Having originally planned to dine at Cyrus for dinner but instead changing plans a few weeks prior in order to accommodate a friend who subsequently had to back out again leaving me as a party of one the story of how I ended up eating lunch alone at Cyrus is a bit convoluted to be sure, but all things being equal Chef Douglas Keane’s a Michelin 2* restaurant in Healdsburg had always struck me as the sort of place I’d love and the recent acquisition of Beard Award winning pastry Chef Nicole Plue (formerly of Redd) had placed the restaurant high on my “must visit” list a few months prior. Never shy of solo dining (actually generally preferring it) and expecting any restaurant garnering such praise to be excellent for lunch or dinner, solo or as a group I certainly went in with high expectations but in the end when asked to describe the meal a day later during dinner at Commis the best I could muster was a blasé response predicated by “I guess I should feel lucky to have the opportunity to be jaded…”
Still not acclimated to Pacific Time and therefore beginning my day at 4am with a long run around the hills of Oakland and subsequently making my way across the Golden Gate Bridge after a morning waltz through the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market the drive north would be a lovely one through Wine County with everything in bloom for the first time in my three visits to The Bay. With traffic minimal and sun shining as I listened to Big 10 football on satellite radio I arrived in the small town of Healdsburg around noon to discover both an ongoing farmer’s market and a festival of the arts yet despite some downtown congestion I located free parking without difficulty and after originally entering the adjacent Les Mars Hotel I was quickly redirected to the small white door outside; the surprisingly understated primary entrance to Cyrus.
With a warm and largely cream colored bar set at the restaurant entrance and the hostess having just departed to seat a couple before me I stood for a moment browsing the day’s menu sitting on the bar before I was greeted officially and opting to keep my jacket I was led through the bar while making small talk to a large well spaced two top with a great view of the whole room. Keeping things clean yet intimate with excellent overhead lighting, vaulted textured ceilings, and mostly wood tones the feel of Cyrus was both warm and welcoming and although the rather cheesy piano music playing overhead was a bit too “paint-by-the-numbers fancy” for my tastes the rest of the restaurant setting was much what you’d expect in terms of linen, crystal, customized plates, and comfortable chairs.
Seated for perhaps two minutes before the first of many servers would stop by to ask if I’d prefer still or sparkling water I was subsequently greeted by my captain, Roger, who presented the menu and moments later stopped by with a lovely caviar and Champagne cart that actually seemed to be quite popular with other diners though I personally declined. Making note of service here so as not to belabor the topic in general I will say that it was generally a mixed bag – in general Roger was fine but other members of the service team at times seemed a bit condescending when asked questions about the cuisine and as each course was seemingly brought by someone different I really felt no sense of continuity with anyone during my 160 minute experience except for the bread girl whose bubbly personality and perpetual smile would visit my table frequently (more on that later.)
With two menu options – 8 courses or 5 courses with choices – and both present in standard and vegetarian format my selection was rather simple and straight forward (though I will note in passing that one of the courses listed both online and on the menu I browsed at the bar had been changed) and noting my choices to Roger I took the opportunity to then browse the cocktail menu while things got underway.
With my order in and my drink being readied the first item to arrive at my table would be Chef Keane’s series of canapés – 5 bites meant to highlight the five senses this time served as Warm Yuzu and Shitake Mushroom Broth, Sweet Blueberry Bubble with mint julep syrup, Poached daikon radish with almond honey butter, Sour apricot tart with amaretto meringue, and Steamed and chilled oyster with chorizo. Beginning with the brine and progressing though bitter, sour, sweet, and finally umami each focused bite certainly served its purpose and while none were memorable I certainly appreciated the concept and technique.
Moving quite rapidly to the amuse bouche of the evening one of the questionably abrupt servers would deliver what turned out to be one of the best courses of the afternoon – a nameless dish that was much better described to the table next to me by another server consisting of Tomato and Ginger Puree, poached egg, dried corn, and togarashi spice – a more vegetal L’Arpege egg without the shell utilizing the natural sweetness of the corn to highlight the aromatic basil, ginger, and tomato while taming the heat of the pepper blend flawlessly.
With my beverage prepared at the bar and delivered by Roger my impression of the Cyrus cocktail program is that you definitely get what you pay for – the drinks are stiff but well balanced and delicious. For my selection of the afternoon I opted for one of the late summer seasonal selections in the form of a drink called “SloeBiz” featuring Plymouth Sloe Gin, Van Gough Dutch Chocolate Vodka, Lemon Juice, Peychaud’s Bitters, and Fresh Raspberries and while largely citrus I really enjoyed the manner in which the chocolate tones overlaid the entirety of the drink while the bitters came across only as a basenote serving to ground the acids.
