New Team Raises the Bar at Napa’s Fish Story

By L. Pierce Carson,

There’s a new vibe at Napa’s Fish Story.

No, it’s not just that the main dining room has been given a spritz.

The best way to describe the feel one has when walking into the Riverfront space these days is that considerable polish has been applied to the trappings, from service to decor.

By the time you’ve licked the kohlrabi puree off the plate of scallop ceviche, you’re damn sure this is not the Fish Story that partners Michael Dellar and Bradley Ogden netted on Napa’s Restaurant Row three-plus years ago.

Tuck into the round stack of ahi tartare — containing cubes of palate-tickling balsamic gelée — and you look out the window to make sure that’s the Napa River flowing by and not New York’s Hudson.

It won’t take long to figure out that the dining experience at Fish Story has been taken up a notch — or two — and who’s responsible.

The partners brought together a couple of overachievers — perhaps perfectionist is a better term — to make a difference in both front- and back-of-the-house operations.

Paul O’Dowd is one of the reasons for the success of the best food and wine festival ever staged in California, the sadly terminated Masters of Food & Wine held in late winter for nearly two decades at the Highlands Inn in Carmel.

Chef Scott Ekstrom sharpened his knives and his culinary skills in some of the best restaurants in New York — namely the acclaimed Daniel, the upscale dining room that launched Daniel Boulud’s career, and the celebrated seafood emporium Oceana — as well as Philadelphia’s renowned Le Bec Fin.

For the past couple of months, the pair has been working in tandem to give Fish Story diners more bang for the buck. It shows.

From the get-go, Fish Story’s menus featured live Dungeness crab and live Maine lobster fresh from saltwater tanks, as well as fresh fish and shellfish all sourced in accordance with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program. That’s still the case.

But it’s not only what comes out of the ocean and freshwater streams that gets star treatment in the Fish Story kitchens these days. Sharing the daily spotlight are items from the restaurant’s garden along with proteins like free-range chicken and grass-fed beef.

“We’re much more than a fish story now,” said O’Dowd.

To understand what the new team at Fish Story is up to, it’s best to know where they’ve been. Ekstrom spent nearly half his career in top-flight East Coast restaurant kitchens before relocating to the Bay Area. He helped noted San Francisco chef/restaurateur Michael Mina with his San Francisco operations (“where I received good exposure to West Coast expectations”) before coming up to Napa to cook for diners at Angèle.

“The (Fish Story) owners want this to be a premier dining destination,” he noted the other afternoon prior to dinner service. “Paul and I have experience in those dining environments. I was invested in a restaurant like Daniel … (chef Boulud) made me the chef I am today — he’s the defining person in my career.

“For most people, dining out is the main event … they are entrusting themselves to the chef. We, in turn, are creating that experience for them — and it should be memorable. I’m taking what I’ve learned and giving them the best that I can.

“I’m not here for my ego … why have a dish (on the menu) you think is great if people aren’t responding to it? Yet, so far I haven’t had any pushback.

“I want this to be a great restaurant, not just a great seafood restaurant … that’s why we have non-seafood items on our menu. Paul engages our diners, seeking response to what we’re doing. So far, they’ve been pleased. There’s been a snowball effect of positivity … reflected in both front- and back-of-the-house.”

“And we’re just getting started,” he concluded, a sentiment often uttered by the late Robert Mondavi.

In fact, O’Dowd was around when Mondavi and his wife, Margrit, were regular participants at the annual Masters of Food & Wine in Carmel. Owner/operator of a Carmel catering business for a number of years, it was O’Dowd who signed up celebrated French chef Paul Bocuse to take part in the Masters early on. That came after O’Dowd was asked to work for Bocuse (“my idol”) at the Meridian Hotel in Houston.

O’Dowd has considerable chops in the hospitality business, ranging from his days as food and beverage director at Carmel’s Highlands Inn to general manager at the Ventana Inn & Spa, regional director of operations for the Kimpton hotel group to corporate food and beverage director of Helmut Horn’s hotel organization. (Horn founded the Masters of Food & Wine.)

Addressing his partnership with Ekstrom, O’Dowd maintains “he’s the most passionate chef I’ve had the pleasure of working with in a number of years. And I’m so pleased to see how the kitchen team has come together over the past few months. I feel a sense of urgency now in both front- and back-of-the-house.

“Our goal is winning locals and visitors over one at a time.”

Both O’Dowd and Ekstrom talk about the importance of bringing local purveyors into the fold, using produce and product from local farms.

The chef can’t wait until restaurant gardener Jill Hemingway presents him with the bounty of the spring garden. He’s intent on featuring dishes that only feature what the restaurant has grown — something new and tasty for all diners, especially those committed to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle.

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