Mike Mullins just might be the best Sonoma County chef you’ve never heard of. The young toque is limping around the dining rooms of downtown Santa Rosa’s newest restaurant, Perch and Plow, delivering plates of sweet potato chips and olives with a 500-watt smile. Wearing a FEED Sonoma baseball cap (a produce aggregator for regional farmers), loose chef pants and an apron, it’s a pretty safe bet that none of the diners here know he’s the culinary captain of what may be one of the most promising restaurants in Santa Rosa.
The hitch in his giddyup doesn’t slow him down, and in fact is a source of a bit of embarrassment — a small skateboarding mishap after work last night. He nods toward a table in the back where his parents sit eating lunch, beaming. “Don’t tell my mom,” Mullins laughs, heading for a box filled with mushrooms. “She told me to stop,” he grins impishly, never slowing down as he walks the produce into the walk-in refrigerator, then heads into the wee kitchen of the otherwise expansive restaurant.
By wee kitchen, we mean that the mis en place could fit on a postage stamp and staff is packed in like Tokyo subway riders. A stray elbow or knife blade could have serious consequences. But Mullins takes it all in stride, equating the staff’s movement more to a graceful dance they’re perfecting. A few stepped on toes are the price of entry. Plus, he says, everything’s easy to reach.
Out of the diminutive galley, however, is a lineup of stunning dishes from coconut curried cauliflower with harissa to his grandmother’s fried chicken sandwich, yellowtail ceviche and a frisée salad with pork belly and a soft egg. There’s also an unforgettable burger that’s just become our new favorite. Mullins starts all of his dishes with fresh, local produce and local meats, which give him a head start on deliciousness. Having come up through top-notch restaurants including Michelin-starred Cavallo Point, Petite Syrah and the Kenwood Restaurant along with stints in the canteens of Silicon Valley (Apple, Google) he’s got plenty of culinary chops.
Suffice it to say Mullins’ is easily the best food I’ve ever had from a week-old restaurant. “And it’s just going to get better,” Mullins says.
Expect a mix of small plates, snacks, salads, several raw fish dishes and just a handful of larger plates. With prices ranging from $8 to $22, it’s an affordable luxury for most. Cocktails are equally impressive under Alec Vlastnic (formerly of Spoonbar) who whips up boozy magic with fresh produce, artisan spirits and exotic infusions (bacon fat-washed bourbon, dill foam, strawberry balsamic shrub). At Perch and Plow a $12 cocktail is worth every penny. A brief beer and wine list seems a little bit tacked-on, but will likely expand. Non-alcoholic choices should be expanded.
The former Christy’s on the Square, an upstairs space overlooking the new Courthouse Square, has always had the potential for greatness, and finally seems to have a team up to the challenge. The interior space has been transformed into a sleek, modern design with a large Bud Snow octopus mural as an eye-catching centerpiece. It’s easily the most beautifully-designed in the downtown area. Large windows open onto the square and skylights fill the restaurant with a soft glow. The handful of bar tables and stools with front row views of the action and warm breezes below are among the most coveted.
As downtown Santa Rosa continues its transformation from quiet county seat to a Wine Country destination, restaurants like Perch and Plow lead the way.
Charred cauliflower ($8): Chunks of fresh multi-colored cauliflower are caramelized in the oven, then placed atop a pool of sweet coconut curry sauce. A spoonful of homemade harissa perks the whole dish up. Bitter, sweet, salty, with a hint of spice, makes it a vegetarian dish that’s required eating for the whole table. After several visits the size seems to have gotten smaller, but the dish has remained a favorite.
Grilled octopus ($12): Perfectly cooked, with a light char on the outside and a soft, meaty bite — no hint of the rubberiness that occurs with less deft chefs. Bean puree seems more a glue to stick the bits to the plates, but lightly dressed arugula enhances the flavor with a bit of bite.
House burger ($16): Baptized in butter, draped in aged Fiscalini cheddar, this burger has reached a higher plane. Made with ground Sonoma County Meat Co.’s Angus on a brioche roll, we won’t even pretend its anything but hard on the arteries, but if you’re going to indulge, do it without regret.
