Sometimes you know, in the seconds after a first bite, that a dish won’t be merely memorable. It’s going to be one of the best bites of the year.
A sip of oyster soup called Billi Bi at the recently opened, high-end Cyrus restaurant in Geyserville had exactly that quality.
Other tastes grow on you, becoming more magical in hindsight. A simple salad at Delicious Dish in Sonoma, made with black rice, ahi tuna and a creamy peanut sauce, is a craving that hits me at least once a week.
There’s no real science to selecting this list of the best things I’ve eaten all year. I’ve been to more than 100 restaurants in 2022, and I might sour on a dish I once loved. Maybe the kitchen staff is having a bad day. Maybe I’m not hungry for what’s on the menu. On the other hand, a mundane meal can become extraordinary with good friends at the table, laughter and sunshine.
What makes being a food writer so much fun are those rare moments when the stars align and a plate of food becomes an unforgettable sensory experience.
Many, but not all, of these dishes are from new restaurants, as revisits can be few and far between. Stay tuned in the coming weeks as I write about the biggest openings of the year and go even deeper into 2022 as one of the most exciting years in recent memory for the local restaurant scene.
Billi Bi, Cyrus (part of the $295 tasting menu): Billi Bi has been called the most luxurious dish in the world. The velvety mussel soup is one of the most delicious things on the nearly 20-course tasting menu ($295 per person) at the new Cyrus restaurant. Chef Douglas Keane’s deceptively simple Billi Bi uses the broth of steamed mussels and a heavy dose of cream, butter and white wine to create a deep, satisfying soup that’s far more than the sum of its parts. 275 Highway 128, Geyserville; 707-723-5999, cyrusrestaurant.com
Tortilla Espanola, Bravas ($9): Thin layers of potatoes, onions and Manchego cheese are delicately held together with egg. Served cold with smoky red pepper Romesco aioli (olive oil-based mayonnaise), this surprisingly light dish became a tapas favorite for the table. 420 Center St., Healdsburg; 707-576-9610, starkrestaurants.com
Almost Famous Chicken Tenders, Lo & Behold ($15): These are no children’s-menu frozen-mystery-meat sticks. Chef Sean Raymond Kelley’s Almost Famous tenders are the juiciest strips of crunchy, salty, fried chicken I’ve ever had. Dipped in homemade ranch sauce with a side of pickles, they’re worthy of a standing ovation. Pair with the World’s Best Vodka Soda ($12), made with unicorn tears and Young & Yonder vodka. 214 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg; 707-756-5021, loandbeholdca.com
Petite Escargot, Troubadour Bread and Bistro (part of the tasting menu, $125): By day, Troubadour is a sandwich shop, but by night it becomes a funky French bistro featuring a five-course tasting menu by Chef Sean McGaughey (who has worked at Single Thread and Quail & Condor). Served in a Limoges tea cup with creamy garlic velouté, the Petite Escargot is a single perfect bite. 381 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg; 707-756-3972, troubadourhbg.com
Trout Salad, Lunchette: A smoked trout salad makes my list every year because … yum. Grab-and-go salads from chef and owner Naomi Crawford’s tiny cafe are a takeout staple when I’m working in Petaluma. House-smoked trout, local lettuces, roasted beets, pickled raisins and other goodies get a nice drizzle of preserved lemon dressing for an unforgettable salad. 25 Fourth St., Petaluma; 707-241-7443, lunchettepetaluma.com
Sukiyaki, Hana Japanese ($38): Unlike its stylish cousins, ramen and shabu-shabu, sukiyaki isn’t exactly a cultural zeitgeist, but this showstopper should be. A skillet-size Japanese hot pot (donabe) comes to the table trailing fragrant steam from onions, tofu, mushrooms, green onion and thin strips of rib-eye steak swimming in a sweet, salty, umami-packed broth. Served with rice and a raw egg to dip into. 101 Golf Course Drive, Rohnert Park; 707-586-0270, hanajapanese.com
