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james laube's wine flights

Two Hot Wine Country Restaurants

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: May 3, 2007 11:05am ET

Those traveling to Napa this summer should make a point of dining at La Toque, while Sonoma visitors should try Cyrus.

Cyrus (www.cyrusrestaurant.com) is an upscale restaurant near Healdsburg Plaza. I had my first meal there last week, and chef Douglas Keane's culinary wizardry exceeded my expectations. Each entrée outdid its predecessor.

I dined with Tom Klein of Rodney Strong Vineyards, and we brought along his 2005 Reserve Chardonnay. It was rich and elegant, with honeyed melon flavors.

Tom also bought two 1989 Bordeaux from his cellar, a Pichon-Lalande and Pichon-Baron, both of which tasted tired and were disappointing.

We ordered a 2004 Hirsch Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, which was sleek and tight, with a trim beam of wild berry and cranberry flavors.

Then a kind soul seated at the bar, nursing a 2002 La Tâche, sent us two glasses of his wine, which was perfect to compare with the Hirsch. The La Tâche had a complex earth and cherry aroma, yet was supertight on the palate.

Finally, the restaurant offered us each a glass of the 1997 Château d’Yquem, which had a strong earthy character, and I suspect was slightly corked.

The night’s winner: 2004 Hirsch.

Three nights later, I dined with friends at Ken Frank’s La Toque (www.latoque.com) in Rutherford. It has a classy wine country inn atmosphere, with ideal patio dining. I’ve enjoyed many meals at La Toque, but this one was by far the finest, with an exciting range of entrées.

We drank a 2005 Kutch Pinot Noir Russian River Valley, which is an amazingly supple, complex and harmonious wine for winemaker Jamie Kutch’s first effort.

We also savored a 2002 Shafer Hillside Select, which is also remarkable. It is a deep, profound, richly flavored wine, yet its finesse, balance and subtle Cabernet flavors worked perfectly with the five-course meal.

The sommelier graciously offered us a taste of two new wines, both small-production Napa Valley Cabernets that were being served with that evening’s tasting menu. The 2004 Roy Estate (about $100 retail) was dominated by oak, with dried currant flavors. I liked the 2004 Tierra Roja (also about $100) much better. It offered an intriguing vanilla-cherry-yogurt aroma and was smooth and polished on the palate.

On the way out we ran into Jason Moore, who works nights as a waiter at the restaurant and days at Napa L' Attitude winery, the former Koves-Newlan site, where he makes his wines. He poured us a glass of his 2006 Modus Operandi (moduswines.com) Sauvignon Blanc Rutherford (about $22). Moore’s (M)(O) Sauvignon is New Zealand–inspired—fresh, racy and intense, and sealed with a Vino-Lok glass stopper. A 2004 Napa Cabernet is due out this fall.

Book the restaurants on back-to-back nights for the perfect two-night wine country food and wine experience, and expect to try new wines—lots of them.

John B Vlahos
Cupertino Ca. —  May 3, 2007 12:29pm ET
James, the restaurant scene in Sonoma County, particularily in Healdsburg, boarders on the awesome. At half-block from Cyrus is Cina Luna, an Italian-American restaurant with superb, down to earth Italian cooking. The food is delicious. The raviolis are amongst the best that I've ever tasted. The deserts are wonderful. All in all, Healdsburg has come a long way in the past few years.
Powell Yang
Napa, —  May 3, 2007 12:53pm ET
I have been to Cyrus once, long before the Michelin Guide rating came out. We took over the private room in the back of the restaurant for an off-line, want to say 12 people or so. They did a wonderful job that evening, from food to wine service.However, there has been some rumblings since the restaurant was awarded two stars by MG. Mixed reviews from folks I've talk to that dine there recently.

As with La Toque, I usually visit about once a year. The GM Julia is almost always at the door to welcome you in and make one feels like home. The dishes by Ken Frank is no doubt wonderful, but what's even more impressive is their wine service.
One evening before an AIWF event at Villagio, a group of us took over the salon, table was filled with easily a dozen bottles if not more. With every new bottle being poured, we were brought a new stem, Vinum Extreme no less. That night, we must have gone through at least 150 glasses just for our table.

