Town and country

Pub date July 5, 2006

It is safe to say that when city people talk about going on a jaunt to the country, the country they are talking about going on a jaunt to qualifies as the country mostly by virtue of not being the city. Jaunters are not proposing to leave civilization; city people do not drive to Healdsburg on a tranquil Saturday afternoon in June, braving bridge traffic and 101 traffic, so that they can milk cows or pull weeds at a biodynamic winery. City people go, one suspects, largely in hopes of escaping the city’s fog and wind, of seeing the sun and being able to wear short-sleeve shirts without shivering or looking like foolish tourists.
If these simple graces are what you have in mind, then you will find Healdsburg an accommodating place in early summer. Later the weather will grow torrid, and even the lush, arboreal green of the quaint town square will not be enough to banish the faint fear of heatstroke. But the square will still cast its 19th-century spell, and if you are seated in Bistro Ralph, on the north edge of the square, you might find yourself looking out the plate-glass windows to the shady prospect and imagining that you are beside a cooling pond somewhere in Monet-land, at Giverny itself, perhaps.
Ralph Tingle opened Bistro Ralph in 1992, and I remember peering inside the restaurant on a mid-1990s jaunt with European friends and thinking, How chic, how citified! At that time, Healdsburg still seemed to me to be mostly a dusty, sleepy country town — a more relaxed version of day-trippy Sonoma — and Bistro Ralph an aberration arresting in its sleekness, not a harbinger. But … it turns out to have been a harbinger. Today the town square on a warm weekend afternoon is like Union Square, aswarm with expensively dressed pedestrians and honking, bumper-to-bumper traffic: late model cars furiously getting in one another’s way. The wealth of spanking-new or just-renovated buildings — there is one for Gallo, another for a restaurant called Zin — look as if they belonged on the set of a Spielberg movie.
In this transformed locale, Bistro Ralph is no longer quite so striking. You could walk right by it, in fact, if your thoughts were elsewhere (it’s narrow and midblock, unlike Gallo and Zin, a pair of cornerstones), and once inside, you might find yourself paying less attention to the restaurant’s kinship with Zuni and Mecca than to its resemblance to an old Roman storefront: narrow, deep, and cool under a high tin ceiling. Toward the rear of the dining room stands a longitudinal bar, while at the very rear is a semi-exhibition kitchen — not big, but then the restaurant itself is quite snug, not much larger than the original Delfina.
The wine list consists exclusively of bottlings from the Healdsburg vicinity, and this bias gives our first hint as to what Tingle’s food is going to be like. Although California wines have their virtues, they do tend to be fruity and a little boisterous — not the food-friendliest qualities, unless the food is equally assertive. And Bistro Ralph’s is. The only dish we could find on the shy side, in fact, was a Caesar salad ($8), which lacked anchovies, used a mild aged–jack cheese from Vella instead of the traditional parmesan, and was tossed with a dressing in want of more garlic. On the other hand, the spears of romaine were immaculate, and a pair of croutons smeared with a loud red rouille gave a nice murder-mystery twist.
But let us forgive and forget the salad. The rest of the dishes were notable for their muscularity, beginning with a heap of calamari ($11) dipped in a peppery batter before being flash-fried. The pepper was enough to carry the day, but just to make sure, the kitchen provided a pot of gingery sesame-soy sauce for dipping. A bowl of tortilla soup ($6), thick and glossy like velouté, was the most intensely flavored such soup I’ve ever tasted: a liqueur of roasted corn. There was visual and textural interest here too, from crispy strands of fried tortilla and drizzlings of cilantro oil, but, as with the calamari, the soup could easily have stood on its own.
Liver raises a flag for some of us — calves’ liver especially; chicken livers are manageable. Tingle’s version ($12) presents the latter sautéed in a rich yet nicely acidic bath of balsamic vinegar, caramelized onions, and pancetta, with a block of fried polenta to one side, a golden promontory over a moody brown sea. If you’re inclined toward the reddish orange end of the spectrum, you will like the lamb burger ($9.50), whose spicing appears to include (sweet) paprika. Of at least as much note, though, is the pile of sublimely crisp matchstick fries on the plate.
The dessert list is largely a choco-fest. An exception is the “best” crème brûlée ($7.50), whose custard is flecked with vanilla bean to reinforce the claim of superlativity. As for chocolate: It gets no more chocolatey than the marquise Taillevent ($7.50), two petite slabs — rectangles, not squares — of a substance our server described as “a cross between a mousse and fudge,” adrift in a puddle of crème anglaise. Like any great dessert, this one disappears quickly but leaves you with a memory, a pleasurable tingle. SFBG
Lunch, Mon.–Sat., 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.
Dinner, Mon.–Sat., 5:30–9 p.m.
109 Plaza, Healdsburg
(707) 433-1380
Full bar
Can get noisy
Wheelchair accessible