Cocktails and Churros, Mitote Food Park: Roseland’s food truck park has upped its game by adding a mezcal-forward bar. Spend the afternoon noshing on tacos and sipping cocktails like La Coqueta (The Flirt), with tequila-hibiscus-strawberry syrup and blood orange liqueur. Don’t miss La Churroteka’s churro, a crispy cinnamon-sugar stick filled with chocolate, condensed milk or caramel. 635 Sebastopol Road, Santa Rosa; mitotefoodpark.com
Spanish Octopus a la Plancha, Oyster ($26): Tender bites of octopus are perched atop smashed fingerling potatoes. The pool of earthy black garlic aioli is the real surprise, hidden beneath the crisp spuds. Just as I thought the dish needed a little extra flavor boost, voilà, the black gold appeared. 6770 McKinley St., Suite 130, Sebastopol; oystersebastopol.com
Mushroom Pizza, Psychic Pie ($5.50): This irreverent little pizzeria has Roman pizza down. Mushroom is my favorite because the mix of earthy mushrooms and tart chevre is just so right, with bright citrus accents. Cut-to-order rectangular slices are hot-honey- and ranch-sauce-friendly. 980 Gravenstein Highway S., Sebastopol; 707-827-6032, psychicpie.com
Boquerones Toast, Animo ($14): You’re here for the turbot or aged pork, a seemingly simple appetizer that sums up chef and owner Joshua Smookler’s approach to cooking. Tiny grape tomatoes are peeled before roasting for the sweetest flavor, and the anchovies on top are creamy and light. It’s a must try. Esquire magazine recently named Animo one of the best new restaurants in America. 18976 Sonoma Highway, Sonoma; Instagram: @animo_restaurant
Banh Mi Poke Bowl Salad, Delicious Dish ($18): It’s no exaggeration to say I could eat this rainbow of black rice, pickled daikon, cucumber, watermelon radish, cilantro, mint and ruby red chunks of tuna every day. Each bite reveals something new — sweet, crunchy, sour, bitter, herby, umami — presented in a giant bowl that’s heartbreakingly beautiful. 18709 Arnold Drive, Sonoma; 707-721-4231, delicious-dish.square.site
Elote, Kivelstadt Cellars and Winegarten ($14): Chef Jennifer McMurry knows how to coax incredible flavor out of produce, and this seasonal dish is only on the summer menu. Her summery smoked corn, punctuated by tart lime vinaigrette and mildly spicy jalapeño aioli, was one of the best versions of this street food I’ve ever had. You can still get her Mushroom Cubano, a melted mess of cheese and fresh mushrooms on fresh focaccia. 22900 Broadway, Sonoma; 707-938-7001, kivelstadtcellars.com
Chicken Mole Enchiladas, Sonoma Eats ($16): Mole can be divisive, with its intense flavors — chocolate, roasted chiles, nuts and potent herbs — mixed into an almost-black sauce and sometimes coming from a can rather than slowly cooked over several days. Done right, however, there’s no denying the magic of mole’s ancient roots. Here, humble chicken or mushroom enchiladas are transformed into something outstanding. 18133 Sonoma Highway, Sonoma (at Barking Dog Roasters); 707-939-1905, sonomaeatsmex.com
Croque Monsieur, Maison Porcella ($15): Chef Marc-Henri Jean-Baptiste’s luxurious pates, sausages and Parisian-style ham are the draws of this cozy cafe and wine bar, but if you’re willing to wait a minute, you can get a piping-hot Croque Monsieur that makes all other Croques seem pitiful. This grand ham and cheese sandwich includes creamy bechamel sauce, Gruyere cheese, homemade pain de mie (a slightly sweet French bread loaf) and thin slices of Jean-Baptiste’s award-winning ham. 8499 Old Redwood Highway, Suite 114, Windsor, 707-955-5611, maisonporcella.com
Carne Asada Fries, Galvan’s Eatery ($14): Mexican-inspired food with a beer garden sensibility makes this one of the best food trucks in Sonoma County. Seasoned fries are the base for Carne Asada Fries, a mountain of crispy, gooey deliciousness. Topped with bits of marinated steak (carne asada), mozzarella cheese, crema, pico de gallo and jalapeños, one serving is enough for a crowd. Find Galvan’s Eatery on Instagram @Galvanseatery or call 707-836-5087.