Of all the rocks that emerge from volcanic eruptions, basalt might be the least sexy. Granite is crucial to monumental architecture, pumice is like a calcified kitchen sponge good for exfoliating, and glassy black obsidian is mesmerizing (especially when it has bubbles or iridescent flecks trapped inside). The occasional hexagonal columns notwithstanding, basalt is more of a workhorse: always solid, always gray.
I kept thinking about that igneous metaphor as I ate at Basalt, Esteban Escobar's humongous California restaurant that replaced Fish Story in downtown Napa.The reference probably wasn't meant to convey urbane sophistication, but it seemed more literal to me: This 200-seat restaurant arrived with the force of a pyroclastic cloud, but the net result is a little on the bland side. Like basalt.
Some risks paid off, but a lot of others didn't. Among the starters, I was giddy to try the duck flautas ($12), which sounded like an elevated version of a fried classic — fried duck? Yes, please — but the meat-to-shell ratio was completely off. There was hardly any duck, and the flautas were overdone, if not stale to start with. Much better was the artfully served avocado crab salad ($17), a brilliantly dressed-up guacamole with a hefty portion of crab. On paper, the individual ingredients might not sound like a great idea — mascarpone and almonds, in particular — but trust me, they merge gloriously without feeling excessively rich. Heartier than the crab salad, the most compelling appetizer was the Monterey squid ($15). Stuffed with summer squash and oozing black mole, it plays off the idea of cooking squid in its own ink by getting even more baroque, and yields a deep, smoky dish with the right amount of heat.
A little bowl of radishes in anchovy butter ($7) seemed like an easy one, but it confused me right off the bat. Without bread, approximately 80 percent of it was left after we ate the radishes. And you have to be a little careful with it: Two of the four people at the table assumed it was hummus or some kind of spread, and got a big mouthful of butter to coat their palate at the beginning of the meal. The bowl of chorizo and clams with toasted noodles and lime ($16) ably drew from Thailand and Spain in equal proportions, but as with the radishes, I felt like the best part went to waste. For want of a hunk of bread, we waved bye-bye to that bowl of broth.
The entrees — chicken, quail, duck, and cod — were, without fail, nicely presented, well-prepared, and reasonably priced. They were also weirdly alike in flavor, as if forbidden to leave the kitchen without a dose of some proprietary, red-pepper-heavy blend of seasonings. (Why didn't we order any beef? Well, for a restaurant in the heart of Cabernet Land, there's somehow only one steak dish, a $75 bone-in ribeye that isn't something everyone's going to leap at.) The achiote-cocoa marinated black cod ($28) flaked apart nicely, and I enjoyed the fatty crackle of the skin, but apart from the texture, it was oddly similar to the adobo charred pork tenderloin ($27). In spite of one arriving with fennel and molasses vinaigrette, and the other coming with peach-tomatillo salsa, each lingered on the palate with an identical burn. The chipotle-dusted quail ($28) managed to break away from that peppery mold, but it had the distinct flavor of hardboiled eggs — not unpleasant, exactly, but out of place. As is often the case, the chicken (Mary's Organic, $25) was the best, because you can tell when a kitchen labors under pressure to make that humble bird interesting. Here, it was via corn, Romano beans, padrones, and the always-wonderful corn fungus huitlacoche, which I assumed would become serially overused once it became trendy, but only seems to show up on menus now and again. That risk paid off.
Basalt's cocktail menu cleaves neatly in two between proper cocktails and a list of highballs. Of the drinks I tried, there was a clear hierarchy: bad, fair, good, and great. Starting from the bottom was the Copia-Us Martini, which the blurb loftily describes as a “garden party cocktail,” but which was really just a poorly shaken gin martini. It was full of ice, and somehow managed to be too sweet and too watery at the same time. (Also, if there's one cocktail trend I'd like to stamp out, it's the refusal to serve martinis in martini glasses, opting instead for the smaller footed rocks glass. A $13 drink that eschews its namesake barware to skimp out on booze is kind of an insult, even though I acknowledge the knotty logic of saying a bar should serve a bad drink in a bigger size.) The Hotel Nacional (Dutch rum, pineapple, lime, and apricot, $13) was serviceable, if predictable, but the simpler London gin and celery soda highball ($10) was on the money, a summery, rounded drink that whetted the appetite. Roses Are Free ($13) was by far the most creative of the lot, a perfumy mix of reposado tequila, dry Curacao, and aperitif rosso with a kiss of anise hyssop. It was citrusy and slightly aromatic, without that fermented-rose-petal quality you sometimes get in drinks made with stronger liqueurs like Campari.
Napa being touristy, it wasn't totally surprising to see the restaurant on the quiet side on a balmy Sunday evening, when most out-of-towners are shouting themselves hoarse at the ill-timed traffic lights in American Canyon. But it wasn't so much quiet as eerily empty, like a cathedral on a Tuesday morning when there aren't any funerals. My guess is that Basalt hopes to capture the massive crowds that flood Wine Country during the peak season, gambling — more or less — that its fattened coffers will keep the lights on during leaner periods, but that feels like a big risk. (I know I'm not alone finding dining in a very large, very empty restaurant to be an unnerving experience, all things being equal.) Considering that the white-tile-reclaimed-wood-and-metal-chairs aesthetic has been done before, it's the patio overlooking the Napa River that's the real draw. But that's a lot of weight for this restaurant in its current incarnation to bear up.