At first the news was that Dogtown's finest, chef Greg Perez, was going to pull up stakes and move his popular University City Loop-based Painted Plates -- named one of the best new restaurants in the country in 1993 by Bon Appetit magazine -- to West County. But apparently the brakes failed, and next thing we knew, he was within spittin' distance of the Pacific Ocean.
Perez just celebrated the one-year anniversary of his Roadhouse 29, serving up "smoked meats" and "good eats" in St. Helena, Calif., in the heart of the Napa Valley wine country. And despite occasional snobbiness from those who think no culinary civilization exists between the coasts, Perez has actually parlayed his "heartland cuisine" into a marketable style, featuring items like chocolate gooey-butter cake, "Terror of Missouri" (his take on tiramisu) and St. Louis-style ribs on his ever-evolving menu. "Don't tell them this, but Californians don't know the difference between barbecue and smoked meat," quips Perez, who adds that he's in "heaven" in his new location at the nexus of fine winemaking in America.
"We have regular winemakers' dinners where we have five courses, five different wines and five different winemakers to talk about them," Perez gloats. The move obviously hasn't dulled the same sense of humor that briefly brought an all-Grateful-Dead theme into the Painted Plates space. For example, his meticulously thought out wine list now includes categories of "Red," "White" and "Pinot-Envi" (say it out loud a few times, if it's not immediately apparent). And, true to his origins, he's working right now to introduce several Missouri selections to his staunchly West Coast wine-bigoted audience.
The local critics have by and large been very kind to Perez's Midwestern sensibilities. Said Keith Power of the San Francisco Chronicle: "The chicken-fried steak on the menu attests to the authentic culinary roots of Roadhouse 29 in St. Helena. But the wine list, particularly the reds, displays a passion for the grape as vigorous as any restaurant in the Napa Valley.... Perez, trained in France and Spain, elevates comfortable roadhouse fare with artful presentation and special touches like his flash-fried spinach, which is as delicate as parchment."
The restaurant seats 48 inside and 30 on the patio, but Perez also offers access to a private park adjacent to the restaurant for special events.
Will he ever click his heels three times? "Well, I've always said that my real labor of love would be to open a classic five-star restaurant in St. Louis, but right now that's still just a dream." Meanwhile, if you're ever in the California wine country, be sure to look him up.
-- Joe Bonwich
ROADHOUSE 29, 1065 Main St., St. Helena, Calif., 707-967-9997