The Morimoto-Terra Dress Code Conundrum (with Review)

If you ever want a truly visceral Napa Valley experience, I recommend strolling into Pancha’s in Yountville after midnight on a weekday. More than any other place in wine country, Pancha’s is the home-away-from-home for the hospitality industry. It’s where cooks and servers go to get a drink after work, and where cigarette smoking indoors is still the norm (and not just prevalent, but practically required). Above all else, it’s a bar where people know people, and the close-knit, insular nature of the Napa restaurant industry becomes more obvious than ever.

The interesting thing about Pancha’s is that, unless you’re actually connected to the hospitality industry, you may not even realize that everyone there knows everyone else. There have been a few times where out-of-towners have wandered into the bar, clearly having no idea just how out-of-place they appear. The really clueless tourists will order drinks like Cosmopolitans, in which case, not only will they not get their precious Cosmo, but they probably won’t be acknowledged by the bartender for the rest of the night. Pancha’s earns its money by slinging PBR and Jager shots to thirsty cooks.

There is a great story about Rose, the matriarch of Pancha’s, who bounced Jessica Simpson and her entire entourage from of the bar one night. Long story short, these Hollywood high-rollers attempted to walk in and buy out the bar for the evening. Instead, they were instructed to leave, and in no uncertain terms. But that’s Rose, and it’s her bar. I think that a lot of folks who visit wine country don’t realize that there are plenty of locals from Rose’s generation who have been residing in the Napa Valley long before this wine boom transpired. To some, this steady growth in tourism over the last 30 years is all an unwanted spectacle, even if their property values have risen accordingly.

I realize that an ode to Pancha’s might be a strange lead-in for my review of Terra — one of the Napa Valley’s finest restaurants — but there is a tenuous connection here. Case in point, I recall a story I once heard about Masaharu Morimoto’s visit to Terra a few years ago, in which he was wearing shorts in lieu of long pants. Personally, I’ve always felt that California is California, but Terra has a very strict dress code in these circumstances, and whether or not to enforce it became a delicate subject: after all, not only is Morimoto a bona fide heavy-weight within the culinary realm, but he is also a native countryman of Terra’s chef-owner, Hiro Sone. Insisting that the Iron Chef don a pair of “loaner” pants would have proven dicey, to say the least.

Ultimately, I feel that the management at Terra handled the situation correctly, letting the dress code slide in this one rare instance. But the fact that it was even an issue speaks volumes about Terra, as well as the restaurant’s steadfast commitment to standards. Of course, enforcing a dress code offers no guarantees in terms of what actually comes out of the kitchen, but I feel that in the best cases, this implicit contract between the restaurant and the diner is important. And it’s a simple agreement, really: make an effort to dress like an adult, and you’ll be served a dinner that’s worth all the trouble. With Terra, holding up their end of the bargain has never been an issue.

Regarding the restaurant’s cuisine, the very best food-and-wine pairing that I’ve had this year happened to be at Terra: their terrific corn and lobster bisque, paired alongside a 2007 Dr. Crusius Traiser Rotenfels Kabinett, was both seamless and revealing. These two items are devastating together — end of story. Rarely will I ever mention wine pairings within my restaurant reviews, mostly because I like to keep things brief, and I also feel that these “magical” parings are often subjective. But this bisque and Riesling are simply undeniable, and I cannot recommend them strongly enough.

As for entrees, there are many different approaches. The swine-lover in me will often lean towards the Kurobuta pork chop, by far the juiciest pork chop in the Napa Valley. Believe me, I have tried this particular cut in many different settings — and I’ve enjoyed many of them — but the pork chop at Terra is outstanding. If you happen to worship the pig in the same way that I do, then this dish will not disappoint. Most recently, however, I decided to revisit chef Sone’s signature dish, the sake-marinated Alaskan black cod with shrimp dumplings. I’ve found that this particular entree, served within a delicate yet flavorful shiso broth, works as well in the summer as it does in the winter.

3 comments to The Morimoto-Terra Dress Code Conundrum (with Review)

  • Brock Palmer

    “… where cigarette smoking indoors is still the norm (and not just prevalent, but practically required).”

    And the reason why someone would want to go into a restaurant where smoking is prevalent, where they can mix toxic tobacco carcinogenic instigating smoke with the flavors of their food, is … ???

  • thirstyreader

    I’m not promoting Pancha’s as a tourist destination, nor as a restaurant (it is, in fact, just a simple dive bar with no menu). I’m merely pointing out that the Napa Valley is not all hot air balloon rides and wine-and-cheese picnics. The fact being, most of the people who prepare your Michelin-star dinners spend their after-hours in an old, smoke-filled bar that would probably frighten most tourists.

  • George Laird

    thirsty reader … you were kind not to point out the obvious to Brock: Pancha’s is a BAR, not a restaurant. And contrary to most logic, many if not most folks who work in kitchens smoke like Eastern Europeans — regardless of what that does to their palates!

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