Closed Captioned For The Thinking Impaired

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Restaurant Review: Cyrus

Cyrus Restaurant Phone: 707.433.3311
Thai-marinated Lobster with Avocado, Mango and Hearts of Palm

I just need to begin with a disclaimer: I have only eaten at Cyrus once. Ordinarily that would mean I did not have enough data to formulate an opinion on the service, ambiance, and the consistency of the food to properly review a restaurant; 3-4 visits being the standard I try to apply when reviewing Bay Area restaurants. 

There are newer, trendier places that I have eaten in many times that I have yet to feel compelled to write about. But Cyrus is an exception in many respects, the overall experience was so extraordinary that not only was I chomping at the bit to get the review posted but I felt confident that this restaurant's performance was like the best theatre: a well-oiled machine whose virtuosity does not surprise you but can always be relied upon to provide the essential thrill factor that makes this kind of dining so remarkable; it was like watching Baryshnikov dance with the ABT, even if you had never seen him before somehow you are aware that you are in the presence of greatness and know that your expectations, however stratospheric, will be met and maybe even exceeded. The Michelin people know this. That's why they gave Cyrus two (** count them, baby) Michelin Stars.

Cyrus is a destination restaurant in the middle of Sonoma County's sleepy Healdsburg (about an hour and twenty minute drive from San Francisco) that is well worth the trip. Napa Valley? Fuggetaboutit!! French Laundry, move over, there's a new sheriff in town and he's a damned hot-looking young buck. Cyrus which is only 2 years old now has hit its stride and there is no turning back. I can't believe I waited so long to experience it. It won't be long before I go back!

Cyrus partners, Douglas Keane and Nick Peyton

The tag team of chef, Douglas Keane, and front of the house virtuoso, Nick Peyton, is a powerful one. Their resumes are a veritable who's who in the world of gastronomy. (Click on their names for their backstories) Combine that with a crackerjack staff of relaxed, engaging, intelligent servers who are thoroughly professional yet radiate warmth & conviviality, and, you have an unbeatable world-class experience. Our handsomely attired table captain, Bryan, was responsible for turning what promised to go down in history as the worst first impression ever of a world-class restaurant into an enchanted evening full of charm and delight; maybe even more than Cyrus' spectacular food. Thank you, Bryan. Kudos to Nick Peyton,too, for assigning Bryan to our table and providing the first lovely touches of hospitality himself.

That initial unflattering impression was not created by a lack of ambiance or mistreatment at the host's stand, on the contrary, both from what we could glean seemed gracious enough; however, when one books a 9:30pm table for four on a Sunday night (even if that Sunday night is New Year's Eve eve as our server so charmingly put it) one prefers to be seated almost immediately not 35 minutes later. Those long 35 minutes were made longer by the fact that the bar at Cyrus was jam-packed with patrons and our little group was forced to sit in the swank but cold empty lobby of the Hotel Les Mars, the site of Cyrus' restaurant, where the dropping of a pin would have had catastrophic consequences. Next to us, an armoire loaded with Les Mars' spa products. I felt like I was in the middle of a day spa. It was not an auspicious beginning. Needless to say we were all tired, hungry & cranky and ready to head back to our casitas at Mayacama when Mr. Peyton, who had checked on us earlier to exchange pleasantries with our friends who have dined there a few times in the past, finally swept us out of the lobby, through the bar and into the restaurant.

The Dining Room of Cyrus

Once inside the restaurant itself, the ominous spectre of the unpleasant lobby waiting area experience dissolves into thin air. The dining room is warm and pleasant with venetian plaster-clad vaulted ceilings and lush floral arrangements; a shade too Tuscan cum Sonoma for my tastes; but you must keep in mind that unlike that other much heralded culinary mecca in Yountville, Cyrus is located inside what is essentially a mall in Healdsburg and must fight to overcome the obstacle of being so situated which, frankly, they do marvelously. Once you are safely ensconced inside Cyrus' dining room, you are transported to another place and time. The noise level is surprisingly low for a room with such hard finishes. Conversation was conducted in normal speaking tones which is wonderful especially for those trying to experience a romantic evening.

