Press Democrat Praises Dry Creek Kitchen
Location: Dry Creek Kitchen
Luxury at Dry Creek
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Abundance of elegance at owner Charlie Palmer's Healdsburg restaurant
By JEFF COX
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
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Though Chef de Cuisine Les Goodman does a good job at Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg, it's owner Charlie Palmer who dominates the restaurant -- even in his absence, which is almost always.
Chef and entrepreneur Palmer runs his far-flung empire from offices on Manhattan's Upper East Side, including his own PR and marketing arm, while The Charlie Palmer Group's human resources office is located in Las Vegas. Three of his restaurants can be found in New York City, including one atop the East Balcony of Grand Central Terminal; three in Las Vegas; two in Reno; and single restaurants in Washington, D.C., Dallas and Costa Mesa, plus Dry Creek Kitchen in the Palmer-owned Hotel Healdsburg. Oh, and his group runs a line of luxury yachts for cruises that feature his food.
Lest one forgets who runs this show, an employee may stop by your table to give a short verbal biography of Charlie Palmer, or drop off a 24-page booklet ostensibly written by Charlie Palmer, featuring a nice picture of Charlie Palmer and singing the praises of Charlie Palmer and his many endeavors.
If Dry Creek Kitchen is an indication, all these endeavors are first-rate and deluxe. The dining room in Healdsburg is set under thick, soaring arches, with servers' tables and the classy full bar decorated with friendly lamps throwing soft light onto huge bouquets of lemon-yellow lilies. So, given the precarious state of the economy, are people still patronizing expensive places like Dry Creek Kitchen? By 7 p.m. on a recent Saturday, the place was full and the hubbub loud enough to cause the waiter to lean in close to hear his customers.
When the restaurant opened a few years ago, there was some grumbling about snooty service, but any such problems have since cleared up. The service on that recent busy Saturday night was as gracious as at any of the Wine Country's high-end places, except for when the waiter went down the menu pointing out the superiority of certain dishes. "Aren't they all good?" he was asked, but he gave no response and continued with his task.
Still, the staff had that admirable ability to anticipate a diner's needs and offer to satisfy them, often when the need was still half-formed in the diner's mind. This quality of service allows patrons to simply relax and enjoy themselves, without having to fret about when the entrees are coming, or finding a waiter to get another glass of wine.
The theme of Dry Creek Kitchen is determinedly Sonoma County, especially regarding the wines. In fact, no corkage is charged for the first two bottles of wine brought in -- if they are from Sonoma County. For all other wines, corkage is $20 a bottle. Take that, Napa Valley. The wine list is extensive, expensive and loaded with big bottles -- magnums, double mags and so on -- and with older wines from vintages that have passed into history. For instance, there's a double magnum of Glora Ferrer's flagship Carneros Cuvee from 1988 for $610. But among all the pricey stuff, there are good bottles at relatively moderate prices. The 2007 Geyser Peak "Block Collection River Ranches" Sauvignon Blanc is $37. The 2006 Stuhlmuller Estate Chardonnay is $45. Doug Nalle's 2006 Dry Creek Zinfandel is $52, and the superb 2004 Roy J. Maier Cabernet Sauvignon is $85.
According to the restaurant's literature, the food is "progressive American cuisine -- a style built on rambunctious, intense flavors and unexpected combinations with a deep and lasting infusion of classical French cuisine."
The French influence is indeed pervasive. In addition, portions are generous. Presentations are noticeably artful. And when a dish hits, it can really be wonderful, like the Short Rib ($33 ). This nightly special (along with much of the menu, entrees change daily) is the best short rib imaginable. First, it's marinated in red wine for 24 hours, then slow-cooked for 12 to 14 hours, during which the meat and bones yield a deliciously gelatinous base for a glistening sauce that covers the falling-apart beef. The rib is surrounded by crunchy tempura watercress enlivened with pistou, and it's perched on top of a delightful wild mushroom risotto. Heavenly.
On the other hand, there were the gummy Gnocchi ($15 ), made with flour instead of potatoes and nicely flavored with five herbs, but with a sticky, unpleasant texture -- something like dough that hadn't been cooked enough.
A welcome innovation starts with the sommelier choosing a "focus wine" for the appetizer and entree menus. The chef then creates a dish to "spotlight and bring out the true essence" of the wines. For instance, a 2007 Chasseur Sonoma County Pinot Noir was set before Chef Goodman, who put together a duo of pork tenderloin and shoulder confit to go with it. That sort of palate play is just good, clean fun.
Many dishes at Dry Creek Kitchen can be thought of as comfort food. A White Bean Soup ($12 ½) is a take on Tuscan white bean soup, with the beans pureed to a smooth cream. The waiter places crispy pancetta, roasted garlic bits and croutons in the bottom of the bowl and then pours on the soup from a gravy boat. It's then topped with crispy fried parsley. A poached bosc pear is the feature of the Pear Salad ($13 ), and it comes with frilly lollo rossa lettuce -- a tasteless variety here given zip by a pomegranate vinaigrette -- and a creamy, whipped Point Reyes blue cheese chantilly.
It's also comforting to know that a three-course "neighbors menu" is offered Mondays through Thursdays for a fixed price of $34. Bring your own Sonoma County wine, and you can get out of there for something like $40 a person.
The promised "intense flavors" appeared in spades with the arrival of Les Goodman's Pan Roasted Pacific Bass ($34 ), a succulent piece of white fish sitting on a mix of crispy caper berries, olives, preserved lemons, cous cous and a rip-roaring vegetable Basquaise -- meaning tomatoes, peppers and herbs in the Basque style.
Earthy flavors of duck mingled with white cannellini beans in the Crispy Duck Confit Cassoulet ($16 ), although the duck was a little dry. No such problem with the Roasted Chicken Breast ($27 ½), as juicy as can be, served with fingerling potatoes, pickled pearl onions and arugula in a savory chicken jus.
Side dishes cost $8 each, if you want something besides the variety on your dinner plate. An Onion and Blue Cheese Gratin ($8 ) was an ordinary, overworked example of what could be a triumph of fresh-from-the-oven, steaming hot potatoes and cheese.
The dessert menu offers six different items, including Pattie's Chocolate & Peanut Butter Bar ($11 ) -- one of the all-time great combinations of ingredients. This treasure featured a chocolate marquis on top of a layer of peanut butter mousse, and a scoop of chocolate sorbet on the side. Yum.
To sum up: Dry Creek Kitchen has an excellent new chef and the food (and attitude there) is better than ever.
Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review column for the Sonoma Living section. You can reach him at email@example.com.