Tahoe chef presides at Napa eatery | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Tahoe chef presides at Napa eatery

NAPA — It seems only fitting that a former Lake Tahoe chef is presiding over the only commercial venture to bear the name Julia Child.

Executive Chef Mark Dommen is dazzling lunch and dinner guests of Julia’s Kitchen with an assortment of dishes. It is a perfect way to break up a day of touring Copia, the American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts. However, guests are allowed to dine at Julia’s without paying to visit the center.

It was in the late 1980s that Dommen was making a name for himself at Homewood’s Swiss Lakewood Lodge, where the menu features French continental cuisine.

Dommen’s resume also includes stints at San Francisco’s Fleur de Lys and New York’s Lespinasse.

At Julia’s, he offers a blend of French-American cuisine, using fresh ingredients from the center’s gardens. He and his assistants prepare the dishes in an open setting surrounded by stainless steel that faces diners and looks out through floor-to-ceiling windows into the gardens. When the yellow jackets are in full force, guests may dine outdoors.

There is no difference between the lunch and dinner menus, with the prices resembling a dinner menu. However, prices are comparable to other Napa Valley eateries.

Before the real first course arrives, guests are served a tiny cup of chilled pea soup that is made with three kinds of peas, with a dollop of creme fraiche on top. Basil was clearly another key ingredient to this delightful concoction.

To the side of the cup was a sliver of salmon tartare and a sampling of caviar.

The combination is designed to cleanse the palate in preparation for the flavors that are forthcoming.

There are eight first courses to choose from. A larger portion of the palate cleanser is available for $9.50. The foie gras tops the price scale at $18.

Between the four of us, we shared two $9 farmer’s market salads. Greens and vegetables picked that day from Copia’s garden are topped with a sherry wine vinaigrette. I was the only one to find the dressing a bit salty, but then I do not cook with salt.

Waiter Paul Contreras was eager to please us, noticing we were not using butter on the crusty, chewy breads. We took him up on his offer to bring us olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping.

We all stared at the main courses when they arrived — the presentation was stunning. An added touch not found at other restaurants was when Contreras explained exactly what was sitting before us. We knew what we had ordered, but he described the cooking methods, the sauces and side dishes.

Oftentimes with this type of presentation, it does not look like there is enough food. There was plenty, with no one leaving the table wanting more or feeling stuffed.

The one disappointment in reading the menu was that there is only one entree for vegetarians — the open-faced ravioli ($18.50). I could rave about this dish for days, but hate to think it is all I can dine on at Julia’s.

It was stuffed with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and jicama that was surrounded in a lemon thyme emulsion. The frothy sauce was like nothing I had tasted before. A spoon was the best utensil to eat this with to ensure a bit of the sauce coated every bite.

The port sauce used with the seared day-boat scallops had been reduced and then whipped into a froth.

My mom said it seemed like the large, succulent scallops ($23.50) had been harvested that day — they were that fresh.

As we were eating at a table set off to the side — most tables are rather close together — we noticed that the noise level did not increase as the restaurant filled up. This was a nice change from many restaurants in the wine country where the acoustics are so bad you are shouting at your table mates.

The Alaskan halibut ($25) my sister had melted in her mouth. It was cooked in an apple wood-smoked bacon vinaigrette.

My dad was pleased to have his rib-eye steak ($28.50) cooked just as he requested — medium rare — in a sauce that required no extra seasoning. A helping of polenta with sliced portabella mushrooms on top was served on the side.

The rib-eye is the most expensive of the nine entrees.

Each entree is served in a different shaped dish, which adds to the presentation. The pure white plates let the food take center stage without having a design detract from what is to being eaten.

An extensive wine list is available which includes Napa and Sonoma wines and imports. We opted to pass on the Opus One that costs more than $200 and enjoyed a 1999 Whitehall Lane cabernet from Napa ($27) that was mellow and fruity.

We split a chocolate delicacy and lemon tart. It was probably the first time when a fruit dessert dazzled my taste buds more than a chocolate confection. The tart was topped with a scoop of lavender ice cream that was a perfect ending to a delicious meal.

Kathryn Reed may be reached at (530) 541-3880, ext. 251 or at kreed@tahoedailytribune.com

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