All I can say is that as we were seated, four servers including Mr. Peyton himself, synchronously pushed in our chairs, whisked our napkins with a flourish into our laps, and presented us with our menus. None of it done with pretense despite the touch of the dramatic and I knew this was going to be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

Our friends are pescetarians (my friend's own phrase coined to describe a vegetarian who eats some fish like tuna & salmon) and every effort was made by our servers to ensure that their dietary needs were respected and accomodated by the kitchen. In fact, the restaurant prints that mission statement on its menu. They "welcome advance notice of special dietary requests to accomodate your needs and ensure dishes equal the integrity of the regular menu. Chef's direct line is 707-433-2010". How's that for hospitality? When we shooed away the amazing caviar cart for which Cyrus is renown, partially in deference to our dining companions predilections but mostly for our own desire to get the show on the road, our servers did not bat an eyelash; so high is their regard for the customer's desires.

Cyrus also does what more & more restaurants are doing these days: they offer you several prefixe menu options whose portion sizes are based on the number of courses you choose. There are 3, 4 & 5 course options with additional courses provided at $15 per course. You can make any item an appetizer, a middle or a main course. There is the chef's tasting menu, as well, a sort of NoCal omakase based on whatever inspires the chef in the market that day. It's seven courses and must be ordered by the entire table.

No matter how many courses you order the kitchen sends out several other small complimentary courses, not just the now ubiquitous amuse bouche, a small taste that all restaurants with higher aspirations provide you with these days; but, truly thoughtful and amazing little bites that are meant to wake up your palate and get it warmed up for the main event.
That evening started with little tastes beautifully presented on a three-tiered silver stand. Each taste represented four of the five basic sensations of the tongue: Saltiness was represented by a souffle-like polenta "cake" topped with briny nicoise olives and sheep's milk feta, it was a burst of complimentary flavors that quickly evaporated in your mouth; umami was showcased with intensely flavored shumais of shrimp & shitake for us and spinach & sundried tomatoes for our pals, each dumpling accompanied by a separate palate cleansing spoonful of citrusy gelee representing the sour; a mouthful of big-eye tuna with tastebud puckering accompaniments that enlivened the unctuous ahi rounded out the first wave of delights.
Next came another complimentary course, the matsutake mushrooms with sea beans and gobo in a sudachi broth. Light. Savory. Delicious.
Of course, there's the goat's milk butter and marvelous rolls that miraculously reappear on your bread plate as soon as you've devoured them. The servers at Cyrus are part magician, part adagio dancers. They seem to materialize and dematerialize like India's legendary yogic swamis. It's an amazing talent to be so attentive yet so unobtrusive.
Finally, the starters we ordered appear, and as is the case with every course, served synchronously by our witty, gracefully pirouetting waitstaff, each one of them whispering to each one of us the description of our delectable dishes; unlike most restaurants where too many table captains seem to enjoy taking this moment of presentation to practice their best impersonation of an NFL referee in booming voice announcing the penalty calls to the stadium as they recite a litany of descriptives about each dish while the diner faints from hunger and the dish grows cold. Not so at Cyrus, Bryan & co. gave us the cliff notes version of the description and got out of our way so we could actually eat what we ordered while it was still warm. Yaaay!!!

For starters:
Garrett had the Truffled Red Wine Risotto, Parmesan Broth. Sounds pedestrian, doesn't it? Wrong! It was a triumph. It had a depth of flavor provided by the housemade duck stock that catapulted it beyond the average and made it a worthy start.
Our friends each had the Cauliflower Soup with Almonds, Raisins, and Capers. I had a taste and it was like sipping liquid satin. It's texture was so smooth & its flavor was the essence of that poor cousin of broccoli that not enough chefs make use of in the winter, cauliflower. Very elegant, very tasty.
I had the Thai-marinated Lobster with Avocado, Mango and Hearts of Palm. This dish could have been flown in from Eric Ripert's Le Bernardin. It was clean, elegant and extraordinarily flavorful the lemongrass & fish sauce were in evidence but never overwhelming. Knife skills in Chef Keane's kitchen were clearly on display. That julienne of hearts of palm was cappellini thin & precise. Beautiful to see. It was a great showcase for the lobster which was perfectly poached & chilled. The only slight misstep may have been the mashing of the avocados as the base for the marvelous dish. The guacamole-like watery texture seemed out of place for such a refined dish. It may have started out life as a straight-up concasse of avocado that got a little wild & crazy. Still, this dish was delicious!

