Ninebark, Napa

March 15, 2016

Atera, in NYC, under chef Matthew Lightner, had become our favorite restaurant in the US. But he mysteriously left Atera a year ago. Last October he restarted his career as chef of Ninebark, which takes its name from a plant indigenous to Napa Valley. It is located in the former site of a well known bar in a 100-year-old building in downtown Napa, now owned and renovated by New York-based design and hospitality firm AvroKO, Lightner’s partner in Ninebark. Linda and I went for dinner on February 18, 2016.

The restaurant has three floors. We passed through the noisy, neighborhood bar on the ground level and went up to the serious dining level on the second floor. The top floor, which is partially open, serves casual, snack food in nice weather. 

After being seated at a table near the front window corner, we were surprised to find chef Lightner seated next to us. He had exceptionally come out of the kitchen to dine with a business associate in town from New York. During our meal we were able frequently to interact with him which added greatly to our evening. And, of course, this led the staff to give us some extra attention.
I started with a glass of Roederer Andersen Valley Rosé.
Linda had Brut champagne, bernard remy “carte blanche”, allemant, france.
These were nice apéritifs; the amiable sommelier topped them up when they were low.
Linda contemplated the wine list.
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She ordered a 2013 Richard Peterson Pinot Noir from California’s Santa Lucia Highlands. It was delicious and compatible with the cuisine.
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Carrot, pimento, bacon, cheddar dip with pain au levain
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This was a nice starter, but, despite a certain complexity, became boring after a while. It stayed on the table until dessert.

Grilled focaccia, parmesan, herbs
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This had good rustic qualities.

Aged Carpaccio, an off-menu special.  
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A good partner with the focaccia.

Dungeness crab toast, pickled rose, Sichuan chili 
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There was more crab under the greens and flowers than is evident in the photo. The chili was mild. Nice.

Horiatiki, market selections of fresh fruit and produce, feta cheese
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This “Greek” salad used completely fresh ingredients, even in February. It was really excellent.

Chicken & shrimp dumplings, roasted chicken gravy
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This was comfort food, a variation from the the rest of the menu.

Curry of baby turnips, trout roe, marcona almonds, spiced bread crumbs
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The fresh, baby turnips had a lovely turnip flavor, enhanced by the mild curry cream. The trout roe (hidden in the photo by the sauce) did not add anything evident to me, but the added crunch of the almonds and breadcrumbs was a big plus. Excellent.

Smoked foie gras,
seasonal shelling beans in broth, fermented truffle

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The foie gras, smoked and served in a broth, had a mild flavor, not benefitting from the caramelization it gets from sautéing. But the beans had picked up foie gras and truffle flavors and were really delicious.

Roasted pork neck, crispy rib,
country gravy with trimmings, wheat berries, grilled greens

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You cannot see the crispy pork rib in the photo, but it added a nice contrast to the succulent pork neck rounds. Very good.

Mandarine sorbet, almond crumble, black licorice
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Very nice.

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Chef-de-Cuisine Rex Huang followed Matt Lightner to Ninebark from Atera. They posed for us after dinner.

This display of seasonal produce separates the open kitchen from the dining room.
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We had a very good time and are still very impressed with Lightner’s talents. They show up in an entirely different way here than they did at Atera, where cutting edge innovation was the main point. What he is doing at Ninebark is bringing out the flavors of top quality familiar ingredients in such a way that they are delicious, but diners who are put off by “fancy” food will not even realize what is happening. He told us that he gets a lot of upscale foodie diners, but the clientèle seemed to us to be mostly local people appreciative of good food out for a good time.

Lightner is only 35. Our conversations with him gave us some inconclusive insights into the additional directions this very talented chef might want eventually to go. In the meantime he is enjoying Napa and Ninebark. You should, too.


2 Responses to “Ninebark, Napa”

  1. Ronald Shelp Says:

    Mike, sounds wonderful. Wish we had known about it in Napa. But glad former chef ran your favorite restaurant in NYC. When we are feeling especially flush and want to celebrate, we will go to Atera, your favorite restaurant in America. Coming from you, that is saying something.

    • Michael Says:

      Well, Atera was our favorite under Matt Lightner. It is still excellent, but I’d have to say that our favorites in San Francisco, Benu and Atelier Crenn take the cake now.

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