Location, location, location. A great location will make any restaurant, good or bad, successful.
Study No. 1: Jole in Calistoga. With Wappo Bar dying a slow and painful death, the Calistoga food scene needs a morale boost. Along comes Jole, which opened last summer. The menu pasted on the front window was tempting. For the first time, I realized how the font and design of the menu itself can attract, or dissuade, potential diners. Of course, its location is great. It is smack dab in the middle of downtown, next to the modern Mount View Hotel. Its mantra is "Farm to Table". To me, it invokes freshness and simplicity. What I ended up getting was overpriced and underwhelming.
First, the staff will warn you that all of the items, including entrees, are small. The entire repertoire is meant to be a tasting menu. Fine. I started with a bowl of the mushroom soup. It was a relatively generous portion. The stock was too rich and overpowering. Plus, it was just plain greasy. We shared two sides, 1) the roasted butternut squash and 2) brussel sprouts with capers (too many), balsamic vinegar and lemon (too little). The vegetables were fresh and well executed, but could easily be replicated at home. The pomme frite was thin, overfried (to the point of charred), and limp.
Then, we come to my entree, potato and crab encrusted cod. It is topped with slices of avocado and grapefruit and comes with saffron sauce on the side. Sounds great, right? Wrong. I understand this isn't TGI Fridays, but the cod was about the size of a large computer chip. It had the look and consistency of firm almond tofu. It had zero flavor. I actually poured some salt on it to elicit something, anything. The top of the cod was covered with a crust of "potato and crab", but it just tasted like semi-burnt toast. The white (?) saffron sauce was as bland as the cod.
But so what? Why does it matter what I think. The restaurant was full. It will continue to do brisk business, despite the food. With so many tourists walking past, a chic interior, and clever marketing, this place will do well, no matter what.
Study No. 2: Mustards Grill in Napa. This place is blessed with an equally enviable location. It sits at the trailhead of Highway 29, Napa's own Route de Vins. But the people who own Mustards do not solely depend on its location; they work hard at making the food and service stand out.
Here is a rundown of what I had/shared:
-Lobster chowder with crab: not very creamy, assertive presence of white wine, carrots and onions were delicately and lightly cooked on the frying pan before being tossed into the soup, a healthier and California take on a New England staple.
-Roasted artichokes: artichokes not very substantial flesh-wise but the taste was very "meaty", charred bits on the outside but cooked perfectly inside, I could snack on these all day.
-Salad with pear, pecans, and gorgonzola: Synergy is a BS corporate word, except when it comes to describing this salad.
-Mushroom and egg on toast: A unique take on the croque madame; rich melange of chantrelle mushrooms, sunny side up egg, thin pieces of parmesan, reduction sauce, and toast; almost overwhelming in texture and taste; will leave you speechless for about 30 seconds.
-Ribeye steak with brocollini and potato au gratin: Best steak I've had in ages- flavor, seasoning, tenderness, juiciness all perfect; sides were excellent and well thought out.
Mustards Grill easily wallops Jole. I was shocked at the end of my Mustards Grill meal to find that my meal at Jole cost $50 more. That, my friends, is offensive.