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March 14, 2010

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Spring clean chef for wine bar

IF spring is about new shoots and revitalization, then Napa Wine Bar and Kitchen's new American chef Matthew Ona brings a breath of fresh air to an eatery committed to finding perfect partnerships between wine and food.

Ona has all the enthusiasm and passion of a chef just arrived in the city. Having established the newly opened Chalet Suisse for Napa owner Philippe Huser, Ona has returned to Shanghai to provide a menu spring clean.

He plied his trade in California's Napa Valley wine area before a sea change to Romora Bay Resort and Marina on Harbor Island in the Bahamas.

His cooking style is driven by a focus on the freshest ingredients and then using a light touch to let the chosen elements shine.

It's an approach that values a few well-paired ingredients and correct cooking technique instead of complexity and overworking a dish.

Kitsch foams, intricate geometric constructions and other embellishments don't confront a diner when they receive one of Ona's plates.

"The food had been elaborate and very nice but I want to take it in a Napa Valley direction I am comfortable with," Ona said.

"This is very ingredient-based, getting the best things we can find and not messing with them too much."

In a restaurant that is all about wine and food pairing it's refreshing to find a chef who is taking some of the pretension out of marrying dishes to drinks.

"We want to have dishes that are wine friendly, a menu that is fun and approachable and takes a bit of the elitism out of food and wine pairing," he said.

With over 800 labels in stock, a flexible menu with dishes that can go with a range of different wines is a must.

The seared salmon crust (248 yuan/US$36.33) with smoked bacon, roasted mushroom and English peas finished with a tart and lively three citrus beurre blanc was a good example of the characteristics of Napa's new kitchen regime.

Vibrant colors and bold, fresh flavors made this a perfect spring dish. The crust was even and crispy, with the flesh of the fish showing none of that tell-tale dryness from poor cooking technique.

The beurre blanc was appropriately rich and buttery but the citrus twist of sweet local oranges and the sharp bite of lemon and limes provided the dish a palette cleansing counterpoint.

Other new additions to the spring menu we sampled include a beetroot salad with robust champagne vinegarette starter (89 yuan) and a hearty Australian duo of beef (268 yuan). The latter dish showed a good textural match between the two beef elements of a seared, grass-fed filet and a cabernet braised loin. Accompanied with asparagus and a horseradish white pepper potato croquette, this main had the elements of a classic roast dinner on the one plate.

Since arriving in January, Ona has been working on improving the produce his kitchen has to work with.

"I eventually want to support the local communities as much as we can and get fresher ingredients that we know how they are grown," he said. "If I know the farmer then it is going to taste better."

He recounts how his beetroots arrived on the back of a bike and tells how he visits the markets to talk directly with suppliers.

Hearing Ona discuss his approach to the menu and cooking in Shanghai, one can't help but reflect on the journey of an expat chef.

If Shanghai's food culture is to progress then the relationship between producers and chefs is one of the key cornerstones that must find a more solid footing in the city.

Many are worn down by the day to day difficulties of sourcing good products and invariably end up settling for passable rather than engage in the exhaustive search for excellence.

At Napa, Ona seems to be a chef who is keen on taking up this challenge.

His light, fresh approach is a new direction that is a good fit for the casual but sophisticated dining atmosphere Napa offers.


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