(Santa Rosa, CA) After a nightmarish sojourn to San Francisco, including cancelled flights due to fuel leaks and delayed flights due to late-arriving flight attendants, we were almost glad to hop into our rented Prius and drive north across the Golden Gate Bridge to leave it all behind (at least temporarily). A quick brunch at the Lighthouse Cafe in Sausalito helped to wipe away the memory of too many hours spent in airports, but our first dinner at Willi's Wine Bar in Santa Rosa expunged the bad taste of travel entirely...
Santa Rosa seems to have a knack for hiding restaurants along roadsides, disguising them as dusty, slightly-ramshackle bars you wouldn't otherwise glace at twice as you drove by. Indeed, we nearly zoom by before turning in to the tight, packed parking lot and managing to snag the last legitimate spot. Score! Not that it stops other patrons; parking on the grass seems matter of course.
A nice young lady greets us and we ask for patio seating. Almost everyone else is indoors because seventy degree weather is just to chilly for those poor Californians. Despite that, a faint breeze does cause Juliet to ask for a heat lamp, which is promptly lit for our dining comfort. Settled in and feeling frisky, we start things off with a flight of sparkling wines: Roederer "L'Ermitage" Brut is firm, but a little too pedestrian for my tastes; the J "Brut Rose" is much more complex, eliciting more citrus and vanilla tones; and the Ruggeri Prosecco finishes off with a more subdued but crisp flavor.
At this stage, I am feeling pretty good and a bit overwhelmed by the massive menu offerings. We decide to journey wherever our taste buds lead us, savoring as many of the small plates as we can handle. We begin on the Mediterranean menu (not yet knowing that it's Mediterranean where we'll end, 5 days later), and order a Flatbread with smoked cheddar, spring onions, piquillo peppers, brocolli rabe and boccalone lardo. I'm not a huge fan of rabe but I figure with all the other savory toppings, it won't be too bad. What the heck is Boccalone Lardo, though? A quick check at Boccalone.com confirms my suspicion that it is meat; it is basically proscuitto seasoned with rosemary and juniper. When it arrives on a serving board, it is a beautiful riot of color and smell. One bite tells me we are in for a treat, as the smoked cheddar envelops the vegetables atop the not-too-crispy crust, and the Lardo plays nicely with the peppers.
Sticking with Mediterranean, I decide to indulge my vegetarian lifestyle (inside joke) and order the Tunisian Roasted Local Carrots with Pine Nuts, Olive and Mint. Again, the plate is a painter's palette that will soon be travelling MY palate! I dig in with my fork. The carrots are huge, cooked but still firm (the way I like them). My first bite is sweet and earthy, the balsamic reduction sauce tangy like foreign barbecue sauce, mingling with the spicy mint leaves. Pine nuts provide a textural contrast while assorted olives offer up a salty counterpoint. Definitely one of the best vegetarian dishes I've enjoyed outside the French Laundry.
The closer we get to the finish line, the more obvious it is that I'll not have room for dessert. Still, I am craving variety so I do the next best thing to dessert...cheese! I choose a selection of three cheeses and ask our server to pair them with reds. He brings another three heavy wine pours on a placemat handwritten with the pairings: Cave Aged Marlsa sheep's milk cheese (creamy with a salty exterior) from Carr Valley, WI goes with the very berry 2007 Yorba barbera "Shake Ridge Vynd" from Amador; Truffle Tremor goat cheese from Cypress Grove, CA (too much truffle for me) goes with the lush but pert 2008 Seguana "Sarmento Vnyd" from Saint Lucia Highlands; and Hoja Santa goat's milk cheese from Mozzerella Co, TX (firm and tasting of herbs) goes with the spicy and deep 2007 Marotti Campi lacrima di morro d'alba from Italy.
Somehow, after all that, I am able to muster a tiny bite of Juliet's filet mignon sliders (the creamed spinach is gross) and another miniscule spoonful of the fantastic mac-n-cheese. Then it's "forks down" and time to head back to the hotel, which is blissfully less than a mile down the road.
