Trouble With Toast

Cyrus: A Sonoma Standout | June 28, 2007

When planning my weekend in San Francisco—my first time in the city—there were some things that were obvious. I wanted to get a burrito in the Mission District. I wanted to eat at my sister’s neighborhood sushi joint. I wanted to have pasta and chianti in North Beach. What wasn’t obvious, however, was that my finest dining experience in Northern California wouldn’t be in the City by the Bay. Rather, I traveled to Healdsburg with sis and Mr. Barzelay and enjoyed dinner at Cyrus.

Located in a quaint little town square, Cyrus almost seems out of place. It is opulently decorated, almost to the point of unnecessary pretension. The air of affectation continues when, shortly after napkins are placed on laps, a tuxedoed gentleman visits the table with a cart full of caviar and champagne options. It’s enough to make a usually bargain-oriented diner downright nervous.

Luckily, the haughtiness pretty much ended there. Our server was warm and friendly, and she explained how things worked: we could order the Chef’s seven-course tasting menu for $110, or we could custom-build a three course ($68), four course ($80), or five course ($92) meal. There was plenty that intrigued me about the regular menu, and I had recently treated myself to two phenomenal tasting menus, so I opted to create a unique five-course experience. Jeanette and David did the same (and I hope they will share their experiences, as I can only really remember my own).

A few canapés came out first, and they were delicious and delicate. One was a bit of asparagus puree on a small spoon, another was a homemade falafel, and another was some sort of fritter with a wonderful saffron flavor. Next, an amuse bouche of smoked salmon (sadly, I don’t remember the exact presentation). The flavors were very clean, and it was a treat to have another unexpected bite.

Just when we thought our first courses were arriving, we were presented with another amuse (at least, that’s how the servers described it). It was less like an amuse, though, and more like an appetizer—in fact, the “Roasted Asparagus with Fennel and Licorice Coulis” was on the dinner menu in the section marked “Vegetables.” No matter—it was fantastic. The asparagus was perfectly cooked, and the fennel was pickled beneath it and added a great tang. I don’t like licorice at all, but the coulis was a perfect match.

Course number one was “Black Cod with Uni, Zucchini and Green Papaya, Ginger Basil Broth.” Uni is sea urchin “roe,” and it is definitely an acquired taste—it has a very strong flavor, and the texture is akin to runny custard. On top of the sweet, firm cod, it was phenomenal. And even though I didn’t want to stuff myself with bread, I had to break off some crusty goodness and dip it in the wonderful ginger basil broth. Yum.

Next came “Truffled Red Wine Risotto, Parmesan Broth.” I am a risotto fanatic, and I make it at home quite frequently, so I relish any opportunity to taste how the chefs interpret the dish. The Parmesan broth was actually more like a foam, and there was a bit too much of it on the plate. The flavor of the dish was exquisite—very earthy and rich. However, the texture was disappointing; I like my risotto to be creamy, with just a little bite to the Arborio rice, but this version was far too al dente. It almost felt crunchy in my mouth, which I did not enjoy. I was very torn about this particular course, though my companions seemed to love it.

Course number three was “Hoisin Squab with Black Bean Rice Cake and Candied Kumquats.” This dish was absolutely delicious—the bird was perfectly cooked, and the skin was almost caramelized in the hoisin sauce. I enjoyed eating it by itself, but the squab was enhanced even further with a bit of candied kumquat on the fork. The black bean cake was just a touch overdone, but it added a great crunch. If all poultry could be prepared like this, I’d eat it a lot more often.

My final savory course was “Bacon Wrapped Pork Loin with Green Garlic Potato Puree and Chard.” Sadly, the best was not saved for last—this course was pretty disappointing. Part of why I ordered it was to see if (and how) the chef could make pork loin—a fairly lean, bland cut—unique and mouth-watering. The bacon in which the pork loin was wrapped was delicious, and the loin itself was cooked perfectly (which, for me, means slightly underdone), but the dish, as a whole, was lackluster.

Dessert for me was “Three Custards: Mousse of Crème Brulee, Blackberry Almond Pot de Crème, Tarragon Cheesecake.” The crème brulee mousse was out of this world—sweet and creamy, but with a very uncharacteristic lightness that I thoroughly enjoyed. The top layer of sugar wasn’t torched like in traditional crème brulee, but its crunchiness was a welcome finish. The blackberry pot de crème was my least favorite of the three (it was more liquidy than I would have liked), though its color was lovely. The cheesecake by itself was just the slightest bit dry, but it was remedied by dipping it in the accompanying tarragon sauce (which was quite good).

All in all, Cyrus was a lovely experience. Not everything scored a perfect ten, but the full-fledged disappointments were fairly few. I love the flexibility that the menu offers, and I appreciate the nod to individual taste with the ability to dress a meal up or keep it more casual. I’m not sure that a meal at Cyrus on its own merits the drive from San Francisco (like, say, The French Laundry does), but if you’re in the Sonoma area and want to experience fine dining, I would recommend making reservations.

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