January 8, 2008

Cook Restaurant, St. Helena CA

Cook is a locals favorite up in St Helena and in a lot of ways I can see why. Why it's a locals favorite, and why it's not a main tourist destination. If you're driving the main highway through downtown St Helena it's easy to miss this cozy little nook. I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Cook since I've heard mixed reviews and after eating here, I think it was one of the stranger dining experiences I've had throughout the years. In a way that's not really a bad thing, although some might disagree.

We arrived 15 minutes early for our reservation to a warm, unpretentious restaurant in the heart of St. Helena with an interesting mix of patrons. When dining at Cook, some choose to wear dinner jackets and dressy attire while others appear to have just finished working in the vineyards. Those must be the locals, we thought to ourselves. I felt quite overdressed in slacks and dress shirt but it was kind of comforting to see the casualness of Cook. Then things began to get a little strange. Greeted by one of the smiling, friendly waitresses, we were informed our table wasn't ready yet. Cook is a very small place with about 10 dining tables and another 10seats at the bar, so we chose to wait outside in the brisk air while they cleaned and prepped the table. We stood there, watching an empty table for two go uncleaned for about 30 min standing outside in plain view of the waitress like two sad puppy dogs tied to a telephone pole, left outside to wait for their owner. We contemplated leaving and walking over to Market where we've had delicious food and wine before but my girlfriend was determined to see what this place was all about and try new restaurants in the area. I couldn't blame, her but I was getting pretty hungry at this point.

Walking back inside I inquired how long the wait would be, and the waitress finally sat us at a table within elbow room of a group of four. I might add this table had been available from the time we first walked in, I just assumed she didn't seat us there because it was slightly cramped. By this time we were definitely ready for a glass of wine and ordered two glasses of Pinot from the small but diverse wine list.

Browsing the menu, we decided on the Calamari appetizer, which quickly arrived as a good sized pile of fried little rings with a light crunchy, delicious golden crust. I could SWEAR to this day, that halfway through the appetizer as our waitress was removing a few finished bread plates, she slyly picked up a piece of calamari and ate it. I must have been imagining things, but I'm 75% sure this really happened. If it did, it would be both awesome and appalling at the same time. Looking over at the table of four next to us, I saw three of them ordered the special of the night, risotto, and that each plate was practically licked clean. Is it really that good? After finishing both the appetizer and our glasses of wine, we ordered a nice bottle of Tuscan, the 2005 Brancaia Tre- a blend of Sangiovese, Cab, and Merlot. A perfect foil for the main courses we ordered- Risotto and a plate of Fettuccine Bolognese.

As we sat sipping our wine, the waitress came by and asked if we would like our main courses to start being cooked. This was an odd question I've never been asked from any restaurant. I figured once we finished the appetizer the only sensible thing to do would be to start on our main dishes. Maybe she thought we wanted to sit and enjoy some time in between the two but in my experience at any semi-fine dining establishment they try and pace out your meal, not ask you when you want things cooked. Very strange, but the wait was worth it, as I'm still haunted by the risotto to this day. I always hesitate to order risotto. How a busy restaurant can tend to the care, love and constant stirring essential to the dish is beyond me and I always find risotto to be either underdone, overdone, or just plain disappointing. At Cook however, the risotto was profound. There's a reason the diners next to us licked their plates clean. I felt like I was eating perfection and I didn't want it to end.

After that delicious meal I sat back full and satisfied and took the last sip of my Brancaia. Dessert would have been too much for us that night but judging from the way other diners were devouring their pastries and assorted cakes the desserts looked great as well. In the end if you're looking for a cozy atmosphere, great food and a well priced wine list, visit Cook on you next stay in the valley. Dinner for two including appetizer, main course, 2 glasses of wine and a bottle ran us $120. Not bad for dining in wine country.

Overall Grade: B

Appetizers: $6 – 11
Salads: $7 – 9
Pastas $13 – 16
Entrees: $18 – 22

Pros: Excellent Italian food with a creative twist. Good pricing.

Cons: Service could use improvement. Small restaurant.

Wine List: Fairly small with focus on California and Italian wines.

1 comment:

puddy said...

Thank you, Sir. I will be dining at Cook on the 4th and now feel well armed for the experience.