It made good sense for Michael Dellar to locate his 12th and newest restaurant, Fish Story, in a place he’s called home the past seven years.
Co-founder, president and CEO of Lark Creek Restaurant Group, Dellar and his wife, Leslye, have owned property in Napa County since 1996 and moved here in 2003.
“It’s always been a vision to have a restaurant in Napa Valley,” declared Dellar, who teamed up with noted chef Bradley Ogden in 1989 to launch the first of the group’s eateries, Lark Creek Inn in Larkspur.
The decision to feature sustainable, seasonal, ocean-fresh seafood in wine country was prompted in part by the fact that many area residents told him they often drive to one of the company’s Yankee Pier operations — in Larkspur or Lafayette — when they have a hankering for the catch of the day.
“When we became aware that we might be able to open our Napa restaurant in the new Riverfront project, we contacted (developer) Mike DeSimoni and told him we wanted to do a restaurant here along the lines of our other Lark Creek Group operations,” Dellar said during a break between lunch and dinner service at the spiffy new restaurant and bar at the corner of Third and Main streets. “And we felt downtown Napa was the place we wanted to be.”
Once the ink was dry, Dellar’s group set about putting together an inviting seafood eatery on “a bright and sunny corner” of the $75 million Riverfront project.
“Our touchstone was a luxury yacht of the ’20s and ’30s, with its rich woods and smooth (marbled) surfaces,” Dellar advised.
Greeting diners as they enter the property from Third and Main streets is Denver sculptor Brian Russell’s bronze and glass fountain, an artistic take on the Beatles’ “Octopus’s Garden.” A large, welcoming bar overlooking a busy intersection at Veterans Park serves as both meeting place and a spot to grab an afternoon snack.
Sauntering into the 60-seat indoor dining room, guests pass by a pair of tanks housing live Dungeness crab and Maine lobsters, as well as the eatery’s Wall of Stories. “Who doesn’t have a fish story?,” Dellar rhetorically asks as he comments on both restaurant name and a recent Napa Valley Register contest that resulted in 14 winners’ rod-and-reel tales posted on an interior wall.
With warm weather at hand, diners have the option of enjoying lunch or dinner in the main dining room, in the 32-seat indoor/outdoor Riverfront room (which is also used for private parties) or at one of the awning- or umbrella-shaded tables overlooking the downtown riverwalk.
Anchoring the sleek dining room are some distinct features — a raw bar featuring freshly caught fish and shellfish behind a large glass window that offers a view into the busy kitchen, a wall of sardines captured in a Monterey Bay Aquarium photo and a ceiling-high curtain of fishing lures.
In the company’s search for restaurant chef, Dellar learned that Napa’s Stephen Barber was available. “We did a tasting (menu) with him and it was great. So we offered him the post.” Barber opened BarBersQ in the spring of 2007 and prior to that served as executive chef at Mecca in San Francisco. He has considerable experience working in restaurants throughout the southern U.S.
“We built this restaurant for the local community,” Dellar points out. “We believe that if the locals like it and they come, they will be the ones spreading the word to those who visit the valley.”
Catch of the day
If you were obligated to judge the success of this newest downtown eatery by only one dish — and you were served a grilled whole rock cod — you’d be deliriously happy, riding off into the sunset wearing a Cheshire grin.
Line caught in Canada, this particular fish the other evening was simply prepared, deboned by the kitchen by request, its flesh moist and flaky, as flavorful a fish as one you’d just caught yourself in a cold water brook. It was accompanied by roasted Tunisian-style cauliflower — slightly spicy due to chiles in the harissa sauce —with golden raisins and pine nuts, and a tasty bundle of buttered spinach. All of this came with a very reasonable price tag of $18.50 — a real bargain in today’s tough economic times, a reasonable price for sustainably caught fresh fish.
But that’s not the only shining star on the lineup at Fish Story, which has been given a seal of approval by the Bay Aquarium’s seawatch program.
The other main course fresh fish options (ranging in price from $22 to $26.50) include sautéed Petrale sole from Fort Bragg, sautéed black cod from Morro Bay (served with a lipsmacking stew of cranberry beans, fennel, gypsy peppers and watercress), grilled wild king salmon fished from the Columbia River and grilled tombo tuna from the warm waters off the big island of Hawaii.
Judging by the rapid departure from the holding tank, another popular option the other evening was the Maine lobster boil, featuring a 1 1/2- pound crustacean, clams, sweet corn on the cob and new potatoes, all for $39.
The kitchen also offers a Hook, Line and Sinker dinner, three courses for $27. The recent menu included a cup of New England clam chowder with bacon/dill drop biscuit (on the regular menu at $6 and $9) or a small salad of Little Gem lettuces with baby beets and Point Reyes blue cheese, grilled Idaho trout or Florida white shrimp and grits, plus a bowl of butterscotch pudding.
