Something Borrowed: Howard Backen’s French Blue Takes Shape
The construction site in St. Helena, which come May 29th will boast Napa’s latest dining destination French Blue, is abuzz (literally) with saws and workmen fitting things, and amid the clatter, Howard Backen is energetic, but perfunctory when explaining where this will hang and that will go with a flutter of his fingers. Make no mistake. Baken is understandably excited about his latest project, one in which he is more personally involved and invested than any other he’s done in his entire career. But this might all be slightly old hat to the architect, who’s notably designed wineries for Harlan Estate, Ovid, Screaming Eagle, and most recently Kenzo Estate and Ram’s Gate among many, many (did we say many?) others; restaurants including Cyrus, Evvia, Kokkari and Il Fornaio; among the hotels he’s designed are Meadowood Resort in Napa Valley, Esperanza in Cabo San Lucas, and Sundance in Utah. You get the picture.
But he gets nearly giddy when he whips out his iPhone to share some of the photos he’s taken up on Mt. Veeder at the site of one of the two newly constructed gardens that will supply fresh produce, meat and more to the new restaurant. Orchards will span the acres, and chickens, turkeys, pigs and ducks will wander the grounds. The facility will be an educational center open to the public in addition to a working farm — a concept inspired by Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Hudson Valley, NY.
The restaurant side of French Blue is taking shape. The place, as they say, had good bones, and the muscle and tissue is now being attached, with floor being poured, walls put in place, and siding (corrugated steel, of course) attached — all under Backen’s watchful eye. Backen is, of course, well aware of the failure rate in the restaurant industry, saying, matter-of-factly (and appropriately considering the location), “Some of them die on the vine, and some don’t.” But he’s confident that with French Blue’s pedigree and the support the project has garnered, the concept will be a success.
With the famed architect at the reins, building the multi-use complex that will serve as his offices, a restaurant, art gallery and overall brand headquarters for the French Blue concept, you can be sure nary a detail will be out of place. “I’ve always wanted to do a restaurant where if there’s anything not right about it, it’s my fault,” he says. “I can’t blame the owner.” Backen shakes his head at how much time he’s spent seeing to that. “I never want to see places where … you turn, and it doesn’t look right.”
Leslie Rudd, whose Press restaurant Backen designed, is also a partner in French Blue (along with others), and while the restaurant is something of a sister to Press there is no official connection between the two, though the new gardens being built to accompany French Blue will also supply some goods to Press as well as Rudd’s Oakville Grocery, and the two buildings certainly share some DNA. “They’re really different, but on the other hand they do really well together.” Both are white structures with corrugated exterior elements and similar window treatments. Both of them fit into their surroundings — though some might argue Press fit in a little too well and passing cars might well have thought it was another of the area’s smaller wine facilities and not a place to eat — a situation that has been rectified lately by a sign erected in the parking lot, but more so by the restaurant’s growing reputation.
Furthering the unofficial connections, sommeliers Scott Brenner and Kelli White, who preside over Press’s highly touted massive new wine cellar will be consulting in some capacity on French Blue’s list as well, according to Backen. Of course, on that eventual list will be wines by many of the people his firm Backen Gillam Kroeger has designed wineries for, which, as Backen points out with a laugh, “covers a lot of people.” Ultimate responsibility for the list goes to beverage director Adam LaCagnina, who was previously the bar manager at Teatro ZinZanni San Francisco for nine years under French Blue’s managing partner Stanley Morris.
The building that’s home to French Blue (which formerly housed Vanderbilt and Company) is co-owned by Rudd and Backen, and has become a place for the architect to work our some of the ideas that have been kicking around in his head. “It’s an aesthetic that I’ve been thinking about for years,” says Backen, “but I don’t know exactly where it comes from.”
Already the space, empty and still awaiting its furnishings (Backen’s wife, Lori, is handling the interior), feels warm and welcoming. The original exposed wood rafters certainly play some part in this, but so does the flow of the room, drawing you to the zinc-topped wrap-around bar in the center and back of the restaurant. Large front double hung windows let light pour in. Behind the bar the kitchen — the domain of chef/partner Philip Wang (who formerly served as executive chef at the Caneros Inn until 2005 and at Merriman’s in Maui and worked in the kitchens of Daniel in New York, Blackbird in Chicago and Jardniniére in San Francisco) — will be in open view. (Oh, and before you ask, no, the food will not be French.) The gallery space, which sits between the restaurant and Backen’s new offices, will surely breathe additional life into the space and add vibrancy. Regular shows are planned with open hours during the weekends for the public to come in through the separate entrance and check out the art by noted artists such as Matt Rogers (who will be among of the first to display works in the gallery space).
The original facade is largely intact, but reinforced (as was much of the building) and pushed back 20 feet. That 20 feet has provided space for sidewalk seating under the big blue awning (a striking architectural feature) and behind a light garden wall. The frontage amounts to a café garden space overlooking main street, sure to be a sought-after space this summer and well into balmy fall nights (thanks to heated seating and a central fireplace).
The front doors in the center of the building when it was Vanderbilt and Company were a bright hue called French blue — the restaurant’s namesake. Originally Backen had intended to keep them there, but “they didn’t quite work,” he says. The new doors will be off the the sides slightly, but the old doors, in their familiar shade, will be incorporated into the interior. And therein lies the formula for the balance struck in the restaurant, in everything from the use of the old beams to hide the wiring to the name to the wine list: a little something borrowed, a little something new.
Opening this type of place is something Backen says he’s wanted for at least 15 years. “I kept thinking I wanted to do something that sort of ties things together,” he says. “Everyone wants to do ‘farm-to-table,’ but I wanted to take it a step further.”