The plates look like casual perfection at Michael Warring, the hidden gem of Solano County. Pale green pressed cucumber soup, dolloped with creamy sabayon and topped with a salad of vivid baby greens, comes in a square-bottomed jar, looking like a terrarium. A softly poached egg enriches already creamy risotto, made to order and generously flecked with black truffle shavings. Sautéed slices of giant squid share space with lobes of golden sea urchin atop beautifully browned pain perdu, nestled in an ecru puddle of apple cream.
Everyone in the small dining room gets a ringside view as Warring cooks five-course dinners one by one. His name might be on the door, but he intentionally avoids showing off. Warring's personal style remains elusive to me even after I watched him work behind the 12-seat counter for two hours. He treats every element simply, letting unexpected juxtapositions of flavor and texture come through unimpeded by any sense of artifice. "The food is built around the availability of quality products," he said, "coupled with what I'd like to eat."
Part of the fun is watching a chef work, all by himself, a few feet before us. The smells of the excellent ingredients waft over the counter as they cook. As the layers of each dish come together, it's reminiscent of the show at an upscale sushi bar. Another favorable element is the price—$59 at this writing for the full five-course experience.
There's a catch. Michael Warring is not in Napa or Berkeley or San Francisco. It's in Hiddenbrooke, an isolated suburban community midway between Vallejo and Fairfield, Calif.
Never heard of Hiddenbrooke? Neither had I, when my colleague MaryAnn Worobiec told me about two terrific dinners she and her fiancé had enjoyed there. It's a couple of minutes off the American Canyon exit of Interstate 80. I turn off the highway there regularly and go west to our Napa office for my tastings. Who knew that just over the brown grassy hills to the east was a golf course community? Few knew that a serious chef had been at work in a quiet shopping center just inside the gatehouse for more than a year, operating without staff.
Warring grew up in nearby Benicia, just over the hills to the south, and he started building his culinary career on a familiar path. He studied at the Culinary Institute of America in New York and worked in the kitchens of "name" restaurants such as Auberge du Soleil in Napa Valley and Bouchon Beverly Hills.
"When I was working in other chefs' kitchens, it always seemed like such a struggle to get things the way they wanted it," he shrugged when I asked why he started so modestly. "I feel more comfortable doing everything myself."
Well, everything except service. That he leaves to his significant other, Ali, who gets everything together smoothly, with warmth and charm. She also serves the wines. The short list of 20 choices is modestly priced. Because I was driving I limited my choices to a glass of bone-dry Zocker Riesling Edna Valley Paragon Vineyard 2009 ($12) and a velvety Alessandro e Gian Natale Fantino Barbera d'Alba 2006 ($14), both of which would have been part of the $30 wine pairing option. Corkage is $15.
In traffic it can take 40 minutes to get to Michael Warring from downtown Napa, 45 minutes to an hour from Berkeley, more from San Francisco. It's closer to Walnut Creek or Fairfield, not exactly on the gastronomic beaten path. Is the restaurant worth the journey, as Michelin phrases it?
Clearly Warring has talent. His food is skillfully prepared. He uses modernist techniques to achieve textures, not to show off. The presentations are tasteful. I get the sense that his style is still forming, reaching for something graceful rather than extravagant.
But the intimacy of eating food someone cooks just for you, right before your eyes, makes it special. In this time of chef empires, as great as they can be, this sort of personal contact might be just the thing.
Hiddenbrooke Plaza, 8300 Bennington Court, Vallejo, CA 94591
Telephone: (707) 655-4808
Open: Dinner, Wednesday to Sunday (reservations required)
Cost: Five-course menu, $59