The Fish Story menu also features chile roasted Dungeness crab ($18.50 for half, $34 whole), North Beach cioppino ($26), a platter of fried Ipswich clams with Kennebec fries ($24.50), rock cod fish and chips with Kennebec fries and cole slaw ($16.50) and, strongly hinting at the chef’s roots, scallops and pork belly with black-eyed peas ($22).
Also proving popular with diners are the shrimp, crab and lobster rolls ($16-$21.50), and a selection of Louie salads, bay shrimp crab and shrimp and Dungeness crab ($17.50-$22.50). Crab cake fans will be happy with chef Barber’s take on this traditional dish, paired with habanero tartar sauce ($12.50/$22.50).
For starters, look to the raw bar for a variety of oysters (Miyagi, Malpeque, Cortez Island, Kumamoto, Kusshi, Beausoleil) at prices ranging from $15 to $35 for half- to full-dozen ice-packed platters, cracked and chilled Dungeness crab ($18.50/$34), ceviche ($10), Arctic char crudo ($9.50) and an appealing rectangle of Hawaiian ahi tartare with a tasty slather of avocado mousse ($14).
Fish Story also offers lofty towers of mixed seafood (lobster, crab, clams, mussels, oysters, ceviche) for parties of all sizes. Real hungry — or got a mob in tow? Order the Moby Dick for $99.
If you’re a creature of habit and baby boomer to boot, you can get your surf and turf at Fish Story for $39 — a New York steak with half a lobster tail. For those in your party who just don’t want to dine on fish, chicken, pork chop and fettuccine are options.
At lunch, sandwich offerings ($12.50-$16) include hamburger and fries, Low Country shrimp burger and kettle chips, ahi burger with chips and pulled barbecue chicken with cole slaw and chips.
The “All at Once Lunch” ($15) features a cup of chowder or small Caesar salad plus blackened rock cod sandwich with cole slaw and kettle chips.
Beverages and more
“It is well to remember that there are five reasons for drinking,” a Fish Story menu advises. “The arrival of a friend, one’s present or future thirst, the excellence of the wine or any other reason.”
Wines from 140 Old and New World producers are currently on the restaurant’s lists, with plans to increase inventory to 200, says Dellar. “We’re focusing on Napa Valley wines, but also feature international brands, wines that go with seafood.”
The wines on tap program provides diners with a modest selection of wines to pair with seafood — Saintsbury’s opulent chardonnay or a rich blend of El Dorado County-grown grenache blanc and vermentino, at $17 and $19, respectively, in 500 ml carafes. For $29, order a bottle of minerally/lemony grüner veltliner from Austria’s Familie Bauer, or enjoy the crisp apple flavors of an Oregon albariño (Abecela) or the bright acidity and tropical fruit of La Cana albariño from Rias Biaxas, both at $38. For a slightly richer palate, try the Qupe Bien Nacido blend of viognier and chardonnay ($37).
But don’t expect to find a lot of wine bargains on the Fish Story list at present. You might squirm when you see sauvignon blancs topping the $40 mark and chardonnays stretching toward, and a few topping, the century mark. Oh well, there are a few beers on tap, soon to include one made on premise, plus a selection of bottled beers from here and abroad, and freshly blended lemonade.
The full bar also features specialty cocktails like Moscow mule (vodka, lime and ginger beer), Old Cuban (aged rum, lime, mint and prosecco) and Red Fez (gin, Dubonnet rouge, Cointreau and Peychauds bitters), in the $9-$11 range.
Captained by general manager Treg Finney, a bustling dining room staff appears well schooled on the ins and outs of the daily menu as well as the company’s commitment to sustainable seafood.
Lunch is served daily from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., dinner nightly from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., until 10 on Friday and Saturday. Starting in a few weeks, brunch will be offered Saturday and Sunday starting at 10:30 a.m.
Fish Story is located at 790 Main St., Napa. For reservations, call 251-5600 or go online to fishstorynapa.com.
Starting in 1989 with The Lark Creek Inn (now The Tavern at Lark Creek), the Lark Creek Restaurant Group has evolved into a portfolio of 12 restaurants that today includes One Market Restaurant and LarkCreekSteak in San Francisco; Lark Creek Walnut Creek; Yankee Pier in Larkspur, Lafayette, at Santana Row in San Jose and at San Francisco International Airport; Parcel 104 in Santa Clara; Bradley Ogden at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas; Moreton Fig in the Ronald Tutor Campus Center at USC in Los Angeles; and Fish Story in Napa on the Riverfront. Cupola, an artisan pizzeria, will open at the Westfield San Francisco Centre in early spring 2011, followed by Lark Creek Grill at San Francisco International Airport mid-spring 2011.