Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Review: Cyrus

Cyrus Restaurant in Healdsburg, California, has played a leading role in making Sonoma County in general and the Russian River Valley in particular the trendy pick in wine country since it opened in 2005. In 2006, it became one of four Bay Area restaurants to garner two Michelin stars in the guide’s first San Francisco rankings. It’s a restaurant with flair — from the Champagne and caviar cart to the formal service — and a compelling narrative. Chef Douglas Keane, a protégé of Gary Danko, was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2004 during the planning of Cyrus. The tumor turned out to be benign, and Keane has blazed the trail of success since.

Cyrus stands out in Sonoma County’s casual answer to the more showy grandeur of Napa Valley, because it is so formal. At the same time, it is just the sort of standard the area needed to be taken seriously at the highest levels — plus the magnificent wines of Sonoma deserve a restaurant that is a showcase.

In its earlier days, Cyrus suffered from occasional variability. But the past two years, it has been consistently excellent and quite worthy of its two stars. A recent visit confirmed Keane and his staff have settled in nicely, comfortable with the style and striding forward with marvelous creativity.

The meal began with a tower of canapés, each showcasing a different flavor: sour, sweet, salty, bitter, pungent, and that ill-defined but popular umami. It was an almost Alinea-like focus to begin the meal and quite interesting. The main event began with an amuse bouche of gorgeously fresh kona kampachi topped with a extra small fried shrimp that added texture.

Next, a Keane signature: Thai-marinated lobster with avocado, mango, and hearts of palm, topped with a Thai basil sauce that brings the entire refreshing dish together. It is so alive and delightful, complemented beautifully by a dry German Riesling from the Pfalz, Okonomierat Rebhold “vom Rotliegenden” 2005.

The lobster, perhaps the high of the meal, preceded a choice between torchon of foie gras or gnocchi with morels. The torchon, salt-cured and accompanied by tamarind and dates, got a terrific acidic bite from pickled onions and a reliable German wine, Selbach-Oster Riesling Spatlese Zeltinger Scholossberg from the excellent 2007 vintage. The gnocchi also shone, tasty pillows with bite, but the fresh morels stole the show.

Up next was a delightful scallop dish with a Spanish touch. Cooked skillfully and crusted on one side with chorizo, it was complemented beautifully by a mussel broth and fresh cockle. The downside was the wine pairing, a Manzanilla sherry from Hidalgo that did nothing for the food. What is with the trend toward pairing sherry at least once during a tasting menu? This could have been such an opportunity to complement the scallop and chorizo with the spice of Tempranillo or Garnacha. Or just stick with the classic scallop pairing, Albarino. Sherry overpowered the delicacy of the scallop and didn’t mesh with the chorizo.

Keane’s Asian influence came through in the fourth course. Crisp duck breast came atop a scallion rice cake with maitake mushroom and ponzu. The duck was delightful, but the rice cake was tough and chewy, like a Rice Krispie treat that has been left out on the counter overnight. The marvelous sauce and mushrooms cancelled it out, as did a terrific Camus-Bruchon Savigny-les-Beaune 2006.

Up next, a magnificent wagyu beef with burdock and shiso with a remarkable, richly flavored oxtail umeshu consommé. It is possible the wagyu was one of the most tender and delicious pieces of beef in human history, rivaling even the awe-inspiring product of Bryan Flannery. Almost as good, however, was the other fifth-course choice: lamb roulade with celery root, parsnip, and turnip. A slice of black truffle in the roulade cut the lamb flavor slightly, adding an earthy note that played well with the root vegetables.

The cheese plate is notable, although not as profound as Tru in Chicago, but it was complemented by a tremendous 2006 Vouvray from Champalou.. There is a variety of selection, including a sheep’s milk cheese that betrays no sweat-sock notes. To cleanse the richness of the meat dishes and cheese, Keane goes beyond the usual sorbet. Out comes a verjus sorbet, with a crisp, palate-sharpening blood orange and Riesling soup. It’s served with a piece of crystallized picholine olive brittle. This was supremely refreshing, clearing the way for dessert.

Dessert was a bit hit-or-miss. Each choice contained excellent elements, but each also included an unsuccessful flirtation with savory flavors. There was a remarkable, classic tiramisu with a spoonful of cappuccino foam and a surprisingly delicate espresso gelato. The dish suffered from out-of-place caramelized fennel sprinkled on it. Then there was a terrific five spice cake with a passion fruit macaroon, each of which stood out for its flavor and execution. But a Thai basil-coconut milk gelato was bizarre, sticking out as inappropriate on the plate. This was a fine example of the need for serious reflection before pastry chefs make forays into sweet-savory interplay. Such experimentation isn’t required. Sometimes a sweet dessert is enough, and the night’s efforts underscored that fewer elements would have been more. Fortunately, each dessert came with an interesting and tasty wine. The tiramisu showcased the viscous and surprisingly acidic Maury Roussillon Mas Amiel 1990, while the five-spice cake provided a nice foil to the tropical richness of another German 2007, the Weegmuller Scherebe Auslese Haardter Mandelring.

As a whole, however, the tasting menu at Cyrus is well worth the trip. It is thoughtfully constructed and well-executed. The service is smooth, with enough casual touches to remind you you’re in Sonoma. Additionally, it’s worth remembering what a young restaurant this is. Open for a little more than four years, it’s astonishing the level Keane and his staff operate at. This is a worthy dining experience and an attraction worth seeking out. Cyrus hasn’t even reached its adolescence, yet it already hits high notes worthy of some of the most prestigious restaurants in the country. With supreme focus and continued dedication, it’s plausible, if still a long shot, to see how Keane and company might give the French Laundry and its ilk a run for their money.

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