In the 28-odd years Cindy Pawlcyn has spent as a chef and restaurateur in California wine country, she's seen lots of change. Case in point: The restaurant garden trend. "We've been doing that for years," she noted, laughing. "I planted the garden at Mustard's in 1983 and now it’s cool." But some of the biggest changes she's witnessed lately, she participated in. Palcwyn completely changed the concept at Go Fish, her St. Helena sushi restaurant, transforming it into the Mediterranean Brassica.
Last November, Pawlcyn was selected as culinary director for the Monterey Bay Aquarium. As she explained during a conversation at Brassica (after inviting The Daily Meal into the restaurant to check out what they're doing), sustainability has always been important to her. However, her new affiliation created an urgent need to reevaluate the sustainability of food served at Go Fish. "Ken Tominaga, our sushi chef, was great," chef Pawlcyn explained. "He was willing to change at first, but he's very Japanese, born and raised in Japan, and to him, sushi means certain things. California sushi just makes his hair curl. You know how that is." They tried to make changes, but it didn't work. "So, we're friends," said Pawlcyn.
Between the sushi kitchen interrupting kitchen flow, people's aversion to doing sushi parties at the restaurant ("even though every party we ever sold had tons of sushi on it," Pawlcyn noted), the chef said Go Fish never really worked. "It was making a little bit of money," she explained with a chuckle. "It paid for itself and gave us $3 some years." In the end, she concluded that when it comes to sushi restaurants, the smaller and more intimate, the better. "This is not a small restaurant, this is a huge place."
Out went the sushi kitchen. In came Mediterranean, a cuisine Cindy noted there's a dearth of in the area. The restaurant closed for renovations for just two days so they could retain the staff. And with a new philosophy, Brassica was born, its appellation a nod to Cindy's original restaurant, Mustard's, which was named for Brassica nigra, the yellow mustard that carpets Napa's vineyards.
"We're working with cuisines from around the Mediterranean, which executive chef Darren McRonald is excited about because he's passionate about Italian and French," Pawlcyn explained. "So I've started bringing in things from Turkey, Tunisia, and Morocco, and we've been playing with them for the last couple of years at the supper clubs at Cindy's and those are some of our favorite dishes to work on. We felt it's a wine-friendly region of the world, even though part of that region doesn't drink wine, doesn't drink at all, grapes grow there and the foods of that region go well with wine and that's what people come to the Napa Valley for."
On the menu? Appetizers span the region. Under the category, "From Tapas to Mezze" are hummus and stuffed zucchini blossoms, baba ghanoush and also papas bravas, grilled lamb, and whole sardines ("I can hardly keep them in-house. I have died and went to heaven. Oh my god, people are eating sardines!"). One standout is grilled haloumi, a simple, expert preparation with Greek oregano, chile flakes, and garlic. The oil in which it's prepared helps it retain the just-cooked texture much longer than it usually does. A tomato and lemon cucumber salad with feta takes advantage of tomatoes from Cindy's own garden for a refreshing effect.
Eggplant fries should quickly become a signature dish at Brassica.
But the most interesting appetizer is the eggplant fries — a cool take on something you might not have thought would work. Crispy outside, creamy inside, these thick strips of skin-on eggplant are cut like thick fries. "You soak them for two hours in salted ice water, and it has to be ice water," chef Pawlcyn noted. "We tried regular water and it didn't work. Ice water does something to keep them crisp. And it draws out all the bitterness. Then you drain them really well and roll them in seasoned rice flour. So they're great because gluten-free people can have them." They're then fried in canola oil and served with za'atar and spiced yoghurt for dipping. The fries have to be considered one of the new menu's most fun dishes and they'll undoubtedly be one of Brassica's most popular appetizers.
Larger plates take a similar far-flung approach. There's a chanterelle, pancetta, and thyme pizza (gluten-free also); baked Bolognese; and leek and pancetta risotto with fried egg. There's also a shockingly comforting coriander- and thyme-braised rabbit with fresh pappardelle. Think of the best chicken noodle soup you've ever had, but with more luxurious pasta and reinterpreted with rabbit and you get the idea.