Next Course:
For me & my hubby: Foie Gras with Ginger-Carrot Pain Perdu, Tumeric Emulsion. As a rule, I prefer a torchon of foie to the seared but our server said I had to try warm version because the ginger-carrot pain perdu could not be passed up. So I had the seared foie gras, a generous portion of the fatty lobe with a beautifully seared crust that by itself added an extra dimension to the dish; but my man Bryan did not exaggerate the beauty of that sweet crisp delicious pain perdu; it was like no french toast I had ever experienced. The sweetness of the carrot, the spice of the ginger perfectly complemented the seared foie. I could have eaten an entire loaf of it and never regretted it; the tumeric emulsion that accompanied the dish was a foamy concoction that got style points for it's amazing color and the crystallized julienne of carrot & ginger almost made me giddy. This is a dish I would never ever get tired of eating. Stupendous!
Our friends had respectively: A Tasting of Winter Vegetables and the Roasted Beets with Mandarins, Pistachio and Squash Fritter. I did not try their dishes nor did I really take more than a casual look at them as I was so focused on my own amazing foie gras dish. What I saw looked artfully presented. In fact, from the lull of conversation at our table at this point I can only assume we all were too consumed by our fabulous dishes to do anything but devour them.

Then came the palate cleanser. A lemongrass (or was it yuzu ??) sorbet on a fine black lacquer stick presented in a black lacquer bowl specially fitted with slots to hold the sticks vertically in place.

Next course: This was where we all decided when ordering our dinners to celebrate the season with a tableside shaving of black truffles from the Perigord region of France on our entrees. The cost was an extra charge of $25 per 1/8 ounce portion.
Our friends had the Pumpkin Tagliarini with Sugar Pie Coulis, Poached Egg which was not on the dinner menu but may have been a bar menu item. They added a shaving of black truffles to the dish but the chef also incorporated minced black truffles in the sauce. The egg looked impossibly white and perfectly poached. The kitchen may have been a little too liberal with the use of salt for one of our party but the overall reaction was a thumbs up.
My husband had the Rib Eye of Beef with Gnocchi and Black Trumpets, Red Wine Sauce ($35 supplemental charge) to which he, too, added a generous shaving of black truffles. The beef was achingly tender with dissolve in your mouth gnocchi that had been christened by the chef with a mincing of black truffles in addition to the tableside shaving. The black trumpet mushrooms were completely identifiable by which I mean the kitchen didn't stint on them; always a crowd pleasing thing to do (not stint on ingredients, that is).
I had the Roulade of Lamb with Farro and Rapini, Blood Orange Sauce. It was terrific. In the center of the roulade, a beautiful housemade lamb sausage, a nod to the charcuterie craze that is rocking the bay area; surrounding that savory center was a perfectly cooked loin, warm rosy red center (not bluish red & cold like some places) wrapped in what was likely some variety of meaty prosciutto-like lamb fat and accompanied by a toothsome farro studded with black truffles and a little char-grilled then braised rapini (broccolini). All of it smothered in black truffles which are nothing like their amazing white cousins from Italy but there was a scarcity of Italian white truffles this season and the black truffles did lend a certain fragrance to the dish.

