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Photograph by Michael Amsler

A taste sensation: Sandy Kim and Derek McCarthy, co-owners of the newly opened Tastings in Healdsburg, offer an eclectic menu that allows diners to sample a variety of thoughtfully prepared foods and international wines.

Good Taste

Healdsburg's Tastings a new dining delight

By Paula Harris

FEELING somewhat overheated and limp-limbed after a taxing Sunday afternoon spent stretched out on the sun-drenched lawn at Healdsburg Plaza while enjoying a free concert, we decide it's time for well-earned refreshment.

Today we head for the town's latest offering: Tastings Restaurant and Wine Bar. Located kind of out of the way--in a strip mall off the main plaza on a corner behind West America Bank that used to house a taqueria--the restaurant is a slight challenge to find, but well worth it.

You'll know the place by the rows of oversized plant pots and greenery that decorate the front.

It's only 4:30 p.m., so Tastings hasn't yet opened for dinner when we arrive, but we're impressed with the place even before we sample the cuisine. We haven't even had enough time to curiously peek in through the window when one of the wait staff, a beaming young man dressed in casual clothes and not yet on duty, unlocks and throws open the door upon seeing us approach the building.

He presents us with a sample menu, invites us in to look around the empty restaurant, and then offers to answer any questions. He sheepishly promises us that the earsplitting rock music--glass polishin', table-settin' music--will be toned down by the time the place opens for biz.

We make our reservation, go for a walk, and return a bit later. When we get back, the place already is buzzing with customers.

There are nine tables set with white linen cloths inside the simple dining room and another seven tables out back in the enclosed patio area. It's a comfortable and stylish, unfussy environment: pale lemon walls accented with just four pieces of artwork; tiled floor; and shelves all around a wine bar/counter decorated with gleaming rows of designer wine glasses.

The menu, which changes daily, is divided into three main sections. The first is "Nibbles," small, single-serving plates, which include such exotic appetizers as New Zealand lamb chops with roasted potatoes and pomegranate glaze ($12); and Pacific sturgeon with shaved fennel, citrus salad, and topiko caviar ($11).

The second section is "Big Plates." These are generous portions meant to serve two. This evening's selections are a 22-ounce grilled T-bone steak with roasted-potato medley and red wine jus ($24); a two-pound grilled Maine lobster with pei mussels, tomato, and saffron ($35); and a mixed grill of stuffed quail, marinated chicken leg, and escolar with grilled summer vegetables ($27).

The final, and seemingly most popular, section of the menu is called "Tastings," a rotating, fixed-price, five-course menu with food alone ($34) or paired with four wines for $10 more.

Tonight's Tastings menu begins with a handful of delicate smoked mussels in a lush Pernod, parsley, and garlic sauce. The effect is sweet and smoky. It's paired with 1999 light and medium-dry Muga rosé from Spain's Rioja region.

Then comes a small oblong of tender white fish--tilapia (also known as Hawaiian sunfish)--rolled in a crust of porcini mushrooms and topped with French beans and kernels of crunchy fresh sweet corn. It pairs well with a 1998 Albert Seltz pinot blanc from Alsace. Three mouthfuls, three good long sips, and the whole thing is gone like a dream.

Next is a little portion of herbed gnocchi, soft little pillows filled with almost undetectable lobster and lusty housemade sausage with tomato and basil. This burst of flavors and textures is paired with a mellow 1996 Sierra Cantabria rioja from Spain.

(A vegetarian gnocchi dish also is offered.)

BY NOW, we're salivating for the next course. It's three slices of tender magret duck breast on a fluffy bed of Moroccan couscous with a foie cherry sauce. It's paired with a 1998 Domaine Pontifical chateau neuf-du-pape, from the French Rhône region, arguably the best wine of the four.

The meal is capped with a slice of ultrarich linzertorte, all buttery crust, ground hazelnuts, sweet raspberry jam, and whipped cream. Dee-lish.

Other desserts are apple pie ($7) and blueberry and pluot tart ($7).

The wine list is an exciting international romp, featuring wines separated into different categories, such as: Alsace, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Spain, New Zealand, Australia, South America, Beaujolais, and Tuscany, as well as the routine local standbys.

Chef/owner Derek McCarthy should be commended for bringing a new and varied dining concept to the local table. But be forewarned that the small portions of the Tastings menu do take a bit of getting used to and could be torturously teasing if you're starving when you sit down to eat. And they don't serve bread or butter, which would be very welcome.

Still, the service is exceptional.

McCarthy plans eventually to fly in seafood from around the world to ensure freshness. Right now, he is working with one purveyor on the East Coast, so look forward to even more exciting expansions on the menu. *


Tasting's Restaurant and Wine Bar
505 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg; 433-3936
Hours: Thursday-Monday, from 6 p.m.; no determined closing time
Food: Eclectic gourmet fare specializing in fresh seafood and game; some vegetarian dishes
Service: Excellent
Ambiance: Relaxed
Price: Moderate to expensive
Wine list: Great international selection
Overall: 3 1/2 stars (out of 4)

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From the August 24-30, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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