Napa's Gran Eléctrica is electric

Napa’s newest restaurant, the hip and lively Gran Eléctrica, is grabbing well-deserved attention. New York owners Elise Rosenberg, Emelie Kihlstrom and Tamer Hamawi have joined forces with locals to craft modernized Mexican “street food” and super-creative cocktails served in a spacious indoor-outdoor dining room decorated with art inspired by Mexico’s Day of the Dead holiday and mural art.

“We have two restaurants in New York (Colonie, Gran Eléctrica), but my wife (Blaire Scheibal) is from Calistoga and so when we were going to have our first baby she informed me that we were not going to be raising our child anywhere but the Napa Valley,” said Hamawi. “We also felt like this spot would be perfect for providing folks with authentic Mexican food served in an atmosphere conducive to having a more lengthy dining experience.”

Beyond Hamawi and Scheibal, the onsite team includes locals such as Mexican-American Chef Ignacio Beltran (CIA, Ad Hoc, the Restaurant at Meadowood, Terra), Napa-born mixologist Ryan Leija (Angèle, Morimoto, Auberge du Soleil) and front-of-the-house expert and longtime Napa resident Kate O’Reilly (Ciccio, Press, Mustards). Together they constitute what amounts to an experienced team with deep local ties.

The location

Formerly the restaurant 1313 Main, the location has been transformed from what had been a dark and compartmentalized space into one that is open and light with skylights and floor-to-ceiling bifold windows that open to the street. Out back, guests have the option of sitting on a large garden patio that can accommodate up to 50 diners. In total the restaurant seats up to 130 with some additional stand-up “ledge” dining spots in front of both bars — one in the front and one in the back.

The decor and ambience are festive and eclectic, with the inside sporting wallpaper covered with fun black-and-white images of Napa landmarks inspired by Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada. In contrast, the outdoor patio is surrounded by gardens and cinderblock walls covered with pink and gray images of corn, agave and Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe painted by Richmond-based muralist, DJ AGANA.

The food

The menu is loosely based on the original one developed in New York, but Beltran has provided his interpretation based on his own heritage and training.

“My family comes from a coastal town in Mexico where seafood was plentiful, and I grew up in Salinas, where produce is grown everywhere,” Beltran said. “I trained and became a chef here in the valley, and so I feel all the pieces are coming together.”

Menu items at Gran Eléctrica are mostly made with only a few ingredients, processed in a manner that highlights their made-from-scratch freshness. Good examples include the chewy tortillas pressed from house-made masa (corn dough) or the addictive guacamole with a smoky infusion of fire-roasted avocado leaves balanced with lime, cilantro, crunchy pepitas, mild pickled red jalapeño and a vibrant red salsa of roasted tomato, garlic and chipotle.

The menu is organized into Botanas, Tacos, Tostadas, Platos, Acompanamientos and Postres. Each section has three to seven offerings.

Chips and guacamole ($10) are excellent, with bright, rich flavors accentuated by the crispy yet chewy chips. The fresh lime and serrano-cured bay scallop tostadas ($14) feature pickled onions, cucumber and radish piled high on a fried tortilla. It’s tempting to try and pick the entire tostada up by its base, but you are better off using a fork until you’ve eaten the mound down enough to use the tostada as what amounts to an enormous chip.

Tacos (two per order), like the other menu items, are reasonably priced and tasty. Pescado estilo Ensenada ($10), the beer-battered fish tacos, are a nod to Beltran’s heritage and set the bar for the popular dish, the lightness and sweetness of the fish in contrast to the crunchy coating and piquant pickled red cabbage, all brought into spicy focus with a chipotle mayonnaise.

The sweet-charred poblano chile relleno ($14) is cleaved to expose a creamy interior of havarti and queso fresco that complement the tangy salsa ranchera made from roasted tomato and jalapeño.

The market fish, sautéed less crisp than I’d prefer, is accompanied with chile morita and a spicy-buttery sauce of mojo de ajo. Most of the main dishes come with a vibrantly colorful collection of seasonal greens mixed with pickled cabbage, radish and carrot and topped with edible flowers from the garden.

A few desserts are offered and include the “Pudin” de chocolate ($9) with whipped cream and crumbled “spiced” peanut brittle. The sweet options are fine but lack the complexity and depth of technique and flavor shown by the items on the main menu.

Menú de bebida

The wine menu is limited and focuses on “natural wines,” with a few offerings that include small-lot wines from local producers such as a version of the wildly trendy Pétillant-Naturel (Pét Nat), this one a 2017 Carneros Rose from Cruse Wine Co. ($51 a bottle). Although limited wines and beer are available, the most compelling component of the drink menu is the extensive collection of mostly artisan-produced tequila and mescales and the dizzying array of associated cocktails.

“One of my goals is to highlight the diversity and complexity of agave spirits and how well they can pair with our food,” Leija said.

To do so, he has spent the last year scouring Mexico and Baja California for small producers whose fermented agave spirits can seem as nuanced in flavor and texture as some of the rarest Napa cult Cabernets.

Touting more than 100 producers, the Gran Eléctrica crafts colorful agave-based cocktails that bring Beltran’s food to another level. Whereas cocktails often compete with food, here its balance and complexity are enhanced. A favorite includes the Margarita de Pepino with Olmeca Altos Plata tequila, merlot triple sec and a cucumber that helps extinguish the spicy chili-lime-salted rim. Also worth a try are the turmeric and pineapple or carrot and ginger margaritas, all $13.

A wave of agave and corn

This exciting new restaurant is at the leading edge of what is fast becoming a broad culinary trend: upscaled Mexican food served with mostly artisan tequila/mezcal cocktails. And the wave will only grow when Thomas Keller opens a similarly focused concept in Yountville or when the third Gran Eléctrica opens.

“I am excited about the future, including eating at Keller’s new place when it opens — I bet it’s going to be great,” said Hamawi. “We are constantly thinking about expansion and other new business ideas, and as a matter of fact we have been offered an enticing space for a GE at the Santana Row shopping district in San Jose. However, it’s early days and we still have so much room for improvement here. At this stage our focus is on Napa and building it up to be a local institution and a lucrative business for ourselves and our investors.”

Originally published in the Napa Register, September 2018