Dining in Northern California’s wine country is always a great pleasure. Chefs have access to unusually fine local produce, allowing them to create seasonal dishes that showcase ingredients at their peak. Indeed, restaurants in the region can have surprisingly strict definitions of “local” and “seasonal.” At Hazel Hill in the Montage Healdsburg, for example, I asked our waitress if the Liberty Farms duck on the menu was local. She replied, “No, it’s not local to Healdsburg. But it is from Sonoma County.”
We ate exceedingly well throughout our trip at both new and established venues in the county. In addition to the restaurants below, consider dining at the aforementioned Hazel Hill, Chalkboard at the Hotel Les Mars and Layla in the MacArthur Place hotel. I had also hoped to review the Matheson, a new multi-story eatery in Healdsburg, but it hadn’t opened at the time of our August visit. (The soft opening was on September 2.)
In need of a break from wine, we tried this brand-new cocktail bar facing the Healdsburg Plaza, a short walk from the Hotel Les Mars. It has a streetside patio, but I couldn’t resist the chic interior, with black walls and leather chairs along a matte-brass bar. Milk-glass pendant lights and gold-embellished glassware added some vintage flair. Drinks are expensive but creative and carefully mixed. My Josephine cocktail, for example, combined gin, a wild ale reduction, lemon and sparkling wine, resulting in a drink with notable depth that finished quite dry, almost tannic. Nor did the short menu of appetizers disappoint. Some savory gougères, for example, had the ideal light and crisp texture. They were luxuriously garnished with creamy whipped brie and Israeli osetra caviar. The Spanish-style octopus could not have been more tender, and it came accompanied by saffron crema and new potatoes. Healdsburg may have a better cocktail bar, but I doubt it. Burdock would stand out even in a major metropolis. Closed Monday-Wednesday.
109A Plaza Street, Healdsburg. Tel. (707) 431-1105
On the ground floor of the h2hotel in Healdsburg, this restaurant was disappointing at first. It took quite a while for a waiter to arrive, and when he did, he was oddly formal: “Because of the drought, we serve water only on request. Do you request it?” But matters markedly improved as the dinner went on. Since stone fruits were in season, we started with a salad of mixed greens topped with sweet yellow peach wedges, bitter endive and radish and savory prosciutto and Parmesan. A rather buttery glass of Spicy Vines “Joie de Vivre” Chardonnay from Carneros was hardly “Chablis-style” as described by the waiter, but it had enough oomph to match the salad. His more unconventional wine recommendation of Acorn “Axiom” Syrah from the Russian River Valley was a great success with a big bowl of cioppino, the classic San Francisco seafood soup of shrimp, mussels, clams, squid, chorizo and white beans in a hearty tomato-based broth. Although I had no room for dessert after such a feast, our waiter couldn’t let us go without something sweet and poured some small complimentary glasses of tawny port. In addition to a highly contemporary interior of polished cement and wood, there is a leafy patio in the back. Closed Monday-Tuesday.
219 Healdsburg Avenue, Healdsburg. Tel. (707) 433-7222
This new Asian-influenced restaurant in the town of Sonoma has both front and rear patios, but no indoor seating as of this writing. The style of service is unusual, in that customers place an initial order at a register, rather than at their table with a waiter. The man who took our order offered helpful advice about the menu, which has limited descriptions, as well as about the many wines available (Valley also operates as a retail wine shop). After we sat down, things operated normally, with waitstaff bringing food and beverages. When visiting a wine region, I drink mostly local bottlings, but I couldn’t resist the sparkling Teran on the by-the-glass menu. I’ve only ever had this iron-rich red from Slovenia as a still wine. With bubbles, it reminded me of a serious Lambrusco, both ripely fruity and earthy. It worked well with the XO Egg, hard-boiled and topped with a sweet-savory mix of crispy chicken skin, bacon and XO sauce, and with a sweet-spicy salad of ripe melon with pickled chiles, mint and olive oil. I also loved the fried chicken, which had wonderfully crunchy breading; it was accompanied by peanut sauce and a cool salad of cucumber and shallot. The smoky note in the sauce was especially delicious with some light-bodied Langhe Nebbiolo. Valley is casual and unfussy, but the food is delicious. Closed Tuesday-Wednesday.
487 First Street West, Sonoma. Tel. (707) 934-8403
Willi’s is a few minutes on foot from both its sister restaurant, Bravas, which serves commendable tapas, and from the Hotel Les Mars. Patrons can sit on its inviting umbrella-shaded patio in front, along the bar, or in one of its dining rooms. We sat in the glamorous rear dining room, with its private booths and a grand capiz-shell chandelier. Some bubbly seemed just the thing to go with the California oysters I ordered, and the citrusy 2011 Woodenhead “Naturale,” a brut nature from the Russian River Valley, proved ideal. I sipped it with a small and subtle Kumamoto oyster from Humboldt Bay and a larger Walker Creek oyster from Tomales Bay that delivered a refreshing blast of brininess. An appetizer of tuna tartare with taro chips looked simple, but the flavors of spicy jalapeño, warm ginger and sweet and thick coconut milk were balanced and complex. I also quite liked a well-composed salad of spinach, cracked almonds, goat cheese and warm bacon dressing. But the highlight was the caramelized butterfish with trumpet mushrooms in a miso vinaigrette. The fish lived up to its name, and the vinaigrette reminded me of the tangy-savory sauce that often comes with pot stickers. It was an addictive combination.
Willi’s Seafood & Raw Bar
403 Healdsburg Avenue, Healdsburg. Tel. (707) 433-9191