Joe O'Donnell, who's doing the cooking at Seared, the steak and seafood restaurant in Petaluma, is a good chef who shows his talent and ambition in his creations. He'll be even better when he adds a little more subtlety.
One of his appetizers on a recent night was Bellwether Farms Ricotta Toast ($7 **). After Bellwether makes its famous San Andreas and Pepato sheep's milk cheeses, the leftover whey is cooked and the ricotta precipitates out. It's a delicious, lusciously textured product. O'Donnell spreads it on slices of toasted, crusty Italian bread. Stopping there would have let the ricotta take center stage. But he's added local honey, and the sweetness steps on the ricotta. Candied hazelnuts add to the confusion, as do raw vegetables. The result is complex and good, but just ricotta and toast would have been even better.
However, it's easy to understand that a young chef would want to put some extra pizzazz into his dishes. He does that successfully with The Wedge ($8 ***), his take on an Iceberg lettuce salad. For years, Iceberg lettuce has been given a bad rap — old-fashioned, boring, nutritionless, tasteless. But it's recently come back into favor because it has a satisfying crunch. And chefs like O'Donnell know how to bring a wedge to life. He does it by adding sliced cherry tomatoes, shavings of watermelon radishes, bits of Nueske's bacon, crumbles of Pt. Reyes blue cheese, and a creamy and intense blue cheese dressing.
Seared is a roomy venue, occupying the space that used to be Graziano's. There's a full bar straight ahead as you enter, and the large dining room is on the right, with big windows that look out on Petaluma Boulevard. At the back of the dining room is an oven capable of reaching 1,200 degrees F., so steaks can be seared on a grill then flash-finished in the oven to seal in the juices.
The modest wine list pretty much doubles the wines' retail price, a fairly usual practice in restaurants. But Seared takes 25 percent off every bottle on Thursday nights. Corkage is $15.
An appetizer of five skewers of Seared Filet Mignon ($8 ***) was a tender way to prompt the appetite. They came with a jalape? chermoula sauce, a sort of Moroccan chimichurri made from cilantro, parsley, lemon juice, sea salt, paprika, cumin, and olive oil. Wild Mushroom Arancini ($9 **) were four balls of risotto crisped brown on the outside and served with a kale pesto. But where were the wild mushrooms?
Main courses of beef include prime rib (Fridays through Sundays), an eight-ounce filet for $28, 14-ounce ribeye for the same price, 12-ounce grass-fed New York for $26, a 32-ounce ribeye (for two) for $65, and our choice, a nine-ounce Akaushi Wagyu Hanger Steak ($21 **-1/2). A word of explanation: Akaushi, meaning "Japanese red," is one of four breeds of indigenous Japanese cattle (wagyu means "Japanese cattle"). Akaushi is now also grown in the U.S.
The steak came nicely drenched in a flavorful demi-glace. It was tender, where it wasn't gristle or fat, with a mild flavor. It was accompanied by the jalape? chermoula sauce, usually slathered on fish in Morocco, but perfectly at home gracing a piece of beef. The beef was accompanied by a disappointing side order of flaccid French fries — tasty enough, but soft instead of crispy.
One of the a la carte side dishes was Creamed Spinach ($5 *), a deeper disappointment, although a topping of batter-coated, deep-fried shallots was fun. The spinach tasted like other greens — arugula for one — were mixed in. It wasn't very creamy, there was no hint of garlic or nutmeg, and the stems had been chopped along with the leaves.
Mount Lassen Trout ($18 **) is from the Mount Lassen Trout Farm. Unlike most farmed trout whose flesh is grayish white, Mount Lassen's has pink flesh, like wild trout, an artifact of its diet of chum. The generously proportioned chunk of trout was gently cooked and tasted fresh, although with a noticeable oiliness.