Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Cyrus: Second to None

For our last meal before departing for San Francisco, I felt it necessary to visit Sonoma Valley's best restaurant, Cyrus. Under the helm of chef Douglas Keane and partner Nick Peyton, formerly at Gary Danko, Cyrus has become the preeminent California restaurant outside of the Napa Valley. Lauded by critics and locals alike, this two-starred Michelin restaurant sits adjacent to the luxurious Les Mars Hotel and contains all the trappings of any elite dining establishment. Yet, in spite of all the pomp and circumstance, Cyrus remains relatively overshadowed by the behemoth known as The French Laundry. Often relegated to contingency plans for those unable to secure a reservation at Keller's restaurant, Chef Keane has taken this distinction in stride, focusing his efforts on perfecting his food rather than dwelling on this unfair comparison. While parallels certainly exist between the two restaurants, after enjoying a fabulous dinner at both restaurants I could not help but walk away feeling that Cyrus is every bit as good as that place in Napa where the French did their Laundry.

I should point out to those unfamiliar with Napa and Sonoma that the two are not as close to each other as one might think. In fact, Cyrus was a good hour's drive away from our B&B, helpful information should you debate whether or not to do wine pairings with your meal. Unlike other restaurants, Cyrus is connected to the Les Mars Hotel in downtown Healdsburg. Flanked by a Relais & Chateaux plaque outside, I knew we had arrived at our destination. Our hostess led us through a crowded bar area (quite famous for their stellar cocktails) through the main dining room and into a smaller annex, allowing for a more intimate dinner. The sophisticated decor was comprised mainly of whites contrasting with dark oak and earthy tones. Service differed from The French Laundry; while both were excellent, we felt service at Cyrus was a bit looser.

Almost immediately after being seated our waiter came over with the Caviar and Champagne Kart. While it was quite tempting to start our meal off with any of these exquisite offerings we declined, knowing we were about to embark on the eight-course tasting menu. Jim, the sommelier, was quite skillful and helped us start with a wonderful Riesling Kabinett, Reinhold Haart “Piesporter Goldtropfchen,” from Mosel Germany (2007). The sweetness of the grape was beautifully balanced the right amount of acid, pairing wonderfully with the first several courses.

Our meal officially started with a multi-tiered service piece holding several Canapés. Our waiter explained each canapé represented one of the five tastes: bitter, sweet, sour, salty and umami. Representing Bitter was Daikon Radish with Yuzu and Coffee Bean. Combing elements of molecular gastronomy was the Sweet, comprising an Albion Strawberry Sphere, Lemongrass, Lime, White Pepper and a 21 Year Old Balsamic Vinegar. Sour was a Spring Roll with Carrot, Zucchini and Mung Bean with a Tamarind Glaze. While Salty was a Roasted Manila Clam with Cilantro Gelée and Powdered Chorizo. Finally, representing the enigmatic Umami was a Shiitake Mushroom Broth with Citrus, Japanese Five Spice and Togarashi. We found that each canapé successfully combined several components matching the particular flavor profile well, but ultimately found the Sweet to be the most enjoyable.

Next came our Amuse Bouche which was called, "A Taste of Spring." Chef Keane's interpretation of Spring was Poached King Salmon, Blanched English Peas and Spring Onion topped with Green Garlic, Ginger and Sea Salt in a Chili-Mint Pea Soup. The barely cooked salmon was light, yet bold with the pungent green garlic and was quite refreshing when combined with the chilled chili-mint pea soup.

The bread service at Cyrus was equally impressive as any restaurant we've visited. First, we were presented with two types of butter: a Salted Cow's Milk Butter from Spring Hill Jersey Cheese Co. in Petaluma, CA and an Unsalted Goat's Milk Butter from Meyenberg Dairy in Turlock, CA. Next, were two different salts: a Hawaiian Red Salt and a Maldon Sea Salt from Essex, England. In addition, we were free to pick from a giant selection of fresh bread baked in-house: Braided Sourdough, Garlic Sourdough, Seeded Multi Grain, Kalamata Olive and Feta Pinwheels, Brioche and Bacon Cheddar Scones. Baked twice (5:30 pm and 7:30 pm) each day to ensure freshness, MW and I enjoyed all of the bread, but were especially fond of the bacon and cheddar scones.

Being as there two choices for the first course, we chose to order one of each to sample the entire menu. MW was presented with the Seared Hamachi with Battera Kombu, Radish, Candied Kumquats in a Chilled Dashi. Chef Keane skillfully combined sweet and savory elements as the hamachi paired exceptionally well with the sweet kumquats and the savory dashi.

Less successful was the Soup Billi-Bi with Fennel Purée and Tempura Mussel. The dish was presented in separate bowls. One contained the fennel purrée and tempura mussel while the soup was poured into the other. While the mussel was perfectly fried, the components just seemed too disparate and were not elevated when combined.

The Butter-Poached Lobster with Marjoram Spring Onions and Pea Sprouts was one of the two options for the second course. Unlike our first course, both options were impressive. I'm sure I'd enjoy just about anything butter-poached, but this lobster was very good. Incredibly tender, the sweetness of the meat was impressive, especially when combined with the onion and pea sprouts.

