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If the idea of sharing fried oysters, oxtail tamals and a juicy, slow-roasted pork shoulder with friends and neighbors is your idea of dining out, then the new Basalt on downtown Napa’s Riverfront is the ticket.

Artfully redesigned to fit the space that once was Fish Story, the new restaurant is the very model of dining in these times of social networking.

Basalt is all about sharing — from the attractive plates presented by the culinary team to the pleasantries recited by you and the people enjoying the airy space on the bank of the Napa River.

A project of the Moana Restaurant Group, Basalt reflects a lifestyle notably present in the cultures of Mexico, Italy and Spain — that cooking and dining is a lot more fun when shared by family and friends. Designers from San Francisco’s Rapt Studio let that philosophy guide them.

The result is evident in a communal table that seats up to 22, a player piano-themed lounge studded with high tops, an exceptionally long bar with 19 stools, plus a 70-seat riverside patio — none of which are on a reservationist’s docket. Drop in, grab a table and enjoy is the restaurant mantra, says General Manager Jonathan Wendorf, an affable young veteran of Bay Area hospitality.

Don’t worry, the hosts at Basalt will certainly take your call to reserve a table because there’s a large section of the dining room set aside for those who plan ahead. With more than 200 seats and the ability to turn tables at least twice a meal, there’s plenty of room for both walk-ins and those who reserve.

When you do show up, the first thing you’ll notice — other than the attractive remodel — is the host welcoming you to “bah-SALT.” If you’re a native or have lived here for some time, you might think these new restaurant folks are putting on airs. After all, one of area’s best known businesses was “BAY-salt” and one could infer these young people at the door don’t know much about Napa history.

But feel free to chat up Wendorf and his dining room staff. They’ll quickly inform you that while the new restaurant’s owners pay tribute to Napa’s heritage on the plate, the restaurant name references the extrusive igneous rock that was mined here, not the company that oversaw quarry operations.

The man in charge of Basalt’s kitchen, Esteban Escobar, learned the folks at Moana were in the market for a chef up to the challenge of developing a menu for a 215-seat restaurant in the Napa Valley. To Escobar, that means on a busy weekend night the kitchen might have to feed more than 500 diners.

“I like this kind of pressure,” the eager young chef said recently. And he’s also eager to move his wife, Sarah, a manager at Oakland’s Wood Tavern, and young daughter, Evelyn, out of the East Bay. At the moment, he’s searching for a home to rent.

Born and raised in El Paso, Texas, Escobar says his penchant for breaking bread with others can be traced to Sunday suppers with extended family. Asked just how many people would turn up to cook and eat every Sunday, the chef pointed out that his mother is one of 14 siblings. “They would all come with their spouses and maybe two or three kids each … it was easily 40, probably more. Although, today, as they get older they do it less and less because it is a lot of work.”

“But growing up, Sunday was a huge deal … boy is my family loud. I was always in the kitchen … pestering. I liked to eat but didn’t realize I was developing a passion for cooking. I don’t know how many times I got spanked for sticking my fingers in the food. Now I wish I’d had a notebook with me because this was a definite learning process.”

Escobar’s father is an engineer, his brothers as well. He thought he’d follow on their path.

“I never thought I’d wind up in the kitchen — until I got to college,” he recounts. “At first, I wanted to be a musician … that led to a lot of head-butting with my parents. So I enrolled in college, in mechanical engineering.”

While in college, Escobar “worked at a lot of greasy spoons as a busser and server. Then an opportunity for kitchen work presented itself. I found myself on the line one day and never looked back. So I moved to Dallas with my girlfriend … I loved the immediate challenge of decision-making.”

He knew he needed some proper training to secure decent jobs, so Escobar enrolled at the California Culinary Academy.

Asked why he chose San Francisco, Escobar recalled visiting his brother in the city at the age of 14. “I knew I’d never forget that … I tried Filipino food, other things I’d never eaten before. When I thought about cooking, what came to mind was those seemingly exotic things I remembered from San Francisco. So my (culinary) focus was on San Francisco.”

Escobar informed his brother that he’d decided to study at the California Culinary Academy. “My brother told me how to take BART from the Oakland airport and to get off at the Civic Center station,” Escobar said. “I vividly recall coming up the stairs to U.N. Plaza … the wind on my face … the smells … the feel of the city … it was a life-changing moment.”

Once he’d earned his toque, Escobar worked as a line cook at a number of Bay Area eateries. “Then, on the weekends I staged (volunteered to work for free) at others just to see what those chefs were doing,” Escobar adds.

