seared Haloumi cheese sprinkled with Greek oregano, garlic shrimp wearing a coat of espelette pepper and brandy, grilled fig and ricotta bruschetta, chicken drumettes coated with not-too-spicy harissa, and Serrano ham paired with Marcona almonds and the nutty, buttery Basque sheep’s milk cheese, Idiazabal. That same pairing, ham and cheese, is complemented by quince paste on the panino of the day.
The medium-sized plates ($8-$16) include the Syrian bread salad, fattoush, with a dressing that incorporates sumac, a spice providing a very nice, fruity-tart flavor that’s not quite as overpowering as lemon, and lemon tabouli with sungold tomatoes. A riff on the traditional Italian dish, pork tonnato at Brassica features thin, very tender pork slices topped with a tuna-flavored aioli that also incorporates capers, anchovies and lemon. The thin strips of piquillo pepper and tiny cornichon chunks provided added dimension to the overall flavor.
The large plates range in prices from $19, for fried egg–topped leek and pancetta risotto and coriander and thyme braised rabbit over pappardelle, to $28 for a pair of grilled quail with braised figs and polenta, Moroccan lamb shank with golden raisins, prunes and couscous, or grilled swordfish with broccoli rabe. Also offered are lamb kebabs with roasted tomatoes, poblanos and eggplant, plus slow-braised beef with Pedro Ximénez sherry and cauliflower.
Desserts ($6-$9) also reflect the diverse Mediterranean kitchen. Although it wasn’t a deliberate intent, a fall classic on the dessert menu is also vegan — orange-infused Greek walnut cake with oranges, candied orange peel and candied walnuts. There’s a Provençal apple tart with prune and Armagnac ice cream, vanilla panna cotta, sherry-and-red-wine-poached pear with crème fraîche ice cream, warm chocolate torte and “Five Easy Pieces” — the restaurant’s plate of mini-bites.
Inspired by the rich and varied flavors of Southern Europe, Northern Africa and the Middle East, the dishes from the Mediterranean kitchen are complimented by a substantial selection of wines on tap, by the glass and bottle.
“We offer the most extensive by-the-glass wine list in the valley,” noted partner Sean Knight, “with a focus on small producers, an eclectic assortment of local wines on tap and innovative cocktails. The Brassica 12 is an entirely new concept highlighting a dozen small-production Napa winemakers, all without tasting rooms. We showcase these wines by the glass and bottle and offer retail sales as well as special tastings.”
What’s particularly nice is the ability to select 2- or 5-ounce pours of the wines offered on tap or by the glass, making the dining experience even more fun by seeking out wines that pair with such eclectic dishes. The list is extensive, incorporating wines from most Mediterranean nations as well as food-friendly varietals grown throughout the Golden State.
A bustling, well-informed staff makes the dining experience all the more pleasant.
Brassica is located at 641 Main St., St. Helena. For reservations, call 963-0700.
Kitchen and Wine Bar
Makes 4 servings.
1 pound eggplant, globe variety
1/8 cup tahini
1 garlic clove, minced
1/8 cup lemon juice
1/8 cup extra virgin olive oil
Scant 1 tsp. Aleppo pepper
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1/4 tsp. paprika
1/8 cup parsley, minced
1/2 tsp. cumin, toasted and ground
Fresh, blanched grape leaves or lettuce leaves
4 pita bread rounds
Extra virgin olive oil
Sesame seeds, toasted
Place the eggplants on the grill and roast until completely soft. Turn often and make sure the bottoms are soft. Grilling produces a smoky flavor. Alternatively, roast in a 400-degree oven until completely soft.
Peel and roughly chop the flesh. Place in a colander or sieve to drain the liquid out of it.
Combine the tahini, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, Aleppo pepper, salt, black pepper, paprika, parsley and cumin together, mixing well. Once the eggplant has drained, mix well with the remaining ingredients.
Cut each pita round into 6-8 wedges. Brush each wedge lightly with olive oil and toast in a 350-degree oven for 10-15 minutes until crispy.
To serve, place a grape leaf or lettuce leaf on a plate, top with a scoop of the Baba Ghanoush. Lightly sprinkle with paprika and toasted sesame seeds. Drizzle a small amount of extra virgin olive oil on top. Place a lemon wedge to the side and 5 wedges of toasted pita bread with the points facing out.
Harissa Chicken Drumettes
Kitchen and Wine Bar
About 8 servings, at 3 pieces per plate, as an appetizer.
2 1/2 pounds chicken drumettes
2 Tbsp. canola oil
1 quart chicken stock
1 cup tomato sauce
1/4 bunch fresh thyme
1/4 bunch fresh oregano
1/4 cup harissa
1 cup harissa (see recipe at right)
1/4 pound unsalted butter
1 Tbsp. cumin, toasted and ground
1 Tbsp. caraway seeds, toasted
Season the drumettes with salt and pepper. Heat the canola oil in a sauté pan and sear the chicken in batches until golden brown. Do not crowd the chicken. Reserve.
Combine the chicken stock, tomato sauce, thyme, oregano and harissa in a sauce pan and bring to a boil. Reduce to simmer. Add the chicken wings and simmer gently for 20-25 minutes. Let the wings cool in the liquid.
In a sauce pan, combine the 1 cup harissa with the butter and heat until the butter is melted. Whisk well.
Preheat and lightly oil a grill or grill pan. Grill the braised drumettes 4-5 minutes until they are nicely caramelized and heated through. Toss with the warmed harissa butter mixture. As an appetizer, serve 3 on a plate and sprinkle with the toasted ground cumin and caraway.
Kitchen and Wine Bar
Yields about 2 cups.
1/2 pound guajillo chiles
Warm water for soaking
10 garlic cloves, peeled and trimmed
1/4 cup water (use the soaking
water from the chiles)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp. caraway seeds, freshly ground
1/2 tsp. coriander seeds,
1 Tbsp. salt
Extra virgin olive oil
A word of caution — wear rubber gloves when handling chile peppers, as they can irritate the skin. Do not touch your eyes and be sure to wash your hands well with soap and water after handling.
Remove the stems and seeds from the chiles. Soak the chiles in warm water for 1 hour or until soft. Reserve 1/4 cup of the soaking water. Drain the chiles. Place the chiles, garlic, water, olive oil, caraway, coriander and salt in a blender and process until smooth, stopping to scrape down the sides.
Store in a sealed container and top off, covering the surface with a layer of olive oil. Whenever used, always top off with olive oil, making sure no paste is exposed to air, otherwise it will spoil. Kept refrigerated, it will last for weeks.
Use harissa like a condiment — for example, with scrambled eggs.