What began in northern California when Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in 1971 has evolved into the easy sophistication of Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen (317 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg, 707-431-0330, drycreekkitchen.com). Chez Panisse launched so-called California cuisine, the forerunner of the farm-to-table dining revolution. A generation younger than Waters, New York-born and trained Palmer became the leading apostle of progressive American cooking by the late 1980s. In 2003, he opened Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg to celebrate Sonoma’s bounty and wine country lifestyle.
It’s a pretty place. Located in the Hotel Healdsburg (another Palmer Group property), Dry Creek Kitchen has garden terrace dining when the weather cooperates and a striking dining room when it doesn’t. Some of the tables sit by the semi-open kitchen, where diners can peek through vertical white blinds to catch glimpses of the cooks at work. (That’s a table by the kitchen window above.) Executive chef Scott Romano, a veteran of other Palmer restaurants as well as Wolfgang Puck’s Spago, oversees the menu. Predictably, most of the fruits and vegetables grow locally, and the extensive wine list celebrates Sonoma County.
We enjoyed a four-course tasting menu with wine pairings. In each case, the dish and the glass spoke volumes about Sonoma argiculture.
Ken’s Asian Pear Salad
This beautiful little salad started off the meal with a pucker. The thinly sliced Asian pear had the sweetness and acid of fully ripe fruit. (We rarely taste them that good in the East.) Pickled table grapes provided a surprising twist to the salad with a nice nod to wine country. The fruit was tossed in a bee pollen vinaigrette, which combined with finely chopped walnuts to give a punchy counterpoint to ricotta crème fraîche beneath. The pairing was a 2016 Étude Pinot Gris from the Sonoma sector of Carneros. The vines are certified Alsatian clones and the winemaking style followed suit. The vineyards are cool and foggy, and the grapes were left on the vine to slowly mature. The resulting wine has both the fruit and the acids to hold up to a pickled fruit salad,
Butternut Squash Soup
To call this a soup course is almost misleading. We were served shallow bowls with perfectly seared bay scallops tossed with cilantro sprouts. The waiter then poured on the butternut squash bisque, which was infused with coconut and contained small crispy bits of fried ginger. It was a rich and spicy combination. The 2015 Gary Farrell Chardonnay from the Russian River Valley represents what we think are the strengths of Sonoma Chardonnay. Its generous fruit in the mouth is tempered with just a hint of French oak. On the palate, the zing of Meyer lemon and apricot balances with a pronounced minerality.
Charbroiled Lamb T-Bone Chops
It’s hard to improve on a thick, juicy lamb loin chop grilled over wood charcoal. A good piece of meat cooked perfectly needs little embellishment. But Dry Creek Kitchen figured out how to improve on perfection. As you can see at right, it’s served with crispy Jerusalem artichokes and some escarole on a puddle of Madeira-truffle sauce (sauce périgueux). The wine pairing was a glass of 2014 A. Rafanelli Merlot from the Dry Creek Valley. A rich and intense red, it seemed to embrace the lamb flavors with a ruby glow. A bit of black pepper in the wine brought out the truffle in the sauce. That’s making the most of both partners in the pairing.