Crossing the Rubicon: Freestyle! executive chef Scott Newman, also of the Rubicon in San Francisco, has brought a fresh taste to the Sonoma eatery.

Freestyle! stays true to form

By Paula Harris

IT’S CALLED Freestyle! (yes, complete with exclamation point), but this year-old Sonoma eatery has nothing to do with the swimming scene; rather, the name embraces its free-form cuisine. “The chef doesn’t want to be tied down to any one cuisine,” explained our server during a recent visit.

Changes are under way at Freestyle!, former chef Steven Levine has moved on, and owners Drew and Tracy Nieporent, who own 12 restaurants nationwide, have brought in chef Scott Newman from their successful Rubicon restaurant in San Francisco. Freestyle! is holding up well during the transition.

The interior is the same: warm blond wood tables and chairs supplemented by luxurious maroon velvet banquettes. (The comfortable overstuffed cushions we lolled against on a previous visit were gone, but our server assured us they are being replaced.) The peachy faux marble walls and ceiling, the glowing cone-shaped light shades, and the recorded jazz create a warm, easygoing atmosphere. The professional Freestyle! staff strike a good balance between formality and cordiality.

Our server immediately brought us a small cutting board with rustic bread, a tiny cast-iron skillet of sweet butter and a miniature crock of sea salt, and a complimentary tidbit of house-cured salmon with lemon dressing, as we scanned the menu, which contains some minor adjustments.

Unfortunately, the restaurant’s popular signature “appetizer taste of the day,” which used to spotlight one ingredient and offer a tapa-sized taste done three different ways, is no longer offered. However, the appetizers we sampled were good.

The heirloom-tomato salad with baby greens and basil oil ($8.50) was a colorful, almost Oriental presentation on a black oblong plate. We munched on six types of tomatoes of various hues and sizes, along with whole aromatic basil leaves.

The seared-scallop salad with arugula and sweet corn ($8) was a winner. Four perfectly seared, large, plump scallops were served warm around a bed of cool greens, and the dish was scattered with sweet toothlike kernels of white corn and cherry tomato halves.

The vegetable risotto ($17) was brimming with tender white baby turnips, baby carrots, chunks of tomato, fava beans, sweet peas, and leeks, and flavored with tarragon. It had a lovely light flavor and a good texture–the grains of rice were moist and tender without being mushy.

Next, we tried the grilled Bradley Ranch hanger steak ($21), a survivor from the previous menu. Served in red wine sauce and accompanied by sautéed spinach and potato galette, this was a very tender cut of meat with an intense, almost gamey flavor. The thick, rich potato cake, with luscious layers of cream and cheese, added to the flavor wallop. A glass of 1995 Topolos Piner Heights Zinfandel ($6.50 a glass), a hearty, prune-scented red with a bittersweet finish, paired nicely.

The pan-roasted chicken with crispy polenta, fennel, and bell peppers ($17) was beautifully golden and juicy, and the exceptionally crisp triangles of polenta with a creamy interior containing a hint of spice were like a savory french toast.

Freestyle! has a full bar and an impressive wine list featuring wine regions, such as Chalk Hill, Alexander Valley, Russian River, Dry Creek Valley, and Sonoma Mountain. There are also several ever-changing wines by the glass.

The 1996 Benziger Imagery Series Pinot Blanc ($7.50 a glass) was deep gold, with a mellow melted butter flavor and a deep, creamy finish that was wonderful with the scallops.

Many of the desserts at Freestyle! have their roots in classical, homey, American sweets. A warm peach tart ($6), cooled with a scoop of peach ice cream and floating on a lake of peach sauce, was like eating a bushel of the succulent fruit.

But a nectarine-blueberry shortcake ($6) was tarter and heavier than we remembered from a previous visit. The sconelike shortcake was less airy, the lemon filling more sour. If the previous chef’s shortcake was like a summer fantasy, evoking garden parties and floaty chiffon dresses, this version was like the chiffon dresses with platform shoes and woolen shawls.

The sin-filled devil’s food cake ($6), made with Valrhona chocolate and topped with espresso ice cream and malted-milk sauce, was decorated with a wafer-thin chocolate cookie Satan’s fork. The ice cream packed a caffeine punch, and the fudgy-spongy cake made for a delicious combo. It was especially nice with a glass of the portlike Domaine du Mas Blanc Banyuls 1979 ($7), which seemed to echo the chocolate flavor.

“How was dinner?” inquired our server as we prepared to leave.

“I’m not sure whether we’re floating or sinking at this point” was my dining companion’s happy response.

Address: 522 Broadway, Sonoma; 996-9916
Hours: Open for dinner only, 5:30. to around 9:30 p.m.; closed Tuesdays
Food: Eclectic but sophisticated mix incorporating different cuisines and flavors
Service: Very professional
Ambiance: Intimate casual-chic; comfortable place to linger
Price: Moderate to expensive
Wine list: Impressive selection, with wines from each local region
Overall: *** (out of 4 )

From the August 13-19, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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