We are retired and travel around the San Francisco Bay Area where we live, staying several days in mid-week, hopping from restaurant to restaurant. We usually make 6-8 trips annually.
We just came back from a week-long swing thru Sonoma County/Mendocino. The best restaurant of the dozen we tried this time was Bravas Tapas Bar, in Healdsburg, CA. Part of the Stark management group, Bravas is the newest and has garnered a lot of positive word-of-mouth. Although we haven't cared for the previous ones we tried, we went anyway, and are glad we did! The food was overall excellent, with four tapas particularly worth noting.
I'm beginning to think it's Mark Stark's cooking that's the difference – isn't he known for starting the new restaurant off, then handing over the kitchen to another chef after a while? If so, maybe that explains why we've been disappointed in the other Stark restaurants we've tried, where he's long-gone? Maybe somebody here knows and can comment on this.
(Sorry I didn't take photos, I always neglect to do that)
Two of the best four tapas were cold:
1) Tuna belly salad. The tuna was small, thin slices of gently cooked tuna - cooked thru, not just seared - with shreds of peeled celery, fennel, red onion. The green olive slices added a nice piquancy. Black sturgeon roe was roughly smeared into a paste with squid ink to form a tasty dressing. It might have looked strange, everything mixed (by the diners) with that black dressing, but I found it refreshing, with that salty seafood flavor which added the same kind of umami depth which anchovies usually provide.
2) Beet salad. This almost didn't make it into our order choices, because the second ingredient listed on the menu was cinnamon. We're not cinnamon lovers. We like it, but we infinitely prefer true Ceylon cinnamon to hot Vietnamese cassia...and in either case we don't like a whole lot of it in anything.
Thankfully, we were brave and ordered it anyway. The red beets were in good-sized chunks. They were roasted to perfect sweetness, then lightly dusted with real cinnamon, giving it more a gentle aroma than a strong flavor. There were small pieces of toasted walnuts that played off the beets, and small shreds of rinsed sweet onions soaked in the beet juices until they were the same color as the beets. There was no bite to the onions, just a vegetable flavor that like the walnuts, riffed off the aromatic sweet beets in a phenomenal combination.
Over the beets were four small strips of Idiazábal cheese that were a great contrast to everything else. This is a hard cheese from unpasteurized sheep's milk, lightly smoked, with a good nutty flavor. It was wonderful with the beets.
We have eaten a lot of beet salads over the last five years, and it continually surprises us how inventive chefs have been in creating new combinations with this once-unloved root vegetable. Bravas' version is masterful: there is no other word for it.
The last two great tapas were served hot:
3) Skirt Steak with Red Onion Marmalade and Valdeón Cheese. The skirt steak was almost as brilliant a creation as the beets. The sliced beef was a true rare, with a great crust on it. The onion jam was sweet as it always is, but the sweetness was in stark contrast to the cheese sauce, which had the flavor of a great bleu with that same salty ripeness to it. Both of these flavors were almost shocking against the rich beefiness of the steak. All three foods had to be in the right amount to be in ideal balance against one another. These are strong flavors, so it could easily have ended up out of proportion, which would make the dish a jarring failure. That the kitchen pulled this off so well is a testament to its skill and precision.
4) Octopus with Fingerling potatoes, Smoked Paprika, and Olives. The octopus was unusual both visually and taste-wise. For one thing, it was a single tentacle - a THICK single tentacle. This was no bland little baby, but instead must have been a good-sized adult with foot-long arms. It was rubbed with olive oil and pimenton, grilled almost crispy, and served with a mix of different whole, unpitted olives.
This Octopus vulgaris had a strong, aggressive taste, with a tender but muscular texture. My DH took the first bite, and when I asked him how he liked it, he paused before saying, "I don't think anyone who doesn't love octopus would enjoy this." When I tried some, I had to agree. If you are so-so on octopus, or have never had it before, this is not the dish you should pick to introduce yourself to octopus at its best.
The waiter was anxious to know what we thought of it, and told us it was pressure-cooked to tenderize it, then grilled. We love octopus, pimenton, and olives, so we liked this dish a lot. But there is no compromising here on its flavor, texture, and appearance. This is a simple preparation for a sophisticated octopus-loving palate. If you don't fit that description, you will be so much happier with the fried anchovies or pickled mussels or scallops with Romesco sauce. Go for what you'll enjoy best, not what anyone thinks you should enjoy.
Waiter was very good. He warmed up a lot when he realized we knew and understood fine cooking.
FYI we skipped dessert, which is always minimal at Stark restaurants. Walked down the street to Flying Goat for one of their perfect cappuccinos.
Second-best restaurant went to Hole in the Wall/Sebastopol. Stunning lamb burger on equally good bread (from Franco American Bakery/SRosa, according to Adam, the chef/owner).
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