The Napa Valley’s other restaurant mogul is Cindy Pawlcyn, who was part of Real Restaurants, the group that created some of San Francisco’s most notable dining experiences in the days before the city’s foodie boomlet of the last decade. Pawlcyn parted ways with Real nearly a decade ago and took one of her creations with her, Mustard’s Grill (shown left) in Oakville (Napa Valley), which opened in 1983.
In the ensuing years she opened Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen and Go Fish, both in St. Helena. Mustard’s feels like an upscale diner/roadhouse, Backstreet a comfortable home, and Go Fish is one of the most comfortably beautiful restaurants I’ve seen in years, informal but classy, in shades of blue and white, pillows fronting upholstered banquettes.
Pawlcyn’s genius is not necessarily in ambience, but in adulterating classic American and global fare just enough to render it something different, yet not enough to be accused of fixing what wasn’t broken. Her Cobb sandwich at Fog City Diner was a stroke of genius, not in the idea, but the execution. It’s the difference between slices of smoked turkey and a chicken breast, which is how the sandwich was dumbed-down after she left.
Her cooking is difficult to categorize, impossible even. The flavors are bold, the twists often evoke Latin and Asian influences. She says her Golden Valley roots show in the pure Americana in the food—fruit crisps and pies, meatloaf, and sandwiches at every meal. There’s nothing fussy or delicate about her dishes, and her signature is unmistakable.
During a lunch at Mustard’s, I ate a grilled Mediterranean vegetable sandwich with melted fontina and black olive aioli on a crusty fresh roll (right). It came sided with a thick-cut creamy horseradish slaw and crispy onion strings—greaseless and addictive. From the menu: Calves liver with coarse grain mustard, caramelized onions, and bacon; lamb shank with garlic mashed potatoes and toasted pumpkin seed pesto; Sonoma rabbit, oven-roasted tomato, and goat cheese polenta.
Dinner at Backstreet, where Pawlcyn can most frequently be found, included piquillo peppers stuffed with cumin-braised beef over charred tomato salsa; tamales made with creamy grits wrapped in Swiss chard leaves, smothered in roasted mushrooms (bottom left); classic roasted artichoke with lemon and a creamy romesco sauce; and a superb charcoal-grilled burger with house-made pickles.
This is, love it or hate it, modern American eating at its very essence, manifesting all the cross-cultural, assertive, both pro- and anti-traditional, aspects of American life in a way that could easily come off as showy and obnoxious, but instead melds into something honest and original.
On Wednesday nights in summer, Pawlcyn offers a $40 four-course menu at Backstreet, and on August 28, it’s a salute to the land of 10,000 lakes. Walleye is being sourced and there are threats of wild rice soup thickening the air. This now middle-aged and white-haired child of postwar Minneapolis is no longer setting the fanciful ying to Alice Waters’ yang across the Bay, but instead proving that even after a quarter century, her brand of Midwest/California culinary alchemy sings more soulfully than twenty CIA grads with an armada of sous vide equipment.
Steph’s back Friday with F3 and I’ll wrap up my Wine Country diary on Monday with a couple more restaurant recommendations and some advice on making the most of a Napa dining trip.