Hanging Out at Bar Terra in St. Helena

Chef-Owner Hiro Sone's likeness is the focal point of the bar at Bar Terra.

Chef-Owner Hiro Sone’s likeness is the focal point of the bar at Bar Terra.

In the Napa Valley, there are two Michelin three-star restaurants (the French Laundry and the Restaurant at Meadowood), plus a host of other swank, white-tablecloth establishments.

But sometimes what you’re in the mood for is something a little more casual. Something a little more eclectic. Yet still refined in execution.

Bar Terra fits that to a “T.”

Three years ago, Chef-Owner Hiro Sone and his wife, Pastry Chef-Owner Lissa Doumani, remodeled their 26-year-old, award-winning Terra restaurant in St. Helena. The doorway divides the two dining rooms. On the left remains the elegant, hushed Terra. On the right was created Bar Terra, a more laid-back, livelier spot with a liquor license that brought forth a new cocktail menu with the likes of the “Hirotini” (Sveda vodka, sake, ginger and cucumber; $10).

You’ll find locals filling the chairs at Bar Terra, nightly. Doumani makes the rounds, greeting every familiar face. And there are plenty of them.

It’s easy to see the attraction: Bar Terra’s prices are lower than Terra. You can come in jeans. And you can even mix and match — ordering off either Terra’s or Bar Terra’s menu or both.

That’s exactly what I did when a friend and I dined there over the winter. Although we paid our tab, dessert was on the house, compliments of Sone and Doumani, who knew us both.

Abalone and shrimp -- from the Terra menu that you still can enjoy if you want at Bar Terra.

Abalone and shrimp — from the Terra menu that you still can enjoy if you want at Bar Terra.

We stuck mostly to the Bar Terra menu with one exception: The salad of Ezo abalone with shrimp, butter beans, fennel and pickled Meyer lemon ($18.50) from the Terra menu just called out to me. It’s hard to resist fresh abalone the rare times it appears on a menu. It didn’t disappoint, either, with its sweet, tender yet toothsome flesh brightened by the citrus.

Lamb meatballs ($9) were plump and juicy with fresh mint leaves and a puddle of creamy yogurt sauce to dip into.

Wild mushroom tempura ($9) had a lacy, ethereal crisp exterior and a real meatiness underneath. Dip into the dashi-infused sauce for even more umami goodness.

Perfect for sharing -- lamb meatballs.

Perfect for sharing — lamb meatballs.

Mushroom tempura.

Mushroom tempura.

Having studied under Wolfgang Puck, Sone and Doumani have never been afraid to likewise combine French techniques with global flavors, especially Asian ones. Like Puck, they manage to do so with aplomb, too.

Take Bar Terra’s ramen ($13.50). On a very chilly evening in the Napa Valley, as it was that night, there’s nothing more wonderful than tucking into a big bowl of steaming, brothy Japanese noodles, especially one that hides a Berkshire pork trotter, and a bright orange Jidori egg, cooked so that its  yolk is just set and creamy. If that doesn’t warm you up fast, nothing will.

Ramen with a punchy, porky broth.

Ramen with a punchy, porky broth.

Skate wing with mussels.
Skate wing with mussels.

I opted for the special that night — skate cooked on the bone to keep it moist ($25) and served with mussels just brought in that morning. The flaky flesh pulled away easily from the bones, making it easy to eat.

For dessert, you know I can never resist ginger especially in the form of a warm ginger cake ($10) stacked on top of a ring of grilled pineapple. Spicy pineapple coconut ice cream topped it all. It was wintery and tropical all at once.

Warm ginger cake.

Warm ginger cake.

A fall fruit "bisteya.''

A fall fruit “bisteya.”

We also enjoyed a dessert version of “bisteeya” ($10), layers of buttery, flaky dough wrapped around a supple filling of apples and quince. Toasted almonds were strewn over its sugary top for added crunch.

At Bar Terra, you can eat like a local — no matter where you hail from.

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