Published June 7, 2017
★ ★ ★
When Charlie Palmer, the well-known chef from Aureole in New York, opened a signature restaurant and hotel in Healdsburg in 2001, the place was just a sleepy Sonoma town.
Dry Creek Kitchen garnered national attention for its chic urban style with the kitchen sequestered behind fogged glass, its ceilings mimicking a wine cave and doors that opened onto a patio overlooking Healdsburg Square. Palmer instituted an all-Sonoma wine list, which further branded the restaurant. He even moved his family to the town, which further spoke of his commitment.
Since then, Healdsburg has become a culinary destination, and the importance of Dry Creek Kitchen in that story can’t be understated.
In the past dozen years or so, chefs have come and gone and Palmer has become a CEO with more than a dozen restaurants, three hotels and six cookbooks. The place lost some of its original luster; over the years, I’ve rated it anywhere from 2 stars up to 3.5.
The restaurant has now found stability with chef Scottie Romano, who came to the restaurant about a year ago and has been able to meld his own sensibilities with those of Palmer.
Romano started his career in 1996 with Palmer and since then has worked at Palmer restaurants in New York, Dallas, Los Angeles, Reno and Las Vegas. He left the fold for several years to work for Wolfgang Puck. Dry Creek Kitchen is his homecoming.
During service, Romano moves from table to table to say hello, adding a warm, personal touch to the recently refurbished dining room. He gets visibly excited when he talks about finding mulberries in the market that day. That particular find led to a nightly special: Cornish game hen ($26), which was mostly boned, and presented in a cherry Zinfandel sauce with fiddlehead ferns, morel mushrooms and a sprinkling of fresh berries, creating a dish that clearly spoke to the season.
Romano also offers a “variation” of a single ingredient that changes with the season. Recently it was asparagus ($13) — both whole and shaved — set on a puree of white asparagus with basil essence, sherry thyme reduction, artichokes and apricots. The combination worked to build anticipation for the main courses.
Rabbit is nearly always on the appetizer menu, and now Romano pairs it with pappardelle ($18) bathed in shallot cream with fava beans, fava shoots and finely diced guanciale.
A variation of tuna tartare ($17) appears on all Palmer menus. Romano brought back a version he did early in his career: Jewel-like cubes of fish are pressed into a mold with a layer of avocado and soy lime vinaigrette, then unmolded for presentation.
Romano’s classic training is on full display with pork tenderloin ($36) tightly wrapped in bacon and cut in two. The medallions are set on a rich demi-glace with fronds and bulbs of fennel and puddles of potato puree that soak up the silken sauce.
The chocolate peanut-butter bar ($11) has been on the Dry Creek Kitchen menu for as long as I can remember and has migrated to other Palmer restaurants. Even on visits when I wasn’t impressed with the savory courses, I could always count on that dessert.
This time we tried something different and were impressed with Textures of Lemon ($11). This dish featured a square of semifreddo surrounded by dollops of lemon curd, dots of lemon syrup, candy-like sheets of lemon and dehydrated slices. Dried lemon meringue was then shaved over the top, creating an intense, complex ending.
Strawberry shortcake was ($11) punctuated with both roasted and fresh strawberries, vanilla Bavarian cream and burnt-honey ice cream.
Service, which at one time was shaky, has become smooth and effortless. I recognized faces I saw five years ago. With the staffing issues facing restaurants today, it says a lot about an environment when people stay rather than move on.
The handsome decor still resonates and is cleverly designed for all seasons; it projects a cozy countenance with its arched plaster ceilings in the winter, and at this time of year the doors are open to let in the outdoor life.
So after 16 years, Dry Creek Kitchen has regained a solid formula for success with Palmer at the helm and Romano in the kitchen.
★ ★ ★