Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani, chefs/owners
1345 Railroad Ave.
St. Helena, California
(707) 963-8931, www.terrarestaurant.com

I remember driving through Napa Valley in the early 1970s, when about the best food you could hope for was a cheeseburger and fries somewhere on Highway 29. Winery tasting rooms were few and far between, and the budding experiment called California cuisine was still confined to Berkeley's "gourmet ghetto," an hour to the south by car, and a world away in mentality.

Today, the Northern California wine country of both Napa and Sonoma counties is a world-class gustatory melting pot, boasting dozens of top-notch establishments and drawing tall toques from all over the world. One of the brightest spots in Napa Valley is Terra, the lovely St. Helena restaurant of Hiro Sone and his wife and partner, Lissa Doumani. The restaurant celebrated its 15th birthday last year, a true milestone in an industry where dining spots come and go faster than contestants on American Idol.

Sone was born in Japan to a family that had been rice farmers for 18 generations. After helping his mother and grandmother cook, he realized by age 10 that he was a chef for life. After mastering French and Italian cuisines at cooking school in Osaka, Sone served as opening chef for Wolfgang Puck's Spago in Tokyo in 1983. A year later, he moved on to the flagship Spago in Los Angeles, where he met Doumani, who at the time was assistant pastry chef under Nancy Silverton. The couple started a jet-stream romance that involved several round trips to Japan before they married.