Equally as impressive was the Foie Gras Torchon with Rhubarb, Yuzu and Buckwheat Bilinis. Coated with brown sugar, the torchon looked as though it had been dragged through some dirty colored broken glass. We were blown away after our first bite. Well seasoned and smooth, the richness of the foie was cut by the bitterness of the rhubarb and yuzu and was perfect on the warm buckwheat bilinis.

Next was an Ikejime Tai with Galangal Rice Noodles, Banana Blossoms and Coconut Milk Froth. Spoken highly of by our waiter, the tai was crispy on the outside while staying moist and flaky. Borrowing flavors from South East Asia, the coconut milk froth infused its flavor into the clear galangal noodles and transported you to another place if you closed your eyes.

Perhaps the most conservative dish of the evening was the Crispy Poussin with Potato Mousseline, Asparagus and Morel Mushrooms. Tried-and-true, this dish was all about its execution. The sheer simplicity of the dish meant that one mistake, however minor it might be, could mean ruin. Fortunately, aside from some aggressively seasoned potatoes, this dish outstanding. As with anything involving chicken, the best component of the dish was the mouthwateringly crispy skin Chef Keane was able to achieve while preserving the moist breast meat.

At this juncture of the meal the sommelier helped us select a great Cabernet Sauvignon Corison from Napa Valley, CA (2005) which was great with our heartier proteins and cheese course. An Cantaloupe and Lemon Popsicle was a playful yet delicious Intermezzo before our next course.

For our last protein we were given two different selections. The first was a Lamb Loin Roulade with Green Garlic, Fava Beans and Bacon and Fresh Corn "Polenta." While perfectly cooked, the lamb was a bit under seasoned and actually was overshadowed by the bacon and corn "polenta," which burst with sweet corn flavor.

On the other hand, the Hoisin-Glazed Short Rib with Tat Soi and a Ginger-Bone Marrow Flan was spot on. The hoisin glaze on the short rib provided the right amount of seasoning to stand up to the fork-tender meat. As if the short rib was not unctuous enough, the ginger-bone marrow flan was well worth the heart attack it could induce.

Following our final proteins, the Cheese Cart made an appearance as our waiter skillfully described and helped us select several varieties. When it comes to cheese, MW and I tend to diverge on what we prefer. While MW's comfort zone lies in the mild and creamy cheeses, I much prefer the more pungent varieties. Armed with this knowledge, our waiter helped her select: a Brillat-Savarin, a  Triple Cream Cow's Milk Cheese from France, a Sally Jackson Chestnut Leaf Wrapped Sheep's Milk Cheese from Oroville, WA and a Fresh Goat's Milk Cheese from Andante Dairy from Petaluma, CA. Each of the cheeses were distinct while staying on the mild side of the taste scale, which suited MW just fine. While the sheep's milk cheese wrapped in chestnut leaf was the most interesting, the brillat-savarin was my favorite.

Knowing I was a bit more adventurous, our waiter suggested: an Époisses, a Cow’s Milk Cheese from France, a Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk, Cow's Milk Cheese from Port Reyes Station, CA and a Serra da Estrela, a Sheep's Milk Cheese from Portugal that is actually coagulated by thistle juice. I was very impressed with the wide variety of cheeses accumulated at Cyrus and greatly appreciated our waiter's suggestions. In the end my favorite was the runny époisses, best enjoyed on a toasted baguette.

We were also brought a selection of accoutrements for us to enjoy our cheeses: Toasted Baguette, Toasted Walnut Raisin Bread, Lavash Crackers, Panforte, Pear Butter and a Date Gelée. All were good and we both enjoyed combining our cheeses with each condiment.

The first dessert was a Passion Fruit Gelato with a Miso Custard and Sesame Sable. This interesting combination turned out to be our favorite dessert of the evening as the saltiness of the miso played off the sweetness of the passion fruit in spectacular fashion.

Although the flavors were good, the Chocolate and Peanut Butter Tart with Caramelized Banana Ice Cream was a bit too heavy. The peanut butter and chocolate combination was very rich and overly sweet, however, the caramelized banana ice cream was very good.

Lighter and more enjoyable was the Tiramisu with Espresso Gelato and Toffee Crunch. The tiramisu had a strong espresso taste which was welcome at this point of the meal and the toffee crunch added a nice textural contrast to the dish.

But our meal continued as our waiter wheeled over a cart full of house-made Mignardises: Ginger-Lin Liang Lollipops, Blood Orange Lollipops, Jasmine Chocolates, Salted Caramels, Pecan Shortbread Cookies, Black Currant, Rosemary and Corn Shortbread Cookies, Chocolate-Dipped Graham Crackers, Guava Jellies, Blueberry Jellies, Vanilla Caramels, Black Cherry Nougats and Walnut Brownies, which he gladly boxed for us.

The incessant comparisons between Cyrus and The French Laundry creates a perpetual catch-22 for Chef Keane and company. On one hand, it's flattering to be spoken in the same sentence with arguably, the best restaurant in America. But it is also insulting to Cyrus at the same time, undermining and taking away from the restaurant's accomplishments and feats. Luckily none of this seems to bother Chef Keane, who understands just how special Cyrus really is and should be confident that he's created a restaurant that ranks second to none.

29 North Street
Healdsburg, CA 95448
(707) 433-3311

To see all our pics click the flickr link.

Cyrus on Urbanspoon

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