Romancing the Valentine in Napa Valley

Known for its growing string of first-rate restaurants, the bucolic region just north of San Francisco is a haven for culinary cupids

`BE Mine. Or I'll set fire to the couch.''

If your Valentine cards contain real or implied threats like this bizarre one I once got, you may want to prepare a comeback with serious deeds, not mere words.

Based on a recent trip here, there are tips to be gleaned from the culinary cupids of northern California who stand ready with restaurantgoing itineraries for every occasion.

The path to the heart goes past the palate, say accomplished

amorists from San Francisco and the Bay area. It also leads north to Napa.

Here's the ticket:

1) Escort your date into the nearest car; 2) Crank up ``Somewhere'' from ``West Side Story'' on the tape player, and 3) Head north over San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge (Rte. 101 to Rte. 37 to Rte. 121 to Rte. 29).

``In 90 minutes I feel like I'm back in the south of France,'' says Cathy Carney, who has been on at least six dates to Napa in as many months. ``It's the best place to forget about city life, experience a real place in the country, and get some of the best food on earth.''

Napa Valley has long been known for its growing string of first-rate restaurants: Tra Vigne, Mustards, Piatti Ristorante, The French Laundry, Auberge Du Soleil. The area's other benefits include proximity to one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world; the interest of America's premier vintners who want to stay on the cutting edge of the food and restaurant business; and the general sophistication of monied residents.

Five years ago, Madeleine Kamman opened a top cooking school at Beringer Vinyards, and the Culinary Institute of America will open a western campus in St. Helena next year. And in recent months, the trend to attract top chefs has accelerated.

Those include Jan Birnbaum, formerly executive chef of the five-star Campton Place Hotel Restaurant in San Francisco, who opens Catahoula Restaurant in Calistoga's landmark Mount View Hotel on Feb. 14; Jeremiah Towers, of Stars Restaurant in San Francisco, who opened Stars Oakville Cafe in October; and Thomas Keller, longtime chef at Checkers in Los Angeles, who has purchased and will reopen The French Laundry in Yountville this spring.

``Napa has become one of the great attractions for chefs in the '90s,'' Mr. Birnbaum says.

Travelers love the rolling hills, Victorian homes, red-roofed monasteries, vineyards, and miles of white fences surrounding arbors, arbors, and more arbors.

But restaurateurs feast their eyes on other amenities: from climate and terrain perfect for fruits, vegetables, and game to seafood from the nearby ocean.

For his Valentine's Day opening-night fare, Birnbaum is serving spicy rooster gumbo, pancetta and artichoke hash with fried quail eggs, fried crawfish salad with pickled jalapenos and wild-boar sausage with pecorino ravioli.

``I call it southern-inspired American food,'' says Lousiana-born Birnbaum, who achieved a national reputation after a culinary apprenticeship with Chef Paul Prudhomme.

After work in New Orleans, New York, Denver, and San Francisco -

where he led Campton Place to several national awards - Birnbaum is opening the 70-seat restaurant to try out such creations as pan-fried jalapeno pecan catfish, crawfish tamales, and green chili and polenta pie.

Moving in to a 16-acre farm just miles away, Birnbaum says he will develop a network of local farmers to cultivate fruits and vegetables as well as raise wild boar and lamb.

Just south, in the small town of Oakville, is Jeremiah Towers's Stars Oakville Cafe.

``Napa has one of the most sophisticated restaurant clienteles in the country,'' says co-owner and top chef Mark Franz, who cites its rich European heritage of Italian, French, German, and Irish immigrants. ``We wanted to be part of it all.''

He describes the new eatery with woodburning oven as ``an American cafe with ... cuisine influenced from Italy and France but with fresh local ingredients.'' Also relying on area specialities such as shellfish from the coast, Franz says he will change the menu daily, offering five courses a day and 10 appetizers.

Not long after opening day, I pulled into Stars and ordered a bowl of pumpkin soup and a plate of salmon-topped fettuccine, while watching the lunch.

Locals say the restaurant has established itself with such palate pleasers as spit-roast lamb and rabbit, pumpkin gratin, and roast shellfish.

``This place will do very well,'' says Bob Dickenson, who lived in Napa for three years and returns yearly for cuisine tours. ``We eat our way up and down the highway,'' he says.

That is Rte. 29, running north and south through America's most famous grape-growing region. Napa Valley is 40 miles long and only five miles wide.

Restaurant seekers should cut from the town of Napa (Caffe 1991) due north through Yountville (the French Laundry, Mustards), Oakville (Ambrose Heath, Stars), Rutherford (Auberge Du Soleil), and St. Helena (the Starmont at Meadowood, the Abbey, Brava Terrace), until the road veers northwest to Calistoga.

Two other restaurants that are getting critical attention are Wappo Bar and Bistro in Calistoga, and Pairs Parkside Cafe in St. Helena.

At the former, Aaron Bauman and Michelle Mutrux offer global, regional, and ethnic cuisine from Brazil to the Mediterranean to Asia.

At Pairs, Craig Schauffel and brother Keith specialize in California eclectic - ginger ahi-tuna burgers, lemon-fried calamari with celery-root chips, and rosemary-roasted chicken breast.

``Here we are in tiny Calistoga (pop. 4,000), and yet we can eat better in a radius of a few miles than many people in big cities,'' says Penny Bellus, a gift-buyer for Monterrey Vineyards.

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