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Hot stuff: Chef Jesse Mallgren--with squab, foie gras vol-au-vent, rhubarb chutney, and baby corn--has enlivened Madrone Manor's once staid menu.

Victorian Grace

Madrona Manor dishes up a winning formula

By Paula Harris

HER WELL-CUT black silk cocktail dress and pearl choker gleam luxuriously in the dining room's soft candlelight. Smooth blonde hair cascades to her shoulders as she leans forward to study the menu, tracing the navy print with a perfectly manicured fingertip. We can see only the back of her beau's equally well-groomed head, but note that he's wearing a formal dark suit with square shoulders.

Sure, they make a picture-perfect couple sitting here at a corner table in Madrona Manor's restaurant. Yet they seem slightly out of place. At other tables, diners are dressed more comfortably--not shabbily, mind you, just less constrained. One jovial table is not above zealously clinking their wine glasses and letting out the occasional guffaw--something that makes our nicely coifed pair actually turn and frown upon.

It's weird. Until recently, dining here in this 1881 grand gabled historic landmark meant sitting up straight, conversing in whispers, and listening to polite, if not pompous, recorded chamber music. Tonight, though, jazz diva Billie Holiday's relaxed and seductive Lady in Autumn: The Best of the Verve Years melts over the sound system, and the place boasts newly painted mottled soft peach walls and white trim.

It seems the venerable Victorian country inn and restaurant on the outskirts of Healdsburg has shed its stuffy image.

"Yes, we decided to lighten up," affirms our waiter when we comment on the changes. "Make the place less cold."

New owners Bill and Trudi Konrad purchased Madrona Manor in April 1999 and completely redecorated the place. Last October, they brought in new chef Jesse Mallgren, formerly of Syzygy in Aspen and Stars in San Francisco, who instituted an additional à la carte menu (available Thursday through Sunday) and revitalized the menu with lighter, more contemporary items.

Madrona Manor's three intimate dining rooms are still elegantly appointed with comfortable upholstered chairs, white linen tablecloths, cut-glass candlesticks, and heavy silverware. But now the ambiance succeeds in being quite laid-back. We're eager to see how the food, which used to be somewhat inconsistent, now stacks up.

THE MEAL STARTS with promise. The servers bring us wonderful warm house-baked potato-and-herb rolls and an amuse-gueule of delicate tuna tartare crostini.

Listed for each dish on the à la carte menu is a suggested wine pairing, which may be ordered by the glass--but it's all very informal. "Don't feel you have to follow our suggestions," our waiter tells us. "You can choose whatever you feel like."

The wine list, by the way, is impressive.

One of the most popular appetizers, according to the waiter, is the crispy lobster spring rolls ($14). We can see why. The dish consists of two generous crisp hot spring rolls with cases thinner than paper, filled with big gobs of plump lobster meat and hints of Szechwan peppercorn. Diced pineapple "marmalade" sauce echoes and coaxes out the sweetness of the lobster. A masterfully presented daikon-cucumber salad drizzled with a touch of peanut oil accompanies the spring rolls. The scrumptious dish is sweet and spicy, fruity and nutty all at once. The menu suggests pairing it with a glass of 1998 Preston Viognier ($6.25 a glass).

A sleek savory Sonoma foie gras terrine ($15) slips and glides between the teeth, rich as creamery butter. Accompanied by a dollop of intense applesauce and a savory popover, it's a slice of decadence. A sweet 1998 de Lorimier Lace Late Harvest Sémillon ($7.50 a glass) is the suggested wine.

English pea soup ($7) is light and subtle, but has an intense, fresh-from-the-garden flavor. It's topped by a float of whipped mascarpone, miniature profiteroles, and pumpkin seeds.

The staff is attentive--perhaps a shade too clingy, but that's a minor quibble. Everything is so well presented, often layered to create small intricate towers on the plate, you almost feel guilty when your silverware becomes a wrecking ball. Still, that doesn't seem to deter most diners around us, who are digging right in with abandon.

A two-inch-thick boneless pork chop ($19) is cooked perfectly so that the meat is snowy white. It's capped with wild-mushroom fingerling potato hash and a warm spinach salad with apple cider jus. The recommended pairing is 1997 Kendall-Jackson Vintners Reserve Syrah ($7.50 a glass).

The wild-rice potato gnocchi ($17) are tender little pillows accompanied by baby squash, toasted walnuts, fried garlic, and a brush of basil and tomato oil. The dish pairs well with the 1997 Buena Vista Chardonnay ($7/glass).

We have room for only one dessert, but it's lovely--a warm chocolate soufflé cake ($5.75) with raspberry and crème anglaise sauces. Tasting like air flavored with chocolate, it has a thin crust that gives way to melt-in-the-mouth creamy chocolate richness. The menu suggests pairing it with 1982 Dows Reserve Tawny Porto ($5.75 a glass).

When you're dining here, before leaving be sure to stroll through the beautiful landscaped gardens with their illuminated fountain, benches, urns of cascading flowers, and gorgeous scents. And by all means, don your Sunday best if you wish, but Madrona Manor proves that an elegant atmosphere needn't be stuffy.

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From the June 15-21, 2000, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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