Is Cyrus the best restaurant in America? Is it better than The French Laundry? It's difficult to say. The French Laundry has a mystique that is hard to top (and a special place in our culinary psyche). At Cyrus, I was able to get a reservation merely by calling about 3 weeks in advance. I could even do it online. I did not have to wake up at exactly midnight, Pacific time, 60 days before my desired reservation date, and start dialing and re-dialing and praying. That raised the question: How good could it be if it had me as a customer? Fortunately, Cyrus is phenomenal without being exclusive.
TFL edges Cyrus on ambiance, but only slightly. I prefer TFL's garden location in Yountville over Cyrus's dining room off the lobby of the Les Mars Hotel in Healdsburg. The dining rooms themselves are luxuriant equals. The wait staffs are both attentive and omniscient, yet at ease and relaxed. Nothing stuffy about either place, except for maybe the baby artichokes.
And the big question: What about the food? I think the food is a tie. I think you could slide any dish from Douglas Keane's kitchen onto Thomas Keller's Tasting Menu and vice versa, and even the most discerning diner would be hard-pressed to notice a difference. Cyrus is that good. The philosophy and execution of both places are identical: Beautiful and fresh ingredients prepared perfectly and plated immaculately, with unusual flavor combinations that miraculously work every time.
I give Cyrus the edge over TFL in three categories:
(1) Price -- Cyrus is expensive, too be sure, especially if you go full monty and do the 7-course Tasting Menu with wine pairings (which we did). But we still got out of there for 2/3 the price of TFL's Tasting Menu with a couple of moderately-priced half-bottles and Champagne.
(2) Cocktails -- For the serious cocktail drinker, Scott Beattie's drinks at the Cyrus Bar are a revelation. It has more high-end spirits than a Beverly Hills cemetery. The Trauma Whisperer started with something called a "Frond Song" -- Sarticious Gin, fennel, anise, edible flowers, hyssop, and a couple of other things I failed to remember. It was served in a tall cocktail glass with a metal straw. It looked like an arrangement. It tasted delicious. A brown liquor drinker could be forgiven for flipping out of his bar stool upon first seeing the large glass vats of vanilla-bean infused Weller 12-year old Bourbon, which they use for their house Manhattans.
(3) Butter -- Cyrus gives you two pats of butter, one cow's milk and one goat's milk. The goat's milk butter was the best butter I've ever tasted. You could taste the grass that that goat ate, I tell you. Unparalleled.
Our vacation culminated with dinner at Cyrus and the experience was nothing short of extraordinary. We ate great for a week, but then we went to Cyrus and, like our encounter with TFL two years ago and Alinea last year, reveled in a whole different level of culinary skill and sophistication. Here is a summary of our meal:
* Caviar & Champagne (Not a la carte, but from the cart) -- As soon as we sat down, a waiter rolled the cart to our table. On one side of the cart, about 6 bottles of champagne necks stuck out from a dome of ice. It looked like a weapon. On the other side, a red scale and several tins of caviar. How can you pass up something like that? For geopolitical reasons, we went with the American Hackleback over the Iranian Osectra. The caviar was served with Anson Mills grit cakes (think mini McDonald's hash browns), creme fraiche, chives, and egg yolk. I was in patriotic revelry with every bite.
* Canapes - asparagus something on a spoon, miniature hush-puppies, one with Indian spices, the other Jamaican. Each tiny bite bursting with clean, distinct flavors.
* Amuse Bouche - big eye tuna in a tiny silver spoon with spices. Refreshing. Delicious.
* "Steak & Eggs" Wagyu steak and lobster tartare with horseradish creme fraiche and caviar -- The lobster tartare was plugged into the cavity of a veal marrow bone and topped with caviar, the marrow fried into mini disks, the Wagyu draped over a soft-boiled then fried quail egg. Phenomenal.
* Chorizo-crusted scallop, mirepoix and Manila clams -- in a shrimp broth you wanted to slurp with one of these metal straws.
* Rabbit loin with spring onions and matsutake mushrooms, stuffed baby artichoke, sherry jus. Beautiful. Perfect.
* Palate cleanser - cold mango-melon lollipop that melted on on your tongue.
* Foie gras with braised duck cannelloni and green garlic, Moscato sauce. The foie was astounding, though it lacked the "dinner theatre wow factor" of the foie on the main menu, which was placed before customers and flambeed "Bananas Foster" style, so it seared before their very eyes.
* Veal with morel mushrooms, white asparagus, & crispy sweetbreads. Lusty. Iconic.
* Artisanal and farmhouse cheeses ranging from the creamy to the armpit stinky, sliced, cut, and whizzed table-side.
* Palate cleanser - cherry-mint soda pop served in a shot glass with a metal straw
* Mochi rice cake with Yamamomo ice cream
* Caramel soup with kettle corn sorbet and chocolate filigree -- sorbet and pop corn in the bowl, chocolate spider web (the filigree) suspended over it and topped with a few kernels of pop corn like Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst in the trailer for "3". The server then pours hot caramel over it, which causes the filigree to melt. Hot, cold, sweet, salty.
* Mignardises -- Wherein the waiters mock your inability to eat any further by offering chocolates, Gewurztraminer jellies, banana something or other, caramels, and bon bons.