INVITATION TO INDULGE Chalkboard chef Shane McAnelly, working wonders with the old Cyrus kitchen.
And so it was revealed to us that a new restaurant had opened in Healdsburg, but Leon and I had not yet dined there. Skipping such niceties as reservations, Leon donned his new silk and linen togs, I dusted off my "good" flip-flops, and into the car we went, headed north for an early meal.
Our destination was Chalkboard, the latest incarnation of the space that once reverently held Cyrus, in the Hotel Les Mars.
Cyrus, where the staff was hushed and the tables clothed. Cyrus, where the kitchen staff did gently spy on guests as their meals progressed, the better to prepare the next course. Cyrus, where there would never be a dirt-filled plant on a bare four-top or a community table or a merciless fruit fly . . .
To the very good Chalkboard where milk fat regularly moistens cheeks and lips and tongues and laps. Where we learned that gigli is not only a terrible Ben Affleck/J. Lo vehicle, but also a lily-shaped pasta that this kitchen likes to brighten with saffron. Chalkboard, where gnudi is not a spangled suit worn onstage by such deceased chaps as country star Porter Wagoner, but rather ravioli that's lost its coat. Where radishes are stuffed with homemade butter, baby carrots are to be dredged through a wonderful concoction known as "leek dip," and where dark rye bread crumbs are crushed into "soil." Where puny dietary vows die softly and the steak comes wrapped with bacon.
To Chalkboard, where they tried to seat the reservationless in the back, in a corner by the kitchen. But the room was empty at 5pm on a Thursday evening, and we wanted to be by the bright summer windows and sip a Hendrick's and tonic ($10), which you can damn well bet we did.
Listening to a recording of this meal—which I did so that you never, ever think of doing this yourself (the pop of your lips greased and floppy, your awful timbre escalating with wine . . . )—I hear our sober delight as we settle in by the windows, order our drinks and immediately request a tray of crab tater tots ($9) and that veggie plate ($8) which would reveal the butter-stuffed and the leek-dipped nestled amid rye soil with a side of duck-fat-fried frites. (I shudder to learn that I evidently chanted "butter-stuffed-radishes" in a cheerleader's rah, but a cheerleader would never have eaten them.)
Chalkboard is a small-plate place with nothing priced over $17, as chef Shane McAnelly's invitation to indulge. We didn't need the invite, ordering the fresh corn ($7) immediately upon spying it as a special. Roasted on the cob, the kernels are sheared off and married in a bowl with cilantro, feta and a chipotle crema that is washed with a squeeze of roasted lime. The server invited us to mix it up. Mix it we did.
We gobbled three plates before even deciding upon our main meal or wine. (The tater tots—formed into cubes, fried and topped with crème fraîche, chives and fresh crab lumps—were greedily consumed but needn't be mentioned again.) We duly perused, learning that many of the veggies come from the restaurant's dedicated three-acre patch situated on the Chalk Hill Estate Vineyards.
Perhaps it was the Hendrick's, but Leon promptly lost all geographic bearings, wondering aloud how they could serve fresh seafood so far inland. While the man has actually heard tales of air travel, a different type fortunately distracted him, as a single, manic Drosophila chose our human forms for repeated personal inspection. Doing his best Obama, Leon felled him in a swoop.
Talking with my mouth grossly smacking full, I settled upon the wild nettle and ricotta gnudi ($12), followed by the plate of buttermilk-fried quail ($15) that Leon had rejected as being too "tedious" to eat. I chose a glass of the ballsy (yes, it appears that I later amused myself by using that descriptor to the poor server) Chalk Hill Chardonnay ($12), while Leon opted for the gigli with crab and zucchini ($15) and the local king salmon ($15) with a glass of Fruilano ($8) to start.
Momentarily not eating, we surveyed the room, opened up and simplified since Cyrus, replete with the de rigueur community table, handsome wood chairs and small potted succulents on each table. More guests arrived, the servers were swift and graceful, the place quickly hummed.
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MMMMM The fabled veggie plate ($8), with butter-stuffed radishes.
My gnudi was vibrantly green, larded with maitake mushrooms, and swimming in a sauce that could only be described as butter. Truffle butter, all the better. Leon's gigli were crocus-yellow and ethereal with a slight heat from calabrian chiles. The wine, as has been noted, was ballsy.
I am pleased to report that we discussed abstract painting and the death of print journalism but soon moved shamefully on to kitchen products and why that friend we don't like didn't invite us to her party.
With our next course came two glasses of Bluxome Street Pinot Noir ($12) recommended by our server and just right for my emphatically nontedious quail, dressed as it was with nasturtium greens, and Leon's perfectly prepared three ounces of salmon. (He no longer wondered how it had made its way from the sea.)
We mellowed, we flushed, my voice growing louder in inverse proportion to the excellence of my jokes.
Of course we'd like dessert! Good God, man. We soon spooned up the creamy cold goodness of a salted balsamic vinegar and caramel gelato ($6). Over two hours had passed, and we knew Chalkboard.
We forgave the friend we don't like, we settled upon the kitchen items to buy, we didn't say another word about painting or papers. We took a long walk around the evening-stained streets and into the car we went, headed south for an early night home.
We'll soon go north to that spot again.
Chalkboard, 29 North St., Healdsburg. Open daily for dinner; lunch, Friday–Sunday. 707.473.8030.