Postino's New Guard 

Lafayette's top restaurant holds together flavorfully under its new chef and management.

When the chef of a successful restaurant leaves, everybody gets nervous.

The waiters wonder whether they should tell customers about the change in leadership, and whether the changing of the guard will result in a drop in their incomes. The cooks murmur to one another, "Well, I'll stick around for a while, but if I don't like the food ..." all the while hoping that a shake-up means a promotion or a raise. The dishwashers hope the new leader isn't going to be a boor -- and plot how to ask for more money.

And we restaurant-goers, already a fickle lot, are easily spooked. If the first meal or two under the new regime doesn't go swimmingly, we take the restaurant off our must-eat lists, calling up our foodie friends to whine, "I just can't go there now that So-and-So's gone."

That's a lot of pressure for a new chef. Not to mention when you also have some new owners. Postino, Lafayette's number one restaurant, recently saw its chef, Cat Cora, leave several months ago to pursue her stardom as a Food Network celebrity. She has been succeeded by Mike Zeiter, her former sous-chef. To boot, Real American Restaurants, Michael Chiarello's restaurant group, just sold Postino to general manager Marcus Hernandez and bar manager Parry Tong -- who have worked at the restaurant since it was Tourelle.

Hernandez and Tong didn't fix anything that wasn't broke. Postino is still the most romantic place to dine east of the Caldecott, with its network of small, stone-walled warrens ringing the center room, where light sifts down through a pastel-colored canopy. The restaurant is set far enough back from busy Diablo Valley Boulevard that you can sit at one of the tables out front without staring at the cars flooding by. Best of all, Postino's menu hasn't undergone a revolution so much as a renovation. Many of the most popular dishes are still there, putatively Italian but utterly Californian, and undergirded by solid French culinary technique.

On my catch-up visit a couple weeks ago, I got my first inkling that the new Postino was going to be just as good as the old when the daily special appetizer arrived. I let my friend talk me out of grilled asparagus with truffle oil in favor of this salad of mixed greens with apples and caramelized hazelnuts in a blue cheese dressing. Blue cheese dressing on delicate mixed greens? I fretted, foreseeing a gloopy, overwhelming coating. Delicate but odorous, with a soft tang that let the herbaceous, lightly bitter notes of the leaves come through, the dressing was the perfect foil for the crisp, sugary batons of apple and toasty specks of hazelnut scattered throughout the greens. Zeiter is clearly a man who understands restraint.

He also knows when to charge straight at you, guns blazing. One of Postino's most popular dishes is its garganelli with rabbit, pancetta, and chanterelles. The floppy, rustic pasta, ridged for our pleasure, mated well with its rich topping. Meats and mushrooms were all braised in a veal-stock reduction sauce until their flavors couldn't have gotten any more concentrated. Though the rabbit was clearly present, the force behind the powerful aroma of the dish was clearly the house-cured pancetta, which released subtle whiffs of nutmeg and cinnamon with each bite. The advantage of making your own pancetta is that you can imbue the pork belly with so much more than salt.

Also making their way across the palate at full tilt were the clams and sausage, a trendy combination cadged off the Portuguese. Animated by chiles and sweetened by a bit of fennel, the chunks of sausage brought out the earthiness of the clams, and the mix was brought together by a broth enhanced by white wine, nutty toasted garlic chips, and a dollop or three of butter. Croutons soaked up the broth like little sponges, resaucing the mollusks in the mouth as you chewed.

The entrées couldn't quite sustain Zeiter's intelligent balance of hearty and elegant -- but they came close. A fennel-crusted hunk of seared ahi, tricked out with a tussle of microgreens, was surrounded by a summer succotash of fresh favas and crunchy white corn in a corn sabayon. After the brass-band richness of the appetizers, the fluffy sauce (made by whipping white wine and perhaps cream in with egg yolks) came across as a whisper, the quietly tart sauce an apt match for the delicate flavor of the rare tuna and fresh, quickly cooked vegetables.

Zeiter returned to resonant flavors with the coda di bue, or braised beef short ribs. My dining companion felt the complex sweet-tart of the red-wine reduction sauce hadn't infused far enough into the beef. Carried away by the tenderness of the meat, I questioned whether I really could have eaten the whole slab if it tasted as luxurious as the sauce. It would have been like downing an entire chocolate torte. The polenta matched the ribs excess for excess, its cottony texture -- all cream, mind you -- rivaling that of the sabayon. The only misstep was that the chefs had stirred in smoked mozzarella. By itself, the polenta was perfect. But the assertive cheese clashed with the sweet-tart sauce instead of supporting it.

After all those flavors, we lost the urge to sample the pastry chef's wares. All I could manage was a few bites of a "cocobanana" tart, just enough to appreciate the way toasted coconut gave body to the frothy cream and fresh bananas inside and the way the crisp crust dissolved in the mouth with a wash of butter. Then I cried uncle and paid my bill.

I had a mixed experience with the front of the house. At the get-go, our waiter delivered sensitive, quick service, and split our second course without being asked, a thoughtful touch. But even though we ordered four courses and a bottle of wine, he all but disappeared from entrée to check. In addition, the high-octane buser became a serious distraction for my friend and me: He'd careen around the room, dodging chairs and waiters, to clear and reset tables like one of the minor members of the League of Justice. "The owner loves him because he does the work of two or three guys," our waiter replied when we asked if the guy needed an NA sponsor.

Nevertheless, after five years Postino still has got a lot going for it -- most critically, its new executive chef. You're likely to spend some serious cash here, and Zeiter is likely to make the experience worth it.

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