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Say Syrah!

[whitespace] Syrah
Michael Amsler

City chic, country comfort: Chef/owner Josh Silvers, formerly of Mustards Grill in Napa, has created a warm, welcoming atmosphere at Syrah.

Chic dining in Railroad Square

By Paula Harris

IF YOU BELIEVE perky professional greeters lurk solely around the electronic entrances of big-box stores, think again. A young man with gelled hair and a dark suit, poised by the back door in the ample back parking lot, jubilantly hails us when visit Syrah, a new restaurant located in Santa Rosa's historic Railroad Square. Not a server, host, or car valet--this fellow appears to be some kind of salutation specialist as he gestures toward the new eatery named for the trendy Rhône grape.

But this is no supermart.

The gray building is a sophisticated indoor shopping/dining mall. A stylish tranquil lobby boasts muted lighting, designer benches, and a modern indoor fountain. Syrah shares the building with several businesses, including a flower vendor and an upscale hair salon.

Several tables spill forth into the lobby, giving diners the impression of sidewalk dining, except that the "street" is surrounded by curving gray slate walls set beneath a roof. Inside the restaurant are hanging golden mesh lamps, warm wood accents, and plenty of visible wine bottles. The sizzling pans in the semi-open kitchen compete with recorded smooth jazz. Yet the ambiance manages to be warm and relaxing.

Servers in shin-skimming white aprons bustle around, and the service seems to have improved in promptness and attention to detail since Syrah first opened a few weeks ago.

Chef-owner Josh Silvers, who previously worked at Napa Valley's renowned Mustards Grill, creates imaginative California-French dishes with a penchant for variety.

The menu will change every month, Silvers tells us, so dining at Syrah should be a constant enticement. Here's a recent sample:

Seared Sonoma foie gras ($14) featured two lobes of rich, warm foie gras melting like butter, with crisp brioche toast and three thin slices of fresh pear napped with caramelized sauce. Paired with a glass of luscious sweet Castelnau de Suduiraut sauterne from the dessert menu ($5), this was an opulent treat.

If you seek lighter fare, the haricot vert salad ($7) should suffice. A generous heap of garden-fresh green beans was topped with tiny sweet cherry tomato halves and crunchy toasted hazelnuts. An excellent whispery-light vinaigrette made with aged sherry rounded out the hazelnut flavor.

The fresh Maine crab cakes ($11) were perfect. Small delicate and greaselessly golden, they were packed with fresh crab meat and minuscule diced vegetables and served with a light silky champagne-chive beurre blanc.

A pan-roasted half chicken in a veal reduction sauce ($14) was beautifully presented with a chunky savory bread pudding, asparagus spears, shallots, and crispy sage leaves, but the overall dish tasted flat and didn't match the visual impact.

The spring vegetable risotto with wild mushroom jus ($16) featured slender baby carrots, doll-sized zucchini, and rice rich with sweet-corn kernels and mushrooms. But we were disappointed by the skimpy portion (this isn't a cheap dish, after all) and by the overemphasis on sweet corn, which obliterated the other flavors.

The grilled cider- and laurel-brined pork tenderloins with whole-grain mustard and Provençal honey glaze ($19) was a hearty bistro-style dish. Rosy-pink pork slices (possibly a bit too rare for some) were served with flageolet beans, torn kale leaves, and a mustard garnish.

The marzipan butter cake with sweet and sour cherries and crème brûlée pudding ($7) was wonderful. The small cake was concealed beneath a cloak of crème brûlée and plump black cherries. A scattering of whole almonds mirrored the lush flavor of the marzipan.

The appealingly titled "lemon-lavender crème anglaise with vanilla meringue pillows and fresh berries" ($6) was another winner. The "pillows" were arranged like butterfly wings amid fresh raspberries and blackberries, candied orange peel, edible flowers, pastry triangles, and a sweet soup of rich custard. Amazingly delicious.

Syrah has a varied wine list, with California and French offerings, unusual varietals, and some great selections by the glass, including Jade Mountain Carneros syrah ($7), Philip Stanley Russian River mourvèdre ($5), and Preston Dry Creek viognier ($7).

Lovers of "big reds" may enjoy a bottle of the Eberle Fralich vineyard 1996 syrah from Paso Robles ($30), a garnet-colored wine full of plums and pepper.

"Thank you for dining at Syrah," called out the professional greeter, still stationed in the parking lot, after we'd polished off our abundant meal. "Come back soon."

No problem.

205 Fifth St., Santa Rosa; 568-4002
Hours: Lunch, Tuesdays-Saturdays, from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner, Tuesdays-Thursdays, from 5:30 to 9 p.m., and Fridays-Saturdays, till 10 p.m.
Food: California/French
Service: Friendly and efficient
Ambiance: City chic
Price: Expensive
Wine list: Varied selection, including plenty of Rhône wines
Overall: *** (out of 4)

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From the May 27-June 2, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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