Saturday, February 11, 2006

Cyrus the Almost Great

29 North Street
Healdsburg, CA 95448
Chef Douglas Keane
Dinner nightly

Tried: February 2006

Housed in the Les Mars Hotel in Healdsburg (where the rooms run from $445 to $1025 per night), Cyrus is a temple of beige marble, silk upholstery, and ebony wood trimming. Billed as the next French Laundry or the Gary Danko of wine country, the expectations for this venture in Healdsburg are enough to topple the best of the best. While it is clear that Chef Douglas Keane is quite talented, the restaurant seems to be suffering an identity crisis in terms of how to deal with its patrons and where to go with the menu.

Cyrus clearly wants to be recognized as a degustation menu and wine pairing type of establishment, yet it is compelled to condescend to its customers to explain the concept of a tasting menu and even what an amuse bouche is. This conflict is apparent in the articulation of the menu and the schizophrenic formality of the service. When we arrived, Nick Peyton, owner and maitre d'hotel, picked up a white phone on a table in front of the dining room and announced, "Chef, the [Finicky] party has arrived. Please send over some hors d'oeuvres to welcome them." Had the food and service lived up to such pomposity, I would have laughed it off. As the evening wore on, I found the inconsistency more grating.

Our server painstakingly explained the variations available on the menu, including what a three, four, five course menu involved and what a tasting menu was, yet forgot to tell us about the possibility of getting a taste of all three foie gras preparations (we overheard the next table of a group of older men in business suits being offered this option). The server also asked several times whether anyone at our table had any dietary restrictions, as though I had not already explained my preferences twice. I also absolutely detest when someone flaps open the napkin and places it into my lap. I am not ten years old.

The commanded hors d'oeuvres that started our meal-- mini foie gras fried wonton with sherry chutney and a spoonful of fresh crab salad with meyer lemon aioli-- were impressive enough to lull my mild irritation. The second amuse, however, a small forkful of lobster on top of shiso wakame salad and a pickled sea bean on top, was less successful. The lobster was tough, and the flavors of the shiso and marinated wakame were sour and not sufficiently controlled to blend the odd flavors and textures.

Then first course brought me back. Despite how hackneyed it has become, I actually like tuna tartare when executed well. For the level of restaurant that Cyrus is aspiring to be, my expectations were pretty high. Cyrus performed acceptably. Although the soy truffle vinaigrette was too salty, the relish of portobello mushrooms, watermelon, and radish mixed with the tartare was interesting. The pairing for this course was a safe one-- Tokubetsu Junmai sake, Ama No Toro "Heaven's Door."

Next with the arrival of a glass of 2001 Monbazillac, I eagerly awaited a foie gras preparation. The vanilla bean gastrique accompanying the seared foie gras was perfect, and the lentil ragout and asian pear coulis were likewise quite complementary. However, the inside of the foie gras was too runny and tasted slightly off. Fortunately the accompanying elements and flavors were pretty enough to cover up this imperfection. I washed it down with the Monbazillac and looked forward to the rest of the meal.

The third course was a tender and sweet piece of tilefish, with a satisfyingly crackly and salty skin lining the edge. The blood orange segments and citrus soy reduction sauce, however, were overpowering, despite the firmness of the fish. While the 2004 Wachau Gruner Veltliner that was paired with this dish was pleasantly floral with nice acidity and appealing fruitiness, the delicate elements of the wine were lost when tasted together with the fish. In contrast, the 2004 Pinot Noir, "Box Car" from Russian River Valley, although too sweet alone, paired very well with the next dish-- slices of Liberty Farms duck breast on a bed of risotto-like farro and truffled cippolini onion, topped with popcorn-like fried farro grains. I realized with this dish though that there is such a thing as too-rare duck. I left half the dish uneaten notwithstanding the lovely seasoning, spices, and accompanying elements.

My disappointment was ameliorated by the the perfection of the next dish, roasted venison loin with red wine braised brussel spouts, gnocchi, and black trumpet mushrooms. The venison had a nice sear on the outside, and the meat had the sweet tenderness of filet mignon with the gaminess controlled exactly right to impart flavor but with absolutely no offputting smell. The brussel sprouts, gnocchi, and mushroom accompaniments highlighted and complemented the flavors so nicely that I missed having a better wine pairing. An earthy Chateauneuf du Pape would have been perfect. The sweet, fruit-forward Australian Shiraz, a 2002 Forefathers McLaren Vale, that was paired with the dish, was a glimmer of the possibility of a better pairing with this well-executed dish.

Next came the cheese course, followed by dessert. The sorbet was bland and flavorless, except for the faint soapy aroma. In contrast, the caramel soup, poured on top of a large chocolate filigree covering the entire surface of the flat bowl, with kettle corn sorbet and kernels of popcorn on top, was almost worth the price of admission. It was unique and original in both presentation and taste, showing yet once again the unrealized potential of Cyrus.

Going back to the service, I tried not to be annoyed that the wine bottles were sometimes shown before pouring, sometimes after pouring, and sometimes not at all unless we asked. Consistency much? I also found it rather novice that some wines were repeated in the course of the tasting menu. When we were served the mignardises together with the arrival of dessert, I got the hint that we were being asked to leave so that the next party can be announced to the chef. We left without ordering coffee.

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