The certification program of Japanese Food and Ingredient Supporter Stores Overseas

Interview of Suppoter Stores Terra & Bar Terra

A pioneer in the Napa Valley’s fine dining scene

San Francisco / USA

Pioneer in the Napa Valley’s fine dining scene

Located in the middle of Napa Valley’s wine country is the city of St. Helena. That’s where you’ll find, in an old stone house, “Terra,” and “Bar Terra,” two separate restaurants that despite sharing the same kitchen, have two distinct personalities. Enter the building and take a left, and you find Terra, which focuses on fine-dining. Take a right and you’re in Bar Terra, which features an extensive cocktail menu, with a more casual environment and menu that features more casual fare (although the complete Terra menu is available at the bar).

In 1988, when Terra opened its doors, the Napa Valley had yet to come into its own as a fine dining area. It was barely decade after the “Judgement of Paris,” when Napa wines beat out the best of France in a blind tasting and put Napa on the map. Fine dining in Napa was in its infancy. That’s when a young couple — a Japanese chef named Hiro Sone and his wife, an American pastry chef named Lissa Doumani — set up shop, and helped to pave the way. Terra has been a pioneer in the Napa Valley’s fine dining scene, ever since, and Hiro is one of the most famous chefs in the California.

“Personal Cuisine, rooted in European & Asian Tradition”

Terra’s dishes are quite unique. Nowadays, “Personal Cuisine” is becoming popular even in Japan; it is, in a nutshell, a creation of chef’s imagination and creativity beyond a framework of a certain cuisine, such as French, Italian or Chinese. “Where a chef was born and raised was reflected in his or her cuisine,” Sone said. “When I was in Japan, I was trained in French and Italian restaurants. Thus, my cooking base is those two cuisines. But I am Japanese — therefore, my dishes have some Japanese accents whether they are ingredients, or seasoning or techniques. That’s my personal cuisine. The style hasn’t been changed since we opened the restaurant.”

As a young chef in Japan, Sone was taught that a chef had to faithfully reproduce a recipe. Then he worked with Wolfgang Puck at Spago in LA, where he watched Chef Puck’s creation of unique dishes. “I was stunned. But at the same time, I felt unleashed, and realized I wanted to cook a more personal style of cuisine.”

When you dine at Terra, you experience the influence of Japanese cuisine — but Terra is not a “Japanese restaurant.” The menu reflects Sone’s Japanese heritage combined with French and Italian cuisine, which are his base of cooking technique. For starters, let’s look at the Tuna Crudo. This appetizer is enhanced by the citrusy addition of Japanese yuzu juice to sashimi-grade tuna, accompanied with cucumber and radish salad, which reminds us of Japanese light pickles or sunomono. It can be served as a Sashimi course at a Japanese Kaiseki restaurant, but it is not overly Japanese. “Japanese elements in a dish shouldn’t be more than an accent,” he said. “But because of that accent, the flavor of a dish is broadened, and so is the menu’s potential. I think my customers find it interesting.”

Benefits of using Japanese ingredients

Sone personally selects the ingredients to use. “In my case, I want to use the highest-quality ingredients, therefore origin is a secondary factor. However, I find that using Japanese ingredients most often allows me to get the quality I need. For example, for one of our most popular menu items - Grilled Hokkaido scallop, Ezo abalone, Escargot butter and King Trumpet Mushrooms - I tried scallops from various regions, including the United States, however, none were close to the flavor of the Hokkaido,” he said. “The abalone, however, is from Hawaii – because it was the best of all abalones from the regions we carefully examined.”

The biggest advantage of using Japanese-made foods is the potential for “mixing up” dishes that wouldn’t traditionally utilize Japanese ingredients. “For example, Hummus is very popular here as dip, and is originally a middle eastern dish with grind chickpeas,” he said. “Try adding a bit of miso to it, the flavor is enhanced with miso’s umami. Since both hummus and miso are made of beans, they match. Miso is a secret ingredient, but the Hummus now tastes better, and more unique. The same thing happens when you use yuzu, sansho or shio-koji as ingredients. The idea for the new usages of ordinary Japanese ingredients are unlimited and exciting.”

Another popular menu is the Sake Marinated Black Cod, Shrimp Dumpling, Shiso Broth –one of Terra’s flagship menu items from the beginning. “Instead of traditionally marinating the cod in sake lees (the leftover yeast from sake production), we marinate the fish in sake, combined with mirin, and soy sauce. It is so popular, that, often, a half of the day’s customers order this dish.”

Bar Terra —Quality on the Casual Side

Diners at Bar Terra, on the right side of the building, opt for a more casual dining experience. “Every Monday evening,” Sone said, “we have the same group of seven men — good friends — who come to eat ramen. You’ll see them sharing space at the counter, sipping noodles with everyone, while enjoying a glass of wine or sake.” The very nature of ramen culture is to leave your “inner food snob” at the door, and enjoy the company of friends and strangers alike. Other items on the menu include Tempura Maitake Mushrooms with Soy Dashi Dipping Sauce.

A story behind ingredients and dishes makes guests interested

Given Napa’s status as a wine and food destination, almost 90% of Terra’s customers are non-Japanese. Among the diners who visit are wine-industry professionals from around the world who like to match their passion for wine with a passion for excellent food. With this passion, comes a desire to understand the story behind the foods on the menu.

Sone said, "story is important. Take sake for example. Since I was born in Miyagi prefecture, I served two different sakes from Miyagi; one was made of regular sake rice. The other was made of Hitomebore rice, which is the best rice from my home region for eating. The same brewery, but the two taste completely different. The customers enjoyed tasting them side-by-side.”

While Sone himself talks to the customers and communicates interesting stories and information to diners, working at Terra means the staff has to be able to educate the diners about the dishes, drinks, and ingredients on the menu. “If you can tell an interesting story behind the cooking and the ingredients, you can make the entire dining experience all the more interesting,” he said. The staff is expected to be ambassadors and educators of Terra’s food.

Fresh food from small producers

When it comes to sourcing Japanese ingredients, quality and safety are key. “We would like to work with small, high-quality, producers who produce unique products, and are willing to make a commitment to work with us. The food has to be pesticide-free, high-quality and of course, has to taste good.”

Japanese ingredients are also becoming increasingly popular with American chefs. “There are an increasing number of chefs who incorporate Japanese soup stock into their dishes, or supplement the tastes of their cuisine using kelp,” he said. “As more chefs discover the variety of Japanese ingredients, the demand for Japanese food products will increase beyond the bounds of Japanese cuisine.”

Terra & Bar Terra
1345 Railroad Ave., St. Helena, CA 94574
+1 707 963 8931 site: a new window will open.