When Chef Rudy Mihal gets it right, the results can be spectacular.
You might remember his stint at Odyssey in Windsor a some years back, where he cooked classic Italian and French dishes with great skill, even selling a few of his $22 hamburgers (they had foie gras inside the ground beef), and they were fabulous.
Then he cooked at Spoonbar in Healdsburg, where the fare was interesting and modern, but not particularly exciting.
Now he's in Sonoma at Restaurant Rudy, where the food is a mixed bag. He bills the food as "contemporary Cal-Mediterranean cuisine," but it's mostly good old American cooking. There's nothing particularly Californian or Mediterranean about a pulled-pork sandwich served with mac and cheese, or about the Wednesday Night Special ($20.13, 2 stars), a three-course meal of lettuce salad with Caesar dressing, southern fried chicken, buttermilk biscuit, mashed potatoes with white gravy, saut?d collards and apple crumble with Chantilly cream. The chicken breast in this special was overdone and dry, and the thigh was bloody pink at the bone.
Despite that, Rudy Mihal is a very talented chef, which he proves at Restaurant Rudy with a real Mediterranean classic, a starter of Tortelli ($14, 4 stars). Tortelli are like large ravioli. If you've ever wondered just what is meant by pasta cooked "al dente," Mihal provides the answer with these packets of goodness. They're stuffed with exquisite Bellwether Farms sheep's milk ricotta, given a touch of lemon, and finished in a sauce of brown butter enhanced with a drop of balsamic vinegar.
You can enjoy these lovelies in the dining room at a table or banquette lit by skylights and wall sconces. An eclectic mix on the sound system might include oldies like "The Girl from Ipanema," Middle Eastern music, folk-indie tunes, and jazz. Or mosey to a table in the al fresco courtyard out back where, on certain nights, you might hear live music.
The wine list is small but nicely varied, with bottles from France, Italy, Napa, and Sonoma. Among whites, a MacMurray Ranch Chardonnay at $35 is a good pick, and among reds, the 2010 Gundlach Bundschu "Mountain Cuvee" is a delicious wine at $44. Corkage is $15, waived for one bottle if you buy a bottle from the list.
Kale is all the rage now thanks to its champion nutritional status, and the Raw Kale Salad ($11, 2 ? stars), with tender baby kale leaves, rainbow carrots, toasted slivered almonds, and lemon vinaigrette is a healthful way to start a dinner.
Eight large Gulf Shrimp ($14, 3 stars) are dusted with semolina flour before their swim in hot oil. They arrive at the table with their heads on. Lemon aioli allows for dipping, but they don't really need it.
Pork Ribs ($18, 2 stars) are the big spare ribs rather than the meatier baby back ribs. The chef gives them a dark, salty, savory rub that contains espresso and places them in his own smoker, where they cook with hot smoke rather than direct exposure to live fire. They're called spare ribs for a reason, as the actual meat on the ribs is a thin layer. I thought maybe they were just abnormally spare, but on a second visit, the ribs were mostly fat and gristle, with even less meat. Still, the rub tasted spicy and delicious. Given the price of this dish, meatier back ribs would offer a lot more pleasure. The ribs are served with potato salad and a small pot of barbecue sauce.