I startle at the sound of his voice. “Umm… no, first time. I’m in town for the weekend to celebrate my dad’s 70th birthday.” I respond before turning my eyes back to the magazine in front of me. Clearly, he won’t want to carry this conversation any further.
“Where are you from?” He asks, again startling me back to attention.
I study his face for signs of distress, signs that he doesn’t have time to hear my life story in less than two minutes. Instead, his eyes are sparkling with interest. He actually wants to know.
He is Jamil Peden, the Chef de Cuisine at Syrah Bistro in Santa Rosa, and I am the girl waiting at the bar for my family and my table to be ready. When I had secured the stool five minutes earlier, I had no intention of conversing with the three chefs manning the open kitchen – especially not Peden or Syrah’s owner, Chef Josh Silver, who has trained under Cindy Pawlcyn at Mustard's Grill in Napa. It’s the middle of service on a Friday night and the restaurant is bursting with locals – clearly not an appropriate time for chit-chatting.
But Jamil, Chef Silver and the third chef in their queue seem nonplussed by the activity circulating through the restaurant. The tables are full, the conversations are vivid and animated, the walls are screaming with life, yet the three men in charge are as relaxed as a pair of khaki’s. There’s no sweat on their brows, no anxiety in their voices, no sternness threatening to overwhelm their warm eyes.
The plates seem to come out effortlessly. Two orders of crab cakes, a duo of heirloom tomatoes executed as a soup and salad, a heaping plate with the special for the night – the cod... my eyes glaze over in delight. I’m in heaven. And I’d be perfectly content to perch there to taste-spot and chef-gawk all night.
For the first time ever, I’m disappointed when my dad comes over to tell me that our table is ready. I wave goodbye to my three new friends and join the rest of my family with reluctance in my step. It’s only when I look at the menu that I realize just how hungry I am.
I tear into the freshly baked fennel bread with the vigor of a ravenous lioness, eagerly smearing its squishy center with the soft butter and accompanying sea salt. My hand immediately disappears into the bread basket for another slice – this time of the foccacia bread. I’m insatiable at this late hour – especially after the copious wine appetizers we enjoyed at Provenance, Larkmead and Frank Family Wineries earlier in the day. The amuse bouche of cured fish over cucumber disappears into my mouth before I have time to register the flavors or the description from our waitress.
“What was that again?” I ask my brother for clarification. He shakes his head – it was lost on him as well.
Appetizers are a must – especially after seeing round after round of the restaurant’s meaty crab cakes with sugar snap pea and radish slaw with malt vinegar aioli ($14.75) emerging from the kitchen. My brother and I secure an order that we devilishly dig into immediately upon receipt. While the thin strands of shredded Dungeness crab are abundant and the filler is barely detectable, I long for a more substantial textural contrast to combat the mushiness of the cake. It’s been fried, but not to the point of exceptional crispiness. The refreshing slaw on the side some what alleviates my thirst for a crunchy element.
My dad’s starter – pork belly with a warm cranberry bean and corn vegetable salad – is easily the victor of the two plates. I love the pairing of the fatty strands of fork-friendly pork belly with the fresh vegetables and beans. I am happy to take one of the pieces from my dad’s plate in exchange for a bite of my crab cake.
For my entrée, I zero in on one of the heartier items on the menu – the Pan-roasted Liberty Farm’s duck breast with spaetzle, collard greens and ham hock, and apple-cider jus ($28.75). I’m surprised when it comes to the table cooked medium-rare (I had requested it prepared medium), and turn a vicious shade of red when I decide to send it back to my three friends for a little extra time in the pan. While it is busy achieving pink perfection in the kitchen, I turn my attentions to my mom’s entrée – the cod with mascarpone polenta, zucchini, corn, tomatoes, shiitake mushrooms, and pesto. I am thrilled that she was served such a large portion (her appetite is much smaller than mine) and easily commander a third of her plate before my duck breast returns a few minutes later.
This time the duck is cooked perfectly for my tastes. I savor every meaty bite, and revel in the skin that has been rendered down into a crispy delicacy. The sides, however, are a bit of a disappointment in comparison. The assertively vinegary collard greens with ham hock seem to be an afterthought – I’m perplexed by their presence on the plate at all – especially since they have been served in a separate bowl. The spaetzle is fine, but not particularly noteworthy in terms of flavor. I find myself focusing all my attention on the duck instead. It blows all of the other elements on the plate away, and after inhaling so much of my mom’s big bowl of comfort, I’m too full to finish everything in the dish.
I do, however, find room to steal a bite of my dad’s braised lamb shank with chickpeas, tomatoes and a gremolata salad. It’s a nice dish – warm and cuddly with the accompanying broth made from lamb stock, but I still prefer the cod, which to me seems more cohesive in terms of flavors and textures.
We pass on dessert, but I don’t pass by the opportunity to say good bye to Peden on my way out the door. He moves to the front of the kitchen with an appreciative step, and inquires how I liked my dinner.
“I loved the duck,” I say with conviction. “It was a lovely meal.”
Even with the couple missteps, my words are honest ones. It was a lovely meal. And even lovelier because of the warm welcoming I received from the charming chefs who prepared it.
205 5th St,
Santa Rosa, California