Photograph by Michael Amsler

Bring on the Sass: Sassafras executive chef Jack Mitchell, pictured with his artfully plated crab cakes, took over the restaurant this summer.

In From the Cold

Sassafras is a warm respite from bad office-park juju

By Davina Baum

Sassafras begins at a disadvantage. This is for one reason only, and it has nothing to do with the excellent food served within: If one is concerned about one’s soul, avoiding office parks is job one. And driving into the office park on North Dutton Avenue, I feel my soul being sucked away.

Of course, the workers who labor away within the Santa Rosa Business Park probably feel otherwise. They can walk to Sassafras, and this should make them happy. Perhaps a midweek lunch at Sassafras counteracts the daily soul sucking. I hope so. Executive chef Jack Mitchell–he took over from longtime proprietor Michael Hirschberg this summer–seems to be doing his best to mollify the effect of the jarring environs with his revamped menu.

Entering the roomy restaurant, the office-park feeling doesn’t immediately recede–just look out the window and the fluorescent glow of an adjacent office numbs the eyes. Small potted plants in the window are a minor distraction from the sucking of the soul. The Matisse-flavored design in dark reds and greens on the partition screens mirrors the upholstery and seems to have been ordered from an office catalog. But the lighting is warm and the couches in the bar area inviting, and an expertly made negroni ($6)–Campari, gin, and sweet vermouth–soothes the office-park jitters. And it only gets better from there.

Seated at a corner booth, my friend and I take in the menu, which is pleasingly peppered with seafood and seasonal produce selections. A few vegetarian options are available, such as ample salad choices and, from the entrées, a warm vegetable gateau, which is explained to us as a layered production of vegetables topped with cheese. Our server offers to have the kitchen split our starters on two plates, a thoughtful suggestion that avoids forks fighting for that last lettuce leaf.

The Dungeness crab cakes ($12)–first of the season–are creamy with sweet crab meat and beautifully plated with orange wedges and pomegranate seeds. The two plump cakes sit on a bed of fennel slaw, a crisp counter to the cakes. The red oakleaf lettuce salad with toasted pecans, Bartlett pears, and gorgonzola ($6) indeed includes all these ingredients, although the dressing is almost nonexistent.

With our entrées we order wine, but the mini carafes are mixed up by the server or the bartender. The server directs us to figure out which is which–although we’re not here for a tasting exercise (a large table at the front of the house is, actually, conducting a blind tasting). The wines are distinct, luckily. The Jepson Mendocino Viognier ($6) is perfumey with nectarine overtones; the Nalle Riesling ($5) is pleasantly dry.

The grilled half chicken ($17) again showcases the kitchen’s artistic impulses. The deconstructed leg and breast sit in a deep-red cranberry coulis, contrasting against the orange of baked butternut squash chunks. The chicken is juicy, and the flavors sing of autumn goodness.

Pan-seared rainbow trout ($16) sits on top of a field-mushroom hash and is stuffed with bacon, apples, and onions. It’s a deeply comforting dish, the trout cooked to moist perfection and the hash melding with a rich sauce on the side.

Desserts are an indulgent affair. The menu offers a number of dessert wine flights and spiked coffee drinks, if you prefer your after-dinner sugar in liquid and fermented form. We sampled the ice cream sandwich ($6), which arrived poised on a plate criss-crossed with rich caramel sauce and whipped cream. The chocolate cookies, which had been dipped in a delicious bittersweet chocolate, hugged a slab of cinnamon ice cream.

The bread pudding ($6) was moist and light, as bread pudding should be. The heaviness, though, came from the bourbon sauce it was sitting in, which was alcoholic enough to get a buzz going. Our server ceded that in future the chef was going to tweak the sauce a little because of the alcohol content–probably not a dessert for the kids.

On another occasion, I sample the pizzas. They’re good-sized and eminently shareable. Labeling them “flatbread” pizza, though, is misleading. The dough is yeasty and bubbling, more soft than crisp, more American than flatbread Italian. The housemade chorizo ($10) is crumbly, smoky, and delicious, generously spread over the pie with feta and lime zest. The lime gives a welcome citrus punch to the flavor. A more basic tomato pie ($10) is punched up by ample garlic, but it has a touch too much cheese–mozzarella, feta, and chèvre combine into a gooey mess.

Sassafras rises above its undistinguished environs. In the summer, the outdoor patio–overlooking a concrete sea of parking lots–is quite nice. You can close your eyes and pretend that you are somewhere else, or just focus on the plates in front of you, where more pleasant distractions lie.

Lunch, Monday-Friday, 11:30am-5:30pm; dinner daily, from 5:30pm. 1229 North Dutton Ave., Santa Rosa (in the Santa Rosa Business Park). 707.578.7600.

From the November 27-December 3, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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