The cheese cart at Cyrus, as it was at Gary Danko's when Peyton manned the front helm there, has got to be a candidate for the seven wonders of the culinary world. Spiced nuts, poached apples, and nicely toasted, thinly sliced, fruited walnut bread accompany several wonderful interesting choices from fromageries all over the world, including Sonoma. Unfortunately after ingesting a glass of rose before dinner, then several glasses of 1985 Krug from a magnum and two glasses of Marcassin Pinot my mind was beginning to reel at this point so the many stellar cheeses of seemingly infinite variety will remain unchronicled. Sorry. Here's what I can recall: There was the washed-rind Epoisses that Cyrus wisely puts under a glass cloche because although it is one of my favorite cheeses with its ripe fondue-like interior, it's smell in direct contra-distinction to its flavor is incredibly, unappealingly pungent to the uninitiated which is why I am not allowed to buy it and store it at home. So, of course, I chose that first. Then a creamy, delicious sheepsmilk blue whose provenance, unfortunately, escapes me. Then a beautiful American (can't remember the maker) aged chevre called Daphne that comes from a single goat named Daphne hence the name of the cheese. I also opted for a hard, nutty cheese that I can't recall. I can tell you that I ate it all with gusto. It was a mighty selection of cheeses worthy of this restaurant.

Desserts are simply and cheekily listed as a trio of tastings based on the following themes: Chocolate, Tropical, Maple. After the cheese cart, I could not contemplate dessert but one of our foursome intrepidly stepped in and ordered the chocolate tasting. As promised there were three distinct preparations: a souffle, a peppermint chocolate ganache bar and a dense, dark chocolate gateau with orange accents. Our friends seemed pleased.

Just when you thought it was time to leave the trough.... here come the mignardise, fresh espresso caramels wrapped in gold foil, dark chocolate filled with pumpkin pie creme, white chocolate filled with eggnog and more.

Then comes the origami-like golden box presented to each of us as a parting gift filled with a dense, fudgy brownie for future consumption. This is a welcome practice of all the temples of haute cuisine I have patronized as of late (Joel Robuchon in Vegas, Le Bernardin in NY, etc.). One thing that Cyrus does that none of the others do is present you with a personalized menu of what you were served to commemorate the evening. While I have been given copies of menus for special events, private dinners etc., I have never been the recipient of such memento for a "normal" dinner. A thoughtful touch and another nice parting gift.

We brought our own wine, a magnum of '85 Krug and a 750ml bottle of Marcassin Pinot Noir, so we never got a chance to sample the cocktails that makes their bar such a happening spot or the excellent wine service that I am told they offer. Corkage is $35 for 750ml bottle and $60 for a magnum. Wine pairings are offered with the cost of:
  • Three Course Pairing: $42
  • Four Course: $56
  • Five Course: $70
  • Seven Course: $89
  • The Grand Tasting Wine Seven Course Pairing: $185
The cost for dinner is:
  • 3 Course: $75
  • 4 Course: $87
  • 5 Course: $99
  • Additional Courses: $15 per course
  • The Chef's Tasting Menu 7 Courses: $120
There is also an extensive bar menu that echoes the choices for dining room menu with soups, pasta, fish, foie gras, lamb, beef, pheasant, veal, vegetarian dishes. The bar menu is a la carte with starters from $14-$24, entrees from $20-$65 (most in the $25 range), caviar service from $20 per 1/2 oz. & up, 3 cheese plate at $17, 6 cheese plate at $28 and dessert at $12.

Chef Douglas Keane is a brilliant talent who seems to flawlessly move between culinary vernaculars. He's young, 36 or so, and though it's hard to fathom because his palate & flavor profiles are already prodigious, one has to imagine he will only get better. The waitstaff is the best in the business with Nick Peyton firmly at the helm. These are people who enjoy their work and their attitude is infectious. The ambiance is all it should be. What are you waiting for??? Why are you reading this??? Make your reservations now at (click on)!!!

You'll be glad you did! Cyrus is a very special place.

Cyrus Restaurant
29 North Street
Healdsburg, Ca. 95448
(707) 433-3311

Dress Code is Business Casual (Leave the children, shorts, tees, Tommy Bahama shirts and flip flops at home, people. I don't care how much you think you spent on them. This is not Cabo Wabo in Baja. It is a proper grown-ups place to eat. Embrace the shoes, long-sleeved shirts and slacks. Be grateful no one is requiring a jacket & tie.)
Easy Street Parking with a Municipal Lot 1/2 block away on North Street

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