Santa Rosa Seafood Raw Bar and Grill, 958 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa. 707.579.3474.
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WORD OF MOUTH Santa Rosa Seafood Raw Bar and Grill has become a popular dining destination thanks to its well known fish market.
It's hard to imagine a place atmospherically further from the sea than the parking lot of the new Santa Rosa Seafood Raw Bar and Grill.
And yet there it is, off a busy central avenue, across the street from a tire shop. The restaurant, unimpressive on the outside yet surprisingly chic and cozy on the inside, is a daughter business of the nearby Santa Rosa Seafood store, a local institution of sorts that specializes in fresh, locally sourced fish and seafood, and ships across the country.
The location, perfect for picking up fish for dinner but less appealing for a night out, has one clear advantage, though: the sign promising a restaurant "Coming Soon" was highly visible long before opening. It worked. Since opening in September, the restaurant has been buzzing, despite having "zero online presence," as the waiter proudly noted. Indeed, the restaurant's website still urges visitors, "Please stay tuned for our grand opening!" Santa Rosa Seafood relies on its food alone.
The kitchen fulfills the promise successfully, if not seamlessly. The ambition is visibly there, as the menu is long, varied and elaborate, listing such classics as fish and chips and fried calamari, along with raw offerings, hearty entrées and cocktails. Daily lunch and dinner specials are available too. From the specials menu, the Tokyo shrimp ($7), battered jumbos served on wakame salad and fiery red "volcano" sauce, was a classy and fun appetizer. The shrimp was delicious, if not very Japanese, and the crunchy wakame was so good that we immediately ordered more.
We shouldn't have. The ahi tuna poke ($14) came with that very same salad. This was the appetizer that stole the show, transporting us away from a cold winter day among mid-city concrete to a sunny beach hut far away. The simple, clean-tasting cubes of tuna were very fresh and came accompanied with wakame, white rice and two dipping sauces: the "volcano" sauce and a black sesame soy sauce. This was a combination I could have nibbled on forever, playing with proportions of rice, tuna and sauces.
After such a glamorous opening, we were excited about the entrées. The calamari steak ($16) sounded intriguing but turned out to be a flat patty of wan flavor, battered in egg and resting on rice, zucchini and fingerling potatoes.
The grilled swordfish ($20), with black bean purée and mango salsa, was better. The swordfish was juicy and properly flaky, and the mango kick complemented it nicely, but the purée threatened to overwhelm the flavor of the fish.
It's clear that the kitchen staff is precise and knowledgeable. Every individual ingredient we tried, from a simple potato to the heavenly tuna, was prepared and cut exactly right. When it comes to execution, however, it isn't always smooth sailing. Santa Rosa deserves a destination seafood place. Give Santa Rosa Seafood Raw Bar and Grill a couple of months to focus and narrow the menu down to absolute winners, and it could become that place.