Cyrus - Healdsburg, CA

Dinner - Monday, April 18, 2011

Cyrus seems to fly under the radar. Sure, it has a perennial 4-star review from Michael Bauer and it's one of only three 2-star Michelin restaurants in the Bay Area, but it generates very little buzz in the online world these days. We had been interested in visiting Cyrus since it first opened, but it's location in faraway Healdsburg and the wealth of other Bay Area dining options have constantly conspired against us actually making it there.

We had made reservations to try Chris Kostow's tasting menu at Meadowood, but changed our minds at the eleventh hour. Given that we would be visiting Napa again in July, we put off Meadowood until then, finally deciding to pay our dues and visit the old guard (Cyrus is a matronly 6 years old this year). I hastily contacted Douglas Keane to arrange an extended tasting, giving him carte blanche with the menu composition, and he promised to whip up an appropriate progression. The timing of our meal was especially opportune, as I was very curious about what he had learnt from his recent culinary fellowship in Japan. What followed was a veritable whirlwind of food and alcohol.

Upon arriving at the restaurant, we were greeted by maitre d' Nick Peyton and escorted to our table. Champagne and caviar were proffered but we declined, having just come from Schramsberg (which, by the way, makes superb American sparkling wine using the traditional methode champenoise). While we looked over their cocktail list, the canapes arrivéd.

Canapés - Five tastes
Starting at the top, the canapés presented were blood orange tart (sour), steamed manila clam with chorizo powder (salty), spherified prickly pear juice with vanilla salt (sweet), radish with leek ash and almond (bitter), and shiitake-yuzu broth (umami). A cute way to calibrate the senses before beginning the meal - I thought the sweet and umami bites were especially representative of their intended flavours.

Next, the bread basket made its way around. Cyrus bakes 4-5 breads in house for each service (not pictured), and they were decent, but I didn't find any of them particularly compelling except the brioche. At this point, we also settled on drink choices. One of the reasons Cyrus has been on our to-visit list is their strong cocktail program, originally developed by Scott Beattie. We ordered a number of cocktails throughout the night and enjoyed them all - very seasonal, with emphasis on using local spirits and products (where allowed - I'm glad to see that taste is not sacrificed for the sake of locavorism).

Amuse - Ike jime tai, pickled sea bean, cherry blossom
I've yet to directly compare two fish side-by-side to assess whether ike jime really improves quality (mainly because it would be logistically difficult to perform a truly controlled experiment). Regardless, the snapper was nice and firm, with a delicate flavour. Some pickled sea bean complemented the fish's subtle sweetness well, and I loved how the cherry blossom gelée imparted an ephemerally sweet floral touch.

Chilled cucumber-galangal water
Avocado, hearts of palm, Fresno chili
Really, really good. Presumably inspired by the chef's recent trip to Thailand, the soup had a nice citrusy note from the galangal. Lightly pickled hearts of palm and pickled chilis brought in the necessary acidity, while keeping the soup light and fresh. My only issue was with the rather large avocado sphere - it felt out of balance with the other ingredients.

Asparagus, ponzu, ito gaki
The single white asparagus spear sat atop a ponzu glaze, with green asparagus ties and soft shaved katsuo atop it. Delicious because of the quality of the ingredients, especially the ito gaki.

Chilled oxtail-umeshu consomme
Kindai tuna, myoga, battera kombu
A standout dish. Umeshu (梅酒) is plum liqueur - I didn't catch whether the one used here was purchased or made in-house, but the result was fantastic. The umami-rich oxtail stock blended perfectly with the sweet and sour notes from the umeshu to create a remarkably nuanced broth. The consomme accentuated the meatiness of the tuna, which was further highlighted by some slivers of myoga and a dab of freshly grated wasabi. I was surprised to find Cyrus using Kindai tuna, but I suppose everyone wants to emphasize sustainability these days - in any case, the fish was perfectly seared.

Artichokes 'a la barigoule'
Corona beans, arugula, green garlic
Foie gras torchon, brioche bread pudding
Quail egg, rye, foie gras-black truffle jus
The torchon was very well prepared, and I really enjoyed it with the heavy amount of caraway in the rye cracker. The quail egg, although visually appealing and delicious on its own, felt out of place with the other components (what is with this compulsion to put eggs on everything - is it starting to pervade fine dining establishments as well?)

