FAMILY AFFAIR Chef Dustin Valette (pictured) oversees the kitchen at Valette, while brother Aaron Garzini helms the dining room.
'Oh, you're going to Valette!" lights up a party guest when I reveal the after-party plan. "We were there just last week," exclaims another guest proudly.
It is clear that even half a year into opening, Valette is still very much the talk of the town. The restaurant is helping cement Healdsburg's reputation as a food lover's destination.
It's understandable. Valette possesses all the qualities that make a diner's heart melt. It's a story of locality and family pride. Valette is owned by brothers Dustin Valette, head chef, and Aaron Garzini, who leads the front of the house.
The dark-toned dining room is dominated by an appealing (and huge) painting of a bull in a pasture and accented by modern lighting fixtures. The kitchen is open and affords an eye-catching view the charcuterie hanging in a glass-fronted refrigerator. The long, welcoming bar fits nicely within the aesthetic of Healdsburg's fine-dining scene while bringing its own refined, if a little rustic, edge.
Valette's service is informal and knowledgeable, especially if you get the cheery, slightly theatrical John, who makes you feel as if you're a guest at your favorite uncle's. It all goes toward making Valette a hit—but in the end, the food has to shine through.
Just like the bull painting, Valette's menu lures you in with simplicity and familiar ingredients—and like the designer lamps, it surprises with imaginative flair.
My dinner starts on a classic note, a charcuterie and cheese sampling ($21), accompanied by warm rolls and butter. The beef torchon, the brazeola and Bohemian Creamery cheeses are all great, and the soft rolls, flavored with roasted garlic and fennel seed, are a delicious match.
Next comes the delicate ahi tataki ($15). Every self-respecting establishment, it seems, serves some version of seared tuna, but Valette's stands out. Ridiculously fresh and seasoned with just a touch of lime, the ahi is perched on a mixture of cubed persimmon, tiny croutons, friseé and pomegranate seeds, with an artistic smudge of persimmon purée. Kitchens often treat these accompaniments as unimportant additions, but here the fresh, sweet and sour salad is a worthy partner to the tuna.
The entrées all sound fascinating, if a little busy. Combining many elements on a plate is a symptom of California restaurants, from San Francisco to Sonoma. Sometimes it works, and sometimes the idea overwhelms the flavor. Valette generally avoids the pitfalls.
The striped bass ($29), however, served over yellow lentil dal and dressed in a coconut emulsion, doesn't add up. The bass is perfectly crisp and juicy, but the Indian elements in the dish took could be more bold and flavorful.
Taking a Mediterranean turn, the lamb bacon ($29) is exceptional. Served with cumin-flavored chickpea-flour fries, chickpea and olive relish and hummus, it's a clever ode to the many faces of the humble legume. Bit the lamb is the star of the plate. It came in a charred hunk, a humble presentation that conceals its preparation. The lamb shoulder is thinly sliced, explains the waiter, rolled and smoked "just like bacon." But it's nothing like bacon; it's better. Underneath the crispy outlines, the lamb retains its juicy texture and comes out tender and smoky, and the lemony relish lights up the rich, bacony flavor.
Charmed, we almost forget about the side dish, baby vegetable jardinière ($7). Again, technique and attention to detail shine through, in the form of four Brussels sprouts, lightly pickled and deep fried whole, accompanied by marinated and seared carrots, fennel and more chickpeas.
There's almost no room for dessert, but the red wine-poached quince ($8) sounds light enough. Unfortunately, the tiny quince slices are hidden in a dense frangipane tart, putting the dessert on the heavier side of the list. The chai and bourbon ice cream beside it is fantastic, especially when the wine-flavored salt garnish makes it onto the spoon.
It's small touches like this that make Valette a serious contender for Healdsburg's best new restaurant. Valette manages to create something rare: memorable flavors and surprising moments. I expect customers will be coming back for exactly that long after the halo moves on to somewhere else.
Valette, 344 Center St., Healdsburg. 707.473.0946.