Appetite: Wine Country’s new hot spots

Pub date August 30, 2010
SectionFood & Drink

SPOONBAR, Healdsburg – I could write a piece on the cocktails alone at brand new Spoonbar in the h2hotel off of Healdsburg’s town square. You’ve already heard me mention Scott Beattie over the years, who is truly one of our country’s great bartenders. His cocktail menu at Spoonbar is a revelation.

Yes, you’ll get waylaid by the initial cocktail list, but don’t let that stop you from asking for the additional one. It’s a glory of new creations, featuring edible flowers and the herbal, produce-driven beauties Beattie has perfected since his Cyrus days. But there’s the added bonus of classics done with a Beattie sensibility. I get giddy at the site of three versions each of Old-Fashioneds, Negronis, Manhattans, and Sazeracs, the holy foursome of cocktails. I sampled five, each exquisite. It feels right seeing Beattie behind the bar again.

I chose the Tempus Fugit Negroni ($8.50). How could I not? Made with Ransom‘s impeccable Old Tom Gin, Dolin Rouge Vermouth, orange zest and Tempus Fugit’s brilliant Gran Classico Bitter, it’s a musky, full revelation. As I mentioned in my last Appetite, I’m beginning to see a whole new possibility when it comes to Negronis, thanks to Gran Classico and bartenders willing to experiment with it.

On the classics front, Beattie’s Dark ‘n Stormy trumps all others. There’s a lovely Appleton Reserve version for $7.50 (or pitcher for five at $37.50). I’ll put my money on the version with Ron Zacapa Solera 23 (a rum I’ve long been a fan of already) for $9/$45. With fresh lime juice and Angostura bitters, Beattie adds drops of essential oil of ginger for a more pure, round taste. Locally grown sunflower leaves are a vivid garnish.

Going the creative Beattie route is equally thrilling. John Chapman ($10.5) is a taste of fall. When you take St. George Whiskey and Pear Eau de Vie, then mix it with lemon, apple, ginger and a Thai coconut foam, you get magic. Ditto, on the other side of the spectrum, for the Summery taste of  Siddartha ($9.5). I normally wouldn’t choose a vodka drink, but this one utilizes Hangar One Buddha’s Hand Citron with Beefeater Gin, St. Germain Elderflower, lemon, Thai coconut milk and lemon verbena. It’s silky, seductively bright and garden fresh.

But the joys at Spoonbar are many as the food and wine list are likewise robust, the space open and airy (playful with hints of mid-century modern), the price point a nice mid-range. In early opening weeks, this has automatically become my # 1 Healdsburg spot for drink or food (since I can only afford Cyrus for a special occasion), and one of my tops in all of Wine Country.

Where to start? There’s wines on tap, a trend I am happy to see growing from an environmental and casual accessibility standpoint. Let wine director Ross Hallett, choose and you’ll likely get a nice range of local and international wines. With dinner, he paired a dry 2000 Villa Claudia Gattinara and a full  ‘05 Savuto Odoardi that yielded spice notes when paired with the Spoonbar Burger. For dessert, he poured thoughtful choices like Rare Wine Co.’s New York Malmsey Special Reserve Madeira, rich with earthy, coffee notes, and Ratafia de Bourgogne, a sweet but balanced liqueur.

The food? With Moroccan and Mediterranean influences, Chef Rudy Mihal’s menu shines as fine bar food with cocktails or as multi-course dinner. Appetizers offer all kinds of goodness, like addictive little Fried Smelt Fish ($8) dipped in a caper aioli. Or how about skewers of plump, grilled Calamari ($12) in a preserved lemon vinaigrette? You’ll find me equally hyped over imported Burrata ($13), creamy heaven in a pool of fine olive oil with meltingly soft brioche and a finely diced beet tartare.

On the entree front, the lamb/beef mix is right in the Spoonbar Burger ($15), albeit small, on a house-sesame bun with a mini-bucket of fries. Kudos for a restrained but permeating burger topping of sweet tomato confit, cucumber chutney and spiced yogurt.

Though I am easily bored with chicken, their signature Moorish-style Brick Chicken ($24) is rife with flavor from herbs and spices, tender over grilled lemon couscous. Definitely a highlight.

Restaurant Manager, Darren Abel, runs a relaxed, festive restaurant that truly is the whole package. I’ll be plotting my next chance to get to Spoonbar when up that way – at the very least for cocktails and apps. If only this place was in the city…

MORIMOTO NAPA, Napa – Despite the celebrity chef status of the one and only Masaharu Morimoto (yes, I love the original Iron Chef), and the high price tag, the brand new Morimoto Napa restaurant is an experience and a welcome addition to Wine Country.

The space is huge, with a sea of greys enlivened by bright, yellow chairs. There’s patio waterfront seating and an ultra-cool touch of grape vines dramatically running the wall over the bar and in the lobby, as if to say, “Morimoto is now in Wine Country.”

As for the food, it adds up fast, but thankfully there’s beyond-the-norm presentations lending excitement to the expensive meal. Like me, you may have eaten a thousand tartares, but you haven’t had one quite like this: Toro Tartare ($25) comes on a little wood tray you scrape with a mini paddle, then dip in nori paste, wasabi, sour cream, chives, or a house dashi soy, smoky with a hint of bonito. Finish with a bright palate cleanser of Japanese plum.

Green Fig Tempura ($16) is a playful change of pace on the tempura front, but the real clincher is a creamy peanut butter foie gras sauce underneath, dotted with pomegranate reduction. Again, as a big beef tartare fan, I’ve had many a version. This one stands out. Beef Tartare ($18) Morimoto-style comes with asparagus flan hiding an egg in the center. As you slice through it, it oozes over the beef, asparagus slivers, lotus chips and teriyaki sauce. Morimoto Bone Marrow ($16) is an intriguing version: one giant bone loaded with gloppy, warm marrow, perked up with caramelized onions, teriyaki and spices on top.

Entrees continued in this creative vein, though Whole Roasted Lobster “Espice” ($35) had its flaws. It’s a generous portion but the lobster meat is lost in too much garam masala spice, coriander, peppercorn, and cayenne, even though that was what sold me on the dish initially. It was over-spiced but the saving grace was a divine, whipped lemon creme fraiche, contrasting the blackened spice aspect with airy tart.

Duck Duck Goose ($36) was my preferred entree – essentially duck in four parts, from a bowl of duck confit fried rice with frozen foie gras shavings topped with duck egg, to duck soup, duck confit leg, and slices of duck meat with gooseberries. Tofu Cheesecake ($12) in coffee maple syrup with maple ice cream is a signature dish for Morimoto, but though I liked the light texture of the tofu cheesecake, it was overwhelmed by thick maple syrup. A Raspberry Wasabi Sorbet was a better finish for me, hitting strong on both key ingredients.

Morimoto sat at the table next to us with friends, surveying the expansion of his growing restaurant empire. The GM stopped by our table to see how things were going and mentioned that Morimoto loved it so much here he was staying for a couple months. Even when the novelty of his first West Coast venture wears off (he’s opening in LA next –, my initial visit, merely a week after opening, suggests that this restaurant will long remain one of downtown Napa’s destinations.