Restaurateurs Mark and Terri Stark may have just saved their best restaurant for last.
The owners of some of Sonoma County’s most well-loved eateries — Willi’s Wine Bar, Willi’s Seafood, Monti’s, Bravas Bar de Tapas and Stark’s Steak and Seafood, as well as a bustling catering business — the couple are the undisputed king and queen of the Sonoma County restaurant scene.
Opening six restaurants in 13 years gets you those bragging rights.
But Bird and The Bottle, which opened in late September, just might be their crowning achievement. From the creative menu to the luxe interior, its the culmination of a lifetime of restaurant expertise.
It’s never easy
This ambitious downtown Santa Rosa project took more than two years, $1.5 million in renovation costs, a mountain of permits, construction delays and no small amount of stress, according to Terri Stark. Add that to keeping five other restaurants not just running, but consistently showing up on Top 100 Restaurant lists both locally and nationally. That’s no small feat even with a staff of hundreds.
So when the inevitable question of, “What’s next?” comes up for the couple, — just a few weeks after opening Bird and The Bottle, they’re clear that this is their last. Six restaurants, it seems, are enough.
“A husband and wife have to know their limits,” she laughs, looking at Mark. “We are D-O-N-E,” she says about opening any new restaurants in the future. Touring their newly minted restaurant, however, it’s easy to see the heart and soul, sweat and tears that went into making Bird and The Bottle a future classic. It’s also easy to see that this is what Mark and Terri live for, and after taking few deferred vacations and catching their breath, never might just become, someday, when it comes to more Stark Reality restaurants.
Cue the ‘Que
With the smell of wood-smoke perfuming the restaurant, it’s clear that the heart of Bird and The Bottle is a $30,000 custom-made wood-fired grill. Weighing a whopping 1,600 pounds, its a behemoth of steel and cast iron that grills everything from whole fish, steaks, burgers and chicken to roasting bread and veggies at temperatures approaching 800 degrees. A V-shaped channel collects fat for basting the meat, “or I just take a spoon to it,” said Mark, a man not afraid of taking, well, a spoon to rendered chicken fat.
The grill also helps to unify the menu that’s an ambitious mashup of Jewish, Southern and Korean ingredients and preparations.
Cue the record scratch. Wait, what?
Think of it as a marriage of East and West brought together by fire and schmaltz. Here, dishes like chicken skin cracklings fried in chicken fat (schmaltz) with Nashville hot sauce ($4) commingle with congee-style cheese grits topped with a soy-cured egg, and hen of the woods mushrooms.
A whole wood-fired snapper gets gets a flavor boost with red chili oil and pine nuts. Schmears, a New York Jewish deli term for slathering something delicious (usually cream cheese or butter) on a bagel at Bird and The Bottle translates into a dish of smoked black cod with sour cream and horseradish, wood-grilled Brie, bone marrow, or chicken liver mousse with pickled shallots and smoked salt on grilled Costeaux pumpernickel rye bread. Not exactly your baba’s recipe, but inspired by it.
With this last restaurant, it’s clear that Mark is pulling out all the stops, and taking some risks on this kitchen-sink menu. But this is also food that Mark and Terri have wanted to explore for years, reflecting family heritage, Asian influences and Old School comfort dishes they’ve never put on a menu before. With Chef de Cuisine Eric Foster (most recently of Willi’s Seafood & Raw Bar) heading the kitchen, the dishes are both curious and comforting. Which isn’t a backhanded compliment, because the menu is by far my favorite, with constant surprises and far-flung flavors that somehow mesh perfectly.
Room with a view
Bathed in light from a sunny southern exposure, the main dining room glows a buttery yellow with padded duvets, tawny wood floors and padded leather chairs. Birds of every stripe perch on mantles and walls, and peeking out from the bar is a faux mounted elephant head.
“Let’s talk about the elephant in the room,” says Terri, who has designed each of the Stark Reality Restaurants. The welded steel pachyderm head surveys the room silently, one of many whimsical touches that have become her trademark. Upstairs, two former bedrooms are quieter, sunny escapes from the bustling open kitchen and bar.
