Delicious fun at Saint Rose
By JEFF COXFOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Published: Thursday, October 16, 2008 at 3:00 a.m. Last Modified: Thursday, October 16, 2008 at 10:11 a.m.
Saint Rose restaurant has gone from the claustrophobic confines of its tiny venue on Sebastopol Avenue in Santa Rosa to much more spacious quarters on Bodega Highway a few miles west of Sebastopol. The move seems to have given chef Mark Malicki a chance to spread his creative wings as well as improve his elbow room in the kitchen.
JEFF KAN LEE / The Press Democrat
The Smoked Trout Plate ($8 ***½) at Saint Rose was a delicious concatenation of surprising elements.
SAINT ROSE—Location: 9890 Bodega Highway, Sebastopol—When: Dinner Wednesday through Sunday from 5 to 9 p.m. Brunch Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Closed Monday and Tuesday —Reservations: 829-5898—Price range: Small plates range from $8 to $15—Web site: www.cafesaintrose.blogspot.com—Wine list: ***—Ambiance: **½—Service: ***—Food: ***—Overall: ***-------------------------**** ...... Extraordinary*** ....... Very good** ........ Good* ......... Not very good0 ......... Terrible
Cafe Saint Rose
Except for his stint at the Santa Rosa storefront, Malicki and his wife, Jenny, have been closely associated with Sebastopol for years. He first cooked at Jasper O’Farrell’s pub about 20 years ago. Then he opened Truffles not far down Main Street from the pub. After that, he worked for years as a private chef for the Sterling family, owners of Iron Horse Vineyards. At all these places, he was known for his careful, well-thought-out presentations. And now at the new Saint Rose, he really seems to be hitting his stride.
Take, for instance, his Pork and Crab with Green Curry ($10 ***). The pork is pulled apart into shreds and mixed into crabmeat. Spicy green curry flavors the mix, and the resulting patty is wrapped in banana leaves and grilled. The aroma of the patty as it emerges hot and steamy from its leafy wrap is reminiscent of Thai food. The unusual mash-up of crab and pork is an innovative take on surf and turf — and it’s delicious. Cooling, peeled cucumber slices are served alongside, dressed with cilantro and a simple citrus sauce.
Chef Malicki has decided to do small plates, at least for the time being (he’s known to change his mind easily). But unlike many small plate restaurants, where the portions are indeed tiny, these are not going to disappoint.
A case in point: the Mixed Grill of Lemongrass Chicken and Ribs ($13 ****). This dish alone could be plenty of food for a light dinner — and what a meal it is. The familiar flavors of chicken thighs and pork spare ribs are dialed up to heaven using glazes, sauces, spices, and long, slow cooking until the meat is tender perfection. It’s served in an earthenware dish along with a portion of cole slaw.
Earthenware was also the dish of choice for Pork and Beans Ha! ($8 ***½). The “Ha!” means, “What? You expect plain old pork and beans? Ha!” You won’t be laughing when you’re eating this, but you may be smiling. The pork is from a Berkshire hog, known for its fine flavor. The beans are white Italian beans. Vegetables from Bohemian Groove, a next-door truck farm and nursery, are found in the delicately flavored sauce. The crock is topped with grilled tomato slices. It’s served steaming hot and may be the perfect dish for a cold fall evening.
A Smoked Trout Plate ($8 ***½) was a delicious concatenation of surprising elements. A pate of smoked trout shared a round of toasted baguette with roasted, peeled strips of red Gypsy peppers, and all was topped with shiny little Spanish anchovies and a drizzle of olive oil. The two kinds of fish made a single exciting flavor when eaten together.
The front dining room (there’s a back room and patio seating outside) consists of a six-stool counter facing the pass-through into the kitchen, plus bare wood tables and an upright piano just waiting for someone to walk through the door and pound out a few bars of something as tasty as the food. The homey, west county ambiance is unpretentious and designed to make customers comfortable. The helpful wait staff supports that effort, too.
One of the pleasures of Saint Rose is the eclectic music that spills from the sound system. Malicki buys old vinyl at Aubergine, the vintage clothing and record store in Sebastopol, and you’re liable to hear just about anything while you dine. Tom Waits was rasping out a song on a recent night and you half expect him to walk through the door and start playing the piano, being as how he lives in those parts.
The wine list is as eclectic as the music, with some bottles from Sonoma County, of course, but also selections from Italy, France, Spain, Germany and Greece. There are plenty of affordable wines, like the 2006 Le Jaja de Jau Syrah for $23, but also some top-end beauties, like the 2004 Tardieu-Laurent Condrieu for $89, the 2005 Radio-Coteau “Cherry Camp” Syrah for $98, and the 2006 Domaine La Milliere Cheateauneuf-du-Pape for $68. If you bring a wine, corkage is $15.
You’ll notice odd little touches. Water for your table may come in a laboratory flask. Each dish is served with a different kind of china, but always appropriate for the food being served.
Grilled Skirt Steak ($15 ***) was a model of tenderness, not a quality often found in this cut of meat. A hefty chunk of it was peppered, grilled to medium rare, and then cut on the bias into six slices. Malicki encourages patrons to eat their vegetables by pairing the steak with yummy creamy leeks, baby lima beans and braised chard.
When you see flatbread on a menu, you think of pizza dough, or something like it. But the dough for Warm Fig, Chorizo and Crescenza Flatbread ($12 **½) is more like puff pastry, made by coating the surface of the raw dough with shortening and folding and rolling it several times so that when it cooks, it separates into flaky layers. Crescenza, made by Bellwether Farms, is a slightly tart but buttery soft-ripened cheese perfect for melting on flatbread. Chorizo sausage and sweet figs worked well with the cheese, but mint found its way onto the flatbread and hit a discordant note amid the flavor harmonies.
The dish called Mussels ala Plancha ($15 ***) sent me scurrying to my Spanish dictionary to discover that plancha means a plate. The mussels were not served on a plate, but came in a dish to hold the lovely broth they helped to create. Winter squash and small onions accompanied the mussels, which were from Fox Island in the Canadian Maritimes. But why mussels from across the continent when fresh, local mussels are available? And having taste-tested our local mussels against ones from the Maritimes, I can vouch for their superiority.
Jenny Malicki is making the desserts with the help of Anna Mancuso. Butterscotch Pot de Crème ($7 **½) brought back memories of a time when butterscotch pudding was a dinnertime staple. A Plum-Almond Upside Down Cake ($7 **½) was a moist white cake perfumed with almond essence and with plum slices baked on the bottom, then flipped. It came with a dollop of crème fraiche whipped cream. The best dessert of the night was the Crepe Cake ($7 ***), 10 crepes each separated by a layer of coffee-flavored whipped cream. It was like a sweet dream — insubstantial but lovely.
Saint Rose has special events — music, prix fixe dinner and a movie, plus other fun things. Check the Web site for details.
To sum up: Saint Rose is quirky, but in a good way. Unexpected pleasures and well-executed old favorites are on the menu of small plates.
Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review column for A&E. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.