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At last, the scene blossoms

Elegant tasting menus, hand-thrown pizzas, oysters al fresco: Sonoma's restaurants have arrived.

June 01, 2005|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

Healdsburg, Calif. — Lured by the glamour of wine country, thousands flock to the Napa Valley each year, eager to lap up the luxurious image bottled by media-savvy vintners. Instead they sit in traffic, idling en masse on Highway 29.

If only they knew relief from the tourist hordes was just around the corner in roomy Sonoma County, where wine roads are less traveled and offer more glimpses of real life than manicured sets for the wine country lifestyle.

Sonoma County is still largely rural, a patchwork of vineyards and small farms that produce the baby lamb, free-range chickens and eggs, foie gras, handcrafted cheeses and heirloom vegetables that show up on all the best tables in Northern California. Yet Sonoma has never had a restaurant with the high profile of the French Laundry, say, or even Mustards Grill in Napa Valley.

The new Cyrus in Healdsburg may change all that. Named for Sonoma pioneer Cyrus Alexander, this ambitious California-French restaurant is part of Les Mars, a luxe 16-room hotel that mimics a French chateau, just off the town square. The two principals in the restaurant, chef Douglas Keane and maitre d' Nick Peyton, are both veterans of Restaurant Gary Danko in San Francisco. Keane was also executive chef at that city's Jardiniere. The partners also own Market, a casual, no-reservations restaurant in St. Helena with an American comfort-food menu. Cyrus, though, is the real deal, a sophisticated fine dining restaurant that has both great food and great service. For Sonoma County, it's a first.

In the dining room, with vaulted ceilings surfaced in Venetian plaster, staff members, dressed in dark suits with citron ties, weave among the tables in tight choreography. If you like, you can start with caviar and Champagnes by the glass served from the elegant caviar cart. But that's just caviar. The menu holds out much more interesting plans for your meal. The format at Cyrus is prix fixe, priced by the number of courses you order, and you can choose one or more from any category. Somebody once ordered all desserts.

This is subtle, impressive cooking for a restaurant that's been open only since March. The chef, who is all of 33, has a quiet confidence that precludes the need to show off. He's a wonderful saucier, and he must know and love wine, because his food goes with it beautifully. The young, eclectic wine list has very fair prices for a restaurant in the wine country.

It's fun to mix and match dishes to make your own menu. I loved the billi-bi, a velvety mussel soup enlivened with white wine and shallots, served with a tempura mussel on the side. Roasted asparagus with black trumpet mushrooms and a white asparagus coulis is just as beguiling, and from the tasting menu, so is a chilled ramp and avocado soup garnished with a scoop of Dungeness crab salad.

Cyrus: splendid

Keane has a particular affinity for seafood. That night, he served rouget with fingerlings and long beans in a sauce embroidered with Thai red curry. Seabass from the Canary Islands swam in a subtle shiitake and dried scallop broth. But the prettiest dish that night had to be the ragout of spring peas and radish in a ramp nage, which was followed by an espresso cup of chilled pea soup with a dab of creme fraiche and tiny plum-colored blossoms.

I had thought the black truffle poussin splayed out on the plate with some seriously delicious potato puree would be my last course -- before dessert, that is. But when the cheese cart rolled by, I changed my mind. Every cheese is interesting, every one perfectly ripe. Which calls for another bottle of wine. Fortunately we were staying right on the outskirts of town that night.

If you feel like something more casual, Willi's Seafood & Raw Bar around the corner is a good place for a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and some raw shellfish in the front courtyard. They've got great oysters and clams on the half shell. Get some of the delicious fries that come with a ranch dressing made with Laura Chenel goat cheese too. The sparkling fresh ceviches or the fried oyster sandwich are better choices than more complicated dishes, which in my experience have been disappointing.

Healdsburg, rather than the town of Sonoma, seems to be where all the restaurant action is these days. The town already had a nice little collection of restaurants, including Bistro Ralph, Manzanita and, in the stylish Hotel Healdsburg, Dry Creek Kitchen from New York chef Charlie Palmer. It also has a great place for a takeout breakfast -- fabulous pecan-laced sticky buns from Downtown Bakery & Creamery.

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