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Reviewed on Sunday, April 20, 2008

At Central Market in Petaluma, little surprises lurk in almost every dish to tantalize and intrigue the taste buds.

Take the Warm Spicy Lamb Cabbage Rolls ($9.50 ***1/2 ), for example. Cabbage rolls are ordinarily pretty bland affairs, but the first bite of one of these surprises you with a flood of flavors. First is the distinct taste of lamb that replaces the too-familiar taste of hamburger used to make ordinary cabbage rolls. But then the North African and Indian spices like cumin, coriander, cinnamon and preserved lemon push through. And the cabbage rolls are served in a triple yummy broth. It's a simple little appetizer that perks up the palate.

The man behind the surprises at Central Market is chef Tony Najiola, a New Orleans native who has a knack for making familiar dishes into something special. But none of his talent would matter if his cooks -- the men who actually prepare the dishes he invents -- weren't well-trained and talented in their own right. They send out expertly prepared dishes that never seem to falter from the standards Najiola sets for them.

A fine example of food done right is the Pizzetta ($11 ****). A more perfect pizza crust can't be imagined. It's cooked to perfection in the wood-burning oven that occupies center stage in the open kitchen in the middle of the room. In Italy, it seems that every other shop sells little pizzas, but this beauty is better than any I've had there. It's topped with mozzarella cheese bubbled brown, house-made fennel sausage, shaved fennel and little florets of the richly flavored broccoli variety called De Cicco. It is as good a pizza as anywhere in Sonoma County, and at $11 a pie, it qualifies as a ``best buy.''

The pleasures at Central Market extend to the small details. House-made crackers flavored with cumin accompany the house-made bread in the basket that's brought when you sit down. Order a glass of Susana Balbo's Torrontes, a floral Argentine white. Take alternate bites of the cracker with sips of the wine for a taste pairing made in heaven.

This food isn't pretentious, either. Like all great Mediterranean and Provencal cooking, it exalts good ingredients without muddying them up. The Wood Fired Jumbo Asparagus ($5 ***1/2 ) is a snack of four extra large and tender asparagus spears cooked al dente in the wood oven, glistening with olive oil and given a sprinkling of olive oil-fried, tiny, crunchy bread crumbs. The chief flavor is pure asparagus, honored at this most asparagus-y time of year by the simple presentation, rather than covered with a goopy hollandaise sauce that would be the culinary cliche.

The restaurant is one large, square, high-ceilinged room with three booths and many tables covered with mats of embossed brown paper. You enter through red velvet drapes that hang inside the door. Service is expertly provided by a very professional staff.

One of the most enjoyable features of the restaurant is its wine list, which goes deep rather than broad; that is, it lists just two sparklers, one rose, 18 whites, and 34 reds -- but they are all chosen for their character, they are nicely priced, and they're from all over the world. Here's a 2004 Montepulciano D'Abruzzo for just $28, a 2006 Nebbiolo D'Alba for $36, and a 2005 Garnacha from Spain for $24. Local wines figure in -- the 2005 Ravens-wood ``Old Vine'' Zinfandel is $34, among other treasures.

An urbane, jazzy atmosphere complements the savvy food. Good jazz -- as opposed to the schmaltzy stuff -- plays on the sound system. Three large paintings on the south wall are tone poems of color. The north wall is old brick, hung with copper cookware and kitchen implements. The west wall is glass and looks out on the intersection of Petaluma Boulevard and Western Avenue, where Hiro's Restaurant serves wonderful sushi and sashimi.

But even Hiro's has nothing on the Kona Kampachi ($10.50 ***1/2 ) from Central Market's raw bar. Two slices of yellowtail sashimi, farmed inside extensive netting placed in the open ocean, are touched with lemon olive oil and accented with a serrano guacamole. The surprise here is that there is no discernible spicy heat to the guacamole, but that's all to the good as it leaves the palate clean to taste the fish and notice the flavor bursts of salt crystals that dot its surface.

The nightly special was an Oxtail Terrine ($10 ***), made with oxtail meat, topped with olive oil and minced shallots, and set on a medley of crunchy, lightly pickled vegetables. This is one of those restaurants where ordering a few starters might obviate the need for a main course. If so, include the Gulf Shrimp over Fideos Pasta ($10 ***1/2 ). Fideos is a form of pasta -- short, thin, and slightly curved -- with a long history. It's a staple from Spain to Greece. Typically cooked in the sauce that it's served with, as is the case here with a red sauce, it's joined by the shrimp, house-made chorizo, and a spicy aioli. It all comes together beautifully.

Provencal Saffron Fish Soup ($8.50 ***) had the flavor and aroma of boiled shellfish shells but precious little fish. That didn't stop it from being a delicious fish stock laced with onions, tomatoes, celery, parsley and real saffron threads. A large crouton slathered with aioli floats on top.

Najiola gets a pan searing hot, splashes in some sherry and butter, and tosses in four plump Eastern Sea Scallops ($22.40 ***1/2 ). These are served over a ``hash'' made of artichoke hearts, strips of roasted red bell pepper, shiitake caps and Wisconsin bacon. The hash gets a tablespoon of good olive oil and minced shallots on top. As palate-pleasing as the scallops are, the Short Ribs ($24.50 ****) are even more so. De-boned Black Angus short ribs have been braised long and slow in red wine until the meat turns black and gently falls into tender shreds. They're served with potato gratin (aka scalloped potatoes) exploding with hot blue cheese flavor. Also on the plate, small roasted carrots.

Najiola's Deep South roots show in the Cranberry-Raisin-Apple Crisp ($7.50 **1/2 ) that contains pecans, cinnamon, and a scoop of French vanilla ice cream. Pecan Pie ($7.50 **1/2 ) is an odd square of pecan pieces held together by cooked sugar and topped with whipped cream.

To sum up: Great flavor is thing one at Central Market. Its excellent Mediterranean food makes it one of Sonoma County's best restaurants.

Restaurant: Central Market,

42 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma

When: Dinner nightly from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and to 9 on Sundays.

Reservations: A good idea. Call 778-9900.

Price range: Moderate to very expensive, with entrees from $16.50 to $28.

Web site: www.centralmarketpetaluma.com

Wine list: ***

Ambiance: **1/2

Service: ***

Food: ***1/2

Overall: ***

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