At Empire Napa, the food is the biggest secret

By Paul Franson

When you enter Empire Napa, you know that Napa has changed.

The new lounge in the Andaz hotel building is a full-on cocktail lounge and club with comfortable sofas and chairs and coffee tables, not conventional tables and chairs.

The decor, from designer Michael Brennan, and sophisticated ambiance scream “Big City,” and the place is filled with elegant young women in their finery with casually dressed dates, most drinking trendy cocktails and other sophisticated libations.

Yet in spite of the emphasis on drinks, the food at Empire isn’t an afterthought.

Nick Rimedio, owner and general manager, calls the menu a deconstructed degustation experience: “It offers all the flavors of fine dining without the pretense.”

Jennifer Petrusky, chef and director of culinary programs, turns out sophisticated small plates that can accompany the beverages or be combined into a multicourse dining experience. The plates are innovative but they work, and the presentation is attractive, too.

The menu stars both comfortable dishes and exotic flavors inspired by Petrusky’s experiences abroad.

It starts with snacks like roasted nuts, flatbread and chickpea croquettes, then proceeds with plates that include smoked trout, haricots verts with quinoa, beet salad with sour cherries, eggplant “crustini,” cooked shrimp ceviche and lemongrass chicken with Southeast Asian flavors.

That’s just the start: fried smelt, crab agnolotti, coconut prawns, cauliflower fritters, wild mushrooms, sea bass, Moroccan-flavored turkey breast, barbecued lamb belly and shabu-shabu round out a recent menu — they change often.

Then there’s the nostalgia menu — do-it-yourself mashed potatoes, meatballs and mac ‘n’ cheese.

Prices are $4 to $16, with most $10 or in the low teens. The shabu-shabu is $22.

And we can’t forget a wide variety of interesting cheeses and both refreshing and decadent desserts. One is featured in the accompanying recipe.

Perfectly prepared for the position

Petrusky grew up in rural Wisconsin. She spent her childhood baling hay and tending crops and cattle on her family’s farm, living the idea of “farm to table” years before the term became common.

During her education at Le Cordon Bleu in Minneapolis, she captured a prized internship at Charlie Trotter’s famed restaurant, prompting her to apply for a full-time position after graduation. When she found no positions open in the kitchen, she worked as a food runner until a spot opened on the culinary team.

Petrusky excelled quickly in Chicago and Las Vegas and apprenticed under Trotter at numerous food events and chef demonstrations across the world, including the Singapore Sun Festival, the Rheingau Gourmet & Wine Festival and Gourmet Abu Dhabi.

She competed nationally as the only female apprentice in the 2008 Bocuse d’Or USA competition under chef Michael Rotondo, helping him capture the Bronze Medal and Most Promising Chef Award.

In 2010, Petrusky returned to Bocuse d’Or USA in the top slot herself, winning for Best Fish Platter, as the only female chef in the competition once again.

She was sous chef when critically acclaimed GT Fish & Oyster opened in Chicago in 2011, before opening Yusho as chef de cuisine. Named one of the best new restaurants in Chicago in 2012, Yusho garnered several national accolades under her guidance, including recognition from the James Beard Foundation and Food & Wine magazine.

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(Photo Credit: J.L. Sousa/Register)

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