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Johnny Garlic's 

Garlic Is God

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Michael Amsler

Lite bulb? Johnny Garlic's serves a heapin' helpin' of our favorite root vegetable. Above, patrons enjoy the wine bar.

Johnny Garlic's smells like a rose

By Paula Harris

THEY SAY GARLIC has curative powers. As the bodacious bulb is credited with being an antidote for whatever ails you--from toothaches to evil demons--I wondered whether the healing and fortifying properties of this aromatic root could soothe the jangled nerves of my commuter-companion, who'd just arrived suitably grumpy and frazzled from Highway Hell. We experimented with a short trip to Santa Rosa's Johnny Garlic's on a recent Thursday night.

The place was jammed. No space in the restaurant parking lot meant a hike up the street, which did not bode well with my commuter-curmudgeon. However, we eventually arrived, pushed open the heavy glass door, and took a deep breath. And a step back. The pungent aroma was enough to fell a vampire at 50 paces.

More likely, it was the sweet smell of success permeating the air. Johnny Garlic's is not an eatery chain--though it feels like one--and indeed soon will be one. There are plans to expand to a second location somewhere in the county by early next year.

The natural exuberance of the staff was contagious. We were enveloped in an upbeat, comfortable atmosphere where Garlic is God and is worshiped baked, fried, roasted, caramelized, raw, slung into sauces, pasted into pastas, and inhaled any way you can get it.

During the short wait for a table, we sat at the counter and ordered the "famous" garlic potato chips ($2.50) served with sour cream dipping sauce. These proved to be a delicious potent initial infusion that left us with the satisfying sensation of garlic salt clinging to our lips. We washed away the traces with glasses of lightly chilled, slightly oaky J. Fritz Russian River Valley 1994 Chardonnay ($5).

By day, the restaurant looks fairly nondescript, but at night the muted back-lighting and mauve and ochre ceiling resemble a dusky desert sky on the brink of a storm--giving the dining room an interesting luminous but earthy quality.

We nibbled house-made focaccia bread that was herbed and crunchy (but could have been warmer and less oily) and surveyed the 72-item menu. Our server was friendly and efficient.

The roasted California garlic bulb with goat cheese salsa ($3.95) was a delightful melange of Crayola-red tomatoes, fresh basil, and light, creamy goat cheese piled onto barely toasted sourdough bread points. The center attraction was a sizable, fragrant bulb of roasted garlic. "Squeeze it and spread it like margarine," suggested our server. We did and the cloves were perfectly soft and creamy.

Polynesian coconut-breaded shrimp ($5.95) began as a tropical treat. Four tender and butterflied shrimp were encased in a delectable golden coating that evoked hazy memories of Maui. Unfortunately, there was an abrupt culture clash when we tasted the accompanying warm, orange dipping sauce, which resembled thick English marmalade and was too sweet.

The cream of roasted garlic soup (cup $2.50, bowl $3.95), touted as Johnny Garlic's "nectar of the bulb," was agreeably silky but not as full-flavored as we'd anticipated.

Fearing the chardonnay would be overpowered by the next courses, we switched to a full and peppery 1995 Quivira Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel ($26) and were not disappointed.

Next we sampled the penne arrabiata ($7.50): Warning! Not for the faint of heart. The pasta was cooked perfectly al dente and tossed in hot chili and red bell peppers. This spicy, garlicky sauce clung to the ribbed penne and set it afire. "Incredible," concluded the now-relaxed and sweaty-browed commuter, but he is a spicy-food fanatic. I suspect most diners would find this dish unpleasantly hot.

The three-garlic rosemary chicken breasts ($9.50) were a subtler alternative. Skinless chicken marinated with Creole, Russian Red Torch, and California varieties of garlic was served with a creamy sauce infused with just a kiss of the stinking rose. The accompanying caramelized garlic mashed potatoes were as warm and comforting as pudding. Plain, steamed broccoli, carrot, red onion, and zucchini made a clean counterbalance.

We sampled the two house-made desserts. The unremarkable tiramisu ($3.95) was heavy on dairy but seemed to lack any perceivable depth of espresso coffee and Marsala wine. Far better was the Breath Mint Pie ($3.95). Invented by a regular customer of Johnny Garlic's, this concoction featured mint ice cream blended with Junior Mint candies and was served on an Oreo cookie crust. With whipped-cream splotches, chocolate syrup squirts, and teeny chocolate chips thrown in for good measure, this cool green dessert was a calorific but completely refreshing contrast to all that garlic (which, by now, had worked like a psychotropic drug to ease our stresses and enliven our taste buds).

Johnny Garlic's must have figured that the aroma of cigars would vie formidably with the fragrant cuisine, because there was a midrange cache of cigars available on the counter humidor, and some diners relaxed with their smokes on the "outdoor cigar patio."

Of course, you don't have to indulge in the stogies; the food is satisfying enough--and, as far as I know, someone has yet to file a lawsuit concerning the dangers of secondhand garlic breath.

Johnny Garlic's
1460 Farmers Lane, Santa Rosa, 571-1800
Hours: Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Food: Eclectic, full-flavored, mostly involving garlic
Service: Excellent
Ambiance: Cheerful, family-oriented, fun, and energetic
Price: Moderate
Wine list: Well-rounded selection featuring Sonoma County vintages, including 21 wines by the glass, 24 by the bottle
Overall: ***(out of four stars)

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From the Oct. 23-29, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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