Protea (pronounced pro-tay-yuh) is the genus of South African flowering plants, and in local tradition the flower represents hope and change. It’s also the inspiration behind Protea, a fast casual restaurant in downtown Yountville that opened in April last year, and is quickly gaining a five-star reputation for Latin-inspired street food.
Much like the distinctive Protea flower (a luscious red bloom, 15 inches in diameter), dining at Protea offers a refreshingly unique change of pace. Executive Chef Anita Cartagena, co-proprietor with Dwayne Gosselin, named the restaurant. “I love flowers, and love their meanings,” says Cartagena, who wanted the restaurant to stand out in the crowd. Like the flower, Protea is one of a kind.
There’s much to love about this restaurant, and no doubt that’s why it’s a 2016 award recipient of “People Love Us on Yelp.” Protea offers counter-side service, tableside delivery and rooftop dining. After enjoying the afternoon in Yountville, my dinner companion, Alex, and I strolled in early on a Saturday evening and placed our order at the counter. We began with a bottle of wine¾a silky smooth red from Bardessono Vineyard—the empanadas (one pork, one mushroom) and the pork belly pinchos. Then we made our way upstairs to the rooftop to enjoy the view, sunshine and the soft melody of Latin music. Our waiter, Alberto Sanchez, delivers the wine and two glasses. Shortly after, our appetizers arrive, served on an industrial steel tray. The empanadas were perfectly crimped and fried, and served with a side of avocado, which is pureed and mousse-like. Alex raved about the pork empanada, which was savory, and the mushroom empanada was satisfyingly woodsy and rich in flavor.
Next, Sanchez serves the pork belly pinchos on skewers. Alex (whom I sometimes call Mr. Marshall) is a fan of good quality bacon and was curious since he’d never tried pork belly. Perfectly marinated, glazed, seared and skewered with pineapple, Shishito peppers and cherry tomatoes, Mr. Marshall was in pork belly paradise. He savored each decadent bite, along with a salad of arugula and thinly-shaved radishes and anise that offer a light and refreshing contrast.
After Sanchez neatly whisks away our starters, we sip the wine, drink in the view and chat briefly with the diners next to us, who are visiting from San Francisco with their small pup. Though Protea has a fast-casual vibe, the food is exquisitely executed and beautifully plated. It feels like a fine-dining experience, and you forget all about ordering at the counter and the paper napkins. What’s more, you set the pace of your dining experience.
Our entrees arrive next—the tingo de pollo rice bowl for Alex, and the shrimp tacos for me. “A good choice,” says Sanchez with a smile, as he serves the tacos. Though the menu changes daily, the shrimp tacos are popular and remain on the menu seasonally. Perfectly seasoned and served with a rum salsa borracha, they’re topped with a generous sprinkling of cabbage slaw on fresh corn tortillas. The rice bowl is comfort food fare at its best—and also beautifully presented—served over steamed bomba rice and topped with arugula, cotija cheese and fresnos. We also try the parmesan parsley fries with a side of avocado mousse and topped with fresh parsley, picked by Sanchez before serving it.
Protea’s food is light, fresh and flavorful. The menu is eclectic, and always with a Latin influence, even the spaghetti and meatballs and Philly cheese steak, says Sanchez. Dining on the rooftop is like being invited into the home of the lovely chef, Cartegena, who not only cooks the food, but delivers it tableside when she can and checks in with her guests as she makes her way back to the kitchen. Says Cartegena, “It’s important to me that my guests feel well taken care of.”
As we lingered over dinner and watched the sun set on the day, we both felt it was the perfect place to end our day in Yountville.
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