Thu 19 Mar 2009
As Elizabeth mentioned in her writeup of Dry Creek Kitchen, we took advantage of our recent trip to California Wine Country to enjoy some really wonderful meals. What she didn’t mention is that we happened to be out there over Valentine’s Day weekend – and any foodie worth their salt will advise you to steer clear of restaurants on that particular evening.
Thankfully, we timed our trip so that we arrived in San Francisco early on Friday morning, so we were able to make our big celebratory dinner reservation for that night. I did some looking around, eager to find the ‘best’ place to visit on our only night when we’d be dining out while in Healdsburg. Of course I knew that the French Laundry, in not-so-nearby Yountville, is praised the world over as one of the best restaurants in the universe, never mind the area. I even went so far as to read some of the French Laundry’s reviews on Yelp (hoping to get a more diverse range of opinions).
I’m glad I did. Every so often within the reviews, I would come across references to a place called “Cyrus” – usually in (gasp!) direct comparison to the French Laundry. Now I’ll admit it – I had never heard of Cyrus, but my interest was piqued. I did a quick search and learned that Cyrus is actually in downtown Healdsburg – just a few short blocks from our bed & breakfast. A little more searching turned up something else: Cyrus is the proud recipient of two Michelin stars.
We may not plan our destination dining around what the Michelin men have to say, but we really enjoyed ourselves at the Spotted Pig last year and that was our first introduction to a starred restaurant. So I called up and secured a 5:30 reservation for Friday night.
How they blew our minds after the jump.
At first I was worried that the reservation might be a bit on the early side, but then I learned an important bit of information: early this year, Cyrus changed their approach to dining. They did away with three-, four- and five-course dinner options to focus on what had always been the star of their show: a full-blown eight-course chef’s tasting menu. Even with our 5:30 reservation, we weren’t likely to get out of there before 9.
So we arrived a few minutes before 5:30 and were immediately shown to our seats. The dining room is definitely understated. Cream-colored walls and softly vaulted ceilings are set off by a few pastoral paintings, and blond wood dominates among the cabinets and other furnishings in the room.
As soon as we were seated, we received our menus and our first introduction to our server. He welcomed us by name (it’s that kind of place) and handed us our menus. There were three courses where we had a pair of selections to choose from. As we usually do in these situations, Elizabeth and I made opposite choices so we could enjoy everything possible.
The menu looked great – but there were more pressing matters at hand: the caviar and champagne cart had arrived. For a bit of culinary theater, this was all kinds of fun. A server wheels over a cart featuring – you guessed it – a selection of champagnes and sparkling wines and an assortment of caviar. The sparkling wines are kept chilled in a tub of water crusted over with ice at the top. The caviar are served by the ounce, and the cart actually features a scale and gold ingots weighing exactly one troy ounce against which your serving of caviar is weighed. Elizabeth opted for a glass of champagne, but we both decided to forego the caviar in light of all the goodness that lay ahead. Even so, we were thrilled to see a table near us order some caviar later in the evening, so that we could see the assay in action. Classic.
Even before your eight courses begin at Cyrus, Chef Douglas Keane wants to show you he means business. He sends out a tiered tray of canapes, featuring five very distinct items. Each one is designed to light up the receptors for one of the five flavors we taste: salty, sweet, bitter, sour and umami (savory). For sweet: a white square bite with heavy cardamom notes. For salty: a sweet potato crisp topped with a sprinkling of salt crystals. Bitter was represented with a crunch of burnt cranberry and rutabega. For sour: a minibar-esque ‘olive’ of Asian citrus spherified in alginate. The standout was the umami bite: a shiitake and carrot jelly that was everything savory should be. It was like a sound check for your tastebuds, testing each region of the tongue in turn.
From there, an amuse bouche, naturally: a Kona kampachi dressed with “Asian flavors.” And house-baked breads in more varieties than you can imagine (sourdough and olive are just the beginning), served with two kinds of butter: cow’s milk and goat’s milk, which carried a light but delightfully tangy aftertaste.
Only after all of this preparatory eating could we begin our first course. As is often the case with tasting menus, Cyrus changes its offerings from day to day to highlight ingredients that are particularly fresh or interesting, so our experience should only be taken as an example of the kinds of dishes you might enjoy. For us:
- A first course of Thai-marinated lobster on a bed of avocado and mango. Though the dish’s description didn’t mention it, there was a paste of fresh herbs (we tasted mint, cilantro and basil) that reinforced the Thai flavors of the dish. Believe it or not, we were already hooked after this dish – the texture of the lobster and the unexpected flavor of the dish sold us.