Sipping my beverage the next person to arrive at my table was again Roger, this time with 2 types of butter and 2 varieties that went unexplained but were later revealed on inquiry to be Goat’s Milk butter from Mesa and Springfield farms Salted Cow’s Milk Butter with Hawaiian Red Sea Salt and English Maldon Sea Salt. Following up Roger in short order – the aforementioned bread girl wielding a mighty basket of house made breads including a Sourdough Epi, Garlic Sourdough, Brioche, Pretzel Croissant, Seeded Whole Wheat, and Warm Chive Biscuit. Never one to hold back from the breads I sampled all six during my lunch and while each was good it was the croissant and biscuit that truly shined, the later particularly with the complex Goat’s milk butter and a dash of Maldon.
Expecting the menu proper to begin at this point I was first surprised by a “gift” from the kitchen – the first course of the vegetarian menu entitled “Gazpacho Consommé with Shishito Peppers, Lemon Cucumbers and Basil” a light and crystal clear consommé brimming with notes of cucumber and hidden flourishes of both lemon and pepper around a perfect sweet tomato. A nice start – almost a liquid salad course focused on the essence of late summer.
With courses arriving at ten to fifteen minute intervals with some glitches in service as noted above my second (first from the main tasting) course would be described as “Nasu No Nitsuke Simmered and Chilled Eggplant with Aori Squid” and while a good dish featuring braised baby eggplant, sous vided and subsequently bruleed squid, micro wasabi salad, and tamari mirin gelee I have to admit that I was a bit put off by the last second substitution from the online and bar menu featuring this dish with abalone in place of the eggplant. While actually quite fond of eggplant in general and particularly of a version as tasty as this, abalone is abalone, eggplant is eggplant, and not all foods are created equal in my world. It was fine, no more and no less.
For the next course I would receive my favorite bite of the afternoon, a “favorite” dish anywhere, but particularly in this format when done this well. Served with two rounds of flawless buttery brioche, titled “Foie Gras Torchon with Cherry, Pistachio, Ginger,” and described as rolled in cherry glass and crushed Iranian Pistachios with cherry paint and cherry ginger compote I will give Keane and team credit here for making one of the best cold preparations of Foie Gras I’ve ever tasted – immensely smooth and spreadable, texturally nuanced by the glass and nuts, and wonderfully balanced by both sweet and a slight bitter to show off the liver’s full range of flavors. Really, save for The French Laundry, Corton, and Everest (and later that week Redd) I cannot think of many better torchons to grace my palate.
Moving next to the fish course of the afternoon I was served Ocean Trout with Panisse and Watercress, Red Pepper Lemon Verbena Reduction. With the fish clearly sous-vide and the skin salty and crisp the fish itself was actually quite good (especially compared to my experience later that evening at Atelier Crenn) but overall the dish was nothing outstanding, just a decent and predictable progression in the standard tasting menu format served with a fried chickpea finger, shelled English peas and dollops of pea puree, plus just a bit too much lemon for my tastes.
With the fish course passed I could have guessed the next course to be bird without having even seen the menu and sure enough “Miso Poached Chicken with Melted Leeks and Maitake” would arrive next. Clearly harkening to Keane’s time in China this nicely portioned piece of breast arrived Miso and Ginger Glazed on a teardrop shaped plate accompanied by Melted Leeks, Spring Onion Puree, Roasted Maitake Mushroom, and Ribbon of Breakfast Radish. While formulaic in the same way I’d expect from a dish at Robuchon or Danko (where Keane was trained) with that east leaning French technique I actually really enjoyed the dish overall – particularly the manner in which the unadorned mushrooms balanced out the otherwise hefty flavors from the leeks, onions, and miso.
With the next logical step in a tasting menu clearly a heavier protein the pastry half of the kitchen provided a brief interlude in the form of a Guava Gingerale Popsicle – a single bite on a stick that was tasty and refreshing enough but the fourth use of ginger tones on the afternoon with one more to come.
For the “main course” of the afternoon I was given the option to add black truffles from Australia for $30 – a decision I’m glad I declined as I heard the table next to me comment on the paltry portion – and was served “Kurobuta Tenderloin with Cranberry Beans and Potato, Persillade,” a substantial portion of nicely prepared meat that was texturally excellent but essentially a one-note hit – a lot of salty/savory rescued only by the impressive parsley puree imbued with notes of garlic, chive, and horseradish.
