By Frank Sabatini Jr.
The culinary world is loaded with geographic glamorization. Tease up the French aspect of a restaurant, for example, or a specific region such as Issan in Thailand’s northeast, and enlightened consumers are instantly sold. The same magic occurs when promoting American domains: The “low country” cuisine of South Carolina; barbecue of east Texas; Bronx-style pizza; etc.
Prior to this summer’s opening of Route 29 in the Gaslamp Quarter, I had never seen an establishment tout the gustatory virtues of Napa Valley, at least not this far outside of the area.
Named after the state highway that connects many of Napa’s wineries, you can bet the place flaunts an impressive wine list, which includes a glass program offering more than 30 choices.
And indeed, meals are executed with the same panache you’d find in reputable Napa restaurants like Solbar, Market, and Celadon, where seasonal produce and artisan ingredients dominate the plates. Though if you’re expecting Route 29 to measure up to Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry (the crème de la crème of Napa dining), you’re asking too much because in all fairness, nothing in San Diego compares to it.
Ubiquitous design elements such as Edison bulbs and reclaimed wood abound. Yet there’s something slightly original about the look, due maybe to the strong presence of wine glasses on the tables and pane windows looking into the kitchen. Somehow the forced-farmhouse theme is avoided.
Meals begin with a basket of outstanding house-made bread that comes with a moment of tableside activity. A dish of olive oil is provided as your server snips fresh herbs into it from a bouquet of parsley, rosemary, thyme and sage. But it’s the bread’s crispy crusts and soft air pockets that ultimately lead to an overdose.
A round of “Golden Gate” cocktails served in gilded, coupe-shaped stemware also kicked things off. The drink is made with organic versions of tequila, turmeric and carrot juice, as well as passion fruit puree and lime. It’s a harmonious admixture capped elegantly with frothy egg whites. If you normally eschew cocktails because they’re too sweet or sour, this one’s for you.
From jars and small bites to main dishes and sides, we ordered five items between the two of us. Only one disappointed — the California sea bass, an entree featuring cauliflower, haricot vert mousse and beet yogurt. Listed also in the set is raisin vinaigrette, which went undetected. It was desperately needed to hydrate the well-done, under-seasoned fish. Overall, the dish was pretty on the eyes but flat on the taste buds.
In keeping with Napa’s pastoral-style cuisine, duck pate served in a jar is crowned with shredded duck confit and small cubes of mushroom gelee that melt on the tongue. Accompanied by charred fingers of the house bread, you’re suddenly transported to some white-linen picnic set within a rolling vineyard.
Green Sriracha shrimp delivers a satisfying punch from chilies in the company of butter, garlic and a spice we couldn’t nail down, but very much liked. The pond of flavorful juice at the bottom of the bowl demanded more bread intake.
The unquestionable star of the dinner was house-made papparedelle pasta intertwined with porcini mushrooms and generous chunks of beef short rib slow-roasted to orgasmic tenderness. Similar to bolognese, this is more enchanting because of Tahitian vanilla oil and black truffle “essence” lurking in the background. It’s the most impressive noodle dish I’ve had all year.
From a list of a la carte sidekicks, we passed over such options as butternut squash, organic broccolini, and mashed potatoes with goat cheese in lieu of grilled baby artichokes dressed in lemongrass-garlic butter. My friend applauded their heavy brine, which was slightly offset by sweet, caramelized onions. I would’ve preferred the chokes uncured.
Route 29’s menu allows you to craft meals around an abundance of small plates or from substantial-sized entrees that include braised lamb shank with saffron risotto; a Montana pork chop set atop apple-cabbage sauerkraut; prime filet of beef accompanied by a blue cheese fritter; and pan-seared scallops with apple bacon and orange reduction.
Route 29 at 644 Fifth Ave. (Gaslamp District)
Salads, jars and small bites: $13 to $22
Entrees: $22 to $52
For vegetarians and vegans, the choices are limited. There’s baba ghanoush with house yogurt in a jar; a “farmer’s” salad with fig dressing; ratatouille with spinach fettuccine, and a few other items.
Metered parking had us sprinting out the door before we could ask for a dessert menu. Looking at the options online afterwards, I sadly missed out on saffron-poached pears complemented by lemon custard and zinfandel reduction, a concoction that would have put a fine autumn finale on our vicarious trek through wine country.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.