- For our second course, we had a choice. I opted for a seared foie gras served en flambee with pineapple and pain perdu (like French toast), while Elizabeth enjoyed gnocchi with brussels sprouts and parsley root. At the recommendation of the server, she added a supplemental shaving of fresh black truffles. I always hate to admit defeat, but she definitely out-ordered me on this course. The sweetness of the pineapple and the accompanying sauce overwhelmed my foie gras, and Elizabeth’s gnocchi were perfect. The addition of the truffle was well-advised, adding a welcome earthiness to the dish.
- We were back together for our third course – a black bass served with bacon-braised cabbage, Kurobota pork belly and a jamon iberico crisp. The dish was redolent with smokiness and big, salty flavors without sacrificing the texture of the smooth, buttery fish.
- Our fourth course returned to Asia for its influences. The duck breasts we enjoyed were served with bamboo rice and a ponzu sauce whose acid notes cut into the richness of the duck. The soy reduction that accompanied it brought out the umami notes of the soy in a thick if somewhat heavy dip.
- The fifth course would be best described as our entrees – though at this point we had certainly enjoyed plenty of dishes that could have been contenders for that title anywhere else. For me, a cut of Wagyu beef with burdock and lotus and a delicious consomme. For Elizabeth, a beautifully medium-rare lamb roulade paired with seasonal root vegetables. Elizabeth conceded this course to me, as we were both bowled over by the texture and taste of authentic Wagyu. How do we know it was authentic? We asked, and the ever-solicitous servers actually went into the kitchen and returned with the shipping label and certificate of origin that came with the beef when it was delivered.
- For a sixth course we were able to select a few artisanal cheeses served from a cheese cart by a well-versed fromager. Sadly, the five courses that had come before this (and the basic wine pairings we both chose to accompany our meals), had left us poorly equipped to appreciate some of the hard-to-find delicacies we nibbled at. We opted for a Rogue blue cheese, Cowgirl Creamery’s Red Hawk (one of our favorite stinky choices), a Portugese cheese so rich and creamy it was served on a spoon, a gruyere, and a goat’s milk cheese shot through with cow’s milk creme fraiche. Definitely decadent after so many wonderful courses.
- Into the home stretch, we cleansed our palates with a verjus sorbet served in a quince-riesling ‘soup.’ The most unexpected aspect of the dish was the crisped piccholine olives served alongside that added a sweet and briny crunch.
- Finally, dessert! For me, a five spice “layer cake” with passion fruit and a basil-coconut milk gelato. For Elizabeth, a trio of tastes that included tiramisu, caramelized fennel and an espresso gelatto. They were both delicious, but in the end we had to give the edge to Elizabeth’s dishes for their creativity.
But wait – there’s more! Even after you’ve finished dessert, the kitchen insists on filling up whatever miniscule room you might have left with a selection of cookies and candies from a tray of confections that would make Willy Wonka feel like a failure. Honey-tea lollipops. Peanut butter and jelly flavored chocolates. Dark chocolate studded with fleur de sel. Candied lemon peel dipped in chocolate. Truffles and shortbreads galore. Even little nougat candies wrapped in shiny blue paper. You can enjoy a few tableside and take a few more home, along with the restaurant’s compliments, a copy of your menu for the evening (phew!) and a boxed brownie to be enjoyed the next morning.
Throughout this feast, Cyrus’ attentive service is what really sets it apart (and likely earned it that second star from the tire guys). The staff moved like a well-oiled machine, and it seemed as though every server in the dining room visited our table at one point or another, whether delivering clean silverware, offering more of those delicious breads and rolls, or presenting our dishes (always in perfect sync). They pride themselves on reading the situation at each table and responding appropriately - slowing down service if a couple seems inclined to linger, answering every question asked with a level of detail that fully informs without becoming tedious.
At this point, there are two menus for each night – a regular tasting menu and a vegetarian tasting menu – and they each cost $130 per person. Additionally, there are two types of wine pairings available to accompany your meal – a basic pairing for $89 and a “grand tasting of fine and rare wines” for $185 (that’s on top of the meal cost). Sommelier Jim Rollston was always on hand to tell us about what we were drinking, and he’s also able to make recommendations for bottles from their enormous list if you prefer to forego the tastings altogether.
We walked (okay, staggered – we were full and more than a little tipsy) away unable to think of anything that had taken away from the enjoyment of the experience. Even in the light of morning, we found ourselves blown away by the level of service and the creativity of the food.
Planning a trip to Wine Country but not able to check out the French Laundry? Cyrus may be just what you’re looking for.