Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Cyrus impresses but fails to inspire

Much acclaimed 2-Michelin-star restaurant, Cyrus is Healdsburg's attempted answer to French Laundry in Yountville (3 Michelin stars) and Manresa in Los Gatos (2 Michelin stars). Almost 400 Yelp reviews with average of 4.5 rating, and plenty of exalted awards and articles found on the web sing praises to Cyrus. Open less than five years, Cyrus and Chef Douglass Keane (ex-Gary Danko and Jardiniere) have each amassed numerous accolades in addition to their 2 Michelin stars - four stars from Michael Bauer at the San Francisco Chronicle, Gourmet Magazines’ Top Fifty Restaurants, Esquire Magazine’s Chef of the Year, Food and Wine Magazines Best New Chef and most recently, James Beard Award Best Chef Pacific.

Rona and I went to Cyrus for her birthday. Impeccable service, super interesting and excellent wine pairings, wine-savvy staff, classy understated atmosphere, and impressive albeit somewhat overly Japanese-influenced food (if I wanted Japanese, I'd go for a Kaiseki restaurant like Keygetsu instead.)

Our official 5-course menu is below. It was a nice touch for the restaurant to hand us a personalized menu at the end of the meal.

Sweet corn and white truffle risotto was the most successful dish on the menu, with the runner-up - cognac glazed pork belly paired with a glass of excellent 2002 Lopez de Heredia "Viña Bosconia" Rioja Reserva red. I liked the elegant, creamy, and not too thick billi-bi (mussel) soup paired with Sherry (Equipo Navazos "La Bota de Manzanilla Pasada #10"), while Rona thought that the lobster bisque from Old Port Lobster Shack in Redwood City was infinitely better. (I disagree). The bright, floral, gingery and slightly white-peppery Gruner Veltliner Smaragd from Austria (2007, Nikolaihof Im Weingebirge) was delicious with the well-prepared seared medai (Japanese butterfish). The beautiful looking strip loin of beef was not very flavorful, and some of the dishes failed to walk the line between bland and exaggerated. The best thing about the dinner were the recommended wine pairings (for ~$100 additional fee). I am glad I did not bring my own bottle, as it would never have offered as much variety and excitement as the array of respectably mature Sherry, 2002 Chablis, 2007 Gruner Veltliner, 2002 Rioja, and a 1945 Rivesaltes (Roussillon).

I've only been there once, and may perhaps never be there again, so take my opinion with a grain of salt, although I appear to be not the only one. When I pay $400 for dinner for two, I look to be inspired. But there is a difference between impressive and inspiring. A well executed and duly complex dish can impress, but only extra-ordinary will inspire. Like the famous Arpege style farm egg at Manresa. I don't care how "creative" the dish is - to inspire, it must touch not just your stomach but your soul, and possess out-of-this-world indescribable flavor that strikes a balance between power and elegance (like Plumed Horse's truffle Camembert cheese fondue with duck fat fried fingerling potatoes). On that account, in my opinion, Cyrus aims high but ultimately misses the mark.

To be honest, I find myself more often inspired by simpler, homier efforts. Luckily, we see a trend of master chefs opening casual eateries with the same great quality as their flagship restaurants but with a different goal - to serve foods they want to eat themselves. These are comfort food classics often from their childhood, dishes that don't require scientific preparation or molecular gastronomy, but still feature the best seasonal, local produce they can find. Chefs' home cooking is what themselves and their loyal foodie fans reach for, exhausted by the stuffy air of their "high-end" restaurants that are certainly fabulous once in a while, but offer neither the value nor the joy of an expertly prepared fried chicken or braised beef short ribs with garlic mashed potatoes. Perhaps started by the iconic Thomas Keller of the French Laundry, when he dreamed up Ad Hoc in Yountville in 2006. Or by Craig Stoll, when he opened Pizzeria Delfina next to his famous Restaurant Delfina in San Francisco in 2006. Carried on by Bobby Stuckey (ex-French Laundry sommelier) of Boulder, Colorado, Frasca (one of the top Italian restaurants in the nation) opening a pizzeria and a cafe nearby, and Gary Danko's upcoming burger joint on Ghirardelli Square in the city, perhaps they are all just continuing what has always made good sense, but makes even better one during the current economic times when foodies still seek amazing food but without all the pomp and expense of the suit-and-tie establishments.

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