Delicious Staying Power
Chef Cindy Pawlcyn captures the essence of Mustard’s Grill in a cookbook that has as much longevity as her legendary restaurant
By 1983 Cindy Pawlcyn already had an impressive culinary background. In her hometown of Minneapolis, she’d started her own catering business while still in high school. She’d gone on to study at Le Cordon Bleu and was there at the start of several Napa restaurants, including the restaurant at Meadowood resort.
But what she really wanted was to open a place that wasn’t the coat-and-tie, French Continental experience still so identified with fine dining in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
“I wanted to open a restaurant that was simple and straightforward, where you could dress up or not. A place that didn’t take itself too seriously but took food seriously,” says Pawlcyn. “I wanted to open a joint.”
That vision became Mustard’s Grill, located just outside of the town of Yountville, and its opening in 1983 signaled the start of a culinary renaissance in Napa Valley. Because of its location on Highway 29, relaxed roadhouse atmosphere, and outstanding food, you were just as likely to see an 18-wheeler parked outside as a Mercedes Benz, which gave the restaurant its beloved reputation as “Napa Valley’s Truck Stop Deluxe.”
Mustard’s Grill could claim another distinction: when it opened, it was the only local restaurant that had its own garden.
“I think it was considered a little weird,” says Pawlcyn. Undaunted by what the neighbors might think, she established a garden on-site full of greens, herbs, tomatoes, beans and more because she knew that the fresher the ingredients, the better the food.
Thirty years later “farm-to-table” concepts such as eating seasonal, organic, fresh ingredients are common both in the restaurant world and in home kitchens across the country. Her menu still reflects the best of what’s available in a given season.
“Even now when I pull into the restaurant, I always walk through the garden before I go inside,” she says.
When Pawlcyn wrote Mustard’s Grill Napa Valley Cookbook she says her goal was simply to give people a chance to enjoy a bit of her restaurant at home. Today in its 10th printing and recently released in Kindle format, it seems that a lot of people are excited about doing exactly that.
Reading the cookbook you’ll see that beyond an emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients, travel has influenced everything Pawlcyn does in the kitchen. There are wide-ranging influences from Thai, Japanese,
French and, yes, classic truck stop cuisine.
Her diverse palate of flavors and ingredients is kept from feeling overloaded or spinning out of control by Pawlcyn’s overall rule, which is to keep things on the plate as simple as possible. She chooses her ingredients carefully and knows when to leave them alone.
Classic vs. Novelty
For a restaurant to reach a 30-year anniversary is a remarkable achievement, especially, she acknowledges, given that we live in a culture that’s seemingly addicted to what’s shiny and new. Even so, she’s not tempted to change for the sake of change as a way to stay on top. When it comes to Mustard’s Grill she’s convinced that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
“I don’t think people like change as much as they say they do,” Pawlcyn says, citing examples such as the time she tried to change the red cabbage side dish on her Mongolian pork chops. “People got really freaked. I was like, ‘It’s summer, do you really want boiled cabbage when it’s 100 degrees outside?’ The answer was yes.”
Relaxed About Wine
The sense of enjoyment and adventure you’ll find at Mustard’s and at her other restaurants – Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen and Cindy Pawlcyn’s Wood Grill and Wine Bar – carries over into her approach to wine and food. The one thing you won’t find in her cookbook is any guidance on what wines to serve with her recipes.
Her own wine choices are intuitive. “I go down into the cellar at home and I choose things based on who I’m with, who I’m thinking about,” says Pawlcyn. “Tonight I’ll probably have a Shafer just based on talking about this.”
She’s more interested in exploration and enjoyment than in structure and perfection. “We’ve all had those moments when you have just the right bite of something with just the right wine. It happens. But most nights, especially with friends, we’ll open a couple of different bottles. That way you see what a Pinot Noir is like with a dish and then how a Cabernet is. I drink whatever I want, when I want it.”