The newest addition to Healdsburg’s small-plate craze is in a familiar location: 241 Healdsburg Ave., a dining space most recently occupied by Shimo Modern Steak, Douglas Keane’s short-lived fancy. Prior to that it was the Cena Luna Restaurant, and digging back into time it was Catelli’s – owned by the patriarch of the family that now has the Geyserville restaurant.
Partake by KJ starts over. The “KJ” is Kendall-Jackson, of course, with chef Justin Wangler running the kitchen, building small plates to accompany the featured KJ wines with each dish. Wangler has been chef down at Kendall-Jackson’s headquarters in Fulton for nine years, but he’s showing no hesitation in bringing a stylish, flavorful menu of treats to the table.
Partake by KJ is a partial fulfillment of the Kendall Jackson Food and Wine Center passed by the Planning Commission last June, which was originally supposed to include an artisan retail shop, a tasting room and a deli with local charcuterie and cheeses, as well as an educational component, with fermentation tanks in the main part of the building, as a “living laboratory.”
The more modest concept of Partake is this: “Our seasonal plates are designed to highlight the unique character of each grape variety,” as the Bites menu reads. Or, as Wangler stresses while we sample the chef-curated From the Garden flight, “With balanced food, and balanced wine, it’s going to taste pretty good together.”
Bites and Flights are the two main sections of the menu, a document that was still undergoing revision the day after the soft opening on March 25, ahead of this weekend’s more trying tourist traffic. Instead of the default KJ Chardonnay, flagship wine of the mega-label consortium, there are choices from their Reserve lines and the less familiar premium Highland Estates label.
The idea for Bites is ordering a “nosh” (as one local blogger likes to say), and pair it with the suggested appropriate wine. So, If you’re in the mood for a Highland Estates Taylor Peak Merlot, the chef recommends the Tempura Maitake Mushrooms or a Liberty Duck tasting array of liver mousse, leg confit, smoked breast with verjus cherry jam.
A glass of that merlot and the duck plate will come to under $20, not bad for today’s luxe Healdsburg eateries.
The Flights menu is at once more complicated and more rewarding. Three to five wine are paired with appropriate plates, so you can sample a greater range of both.
What’s a little puzzling about the menu is, unlike most, it prioritizing the wine you order, not the food. The From the Garden flight for instance emphasizes (by bold face all caps type, a point size up) the Grand Reserve Sauvignon Blanc, Reserve Riesling, Grand Reserve Pinot Noir, Napa Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon (2006!) and an unusual Late Harvest Chardonnay, not the accompanying dishes.
Still, even though the plates seem an afterthought on the menu, they are definitely not in the presentation or the pleasure. In fact in retrospect it was the dishes I remember, and not the wines.
Like the carmelized carrots, guajillo chile, coconut and pepita brittle plate that was served with the – what was it again? Oh yes, the Vintner’s Reserve Riesling. True, an off-dry Riesling is at its best with a slightly spicy flavor – think Thai food – but there’s no way a Riesling can have the contemplative complexity of that carefully prepared dish.
The restaurant has adequate open space and comfort, with a 6 to 8 person group table in one room and a well-stocked wine bar in the other. “You sit people together who don’t know each other, and good things can happen,” as Wangler explained the group table.
Although reservations are accepted, it’s a good bet that weekend traffic, at least initially, will largely consist on passers-by looking for appetizers or a postprandial glass. Seating them at available space on the group table is sensible as well as social.
When people do settle in, there’s a good chance they may be served a complimentary glass of wine – in a black wine glass. it could be a red or a white, but you can’t tell; neither can aficionados example the “eye” of the pour to identify the grape. Since different people at the same table may get a different wine in the black glass, the trick is to guess based on palate and aroma alone what’s in it. It’s a conversation starter, to be sure.
I’m proud to say I guessed red.
While it was pretty quiet the afternoon I was there, with only a couple drop-ins and a few more reading the menu outside, they expect the real test will come this weekend, when the rooms and the restaurants and the streets fill with people who don’t live here.
“Healdsburg’s on fire,” said Wanger, and he expects a big crowd this weekend. Don’t imagine he’ll be disappointed.