Photograph by Michael Amsler
Local Comfort: Chef and owner of Fumé Bistro Terry Letson focuses on well-conceived California bistro fare.
Napa’s Fumé Bistro hits the high marks of Wine Country excellence
By Sara Bir
Just one year into its existence, Fumé Bistro in Napa has drawn in a neighborhood crowd of Napa Valley residents with its charm, atmosphere, and dependably satisfying food. Neither too elaborate nor too forced, chef-proprietor Terry Letson’s menu is chock-full of fairly common California bistro fare, but it’s all executed with thought and is welcoming to sit down to.
Letson and his wife Gigi (who looks after front-of-the-house matters) owned a few restaurants and a wine shop in Southern California before moving up north. In addition chef Letson spent four years working at places like Domaine Chandon, Bistro Don Giovanni, and Deuce before opening up Fumé Bistro, and if the restaurant’s good-naturedly buzzing dining room is any indication, the research paid off.
The restaurant, off a frontage road facing Highway 29 in north Napa, is not tucked away by any means, though it’s not in the most illustrious of locations. There’s a large outdoor dining area in the front that looks like a lovely place for dining al fresco in the warmer months, though it being winter still when we went, we found the patio in hibernation.
Inside, the restaurant is very open, with a tiered kind of flow from the long wood bar to the dining area. The kitchen is in view, but not nakedly or obtrusively so, creating a connection between the front and the back of the house that’s casual and not distracting (you know how some open kitchens can turn into The Chef Show!). A few splashy-bright still lifes of fruit (like Wayne Thiebaud, only without the pastel palette) hang on the walls, but otherwise the space is welcoming yet basic.
On the night we were there, a winemaker dinner event had the bar area packed with hobnobbing folks. Yet even so, for a Tuesday night, the regular tables were filled impressively with diners, and the background chatter hummed.
We started off with a roasted artichoke in a tarragon aioli, which came garnished with a grilled lemon ($6). An artichoke prepared well and served simply is a grand thing, but artichokes can be tricky. This artichoke, meaty and tender, was an artichoke to call home about, and we gobbled down its flesh doused in the not-too-garlicky aioli.
The oven-roasted mussels (Fumé gets a lot of mileage out of its wood-fired oven) with grilled sausage and roasted pepper vinaigrette ($8.50) also won us over quickly. Bright orange-red, the roasted pepper vinaigrette bathing the mussels was more like a brothy red pepper coulis, but it was wonderful, roundedly sweet, and just barely tart. I was quite content to dip my bread in the bowl to sop it all up. The bits of grilled sausage were a nice touch, but not fully necessary, given the quality of the rest of the dish.
The kitchen happily split our salads for us, which arrived at our table crisp and cool, and plated with much more care than most kitchens devote to the inconvenience of splitting salads. More or less traditional, the caesar salad ($7) suffered a bit from the overly citrusy addition of lemon zest to the dressing (reminding some diners at our table of furniture polish), but the fried capers dotting the romaine leaves were a welcome garnish. The comice pear salad ($7.50) with endive, maple-roasted walnuts, Point Reyes blue cheese, and pear vinaigrette was well-balanced and had just the right amount of walnuts and blue cheese gracing the greens.
Mr. Bir du Jour ordered a grilled chicken pizza ($13.50). Even though I am categorically opposed to chicken as a pizza topping, a lot of people are not, and this fine pizza, with roasted portobello mushrooms, smoked mozzarella, and pesto, will serve them well. The pesto added flavor and color, and lacked the massive amount of oil that usually accompanies pesto. The crust, crisp and not thick or doughy, was good enough to eat on its own.
The entrées presented plenty of choices for protein lovers: three seafood dishes; two each of pork, lamb, and beef; and one chicken. The American Kobe tri-tip steak and fries ($19.95) paired tender and note-perfect medium-rare meat (probably should have ordered it rare, natch) with golden, skinny little spears of fries that were like the world’s best fast-food fries recast in a bistro setting. The tarragon aioli from the roasted artichoke was back for an encore. An arugula salad came on the side, its peppery leaves cutting through the salt and grease of the beef and the fries.
The braised lamb shank ($18.50), served on rosemary white beans with a ragout of mushrooms, pearl onions, fennel, and baby carrots, shredded into rich, savory bits right off the bone, and its meaty red wine sauce only augmented the effect. We’d have preferred the beans to have been a little more cooked, though; another 10 minutes in the pot and they’d have been a lot creamier.
Every time I see Day Boat scallops on a menu I think of “The Banana Boat Song.” Am I alone in this? In any case, the seared Day Boat scallops with lemon parsley risotto, sweet pea coulis, and radish sprouts ($18.50) were good, if underseasoned. The risotto would have benefited from more of an acidic tang to stand up to the creamy pea coulis.
Pastry chef Vicki Garcia’s desserts ($6.50 each) were worth saving some room for. A chocolate almond cake with milk chocolate almond custard, mocha cream sauce, and candied almonds had a rich and homey soul dressed up in a classy presentation. The fudgey cake was great on its own, even without the creamy custard filling its center.
We stood divided on the trio of finely executed crème brûlées: I liked the understated orange cardamom; the Kobe-beef eater preferred the classic vanilla; and Mr. Bir du Jour sided with the puddinglike chocolate. Something for everyone, I guess.
We noticed more than a few parties toting along their own wine bottles, which communicates two things: people are in the habit of coming here and feel at home enough to bring their own wine; and the corkage is cheap ($10, unless you purchase a bottle from the house in addition, in which case it’s free). The Miner 2000 Viognier ($18 half bottle) was crisp and acidic, with mild mineral notes and a peachy ripeness in the mouth preceded by a prickliness on the tongue–lovely!
The wine list is appropriately heavy on Napa and Sonoma valleys and their most dominant varietals, though there are a few bottles and wines by the glass here and there from other regions and countries. It’s not a massive list by any means, but its assortment of styles and price points is well-chosen.
From the moment we set foot in the door, our service was outstanding–professional yet not stiffly formal. Considering that there was a huge party seated just prior to our arrival, I was impressed at how we were left wanting nothing during our whole stay. Also considering that we were sort of an obnoxious table–taking forever to make up our minds, then changing our minds, and then repeatedly asking our waitress questions about very minor aspects on the menu, like what farm the radish sprouts came from–I’d say the wait staff are doing their job smashingly.
Some past reviews of Fumé have been warm but not glowing, though based on our experience, I’d have to say that the Letsons and their team have hit a very good stride in creating the kind of restaurant where people can go for welcoming food prepared with care in an atmosphere that furnishes a sophisticated comfort rather than slippery-sleek style. Napa Valley has enough world-class destination restaurants for once-in-a-lifetime occasions. Fumé Bistro comes through as a notable, if not innovative, restaurant for the rest of our lifetimes.
Fumé Bistro & Bar, 4050 Byway East, Napa. Lunch daily, 11:30am-2:30pm; dinner, Sunday-Thursday, 4:30-9pm, and Friday-Saturday, 4:30-11pm. 707.257.1999 or www.fumebistro.com.
From the March 27-April 2, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.