There are two Healdsburgs. There’s the one we live in, with its markets and services and schools; and there’s the one that others visit – the “destination city” in the Wine Country, with its boutiques and its tasting rooms and its fine dining.
But only those of us who live here can have the best of both worlds. On weekends or many nights it’s possible to visit the same Healdsburg that outsiders see. No, we don’t have to stay at the or or any of the other hotels or b&b’s in town, but we can always dine at the .
Officially Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen, brand-named by its founding celebrity chef, the “DCK” was in the first wave of fine dining establishments to open in town. It was badly beaten out of the gate by , along with every other white-table restaurant in town, which opened in 1992; but even by 2001 when DCK served its first entrée, competition was limited. Then again, Healdsburg was only beginning its extreme makeover.
Now there are a number of choices in town to “explore fine cuisine” instead of just “have dinner,” and DCK remains in the top tier. We showed up earlier this week to talk with restaurant manager Dan Prentice about plans for the Pigs & Pinot event coming this weekend, and in the course of events we experienced and enjoyed the foods, wines, and attention to detail that makes the restaurant a Sonoma County landmark.
Charlie Palmer, now 50, made his reputation at Manhattan’s Aureole, which opened in 1988. A handful of other properties followed, all featuring his “progressive American cuisine” – “an evolving style of cooking, built on classical French techniques with a focus on American regional ingredients,” as Palmer defines it. The Dry Creek Kitchen opened in 2001 with the completion of the Hotel Healdsburg.
In keeping with Palmer’s ethic of cuisine, there is a heavy emphasis on local and seasonal on the menu, prepared and served to the highest degree of quality. Service is attentive, presentation is imaginative, and flavors are alternately surprising and perfectly appropriate, sometimes in the same bite.
As we shared a charcuterie board with house-made salumni, olives, mustards, spicy pickled vegetables and something that Prentice called “cornichons” – which looked and tasted a lot like gherkins to me – we talked about the upcoming Pigs and Pinot event this weekend, Friday and Saturday (March 18-19) at the and Dry Creek Kitchen.
The event is a charity event for various education funds, including the , , , and the national Save Our Strength foundation. It showcases and celebrates the culinary sympathy of pork-inspired dishes with pinot noir, the now hugely-popular varietal that’s the foundation of French burgundies.
Friday it’s the Pinot Cup competition. Five stations of wine situated throughout the hotel and restaurant will have over 60 pinots for tasting, professionally judged by a team of sommeliers and other wine experts (including Sonoma wine writers Leslie Sbrocco and Dan Berger) in five different categories – new and rising wineries are in the Discoveries category, with a number of regional categories as well.
Tastings are served alongside a variety of pork dishes from Charlie Palmer and the DCK’s chef de cuisine, Dustin Valette, as well as other guest chefs and local restaurateurs. The winning judged wines are announced Friday evening in the event tent on the hotel green, and following there’s a “winner’s circle” tasting for event participants in the DCK location.
The next day offers three key events, starting at 10:30am with a Tournament of the Pig where four chefs (including Charlie Palmer and possibly Nancy Oakes of Boulevard, both Healdsburg residents) prepare three distinct pork dishes from three different pork ingredients, a sort of Iron Chef-style competition held for a limited audience at Relish Culinary Adventures.
Later, at 1:00pm, there’s the Ultimate Pinot Smackdown, during which four Master Sommeliers choose four pinots each and try to “sell” the audience on their favorites. Ultimately, the audience picks the winner in a blind tasting.
Saturday night Pigs & Pinot officially climaxes with the Gala Dinner at the Dry Creek Kitchen, starting at 6:30. The five-course dinner features plates from Palmer, Oakes, brothers Michael and Bryan Voltaggio, Marc Forgione, and Philippe Rispoli of Boulangerie Bistro. Each course is paired with not one but two limited production pinot noirs, including last year’s Pinot Cup winner from Woodenhead.
If your head isn’t swimming, your stomach growling and your palette curling with anticipation, you haven’t been paying attention. Another reason might be you already know you can’t get tickets – they sold out long ago – and even if you could the hotel and event packages run $1729 and up. Time to save up for next year.
But there are a couple ways that locals can participate, even at this late date. One is to try for a last-minute ticket to the Pigs & Pinot Sunday Supper, held at Dry Creek Kitchen on Sunday night, March 20. Though technically not a part of the Pigs & Pinot event, Charlie Palmer and Dustin Valette are already planning a four-course pork-centric meal for a relatively modest $132. But you’d better make your reservations now --- call 431-0330, with credit card at the ready.
The other way, and this is far more affordable and flexible, is simply to dine at the Dry Creek Kitchen for lunch or dinner between now and the end of the month. Inspired pork dishes are featured, and the pinot list is lengthened to offer more choice, more regions, more flavors by house sommelier Drew Munro.
For all the innovation, quality and presentation that the restaurant offers, the prices verge on the reasonable. (All menus, updated seasonally, are available on the restaurant website.) The Sonoma Neighbors Menu is a prix fixe three-course meal for only $36, with paired wines for $51. Yes, it has a pork entrée, this month being pan-roasted pork loin with organic swiss chard, potato ragu, garlic confit and mustard jus. A first-course local citrus salad with warm goat cheese and tasted pistachios, and a banana mini-cake dessert with bacon ice cream and chocolate ganache bookend the entrée.
On Mondays and Tuesdays the rest of the month, a jazz duo or trio plays during the dinner hours, 7 to 10 p.m. The Hotel Healdsburg and Dry Creek Kitchen have always been supporters of the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, and this is one way they show it. The Sonoma Neighbors Menu is available those nights, as well ordering a la carte.
Although the traditional objection to such high-end cuisine is small servings, I realized when I couldn’t finish my own entrée – breaking with expectation, I had ordered Coriander Crusted Sonoma Duck, with piz rouge, pickled dried cherries, toasted almonds and frisée salad – that the servings weren’t as small as the plates were large. You’ll get plenty, and since each bite is worth your fullest attention you will be fully satisfied.
Did I have a pinot? Why, yes. At Munro’s suggestion, I tried the County Line 2009 Pinot, rich in cherry with a hint of spice, from Eric Sussman of Radio-Coteau.
Now admittedly all this takes more out of your Spell Check and high school French vocabulary that ordering, say, a cheeseburger and a beer. But that’s an everyday meal, and dining at Dry Creek Kitchen is not an everyday experience. It should be valued, and savored, and recognized for what it is – a premiere dining experience in that rising Wine Country destination city, Healdsburg.
For us locals, we don’t need to travel or rent a room. Instead, just head on down to the Plaza, and pretend you’re visiting one of the most desirable places to live in California. Then congratulate yourself that you do.