On a side note, Jim, I tried the 2004 Tierra Roja at Taste of Oakville couple days ago, thought it was one of the highlights at the tasting.
Jason Kadushin
Seattle, WA —  May 4, 2007 3:26pm ET
Jim - I can't believe it was just your 1st visit to Cyrus...everything about the restaurant is great - in my opinion - from the way you can design your own meal (# of courses and which sections they come from) to the chef's tasting menu to the champagne chart. I've been there 3 times - the first shortly after it opened and its yet to miss a beat.

As a side not about food in Healdsburg - the little mexican place across from Rosenblum is great for tacos and the like and don't discount the Healsburg bar and grill for its great selection of burgers (especially good when you can sit outside).
William C & Donna Foureman
Cincinnati, OH —  May 4, 2007 4:36pm ET
Couldn't agree more about La Toque. We've had some memorable meals there, and we truly would rather go there than to the French Laundry. Cyrus is not quite in keeping with the upscale-rustic style in Healdsburg, but no denying the quality of the food.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  May 4, 2007 8:05pm ET
The only thing I regret is not having a cocktail at Cyrus on our last night in Healdsburg. We loved that town, and now we must go back.

By the way, we just couldn't get over how great Willi's Seafood & Raw Bar was for the tapas-style dining. My wife (who hates seafood) was absolutely enamored with the tasty plates available. Their cocktails were great and a welcome change from the 20+ wineries at which we had tasted in the past week.
Jj Gallagher
Near Napa, Ca —  May 6, 2007 3:08pm ET
Jim- Was the Kutch on the Menu at La Toque? Or did you, or your dining partner, bring the bottle? I am dying to try it and alas, did not make the first release as production was small. I did get a really nice hand written note from Jamie Kutch apologizing for my not being able to get the wine. I was so impressed! Can't wait to find some.
Bill Houston
Montvale, Nj —  May 8, 2007 6:44pm ET
James,Coincidentally, my wife and I just dined at Cyrus on Thursday, May 3, and the only descriptor I can apply is simply "Awesome!". We started with the champagne and caviar openers, and then had the chef's tasting menu, with the paired wines. I must say that the pairings worked marvelously, and the service staff was the best I've encountered yet. Considering that we had also dined at Michael Mina in SF the preceding Sunday, that's no small complement. Why, just that Sunday I had already anointed Mina as my finest dining experience to date. Four nights later, things changed. It was doubtless one of the most memorable meals of my life, and to make it more memorable, they actually gave us a printed copy of that night's tasting menu. With my declining powers of recollection, that was a most welcome extra.I second the comments on Willi's Seafood and Raw Bar, and lament the fact that there are far too few of the small plates/tapas restaurants in this country. I lunched there twice, and had dinner once, and all of them were fabulous. Very affordable for what you get, and a very nice selection of by-the-glass wines. I only wish it had been warm and light enough to have dinner outside that night, but we did two lunches outside, and it was enhanced by that. If they were located within a short drive of where I live, I could probably sell most of my cookware.We had also done a tasting at the Rodney Strong winery, and it reinforced to me why I like so many of their products as good price/value buys. I can see many returns to that area in the future, providing I can still maintain my income at the levels necessary to fully appreciate what is available around there.
Scott Mitchell
Toronto, Ontario —  May 28, 2007 10:03am ET
I just got back from Healdsburg yesterday and totally echo the glowing recommendations for Cyrus. I've never experienced that mix of great food and friendly, but not stuffy and pompous service. I don't get why everyone seems to like Willi's so much though. I found the food there to be quite average and the wine selections were limited and the server was totally unhelpful in selecting something to go with our dinner. Not to mention I found a big piece of shell in my crab cake. I much preferred eating at Cina Luna and Zin.
Heather Morgan Shott
New York, NY —  July 17, 2007 10:35am ET
We are featuring Cyrus this week in our Sips & Tips e-mail newsletter, "Sonoma's Top Foodie Hotels;" you can check out the article here: www.winespectator.com/Wine/Newsletter_Tip_Main/0,3963,242,00.html

Heather Morgan Shott
Travel Editor, WineSpectator.com

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