Bay scallops, poke, turnip, passionfruit
Tasmanian ocean trout
Hickory-smoked soba, mitsuba, oolong broth
Probably my favourite protein dish of the night. The luscious fish was cooked sous-vide and wrapped in the soba, which added a perfect amount of smokiness. Some buckwheat kernels, nori strips and mitsuba kept each bite interesting by adding texture and different accompanying flavours to the mouthful of protein (it was quite a big piece of fish). A very perceptible amount of star anise in the mildly sweet oolong broth also contributed to enlivening the ocean trout.

Miso-poached chicken
Maitake, spring onion, radish
What I liked about this dish was that in some ways, the maitake was actually meatier than the chicken (even with the miso glaze, which was quite light-tasting) - a nice play in contrasts. The spring onion confit was salty and creamy, whereas the verdant puree of green onion tops was nicely pungent.

Before the final savory course, we were served a small guava sorbet "popsicle" (not pictured) as a palate cleanser. Very refreshing - it did it's job at resetting our tastebuds after the strong flavours from the trout and chicken dishes.

Wagyu strip loin, bone marrow flan
Lotus, shiitake, pear, ginger
The beef was excellent, if a bit overcomplicated. The real star of the show was the bone marrow custard - after mixing with the ginger that sat atop it, it yielded a few perfect bites of creamy, luscious goodness. The ginger was the ideal foil for the rich marrow, and the texture of the egg was like a cross between a soft scramble and chawan mushi.

Next, a cheese cart was rolled over to our table, from which we chose six varieties. I neglected to take a picture, but it was uniformly excellent - a cut above our most recent cheese cart at Providence. Everything was aged correctly and served at the right temperature. Our favourite was a (if memory serves me correctly) Portuguese Azeitão - soft, unctuous and nutty. The accompaniments matched up to the cheeses well (in particular, an earthy pear-tarragon butter).

"Milk and cookies"
Soft-baked chocolate chip cookies, Valrhona syrup and homemade seltzer 
Vanilla bean fontainebleau
Strawberry, lime, yogurt
The airy fontainebleau sat in a light strawberry-papaya soup, which complemented the vanilla very nicely. I also liked how the acidity of the lime granita kept the dessert's sugar levels from becoming overwhelming. Lastly, a yogurt streusel further mitigated the sweetness of the fontainebleau while providing interesting textures.

Before the final desserts, we were brought to the kitchen to meet with Douglas and his team. According to him, the kitchen had a lot of fun preparing the menu. After some small talk (during which he expressed dismay at still not having made it out to Ubuntu), we returned to our table, thankful for the small opportunity to stand and stretch our legs.

Butterscotch sundae
Vanilla, rum, chocolate soil, popcorn tuile 
Peanut butter gianduja bar
Honeycomb yogurt parfait
I was a bit let down by these desserts - I suppose I expected something more from the winner of last year's James Beard Outstanding Pastry Chef award. They weren't poor by any stretch (in fact, everything was technically perfect), but they felt a little dated and didn't connect with me on any level. Overall, just rather mundane.

At the end of the official menu, a large mignardises cart appeared. We were as stuffed as Thanksgiving turkeys, but somehow managed to make room for two choices that turned out to be superb - (1) a decadent jarred chocolate panna cotta, and (2) some amazing sudachi macarons. Nicole Plue really redeemed herself with these macarons - they were the best I've had outside Paris. Our server packaged more macarons and a selection of other sweets for us to take home. Finally, the check was delivered... together with a serving of fresh house-made doughnuts, still dripping with molten glaze. They were light and airy, and only mildly sweet - a delightful, if messy, end to the evening.

Service was uniformly outstanding throughout the evening. I can't say if this was because we had pre-arranged a special tasting, but everyone was extremely friendly and knowledgeable about the courses (only one of the servers seemed on the raw side). Importantly, Nick Peyton seems to have done a good job at training them to be unobtrusive, and they materialized only when needed - kudos to him for that.

Gift - Chocolate brownie
The staff assembled a to-go bag that was chock full of gifts - looking into the bag the next morning, it felt like we had visited a candy shop. With too many treats to name, I'll highlight the delectable chocolate brownies (above). They were perfect - moist, rich chocolate flavour with a great crumb. There were also some great strawberry-champagne lollipops that we enjoyed for days after.

Since this was our first visit (in fact, this was our first time tasting Douglas Keane's food), I'm not in a position to comment on how Cyrus has evolved over the years. Based on this visit, I was more than pleased - while I didn't encounter anything that changed my perceptions (as the very best meals do), the restaurant operates at a very high level. Our dinner actually felt like a little time warp - American fine dining before molecular gastronomy, or uber-regional cuisine, or cooking with primitive techniques, etc. For that, it was almost refreshing in its classicism.

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