Without a doubt, Willi's Wine Bar is an amazing restaurant. Despite the rustic appearance and "crazy gold prospector" name, the food inside is world-class, prepared lovingly with attention to every detail. It is no surprise that we make it our final stop on the way out of Santa Rosa, experiencing a lunch that is nearly equal to our dinner (same friendly server as well). When we are next in that neck of the woods, we will definitely be going back and I already miss the fresh vegetables.
My first visit to Willi’s Wine Bar was in September of 2008. A vendor and I decided to give it a try despite the slightly corny-sounding name after a hard day setting up a demo kitchen. Exhausted and starved, we decided spur of the moment to pull into their parking lot. Luckily for us, Willi’s hit all the right spots and I was so looking forward to sharing this lovely Santa Rosa wine bar with my husband.
When we arrive, they offer to seat us outside, which is a partially screened in porch-like area. Just beyond is true patio seating, so we ask to be seated there instead. The hostess offers to fire up a heat lamp. We laugh and tell her we’re from Michigan. “Heat lamps? We don’t need no stinkin’ heat lamps!” (The joke’s on me; minutes later, I ask for the lamp to be turned on!)
We begin with a flight of sparkling wines, share a flatbread and then each choose our own small plate. I order the "foie gras poppers". I know it's controversial, but I've seen the Anthony Bourdain special on foie gras and the ducks weren't mistreated in the least. They don't funnel feed them in France. In fact, the ducks looked downright happy...and delicious. Plus a Napa chef friend, whose wife is the official vet for the Sonoma Artisan Foie Gras association, said the ducks live in the lap of luxury.
Three gorgeous hunks of foie gras arrive nestled on a puff pastry shell filled with Indian spiced grape chutney. The foie is buttery and earthy, almost dirty, while the chutney is spicy and sweet. The dish is fragrantly intoxicating and actually pairs well with each of the champagnes, especially the rose Brut by "J" vineyards. (I've only had super sweet wine with foie before tonight.)
I order two other small plates I don't want Jeremy to miss out on. First is the macaroni and cheese with caramelized onions and ham. The Gruyere is creamy and nutty, while the onions are incredibly sweet. The penne still has some tooth. I don't even notice the ham, but the crunchy topping is divine. I know I should expand my horizons a bit, but is there anything more soul-satisfying than a fabulous mac and cheese?
The second dish is the filet mignon sliders on toasted brioche mini-buns. (I should admit the word "mini-buns" is my own addition; it's not listed as such on the menu, but I kind of like using the word mini-buns when describing a completely indulgent, over the top meal. Mini-buns!) The filet arrives rare, sitting atop a bed of luxurious creamed spinach, topped with a grainy mustard Bearnaise, all lovingly sandwiched within...the mini-bun. I give one over to Jeremy and inhale mine in three bites.
Jeremy isn't too keen on the spinach and stops after one wimpy little nibble. I think the best thing one can do with spinach, besides make a salad or hide it in a fruit smoothie (stuff a cup of raw leaves in with everything else and set the blender on puree and you'll never know it's there) is to cook it beyond recognition with copious amounts of butter and cream. I wipe a smudge of Bearnaise off my chin and attack the remnants of his slider; his loss.
We are in wine country, so it's worth mentioning, I pair a glass of Schweiger Cabernet with the last two small plates. It's plummy with almost metallic overtones and cuts the richness of both dishes.
Of course, I realize later I never ordered a veggie for dinner. Somehow I don't think creamed spinach counts. I will make up for it with a lunch time visit later in the week (spinach, goat cheese, date and almond salad and crab avocado tacos!). Willi's is a gem. The service was great. Go hungry. Go thirsty. Go often.
P.S. Upon sitting at our outdoor table, I did discover two tiny dessicated bug carcasses on my small plate. From their post mortem "positioning", they had obviously died in a moment of torrid insect passion. I waited to ask the server to switch plates, but Jeremy grabbed it, flicked them off and said he'd use it. But he won't eat creamed spinach? (Don't let the bug story deter you from visiting. This could happen in your backyard after all.)