Fried chicken sandwich ($15): “My Texas grandma’s recipe”, says Mullins, presenting the plate. I’ve been tough on fried chicken sandwiches because so many are so lackluster, but this version has light, crispy, flavorful batter that won’t tear up your mouth; wonderfully moist chicken, coleslaw, pickled onion, and house-made aioli (the real deal). You also won’t have to wait an hour for it.
Pork belly ($12): A nest of bitter frisée holds a warm soft cooked egg and crouton-sized bites of pork belly and sunchoke in a tarragon vinaigrette. We’d like to see bigger pieces of sliced pork belly. Either way, watch for fork attacks from your dining partners.
Seared halibut ($21): Sunchokes are the base for a brilliantly cooked piece of halibut — a lighter fish that’s easy-eating even for folks who shy away from seafood. Ahi tuna poke ($12): Tuna tartare has been so badly abused by incompetent chefs trying to put it in ring molds and douse it with too much sesame oil. We like the simpler poke style Mullins executes with a light ponzu sauce that lets the fresh tuna flavor shine.
Beef Carpaccio ($14): Thin slices of raw beef with balsamic vinegar and olive oil. We tend to like our carpaccio as unadulterated as possible, but this version is a bit more approachable for folks who aren’t quite sure they’re ready for raw beef.
Farm Salad ($10): This salad is drop dead simple, but shines because of the luxurious raw ingredients–nothing more than carrots, fresh cauliflower, radish, cucumber and ginger vinaigrette. This is truly what a salad should be.
Desserts aren’t the highest priority at Perch and Plow and are still works in progress. The cheesecake is light, fluffy and tart, but pineapple compote isn’t the ideal match. Chocolate mousse has improved significantly since we first tried it but is still a little dense. Just order another cocktail and call it a day. The kitchen is still in its infancy, and Mullins is training new staff, but little inconsistencies seem to be quickly overcome.
Overall: A strong team headed by GM Jhaun Devere has gotten this restaurant off to a solid start, and Mullins’ talent should make Perch and Plow a long-term downtown jewel.
Hours: Open daily at 11:30a.m., until 9:30p.m. Sunday through Thursday, until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. 900 Courthouse Square, Santa Rosa, 707-541-6896, perchandplow.com.
29 thoughts on “Perch & Plow: A Tiny Santa Rosa Kitchen is Cooking Up Big Flavors”
My wife and I just tried this place after reading Heather’s rating as a “jewel.” I would like to say I agree but sadly that is not the case. The “special” cocktails looked to be more fitting to an oceanfront place; my wife had a Farallon Gin fizz which was okay. I had to go off-menu and have a Manhattan; it was okay but served in a glass that looked like a Libby product that you would buy for $5 for a dozen at Walmart. The Farm Salad, described as simple, was all of that and immediately forgettable. The small plates were not to my taste so we headed to the large plates. The wife had halibut and I had hanger steak. The halibut should be moved to the small plate menu as it could only be described as “modest” in size. The steak was okay but nothing special. The Charred Cauliflower was okay. For desert they had two choices: cheese cake and chocolate mouse. At 5:30 PM on a Friday night the cheesecake was off the menu; the moose was mostly whipped cream. The only hope is for the burger and/or chicken sandwich. When my wife got home she made a sandwich as she was still hungry after having half a salad, half a cauliflower dish, a large plate halibut and half a mouse. That is a first after a lifetime of eating out. I always root for the local folks but this one left me cold.
So, did you tell the GM you weren’t happy? I sure hope so.
I stand by my reviews, and if you have a problem, I would definitely let them know. However, when I see a number of unhappy reviews from readers, either I go back or send a trusted friend to see if it’s accurate. I have changed my reviews several times based on customer feedback.
I did mention that the desserts weren’t a high point.
Chai Guevara? #idiot
Question to Heather, when driving through downtown the other day, I glanced over and saw the sign for this restaurant where the sign for Flavor used to be. Per this review, this restaurant is upstairs, correct? I didn’t know about Christy’s on the Square so I am trying to figure out where this restaurant is.
its upstairs, yup.
Che chia coffee? I cant wait to try the Hitler fried chicken or the Stalin omlete!
Too funny. Mao Chicken, a communist salad, Obama burger
This place will be serving TOAST in six months
Chai Guevara? Why would someone glorify a mass murderer? This will alienate many potential diners.
