I’m a simple girl with simple tastes. Give me a back-alley taqueria, and I’ll be content to stuff my face in anonymity. But sit me down in a sophisticated setting, and watch me squirm like a mouse on acid.
I’ll admit that fine dining does have pluses, like name-dropping and bragging to envious co-workers (hey, even I need the occasional one-uppance on the know-it-alls). It was with this attitude that I ventured into Napa 29, Corona’s toniest stiff-upper-lip establishment, sampling haute cuisine in the ‘hood near industrial desert blight. After all, it was Mother’s Day, and I did feel a need to pamper myself, albeit in jeans and a nice, free-flowing bohemian-style shirt.
Tony Napa 29—named for the famous highway that snakes through Northern California’s lush wine country—is nestled in an industrial strip mall off the 91 freeway, and through a maze of commercial concrete, stuck between a Howard’s Electronics Superstore and assorted no-name furniture miscellany. It’s a deceiving hole-in-the-wall eatery, whose small storefront puts me immediately at ease. That is, until the Hawaiian shirts and khakis amble out, and oh, that lady in the nice dotted dress and heels, and the family of five in pressed slacks, crisp shirts and silk blouses—the cute little girls dolled up in pastel dresses. To eat without a reservation is, shall I say, a crime punishable by overly long waits.
Thankfully, our hostesses avoid giving me the once-over (hubby, luckily, is dressed in a crisp white shirt and khakis), choosing to walk us over to a quiet corner booth in the back of the restaurant, safely ensconced from the well-dressed, wine-sipping bourgeoisie. Lots of couples are sitting around, lots of yuppies having polite conversation over fancy salads arranged in artful mounds on bone-china plates.
Napa 29 has a contemporary, sophisticated feel. As if to show off how sophisticated, we’re presented a wine list that spans the width of the dining room, showcasing California wine in all its luster and brilliance. Wine bottles encased in nooks and crannies along the walls, white linens and the two forks (remember, small fork first, large last), wine glasses and muted lighting.
Our waitress, Andrea, is almost too deferential, apologizing for the five minutes we’ve sat there. My significant other starts off with a glass of Echelon Pinot Noir, a fruity, smooth, and aromatic pinot that’s knocked down in gulps, and he orders another. Turns out we should have ordered a bottle. Soon enough, Andrea takes our order and rattles by memory the specials of the day—a tuna-something appetizer, a lobster soup with halibut, salmon, and some other seafood that gets lost in the rattling (sounds pricier than the items before us on the two-page menu). Past the Pistachio Encrusted Rack of Lamb and Seared Muscovite Duck’s Breast and Duck Leg Confit are two oddities—Cheese Ravioli and Eggplant Parmesan before the accompaniments, not something you’d encounter in the big leagues.
We decide to begin with the Sautéed Dungeness Crab and Sweet Corn Cakes ($13), which taste like they’ve come straight from the Pacific and bypassed the communal soak down. Luckily, the fresh grit of sea salt was tempered by the tartness of the green apple relish (which looked like a glob of Thousand Island dressing) and the delicious green apple ambrosia-esque salad. This salad kicked ass.
For our entrees, we opt for the Seared Sesame-encrusted Ahi Tuna over a bed of rice and teriyaki-grilled veggie medley with a wasabi chardonnay reduction sauce ($32) and the Sundried Tomato and Spinach Stuffed Chicken Breast ($23). While the chicken breast was tender, the Parmesan cheese really overwhelmed the spinach and sundried tomatoes—definitely not my cup of tea. Infinitely tastier and worth the boat it came off of was the ahi, charred on the outside but still red inside, succulent and hearty, the wasabi adding a nice tangy kick.
We ended our evening with the institutional elite over a shared crème brulee and more wine. Overall, it was an interesting fine-dining extravaganza worthy of a Mother’s Day cahoots—an experience any upstart aching to name-drop should feel privileged to try.
Napa 29, 280 Teller St., Ste. 140, Corona, (951) 273-0539. Dinner for two (without drinks), around $85.