By David Minsky
By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
By Candace West
By Laine Doss
In the contact sport that is the restaurant business, the familiar athletic clichés apply, albeit in slightly modified form. For example, while it's true that "winning isn't everything -- it's the only thing," "how you play the game" is directly related to whether you win at all.
And of course, "cheaters never prosper." Although victory in the short term may go to an aggressive team -- go ahead, take my money -- it's the one with heart that ultimately takes home the trophy. At the moment, the Napa Valley Grille and Café team, apparently fond of shortcuts and quick fixes, is in danger of having won the game but losing the series.
For starters, the name seems a misappropriation. It belongs to a region of the country famous for its wines, while the Napa Valley Grille and Café's wine list is miserably short and limited to commercial, mass-produced releases, some from Monterey and Sonoma. Even these aren't spelled correctly ("Benziger" is given as "Benzger"), and the waitstaff has little clue about what to do with them. Our server wrapped the dishrag, taken from her apron, around the bottle of a Chardonnay, claiming that it wasn't dirty, it was "just stained." And after watching her break a second cork, one of my companions finally taught her how to use the wine key. "Thank you," she said. "No one has ever shown me what to do with this."
Then, of course, there already is a "Napa Valley Grille." Now, I'm not saying that the original has a case for trademark infringement here; Napa Valley as a title is as surely up for grabs as Madonna is, and the original Napa Valley Grille would probably have about as much chance of winning a case as Madonna did against the South Beach strip club that named itself after the Material Girl. But Napa Valley Grille, a nationwide chain run by the company that handles such relatively upscale multiple venues as California Café, has a mission statement that fits its name: "Seasonal, rustic, wine country cuisine: Napa Valley Grille's menu brings selections designed to take you on a virtual vacation to the famed wine producing region of California." The company's website also boasts about the chain's "extensive wine collection featuring hard-to-find varietals from highly regarded Napa Valley wineries" and "a welcoming, come-as-you-are charm."
The only aspect Napa Valley Grille and Café shares with its namesake is the come-as-you-are attitude. (It is located in a Coral Springs shopping plaza next to a multiplex movie theater, after all.) The servers and hosts are friendly enough to let you sit and finish your wine after official closing time, and while the place doesn't take reservations, the folks who answer the phone are pretty honest about your chances of getting a table. "The movies start at 7:20," we were told. "Come after that and you won't have a problem."
Telling words. Difficulties begin on the menu, which has humorous spelling errors, including "claw" instead of "slaw," a typo our waitress admitted has inspired many a customer pun. They continue with the naive salesmanship. When we asked which main course was better, the Southern fried chicken or the so-called "chef's meatloaf," we were informed that the chicken was bought pre-battered and frozen. That kind of admission threw suspicion on our appetizers, ranging from the fried calamari, which were actually tender and grease-free, to the crunchy coconut shrimp, which were lost under a heavy, overly sweet coating. The julienne of poultry that dressed both the roast chicken penne pasta and the lettuce leaf wraps, an appetizer served with Thai peanut sauce, appeared a little too uniform in size and shape. I'm copasetic with frozen food and machine-cut replications when they come out of my own toaster oven and fridge; I just don't want to pay restaurant prices for what I could get at Costco.
Nor do I want my victuals radioactive. In bringing this up, I know I'm inviting a sternly worded letter to the editor, in which the restaurant owners or service staff write in telling me I'm wrong, but if the meatloaf wasn't microwaved, I can't imagine how else it achieved the heat of Mount Etna and the consistency of a stale heel of French bread. A piece of salmon, billed as wood-grilled, was more reminiscent of the earth than the ocean: hot from the inside out, flavorless, and so dry as to stick between the teeth like chewing gum.
Oddly, the muffling kitchen design also led us to suspect that some sort of fast-action ovens, which we eventually spotted installed close to the floor, play a major role. Though technically an open kitchen, the hot-lamp counter where the waitstaff receives the food is so high that an expediter must employ a step stool to retrieve the dishes. Add in a tile floor that looks "slippery when wet" and here is a worker's comp or personal injury case waiting to happen.
While Napa Valley Grille and Café doesn't have any real culinary connection to Northern California via its ingredients or its influences -- the Carolina barbecue ribs not only don't apply but the sauce isn't applied to them -- it does have some strong points. The most obvious is the restaurant's exterior, which features wood picnic tables and benches that swing gently to and fro. It's the perfect time of year for dining al fresco, as it is for the fresh, mixed-leaf greens, dressed with an expressive vinaigrette, that accompany many of the appetizers and precede the main courses.
The "salad, salad everywhere" credo makes for redundancies, though, so order carefully. A tapas trio, a misnomer given that the three prime players are Middle Eastern, is composed of some fairly good hummus and baba ghannoujh, and also contains a wealth of Greek salad rife with feta cheese. Vegetarian options like the roasted vegetable wrap with garlicky mayonnaise are wholesome and satisfying but again paired with greens. If you want something starchy, either mashed or fried, with your entrée, look to the meats. Burgers and filet mignon are indeed made-to-order -- we know because one member of my party had to wait an extra 20 minutes for his piece of beef to arrive -- and tend to be acceptable flavor-wise, even if molded and cut a bit on the thin side.
On the flip side, sweets such as the sticky brownie or banana split, both topped with a virtual volcano of ice cream, fudge, and nuts, are generous and amiable, making for a nice after-action-movie treat. But as a whole, Napa Valley Grille and Café is, at the moment at least, not bringing its "A" game. Here's a few coaching tips: Find a proofreader. Train the staff. Ditch the wholesale-warehouse membership and the microwaves. And most important, if the name Napa Valley Grille and Café is to be retained, hire a sommelier or at least lean on your wine distributor for more than a little advice in expanding the quaffing list. Most important of all: Just relax, take things one game at a time, and the good Lord willing, things will work out.