A couple weeks ago my parents and I went to Napa Valley to celebrate my dad’s birthday. We stopped at a couple wineries along the way, but the highlight of the day was dinner at Mustard’s Grill in Yountville. I had never been to Mustard’s, but I was familiar with the chef and owner Cindy Pawlcyn and her style of cooking because I had scoured the pages of her award-winning The Mustard’s Grill Napa Valley Cookbook. Meriting every ounce of its James Beard Foundation cookbook award, the oversized pages set forth glossy photographs of the chef and her staff at work, vegetables and herbs growing in the garden and the simple yet sophisticated finished dishes. Pawlcyn’s annotations to nearly every recipe oftentimes explain the origin of the recipe (wild rice and game inspired by her Minnesota childhood) and offer tips for the home cook, such as suitable substitutions for chanterelles (morels) or where to look for pickled ginger in the Asian food market (small plastic tubs in the produce section or in the refrigerator). The basics on Mustard’s “truck stop deluxe” menu are all there—pork chops, steak, ribs—but are done-up with that Napa Valley flair: beef tenderloin with Tres Salsas, veal chops with roasted red bell pepper and black olive relish or double lamb chops with tapenade and polenta . Mustard’s Grill, which has been open since 1983, was so well-received that Pawlcyn opened another restaurant, Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen in St. Helena. Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen describes itself as “a local joint – hip, casual, not fussy.” It may be casual, but it is certainly not without spunk: the rabbit tostada I had there two summers ago was brilliant. Who would have thought of using rabbit in a tostada? Not to be slowed-down, Pawlcyn opened a sushi and small plates restaurant called Go Fish in 2006, also in St. Helena.
Back to Mustard’s. Before we went into the restaurant, we wandered around the raised beds and rows corn and squash in Mustard’s two-acre garden. Shiny orbs of eggplant hung from bending stems alongside zucchini and summer squash. Between the rows of corn, pink corn husks littered the ground. Green- and orange-mottled winter squash reminded me that autumn was just around the corner. The sun was mellowing in the sky, almost the amber late-afternoon light of autumn.
However peaceful the garden was outside, Mustard’s was all energy inside. With signs out front apologizing “Sorry, everything’s good here” and “Way too many wines” and the fierce loyalty of the locals, Mustard’s had to be busy. Our table was closer to the kitchen-a perfect spot for watching plates of baby rack ribs and piles of shoestring onion rings float by on servers’ arms. The restaurant was loud, but then again Mustard’s marketed itself as a truck stop deluxe.
We had secured a reservation, made the trek to Napa Valley and now faced our next task: ordering. Three-inch industrial looking binders, with “The Wine List” written in orange letters, showcased their extensive and eclectic wine list. Reading the menu and glancing over my shoulder multiple times at the specials board, I finally decided to order the Chipotle Rubbed Quail with Papaya Lime Chutney. The rabbit was tempting, but I’d had that at Pawlcyn’s other restaurant and wanted to broaden my knowledge of fowl. Entrée decided, I frantically scanned a condensed wine list, still overwhelmed by the choices. Our server recommended the Maranet Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley, which was an excellent choice. Before we were served our entrees, we were given butter and a chunk of bread. No need for a bread basket—they just plunked it right on the table cloth. Aware of the imminent crumbs, though, the servers had their token scrapers in hand, ready to whisk away crumbs at a moment’s notice. When she brought my quail, our server anticipated my quandary of how to eat quail in a nice restaurant and whispered, “Most people cut it into quarters and pick it up with their fingers. You’d be here all night trying to eat that with a knife and fork.” I smiled thanks, cut my quail in quarters and picked up the toothpick-thin bones of quail. The quail was not as greasy as duck nor as mild as chicken, but somewhere in between the two. The spiciness of the chipotle rub counteracted any greasiness of the quail and the papaya lime chutney and stack of green beans were the perfect complement for the peppery quail—sweet, mild and flavorful. My mom had sea bass with a pesto sauce and my dad had steak, which they enjoyed.
Though we would have normally refused dessert, it was my dad’s birthday and we were in the market to splurge. We decided to split two desserts, a Jack Daniels bittersweet chocolate cake and a corn cake with blueberries. Our server also treated us to a piece of Mustard’s famous Lemon Tart with Brown Sugar Meringue. I’ve made and tasted my fair share of meringue, but this meringue was phenomenal: billowing high, caramel-colored wisps with that earthy, down-home sweetness of brown sugar.
We were stuffed, but it was worth it; a meal like this only comes around every so often and a birthday only comes once a year. I think my dad had a very good day—I know I did. So who has the next birthday?