California Dreaming 

And tough decisions at Napa Cafe.

Surrounded by murals depicting street scenes and snug inside Napa Cafe's tranquil allure, we were struggling:

What should we have for an appetizer?

Our waitress recognized our distress and offered keen descriptions of Napa's offerings. We finally selected the crab cakes, the wild-mushroom tart, and the shrimp bisque. The lump crab cakes were seasoned with breadcrumbs, lightly fried, and served with a rémoulade sauce. The wild-mushroom tart was a masterpiece of presentation. Simply positioned on a round white plate, the hollow pastry held fresh leeks and shiitake, portabello, and button mushrooms. The tart had a lovely pesto sauce drizzled over the mushrooms, which lent freshness to the earthy flavor of the mushrooms and leeks. The shrimp bisque was a purée of shrimp thickened with cream and a subtle yet tantalizing sherry essence -- a dish that was in demand at our table.

And then a surprise -- the bruschetta appetizer we had passed on. The waitress claimed that she hated for us to miss out on this one -- an impressive act from the waitress and an unexpected treat of thinly sliced and toasted French baguettes rubbed with olive oil and garlic and topped with kalamata olives, navy beans, chopped roma tomatoes, yellow onion, garlic (tossed in a garlic- and basil-infused olive oil), and then covered with crumbled goat cheese. I thought the mixture needed a little kick of spice, but other members of our party found its lightness refreshing on a hot evening.

Again, however, another struggle: choosing among the menu's entrées: Everything sounded good, from the yellowfin tuna, sesame-encrusted salmon, and halibut to the rack of lamb, the duck, and the pork tenderloin with Roquefort. There was careful, careful deliberation. We had the filet mignon, a tender grilled-to-order cut of Black Angus beef, served with a red-wine shallot sauce and roasted-garlic whipped potatoes.

Next up, the grilled shrimp and creamy grits. The grits, which came in a large, flat bowl, were circled by large shrimp and pancetta (Italian bacon) in a shiitake mushroom sauce. I have sampled a variety of shrimp and grits around the area, and I have to say that Napa Cafe's is one of the best -- simple flavors that are at the same time rich and tantalizing.

The roasted duck came thinly sliced, crisp on the outside, pink and tender on the inside. An orange, apricot brandy sauce enhanced the duck without overpowering its gamey flavor. Rich, wild pilaf and fresh green beans completed the dish. Not to be outdone, the rainbow trout -- one half of a sautéed filet (as long as the plate) smothered with a passion fruit beurre blanc. The passion fruit's tangy/sweet flavor was delicious, and the pinkish hue of the fish offset the vibrant red fruit. The favorite of our table.

For dessert, we selected the buttermilk pie, which was not the pie we expected. The buttermilk pies I grew up with were deep-dish pie crusts filled with a custard. Napa's was similar to a cheesecake in consistency and came with a graham-cracker crust. The praline pie was a mound of vanilla ice cream topped with hot caramel sauce and nuts, also in a graham-cracker crust -- delightful. As for the lemon and blueberry tart, we were hesitant to order it, but our waitress insisted, saying this was a five-star dessert. She was right -- a puff pastry layered with lemon curd and engulfed by a fresh blueberry purée and a surprising climax to our meal.

Napa Cafe is located at 5101 Sanderlin Avenue and open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday from 5 to 9:30 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m. Entrées at lunch range from $9.95 to $14.95, dinner $16.95 to $26.95.

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