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Rare Gem

[whitespace] Heirloom Restaurant
Michael Amsler

Crown jewel: Heirloom Restaurant on the Sonoma Plaza offers Old World charm and fine food to rival the region's best established eateries.

Heirloom inherits locale, collects culinary kudos

By Paula Harris

IT'S A RARE TREAT to discover a restaurant that not only consistently delivers quality dishes but also includes a generous dollop of verve and imagination. Such a find is the aptly named Heirloom Restaurant & Lounge in the historic Sonoma Hotel on Sonoma Plaza. The venerable old corner building, built in 1880, may have had a checkered Wild West past and many incarnations, but for the past couple of months it's been home to Heirloom.

Inside Heirloom's dining room, a huge, wonderfully preserved wooden and mirrored Italian bar (built in 1909) is a charming centerpiece. The well-trodden, ancient wooden floor and the butterscotch-colored glass lamps hanging from the high ceiling add to the stately but cozy ambiance.

We tried lunch and then returned to sample dinner. The lunch menu is moderately priced and quite varied. We nibbled on warm crusty bread while soulful Italian vocals from the soundtrack of the movie Big Night flowed from the sound system.

The winter vegetable torte ($7.75) with herbed farmer cheese and market greens was a pretty picture. The generous slab had a brioche-style crust, exposing colorful layers of puréed sweet potatoes, turnips, celery root, and roasted red onion. Also on the lunch menu was grilled sterling salmon ($11.75), a moist, perfectly cooked fish accompanied by fresh baby dandelion greens and a serving of plump appaloosa beans with slivers of green picholine olives and flecks of thyme.

Ready for more, we returned the following evening to find tea lights flickering on the tables. Big Night had been replaced by the slinky-voiced Sade.

We launched into the spinach and frisée salad ($7.25), a tumble of fresh greens in a very light white balsamic vinaigrette with some delicious additions: wafer-thin slices of red d'anjou pears, toasted slivered almonds, and slender triangles of creamy carmody cheese. A winning combo.

The roasted Wolfe Ranch quail ($9.50) was another highly imaginative melange of tastes and textures. A perfectly gold roasted quail was stuffed with bread, leeks, and sage. It was served hot and crisp atop a bed of fresh watercress and garnished with pink, delicately flavored chioggia beets, tangy kumquat slices, and sweet toasted walnuts. The tastes "pinged" and played off each other like some celestial pinball machine of flavors.

The simply titled "egg noodles" ($11.25) turned out to be a rich-tasting pasta concoction with broccoli rabe, toasted garlic, and pancetta. These distinct but harmonizing flavors were heightened with chicken stock, marjoram, and a touch of pumpkin seed oil. The dish was garnished with slivers of aged Parmesan.

The roasted sea bass ($16.50) won further praise. The thick, soft flesh was a luminous white, tender, and moist. The fish rested on a pile of finely shredded cooked cabbage and was garnished with a trio of airy oval-shaped salt cod and parsnip dumplings. The entire dish seemed to be infused with the concentrated brine of the ocean, yet didn't taste overly salty, perhaps because it was balanced by a sweet onion broth.

Chef Michael Dotson, formerly of Plumpjack restaurant in San Francisco, manages to amplify flavors by layers, depths, and contrasts. He's obviously not scared to experiment, as most of the dishes are elevated by inspired touches. If we had one quibble, it would be that there are no vegetarian entrées available for dinner, but that could change as we're told the menu will rotate.

THE DESSERTS ARE delightful. A hazelnut crème brûlée ($5) had an intense nutty flavor augmented by a pair of buttery hazelnut cookies. A warm chocolate soufflé cake ($5) with pieces of candied oranges and a cappuccino crème anglais was a chocoholic's heaven. And the warm pear crisp ($5) with huckleberry ice cream was short on crumbly topping but long on orange zest aromas.

The fresh farmer cheese ($6) reminded me of restaurants in Lyons that routinely insert a cheese course between the entrée and the dessert. The cheese selection almost always includes fromage blanc (a smooth soft cheese served with sugar and thick cream). I've never forgotten the taste.

The farmer cheese used at Heirloom was a bit chalkier in texture, and it included honey instead of sugar, but still had that tangy sweetness and was a close approximation of the French version. The drizzles of thick wildflower honey and warm slices of grilled walnut bread were delicious additions.

The restaurant has a midsize wine list. The Kunde Sonoma Valley viognier ($28) we selected was light and fresh, with a slight floral quality that paired happily with our various courses.

As for the service, everyone we encountered was personable and efficient without being obtrusive--another reason to seek out this fresh new treasure and prepare to feast.

Heirloom Restaurant & Lounge
110 West Spain St., Sonoma; 939-6955
Hours: Lunch, from11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily; dinner, from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. daily
Food: "American prepared with a French hand," says the chef.
Ambiance: Cozy 19th-century elegance
Price: Moderate to expensive
Wine list: Adequate selection
Overall: ***1/2 (out of 4)

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From the February 18-24, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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