At this point actually feeling a bit board as the last course to truly wow was the foie gras (and before that the amuse) Roger would next wheel over the cheese cart listed on the menu as “Artisanal and Farmhouse Cheeses Presented Tableside” and after being told explicitly “3 choices only” I was asked to select. Finding this a bit confusing as none of the seventeen cheeses had been explained outside of a wave of the hand and “goat, sheep, cow” I pressed a little further and although seemingly exasperated by my interest Roger proceeded to name them off by maker and texture – no more, no less. A bit put off by the rather tame selection (I’d already experienced all but one) and limitations of the service I opted to go all California and upon selecting Point Reyes Toma, Cowgirl Creamery Redhawk, and Bohemian Creamery Bo Peep a nice sized slice of each was delivered along with a tower of condiments including a Baguette, Raisin Walnut Bread, House made Saltine Cracker and Panettone, Pear Butter, and a Fig in Honey.
With cheeses consumed and all enjoyable (call me crazy, but I’ll take Red Hawk over Epoisse nine times out of ten) Roger returned to offer me coffee and after explaining that the coffee was Americano style I agreed to the $5 cup – a mild blend with fruity notes, plenty strong, but certainly not on par with what I’d experienced at Ritual or Four Barrel back in San Francisco proper.
With the meal all-in-all good but far from great thus far and having heard much ado about Chef Plue’s work at Redd it was here at about the two-hour mark that the true tasting of her creativity would be put on display and after watching a playful cocoa-dusted cookies and milk presentation for the table next to me (celebrating their 5th anniversary) I was presented with the “Raspberry Yuzu Tart with Cream Cheese Ice Cream,” Yogurt Streusel and Raspberry Pixie Dust. Beginning first with the tart – essentially a creamy panna cotta atop shortbread crust – the flavors of both berries and citrus sprang forth to great effect while the slightly sour ice cream paired nicely with the sweet “dust” and crunchy dehydrated yogurt. A dish of varying tastes, textures, and temperatures this would prove to be one of the better desserts in my trip overall.
Moving rather quickly from one dessert to the next the final dish of my tasting would arrive with a bit of sensory trickery as the large glass containing “Thai ‘Iced’ Coffee with Condensed Milk, Kaffir Lime” arrived resting amidst a base of dry ice and coffee beans extruding a river of smoke and the smell of fresh coffee. Another light dessert again featuring a variety of textures and flavors through the utilization of of sweet condensed milk tinged with coffee tones and notes of lime, crunchy candied cocoa puffs, cocoa ice, and Espresso Crema plus more I was again impressed by Plue’s use of textures and temperatures in this dish but less so by the flavor; a but too much sour coming across beneath the sweet.
Taking my time enjoying my dessert while Roger presented the cart of mignardises to my neighbors it was with near perfect timing that I finished the Thai Coffee (and my Americano) before one of the servers would stop by with my take home gift – a buttery Puff Pastry with Valrhona Chocolate – and moments thereafter Roger would wheel the cart to my table. Having smiled at the thin woman at the table next to me pick and choose “just a macaron” despite Roger’s suggestions that more gifts could be packed in the take home box I went the other angle and just suggested “one of each on a plate – no need to box them up” and was subsequently delivered a candied apple lollipop, lychee fruit gelee, coconut macaron stuffed with dulce de leche, salted caramel chocolate, passion fruit marshmallow, milk chocolate hazelnut truffle, kalamansi ginger caramel, English toffee with almonds and saltine crackers, and a small jar of chocolate pudding with panna cotta and chocolate pearls. With each selection nicely presented and full of flavor the toffee and macaron were both standouts.
With the room now dwindling to only a few remaining tables I watched as dinner linens were placed and pressed and after requesting a copy of the menu my check was delivered with one final bite – a hot doughnut approximately the size of a fifty-cent piece glazed with bourbon bacon and maple; it was delicious.
With the paid and servers thanked (and the bread girl asking if I was sure I didn’t want “one last round”) I made my way to the sunny streets of Healdsburg just shy of 3:00pm and with the art fair still going I strolled for a bit taking in the seemingly small-town atmosphere realizing that 90% of the folks were tourists like myself – many post wine tastings and many pre – and after checking out a few local stores I made my way to the car and turned the GPS south feeling happy to have visited both the town and Cyrus – just not as happy as I’d expected; a combination of simply too many similar but better meals and perhaps having expected too much. In the end Cyrus was fine – even good – but not worth the detour, dollars, or in my experience the 2* designation.