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Petite Syrah, Santa Rosa

It was a self-declared special occasion for me. I wanted to try something new. I wanted to eat in the company of the chef.

So I dined at the counter at Petite Syrah in Santa Rosa.

And I had the counter all to myself. (BTW, Not a chance in hell I was going to snap a photo in front of Chef Davies. I wanted to talk with him, not take pictures of his food.)

I needed a night to indulge, to concentrate on the food and relax in the moment. I hadn’t done much research on Petite Syrah, its reputation was enough for me. I didn’t even look at the menu before my drive over. I like being surprised sometimes and I also don’t want to build up too much of an expectation about the food or the chef.

I started with the fritters of salt cod with piquillo pepper aioli. Not too salty, not to mushy, golden brown fry job on each fritter, balanced. The texture of potato combined with salt cod was well integrated and seasoned, even with a hint of salt on the exterior. But what elevated the dish was the piquillo pepper. Pure flavor of the pepper comes through. No nonsense, nothing fancy, just a lovely puree. This sauce, the supporting cast on the plate, set the tone for the evening.

The grilled octopus was up next. While I shouldn’t take any dish for granted, I had a feeling that the octopus was going to be tender. What I didn’t expect was how much I was raving about the chickpeas and North African scented red sauce with my octopus. Not that the yogurt and cucumber didn’t play a roll, they did. The yogurt and cucumber cooled the dish down, cleansed the palate, allowing each taste of octopus to be your first. But it was the chickpea sauce that opened up the palate and complimented the grilled flavor of octopus. A simple lemon wedge would have been too pedestrian, too easy. To offer yet another aioli, like the first course of fritters, would have been repetitive. Instead, Chef created another dimension, another flavor, and yet another sauce.

Now, expectations started to grow. Two dishes, two well cooked mains, two well prepared sauces. I need to really test the mettle of the chef with my next course.

I asked Chef if the pasta was made in-house. He replied with a longer answer than I expected; and suffice it to say he still makes the pasta himself, not staff. With a great deal of honesty, Chef had mentioned that finding the right balance between smokiness, saltiness, and broth was a challenge for his ravioli dish. No one gives a long answer like that unless they're proud of what they've created. My expectations are going through the roof now. 

The pasta option was ravioli of speck and ricotta in a brodo with black garlic creamI found the ravioli to be the highlight of the night. A well thought out and balanced dish, the pasta was well made and the dish well executed. Again, it was the supporting cast of brodo and black garlic cream that elevated the dish. The ravioli is the main attraction, but without this supporting cast of well thought out accompaniments, it could have been just another ravioli dish with some boring butter sauce with sage.

This type of pasta dish challenges my palate and my skills. Could I make this dish? Should I have thought about this dish? Do other diners understand what was created here or do they just want the sage-butter sauce?

My college business writing instructor said to put bad news in the middle of a letter, so here’s the bad news. The only dish I wasn’t inspired by, the sweetbreads. Deep fried nuggets of sweetbread, rather than a single large piece, was disappointing. It was a salad with pomegranates, frisee, lentils, and squash. All the items were sized as tiny pieces and didn’t feel substantial or integrated. I was a bit surprised considering the simplicity and completeness of the other dishes. Enough said (I could have made the font even smaller, like some legal disclosure language).

My final course of foie gras, needed only a hint of salty and sweet to bring out the flavor packed organ. I’m going to have to indulge more often in this soon-to-be-banned delicacy or travel to another state to “smuggle” it in for chefs and friends. I can already see the price of foie going up because the State has decided what we should eat rather than us make a choice about eating it. Caged chickens? Penned cattle? Forced Milking of Cows? Factories of Pork? Oh, wait, we eat those on a daily basis. I’m sure that cow loves to eat that much every day crammed next to all their cow friends in a pen so we can eat crappy Select Beef at a Cheap Price. Right, this all makes sense now.

Back to the foie gras as prepared. I asked for the chef to omit the mint relish, I just didn’t see that working on the plate. The foie was lovely. The sauces were sweet, but not overly so to clash with the Tokaij that I ordered. I couldn’t have had a better dessert.

As I reflected on the evening, I almost took for granted the fritters would be perfectly fried, the octopus would be tender, the ravioli would be well made, and the foie wasn’t going to be over cooked. What I didn’t expect was how the details of saucing and garnishing were so well thought out. The focus on “the little things”, the details, are what made these dishes excellent.

Additionally, as in the pasta sauce, the chickpeas, the yogurt, all were broadening the palate.  Pushing diners to think and explore.

As it always comes back to pasta for me, the ravioli course exceeded all expectations. Considering the refinements and the use of a broth, I was reminded of Italy, not Sonoma County. This type of ravioli is what I experienced traveling around Italy eating at Michelin rated restaurants and cooking with chefs along the way. I expect this level of refinement at both Cotogna and Flour+Water in San Francisco (which is why I like to eat at both restaurants). I was delighted to experience it at Petite Syrah.

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