When’s the last time you made Lobster Thermidor or traditional Boeuf Bourguignon? Unless you’re a recipe blogger paying homage to St. Julia Child or you’re an incredibly passionate cook, the answer is probably, well, never.
Though you’ll see them on an occasional menu (sorry, sad beef stews that try to pass themselves off as Bourguignon just aren’t), they’re food anachronisms from the height of the 1960s French cuisine craze that began with Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, then promptly died out along with beef tongue aspic and three-martini lunches. So, dishes like these appearing on a restaurant menu is notable; but even more so in the heart of Healdsburg, where infused foams and microgreens reign supreme.
At The Brass Rabbit, Chef Shane McAnelly is all about the bouillabaisse, along with lamb Wellington, shrimp cocktails and crudites as well as the aforementioned Lobster Thermidor and, yes, Julia’s actual Boeuf Bourguignon.
“It’s her recipe,” he says, working the line with his new chef de cuisine, Jared Rogers. “I have always been drawn to the supper club classics, the dishes my grandparents loved.”
“They are celebratory and memorable. And I wanted to offer something different that doesn’t exist in Healdsburg. It just seemed like the perfect fit … and the space really seems perfect for this type of food — small and intimate,” says McAnelly.
If your cholesterol levels are rising just reading this, know that these French comfort classics aren’t the entirety of the menu, but rotating daily specials for those who can appreciate them either for the first time, or once again. But McAnelly is deeply rooted in California cuisine as well, as the celebrated chef at nearby small-plates restaurant Chalkboard. Both restaurants are owned by wine magnate Bill Foley.
Creative dishes like sea urchin parfait with ponzu sauce, grilled quail with figs or Spanish octopus with wheat berries in bacon broth are more contemporary California cuisine.
“We want to pay homage to the classics but understand we are cooking in Sonoma County with an incredible amount of the worlds best produce at our fingertips,” he says.
With access to Chalk Hill Winery’s storied organic culinary gardens, traditional dishes, many of which are on the menu year-round (hence Bourguignon in July) get a fresh farm-to-table facelift.
“I think when you look at restaurants that offer daily specials or “plat du jour” a lot of times you see dishes that are the same year-round,” McAnelly said.
“For the most part we are able to feature what is great from the garden with our daily specials. For example, the Lobster Thermidor last week came with zucchini, Early Girl tomato and grilled porcini mushroom. The duck confit on Sunday came with creamed Brentwood corn and pickled pluots.”
Housed in the former Ralph’s Bistro, known for its own versions of traditional dishes from their iconic sole Meuniere to chicken livers with onions, the space is nearly unrecognizable after months of remodeling. An open kitchen and bar give the restaurant an updated feel, and banquets feel cozy and bistro-like.
Taking full advantage of his 6-foot, made-to-order, Grillworks Argentinian-style wood-burning grill, McAnelly is still experimenting with the menu, and Rogers, named a Rising Star Chef several years ago by the San Francisco Chronicle will put his own mark on the menu as the concept matures.”
“I think as we move forward the menu will continue to evolve as we strive to refine every aspect of the restaurant,” says McAnelly. “I have been cooking small plates for 8 years so it has been a fun departure to have another outlet and style of restaurant.”
Sea Urchin with Ponzu ($12): As someone who loves uni, making it into a custard seemed almost a sacrilege. But McAnelly says that for the many people eechy about eating the reproductive organs of sea urchin, creating a more approachable dish with bright ponzu and sesame seeds is a win.
“I think a lot of times the reason people struggle with embracing uni comes down to texture. What I am trying to do is present it in a different way in hopes that I can change peoples minds about how they feel about uni. The custard is rich and luxurious but still captures the essence of the ingredient in my opinion,” he says.
Eggs Mimosa, $8: Deviled eggs with a caviar upgrade.
Duck confit croquette with ember-roasted strawberry jam, $10: A standout that hits every note … salty, crispy, with sweet, savory and just a hint of bitter.
Rabbit rillette with carrot sauerkraut on rye, $10: If you don’t appreciate the food pun, this might not be a dish for you. Too bad, because it’s a salty, meaty, luxurious bit of deliciousness.
Sweet corn soup, $14: One of the greatest seasonal dishes I’ve ever eaten was Shane’s chilled English pea soup at Chalkboard. This comes in a close second, and will only get better as corn season peaks.
Spanish octopus, $14: Cephalopods are smart, and their revenge tends to be turning insanely rubbery when cooked. So why bother? With a bit of care, this version is tender and flavorful, swimming in a bacon broth.
Grilled strip loin $35: Make sure to get something cooked on the Argentine grill, because it seems to make meat sing. Served with creamed chard and charcoal-roasted potatoes, it’s not the same old beef dish.
Beef Bourguigon, $29: This is a “totally true to Julia” version, and frankly, it’s wonderful. I tend to like a version that doesn’t use tomato paste (or tomaahto paste as she says), because it almost gets a little ketchupy to me. Your palate may disagree.
Fromage Blanc Cheesecake, $10: Somehow cheesecake is even better broken down into it’s requisite parts, with summer stone fruit, golden balsamic and brioche croutons from pastry chef William Woodward.
Critique: Salt sometimes overpowers dishes, and more isn’t always more on dishes like the burrata, which felt over-dressed and overly complicated.
Takeaway: A great addition to downtown Healdsburg’s continually evolving restaurant scene. McAnelly’s cuisine doesn’t take itself too seriously, giving room for playful changes with the seasons. It offers a deep menu that includes gluten-free and vegetarian options, but isn’t overly precious.
Where: The Brass Rabbit is at 109 Plaza St, Healdsburg, 707-473-8580, thebrassrabbithealdsburg.com