Better they should have called it “Backen White,” after the predominant shade, which owner and architect Howard Backen created and which he used to paint all the wooden surfaces of his new restaurant on Main Street.
Okay, so French Blue (real credit due: the name comes from Howard’s wife and business partner, interior designer Lori Backen) opened a month ago but it’s still too early to identify menu favorites because in every new restaurant, 50 percent of everything changes in the first few months of operation.
The restaurant is now open for BLD – Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner.
The 98-seat room looks and feels as though it should be at a resort, or on the hillside of a pineapple plantation in Maui. It’s a relaxing, casual, comforting, welcoming room.
Aurally, French Blue doesn’t have the harsh, loud sounds, which keep me from returning to Goose & Gander, another new St. Helena restaurant, where it’s so noisy at dinner you can barely hear your waiter recite daily specials. By contrast, French Blue is calming.
At French Blue, there’s a welcoming, casual, communal table, which seats 14.
Who’s surprised that Howard Backen has created a room that compels one’s spirit to soar?
Howard is THE architect of Napa Valley, as well as the architect of the rich and famous. (Spoiler alert: Howard was the architect of our home in Napa Valley, though napaman doesn’t pass the physical – of being rich or famous.)
Howard is internationally recognized for his work on wineries (Harlan Estate, Screaming Eagle), hotels and resorts (Meadowood), institutions (Sundance Institute), and retail stores (Restoration Hardware retail locations).
Architectural Digest recognizes Howard’s talents, having named him one of the Top 100 Designers each of the last five years. Now they’ll have to recognize his prowess as a restaurateur, too.
French Blue has some mighty talented hands at the helm.
Howard’s wife Lori designed the interior and created all the sexy blue-and-white items for sale around the room.
Stanley Morris, responsible for operations at French Blue, has worked in the hospitality and entertainment industries for 30 years; he took Jeremiah Tower’s San Francisco Stars restaurant concept to Singapore, where he lived for six years, then returned to the Bay-area to direct operations at Il Fornaio. Most recently, he launched and operated Teatro ZinZanni in San Francisco.
Philip Wang, originally from Indiana, is the FB chef. After studying at the CIA, Philip cooked in San Francisco for Traci des Jardins at Rubicon and Jardinière. In NYC, he helped open Daniel Boulud’s eponymous restaurant, which eventually earned four stars from the New York Times.
This is not a conventional pancake, but rather a German-like pancake, baked in a cast iron, Staub skillet, in which the pancake is then served. House-made rhubarb maple syrup adds richness to the dish. Best to share – otherwise you may find yourself overloading on carbs and snoring through your first morning meeting.
Favorite feature: A delightful outdoor patio a step off Main Street.
Most restaurants put their patio at the back, keeping guests hidden; I love the FB French city touch here, putting tables and chairs at street level out front, so guests get a sense of the town action. (This may be the year’s top oxymoron: “St. Helena town action.”)
Pet peeve: They don’t take reservations.
Who wants to exit from a film at the Cameo Cinema and be told at a neighborhood restaurant that “there’s a half-hour wait for a table… how about drinking at the bar until a table is ready?”
If there were only one thing to fix at French Blue, it would be to offer reservations.