Eating out for a living has many privileges, but dining for pleasure is a gift I rarely get to appreciate.
When a restaurant opens, it’s usually a one-and-done deal for me. As much as I’d love to return again and again to see how the menu evolves, how service improves (or doesn’t) and whether the food is as good (or bad) as I remember, constant deadlines never go away, and there’s always somewhere newer and shinier to discover.
That means sometimes I praise a restaurant, then find out things have fallen apart since my last visit. Other times, a bad menu turns around with a little time.
So it’s extra-special when I get to return to restaurants I’ve already written about or reviewed for a second look. Recently, the stars aligned and I ended up at Gourmet Au Bay in Bodega Bay, Grata in Windsor and Barndiva in Healdsburg.
These disparate restaurants have had time to find themselves, let chefs settle in and evolve their menus. The confident service at each was notable during my recent visits. Maybe it’s time to find a little pleasure in the daily grind again. Such is the life of a food writer.
Gourmet Au Bay (last reviewed in 2016)
Why I went: Plans to go to Spud Point Crab Co. for a crab sandwich went awry when long lines caused a hangry meltdown.
The verdict: This is an upgrade from coastal crab shacks, with a great selection of wines sold by the glass and an impressive kitchen. We had managed our expectations, but a glass of crisp rosé started things off nicely.
Meaty crab cakes arrived in a sizzling mini cast-iron skillet with a nickel-size dollop of creamy aioli. Crispy-edged and full of crab, these were a winner.
We also loved the giant bowl of mussels with slices of bread for dipping. The clam flatbread was studded with roasted garlic and bacon, with a light cream sauce atop a cracker-crisp crust.
The only miss was the ceviche, which had exactly four tiny pieces of fish swimming in a soupy salad of tomatoes, cucumbers and red onion.
Details: 1412 Bay Flat Road, Bodega Bay, 707-875-9875, gourmetaubay.com
Grata (last reviewed in 2020)
Why I went: My friend lives in Windsor, and we needed a place to eat.
The verdict: This quaint Italian eatery opened near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and I remember a group of us huddled together in our masks, hoping a few shared dishes wouldn’t kill us. It wasn’t a great beginning for a review, and there were some significant misses before the restaurant hit its stride in recent months.
Our recent meal struck many right notes, including an awe-inspiring butter lettuce salad with fresh peaches, creamy burrata and pistachios. We couldn’t stop eating the Cacio e Pepe fries, served with truffle aioli and smothered in pepper and Parmesan.
The night’s smash hit was goat cheese and ricotta ravioli in a delicate garlic cream sauce. Topped with kernels of sweet corn and local mushrooms with a chiffonade of basil, the dish quickly could have become a tasteless, gloopy mess. Instead, the sweet pops of corn and peppery basil were a perfect complement to the light, perfectly cooked pillows of ravioli. Bravo.
Details: 186 Windsor River Road, Windsor, 707-620-0508, gratawindsor.com
Barndiva (visited, but never reviewed)
Why I went: It was the only Michelin-starred restaurant I could get a last-minute reservation at for my son’s 25th birthday.
The verdict: My son, as you may imagine, loves great food. It’s a genetic thing. Sadly, he lives in a small town where Applebee’s is considered fine dining. While in Santa Rosa for his birthday, his only request (aside from Costco T-shirts) was a meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant.
I waited too long to make reservations but lucked out and snagged a ridiculously early seating at this upscale Healdsburg restaurant that uses the tagline “eat the view.” A new chef (Erik Anderson) and a new beverage director (Scott Beattie) recently have changed the menu, though the ever-popular goat cheese croquettes with lavender honey have remained.
My son and I were both gobsmacked over our meal. A seemingly simple caprese salad was an adventure, with a “reanimated” tomato (an Early Girl tomato that had been dehydrated, then rehydrated and filled with mozzarella foam). A basil gelee and tiny Sun Gold tomatoes were hidden beneath the wild arugula. Rare roasted duck with blackberries and chanterelle mushrooms was also a stunner. But the Mount Lassen trout with a light saffron sauce and a single sweet Jimmy Nardello pepper was the dish of the night.
Pommes Puree (fancy mashed potatoes) were mostly butter with a hint of potato, which is not a bad thing. Pastry chef Neidy Venegas creates dessert wonders like the Boston Cream, an orb of lavender pistachio mousseline and vanilla buttermilk cake in a strawberry verjus granita. Heavenly.
Details: 231 Center St., Healdsburg, 707-431-0100, barndiva.com