Agree!!!! NOT getting my business ever. Glorifying a character that murdered teens becaause they wore jeans and listened to rock and roll.
Me neither, stupid move
Not sure putting his face on a cocktail glorifies him. You’re literally drinking his face off. Love him or hate him, it’s definitely a teachable moment.
Guessing no one’s been to Chairman Bao in SF?
Look this is a food blog. I’m not going to engage in any kind of political debate because while murder is never okay, many see Guevara’s legacy as complicated. Here is some info, pasted directly from Wikipedia that I found interesting.
The legacy of Argentine Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara (June 14, 1928 – October 9, 1967) is constantly evolving in the collective imagination. As a ubiquitous symbol of counterculture worldwide, Guevara is one of the most recognizable and influential revolutionary figures of the twentieth century. However, during his life, and even more since his death, Che has elicited controversy and wildly divergent opinions as to who he was and what he represented. Mostly revered and occasionally reviled, he is passionately characterized along the entire continuum as everything from a heroic defender of the poor, to a cold-hearted executioner. Admired, sanctified, romanticized and derided, his crystallized status as either a brilliant intellectual or a violent ideologue is usually dependent on where one falls along the left and right of the political spectrum. The debate around his legacy is further complicated by the fact that Guevara exists simultaneously as several different entities, both literal man and global emblem, leading to disputes between what people contend he did and what he now represents.
“Not sure putting his face on a cocktail glorifies him…” Not sure? If it was your face of course it would be glorifying YOU. If he murdered your daughter for wearing jeans I am sure you would happily slurp his face up.
Why does it always have to be pork belly? I mean c’mon, is pork belly really good food? I think pork belly gives you an impacted colon that eventually leads to cancer and all forms of degenerative disease. We can’t pass off the S.A.D (Standard American Diet) as a sustainable way to live any longer! Who are we fooling? The solution is a plant based diet. We should already know this by now but for those of you that don’t, a plant based diet heals disease, promotes well being in our psyche and is sustainable longterm for the planet. The meat and dairy industry are on the decline. More and more people are turning to vegetarian and vegan lifestyles. This is only the beginning of a trend in that direction so Perch & Plow seems a little behind the times here. Just sayin’.
I only go to restaurants if they offer at least one vegan dish.
If you want to eat vegan then there are plenty of choices for you. Most successful eateries don’t try to impose their personal food choices on their customers.
Oh please! Plant based diet? Get off your soapbox. You are so BORING!!!!! Go back to Sebastopol and eat some wheat grass. I am working my way through every delicious meat dish Porch and Plow has on their creative menu. My grandfather raised pigs. He ate pork just about every day. He lived to be 93. Veganism is a mental disorder. Nature designed humans to be carnivorous animals.
“Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are
presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new
evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is
extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it
is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize,
ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.”
― Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks
You vegans are hilarious. Feel free to limit yourself to eating only twigs and leaves, but I prefer more diversity in my diet, thank you. Sorry to break this to you, but mankind will be chomping on steaks, ribs, drumsticks, and burgers forever. He’ll also be drinking milk and eating cheese and ice cream until the end of time. I thank God that he has given us dominion over animals in order to harvest their delicious, pure-protein bounty. I just polished off a nice helping of tri-tip, and it was very satisfying. I had a salad beforehand, so maybe that will help dry your tears.
And you all can keep on dying with diabetes, arthritis, dementia, obesity, cancer and of course heart disease which is the number one cause of death in America and is directly linked to eating animal products. 80% of men die from heart disease which means 80% of men die because they have attitudes just like yours. And besides that I’m glad your tastebuds and “diet-diversity” are more important than every other living thing on this planet. Selfish thinking gets us exactly where we are today, fat, sick and nearly dead! You should watch What The Health on Netflix and get a little education on the subject.
Chai Guevara? Does this chef not know the history of this terrorist and all the murders and torture he conducted? One big reason we will not be going to this restaurant.
Really, Chai Guevara, Thanks for the heads up because this is a restaurant I will never have to try.
Seriously? Chai Guevara…. that alone will keep most sane people out of the place, what idiot thought that was a good idea.