Next, he was hired by Steve and Mitchell Rosenthal to join the kitchen crew at well-known Postrio in San Francisco. He followed Mitchell to Town Hall where he would eventually take on the role of executive chef.

Linking past and present

The menu at Basalt acknowledges the flavor profiles associated with the valley’s earlier settlers while hopefully appealing to today’s palates. Chef Escobar said dishes were developed by someone with “both feet firmly planted in California, (with the addition of) a Spanish or Mexican accent. The entire menu promotes the idea that people like to share … that’s what people are doing these days.”

For example, bar bites (all $7) include an addictive pumpkin seed spread to be slathered on grilled flatbread, fried garbanzos with pimenton, blistered snap peas with a chili garlic glaze, cocoa-spiced almonds and chicharrones with lime salt and honey.

The extensive appetizer offerings ($11-$16) range from lettuces tossed with grapefruit, avocado and honey or asparagus, strawberries and queso fresco to adobo-marinated chicken wings with cilantro cream. You could opt for roasted beets dusted with pepitas and crumbled cotija, napped with avocado crema, or Swiss chard pancakes with mint pea creme fraiche. Fried oysters get some spice from deviled aioli plus blistered pickled peppers, while toasted noodles serve as a bed for chorizo and clams. King trumpet mushrooms give added heft to the flavorful oxtail tamal.

Entrees to share include savory achiote-cocoa marinated black cod ($27), masa dumplings with artichokes and sunchokes ($23), Sonoma duck breast with morels and English peas ($35) as well as grilled hanger steak complemented by horseradish chimichurri and confit potatoes.

Larger main courses to share include a whole roasted Tai snapper drizzled with molasses vinaigrette ($58), slow-roasted pork shoulder on fava bean cakes with braised cabbage and tomatillo salsa ($50), plus a whole roasted Mary’s organic chicken with black bean pepper salad and lacinato kale ($48).

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In addition to a selection of house-made ice creams ($7), desserts ($9) at Basalt include strawberry tart with basil custard and pistachio brittle, coffee pot de creme with dulce de leche and Marcona almonds, carmelia mousse with chocolate cake and caramelized rice, plus ricotta cake with yogurt sorbet and lime meringue.

The wine list at Basalt is extensive, with a wide range of Old and New World selections, including an eclectic mix of cellar offerings from area vintners. While there are only 10 wines offered by the glass, a half-dozen whites and roses are featured on tap.

Front of the house

Born and raised in Napa, general manager Jonathan Wendorf has assembled an energetic, well-versed service crew, including quite a few seasoned members of the local hospitality industry.

Wendorf admits he was attracted to the hospitality industry because he’s “a people person” and enjoys the interaction of restaurant staff and patrons.

His first job was at the Green Valley Country Club where he began refreshing midday salad bars and wound up serving diners in the prestigious Oak Room. He joined the front-of-the-house staff at Domaine Chandon in 1998, where he remained for several years. He helped open Press in St. Helena and sheepishly admits to “nearly catching the place on fire” when he prepared a table-side baked Alaska.

He committed to a career in fine dining when he became a member of the dining room staff at Masa’s in San Francisco, and went on to manage a pair of chef Michael Tusk’s San Francisco restaurants, Quince and Cotogna. Locally, he worked with chef Michael Chiarello at Bottega and opened Torc in downtown Napa with chef/owner Sean O’Toole.

Wendorf met his wife, Fiona, while she was a host at Quince. The couple have an 18-month-old daughter, Blythe.

He finds it “amazing” that he can easily schmooze with both pillars of industry and celebrities in the dining room, noting that he’s been given Harrison Ford’s private number and helped with personal requests from people like James Spader and Kanye West. “This is something I enjoy.”

Another veteran of Bay Area hospitality is anchoring the new bar. Acclaimed bar wizard Jason “Buffalo” LoGrasso presides over the happening bar scene, offering customers such tempting cocktails as London gin and celery soda, green tea vodka and limonata, mezcal and prickly pear soda, Japanese whiskey and Ramune soda, amaro and pistachio cream fizz along with rye whiskey and sarsaparilla. Served in an iced retro mug is the establishment’s mint julep, made with wine barrel-aged bourbon, mint and cane syrup. Fans of the negroni swear by the one prepared by Buffalo and friends.

At present, Basalt opens for dinner daily at 5 p.m., serving Sunday through Thursday until 10, until 11 on Fridays and Saturdays. Lunch and brunch service will begin by summer.

Basalt is located at Third and Main streets in downtown Napa. For reservations, call 707-927-5265.

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