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“The Buckle of the Prune Belt” Gets Some New Polish

Healdsburg -- until the 70s known as “the Buckle of the Prune Belt” due to its abundant prune orchards -- has, in recent years, achieved a Hamptons-like polish. In the town’s central square, for example, vacationing pugs seem to outnumber locals. This Sonoma wine country town was already prepped for a $95 chef's tasting menu when Cyrus opened in March of 2005.

Healdsburg’s lavish newcomer was named after local pioneer Cyrus Anderson. To the land of rustic seasonal cooking, Cyrus brings saucy French technique and worldly ingredients. It is unquestionably one of the best, and most luxurious, restaurants in California.

The food of chef/co-owner Douglas Keane isn’t at all rustic, nor is it particularly rooted in the region or the season. Think caviar, truffles, foie gras, and yuzu. This might surprise you if you knew of Keane from Market, which serves comfort food in St. Helena. But Cyrus makes sense when you know that Keane has worked in some of the best kitchens in New York and San Francisco, including Lespinasse, Jardiničre and Gary Danko.

Maitre d’ and co-owner Nick Peyton (formerly manager and maitre d’ of Masa’s, Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton, and Gary Danko) runs the dining room with extraordinary elegance. At Cyrus, it’s not overbearing when a waiter tells you that he’ll inform the chef of your arrival, or when a different waiter serves each course. Those flourishes create the illusion that the entire staff is working just for you.

Cyrus occupies a portion of the first floor of the Les Mars Hotel, a pompous mock-French chateau, one block off the town square. The dining room is beautiful, although it has some off notes. The glossy vaulted ceilings and generously spaced tables are nice. The landscape photographs and gaudy flower arrangements are not.

Moments after you sit down, a caviar and champagne cart arrives. Avoid the Beluga ($250/oz) and Oscetra ($148/oz), which have been fished to near extinction, in favor of the more responsible yet still lovely California Select ($95/oz), or Paddlefish ($40/oz). Each of the champagnes is wonderful. Select according to your credit limit.

Ordering the chef’s seven-course tasting menu ($95) seemed the best route to maximal deliciousness, but opting for the five- ($80) or four-course ($69) tasting menu preserves your right to choose. Try the widely acclaimed Thai-marinated lobster with avocado, melon and hearts of palm. Tell me how it is, as it didn’t show up on my tasting menu.

The Bigeye tuna sashimi with lemon cucumber and lemon-verbena tomato water, as well as the rice-flake crusted Rouget with sweet corn and pickled ramps were astounding. The only slight disappointment was pork belly glazed in umé, the sweet-sour plum-like fruit; it had too much sour ferment for the end of the meal.

The seven-course wine pairing ($75) was spot on. Surprisingly, with the exception of one local pinot noir, all wines were from abroad. For non-drinkers, or those with a long drive, the bartender will create non-alcoholic pairings, such as lemongrass or kumquat dry sodas.

The cheese course is the best I’ve had. Do not miss it. Desserts are delicious and theatrical. A caramel soup with kettle corn sorbet and chocolate filigree was a mini circus of pleasure.

If Cyrus were in a converted winery at the end of a tree-lined lane, it would be one of my favorite restaurants anywhere. As it is, it's wonderful, but the setting lacks the magic of -- yes, I’ll make the comparison -- the French Laundry.

California French

Reservations Essential? Yes.