It's been a few years since I last ate at Tra Vigne in St. Helena. The first time I ate there, maybe 6 or so years ago, it was very, very good. I returned with excitement 2 or 3 years later, and found it lackluster at best. My experience was echoed on food sites across the web. Sadly, the consensus was that Michael Chiarello had just spread himself too thin with his many ventures.
At any rate, I was in no hurry to return. But yesterday, after a private barrel tasting at Sullivan Vineyards (watch this space next Sunday for more on that), my companions and I were famished and a mere mile away from Tra Vigne. Should we risk it? We agreed that we weren't in the mood for sandwiches from Dean & Deluca, and were too hungry to properly research any new places, so off we went to Tra Vigne (which, incidentally, is no longer an M. Chiarello restaurant).
As we perused the menu, a plate of chewy white bread was brought to our table along with a dish of warm olives and caper berries in beautiful peridot-colored olive oil.
In true food-lover form, we decided to order several smaller dishes and half-orders and share amongst the table.
We ended up with two Salmone Salads ($13.95) which were, in my opinion, the best thing on the table. The salmon was described on the menu as being "seared", but this fish was definitely fried in oil, on all sides, creating a crisp and delicious crust with a tender but fully-cooked interior. Served with braised Hobbs' bacon, curly endive, a soft-boiled egg and pesto, this was a perfect composed salad. Just delicious, and I'll be trying to recreate it at home.
A half order of the Risotto del Giorno ($9.95) was equally delicious. Our waitress explained this as a Parmesan Risotto, topped clams and a sauce made with finely milled bread. Well, the sauce was a mere spoonful, so any textural nuances were impossible to discern, and the clams turned out to be mussels. Despite all that, the dish was delicious, and a clear favorite on the table.
Calamari alla Griglia ($9.95) were, for the most part, good. There were four completely undercooked and inedible pieces however, which in a dish of perhaps 15 total pieces is inexcusable. They were served with tender butterbeans that really needed a kick -- salt alone wasn't enough to redeem them.
We also ordered a Cesare “Versione Moderna” ($8.95). I didn’t get a bite of this, so I couldn’t tell you what made it modern, but it was a good-looking salad, and T did finish it off.
K and I had to order the Ravioli ($8.95), which were (if memory serves) goat cheese and ricotta filled, in a very savory pine nut, lemon and toasted bread sauce. This was an interesting dish because the ravioli were terribly bland on their own, while the sauce was far too salty; one element needed the other for balance.
Finally, we had the Heirloom Tomato Contorni ($6.95). A nice assortment of heirlooms (from Green Zebras to Purple Cherokees) were quartered and finished with very good olive oil and a sprinkling of salt flakes. Simple, but satisfying.
Overall, I’m not in any hurry to go back to Tra Vigne. But for about $20 per person, we had a really lovely late lunch, and I have to admit that I’d easily return for that type of meal.
Tra Vigne Restaurant
1050 Charter Oak Ave (at Highway 29)
St. Helena, CA