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Lark Creek: Navigating Into Napa

Lark Creek: Navigating Into Napa

Maybe it doesn't have the most star power on its block. But Lark Creek Restaurant Group's new sustainable seafood restaurant Fish Story definitely has the best real estate. It's in downtown Napa, a world destination for wine and food, and commands a high-visibility end cap slot in a premier retail/condo development. Patrons will soon be able to navigate their boat up the Napa River, tie up at the city's new public pier and dine at Fish Story. Who could compete with that?

Well, some of its fellow tenants certainly can. Fish Story, which opened in September, is one of three restaurants in Napa's new mixed-use Riverfront development. It combines office space, 50 condominiums, high-end retail and sensational food. Fish Story's closest neighbor is Morimoto Napa, the first West Coast venture from original Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto. He opened his 190-seat, 7,500 sq. ft. outpost in July, complete with retail store. Scheduled to be open by the time you read this just a couple of doors down the row is Tyler Florence Rotisserie & Wine, which will be flanked by a Tyler Florence store. Upping the ante here is that Florence's partner in this venture is Jeremy Fox, a Food & Wine Best New Chef in 2008 when he cooked at Napa's Ubuntu. They're billing their meat-centric operation as fast casual.

It's some tough competition, but Lark Creek's no slouch itself. Headed by ace restaurateur Michael Dellar, the company has shown a golden touch with its San Francisco-area lineup of restaurants. It began with the Brad Ogden-led One Market in San Francisco and has grown to 12 restaurants since. It's famous for careful husbanding of capital, licensing some of its restaurants and bringing in developers and landlords as partners on others. The company expects to gross more than $30 million this year.

Lark Creek is also famous for crisp operations and great food. For Fish Story, Dellar and company needed someone whose food could compete with that of the restaurant's high-profile neighbors. They brought in a chef with an interesting history — Stephen Barber. Most recently, Barber had been chef at Napa's BarberQ, where his American Heritage Cooking featured authentic Memphis-style barbeque, for which the restaurant (still operating) won a Michelin Guide “bib gourmand” designation. His first job was a beauty: cooking with John Currence at the much-honored City Grocery in Oxford, MS.

That gig explains the Southern touches found on Fish Story's menu. The twin overall themes are sustainable ocean-fresh seafood and seasonal cuisine. To ensure the former, Fish Story hews to the sustainability guidelines set by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. For the latter, the restaurant planted a garden on nearby acreage that once was home to Copia, the now-closed wine and food showcase.

The result is a menu that starts with items like Chilled Big Ranch Heirloom Tomato and Cucumber Soup ($9.00); Arctic Char Crudo with fennel, orange and green apple ($9.50); and New England Clam Chowder with dill drop biscuit ($6.00/$9.00).

From there guests can roll into a sandwich section that features a seared rare Ahi Tuna Burger ($16) and a Live Maine Lobster Roll ($21.50). Or they can head straight for the entrée section that offers items such as Hand-picked Dungeness Crab and fresh Oregon Bay Shrimp Louie ($19.50); Day Boat Scallops with fresh black eyed peas, Kurobuta Pork Belly and Swiss Chard ($22); and a Whole Roasted Fish of the Day (AQ). An “other than fish” section offers plenty for those who don't want seafood.

Being in Napa, the beverage program has a strong wine element. The by-the-bottle selection numbers 175 labels, many of them Napa Valley whites. Twenty more are available by the glass, and eight wines are available on tap. So are four types of beer, including Fish Story's house-made brew.

It's all served in a 4,000 sq.-ft. space that encompasses a 12-seat bar, a 60-seat dining room, a 12-foot-long raw bar, a glass-enclosed open kitchen, a 60-seat patio and a private dining area that can handle 32 for dinner, 50 for a cocktail reception.

The Fish Story setup is akin to Lark Creek's Yankee Pier concept, as is the menu. The company operates four of them, including a branch located in the San Francisco Airport. Each is a fine place to eat, but Lark Creek amped up its approach to seafood with Fish Story to make it stand out in Napa.

Napa wants to redefine itself as a culinary destination as well as one for wine, keeping tourists and locals in town to eat instead up heading up the highway to the storied restaurants of Yountville and St. Helena. With Fish Story and its high-profile neighbors now open, we're betting the city pulls it off.