Be sure to stop along the way and check out the black and white pictures of Stark restaurant staff smiling from the frames lining the staircase, all taken by a young, local photographer, Loren Hansen. A large outdoor patio overlooking Fourth St. can be noisy, so if you’re looking for a more intimate escape, try the small upstairs balcony.
It’s impossible to talk about a Stark restaurant without mentioning booze. Their cocktails have a craftiness that doesn’t come with the whole farm-to-glass ‘tude, but also don’t rely on neon-colored mixers to taste good. From shandies and liquored-up drinking vinegars to hard teas and classic cocktails, there’s not a stinker on the list.
Prepare to share. Little plates are great appetizers, and if heartier shared entrees can feed 2-4 people.
Table for One: Love dining alone? Me too, and Bird and the Bottle has a communal table facing the kitchen, as well as small bar tables for single diners. Huddle over a bowl of Mark’s matzoh ball soup with smoked bbq chicken and ramen dashi ($10) and a “Breakfast of Champions” cocktail (St. George Spiced Pear, Korbel Brandy, Carpano Antiqua Vermouth, Chai Tea, Pomegranate, Grenadine, Fee Brothers Orange Bitters, $11).
Meat and Potatoes: Thrice-fried potatoes with smoked mayo stay crispy even through an endless first date ($6); BBQ Mini Burgers are two-biters with two tiny patties, grilled onions, American cheese and secret sauce ($8); 8-hour smoked pork shoulder with mustard-miso with bean sprout slaw and sesame biscuits ($24) can be made into dainty sandwiches or stuffed directly into your craw.
Meat-Free: Sweet and savory smoked eggplant schmear with pumpernickel rye and pickled raisins ($8) is one of the best things on the menu, along with heavenly grilled radicchio, smoked blue cheese, roasted grapes and hazelnuts ($10); I could live solely on creamy cheesy grits with hen of the woods mushrooms (ask for it without schmaltz if you must). Cheese is a big part of most dishes, so if you’re vegan you’ll struggle with this menu, and substitutions may be difficult, but the grilled squash and greens and garlic are your best bets.
Family Style: Spring Hill fried cheddar cheese curds ($8) keep the kids quiet; chicken liver mousse for mom ($10); Craft Mac and Cheese with fried mortadella is even better than watching the Muppets with a plate of bologna and Kraft Dinner (they actually worked hard to get the consistency of the stuff in a box, and this ain’t fancy pants mac); fried chicken with mumbo sauce and sesame biscuits ($24); cake in a jar, literally ($10).
Business Lunch: Wood-grilled Gulf prawns, heads on ($13); Angus skirt steak with miso marinade and garlic butter ($28); barbecue octopus leg with suckers and all ($16); oysters and King Crab legs. Who’s the boss, now?
Seafood Lover: Terri’s Oregon Bay Shrimp Wontons ($8), smoked black cod schmear ($11); whole grilled snapper with pine nut gremolata ($32) shows off the best of what a wood-grill can do for fish — moist and perfect.
Ladies Night: We love doing lots of little plates to share with the gals, leaving more room for cocktails. Pancho’s Pride cocktails for the table ($40, 7 Leguas Blanco Tequila, Amontillado Sherry, Cinnamon Bark Syrup, Lime, Grapefruit); Wood grilled Brie with Gravenstein apple butter ($14); fried chicken biscuits ($8); BBQ Mini Burgers ($8); half-dozen oysters ($15); crispy chicken skin cracklings ($4); pistachio and vanilla bean ice cream sundae ($9).
The best compliment I can give a restaurant? Coming back frequently on my own dime. Having already supped there four times, I can say Bird and The Bottle is already a favorite. So, Mark and Terri: Are you sure you’re not going to open any more restaurants? Because they just keep getting better.
Bird and The Bottle: 1055 Fourth St., Santa Rosa, 707-568-4000.
Hours: Sunday-Thursday, 11:30am to 9:30pm; Friday + Saturday 11:30am to 10pm.