By Gabe Meline
Editor's note: First Bite is a new concept in restaurant writing. This is not a go-three-times, try-everything-on-the-menu report; rather, this is a quick snapshot of a single experience. We invite you to come along with our writers as they—informed, intelligent eaters like yourselves—have a simple meal at an area restaurant, just like you do.
The old Michele's Restaurant in Railroad Square was a long-standing Santa Rosa institution, a pseudo-snazzy destination to affordably mark a special occasion—prom night, say, or perhaps a great uncle's birthday. The first time I went there, it was to meet my future in-laws, and it's fitting that they never actually became family. These things fall through. Sometimes young lovers never get married, sometimes old restaurants close.
Young love would have a better chance at Stark's Steakhouse, should young love ever be able to afford it. Stark's is a complete transformation from the building and budget we once knew, and though it attempts an "old roadhouse" feel, with all of its dark woods, recessed ceilings, fake fireplaces and stained hardwood floors, it's more of a penthouse interpretation of an old roadhouse, with price tag to match.
We took the swankiness in stride and quelled it with a shared Cucumber Cocktail ($9), made with gin, a slice of cucumber and fresh squeezed lemon. We were then presented a piping loaf of fresh bread, served in a cast-iron dish and celestially slathered in butter, garlic and dill. I was sold. "God," I said to my date, "is real, and he brought us this."
A shared appetizer of potato and fennel gratin ($5) made us wish for seconds on the bread, the potatoes being on the hard side, but the arrival of the entrées sparked our anticipation. We were at Stark's to celebrate a career change, and this was our grand reward. For my date, the beet and goat cheese ravioli ($20) was a well-curated concession to vegetarians. Hazelnut commingled with the goat cheese's flavor, rounded out nicely with a truffle brown butter.
My steak arrived, a filet mignon ($36) with béarnaise. I cut into it, and I don't quite remember what happened after I put it in my mouth, but according to my date, I nearly cried. After gazing in disbelief at the perfectly seared edges, I took another bite, just for proof. Yes, it was true: this was the best steak I'd ever had.
Our dessert of chocolate madeleines with a malt milkshake ($8) ended the night nicely. The madeleines were extremely rich, and the icy milkshake was just the right size.
Right before Michele's closed, I went there one last time. The food wasn't half as good as Stark's, but I also didn't have to hold my breath when I opened the bill, and I sat among regular working people. The steak at Stark's is unbelievable, but be warned that the restaurant feels like a laminated tourism brochure instead of a place made for people like you and me. Keep it on the "extremely special occasion" list.
Stark's Steakhouse, 521 Adams St., Santa Rosa. Open daily for dinner; weekdays for lunch. 707.546.5100.
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