The food at Walter Hansel Wine & Bistro in Santa Rosa is outstanding.
As the evening's dishes were brought to our table, they seemed to get better and better — and they were great to start with. The cooking is French, with a modest shout-out to Peru.
Several people deserve thanks for this fine new restaurant. First, kudos to Stephen Hansel, of the family that has been selling vehicles in Sonoma County since 1961, and who operates Walter Hansel Winery and Vineyards, 75 acres of top-notch chardonnay and pinot noir about a mile from the restaurant. The winery and restaurant are named for Stephen's father, Walter, now deceased.
The man to thank for the artful dishes is executive chef Philippe Colasse, who grew up in France, where he went to culinary school and trained in several Michelin-starred restaurants.
He came to Los Angeles to cook privately for celebrities, then to Las Vegas and stints at the Bally casino and MGM Grand, before finally arriving in Sonoma County. Thanks also to his sous chef, Saul Barragan.
Hansel wines dominate the wine list, and rightfully so. The winery's chardonnay is highly rated, as are its five pinot noirs — all in the $50 to $60 range.
But there's much else to choose from. Any wine list that carries Robert Biale's "Black Chicken" Zinfandel ($75) is a savvy list indeed.
Service is professional, quick and unobtrusive.
Dinner started with a shot glass of warm broccoli puree as the amuse bouche.
It's exciting to see a chef like Colasse apply his expertise to cuisines other than French, because his French sensibilities can add something delightfully unexpected.
That's the case with the Peruvian Causa ($13.50 ****), an iconic potato dish from Peru. Colasse makes two towers on the plate. The base of each is whipped potatoes topped with a cream sauce spiced with aji amarillo, a pepper so identified with Peru that some claim there would be no Peruvian cuisine without it.
The surprise is the sweet, hickory-smoked salmon that tops the causa, and the artful assemblages of green avocado, red and white radish rounds, black olives and white quail eggs in a row behind the towers.
It's as beautiful as it is delicious.
Raw oysters taste so good plain that it usually seems shameful to gussy them up with sauces, but the Chilled Shigoku Oyster Cebiche ($14.50 ***) is a major exception. Shigokus are Willapa Bay oysters tumbled by tides twice a day so they develop a deep cup and a pure flavor of salt, cucumber and water chestnut. They're dressed with aji amarillo, lime juice, shallots, chives and tobiko (flying-fish roe), without which the oysters would have been better served.
You could almost hear La Marseillaise playing when the Liberty Duck Rillettes ($13.50 ****) hit the table. Duck meat is slow cooked in seasoned fat, then pounded into a coarse paste, placed in a small pot and covered with a thin layer of duck fat. It's served cold, to be spread on croutons cut from a baguette, assisted by cornichons and Dijon mustard. You'll find this classic everywhere in France, but not with the irresistible apple-quince chutney that Colasse has created — a chutney so wonderful that he should think about selling it commercially.