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Under new chef Luis Rodriguez, Fountaingrove Inn institution maintains tradition of excellence

  • Alaskan halibut at Equus.

In a world of unreliability, where banks fail, jobs disappear and plane flights are canceled for no apparent reason, what can we rely on?

The answer, I submit, is a good meal at Equus, the dining room at the Fountaingrove Inn in Santa Rosa.

Year after year, meal after meal, Equus maintains a fine level of quality. This was true when Mark Dierkhising was the executive chef, when Jeffrey Reilly cooked there (before he recently returned to The Duck Club in Bodega Bay), and it's true now that Luis Rodriguez, who was Reilly's sous chef, has taken on the job of Chef de Cuisine. Here's a vote for him to become top toque as Executive Chef, because the quality of the food at this landmark hotel hasn't missed a beat.

This isn't to say that it's the most illustrious restaurant in Sonoma County; others lay claim to Sonoma County culinary superstardom. But Equus in its quiet way abides. Maybe its offerings don't elicit standing ovations, but they will cause you to scrunch up your brows, lower your head, and say to your dinner companion, "Mmm — this is delicious."

Case in point: <b>Alaskan Halibut</b> ($24, 4 stars). This perfectly cooked piece of flaky, moist, bone-white halibut tasted like it had just come off the boat on a cold, windy afternoon in Homer Spit, Alaska. Its surface was barely seared from a hot, oiled pan, and it finished cooking in a hot oven for exactly the right amount of time. No halibut could have been cooked more perfectly; none could have tasted fresher. It was given a sauce of herbs pureed in olive oil, and was accompanied by potato cylinders and a portion of spinach and shallots.

There isn't another restaurant in the county that does more to celebrate Sonoma County wines than Equus, both in its dining room and its wine lounge and bar. The wine list carries most of what the county has to offer, and select bottles are 40 percent off Sundays and Mondays. If you bring your own, corkage is $15. And wine prices are reasonable — even wines by the glass. For example, an eight-ounce glass of 2002 Buena Vista Carneros Syrah is $13 (that's right: eight-year-old Syrah). There are approximately three eight-ounce glasses in a bottle, which would cost $39. A bottle of this wine sells on the wine list for $36, just three dollars less. Management appears to want to introduce customers to Sonoma County wines, not rip them off.

As usual, there's lots going on at Equus and its full bar lounge. Tuesdays and Thursdays are $2 days, when from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., beers and appetizers are $2 each. You might have a bottle of Red Tail Ale with a mini-cheeseburger, or choose barbecued chicken wings, carnitas soft taco, or warm Asian salad. Happy hours are Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. when well drinks are $4, select beers are $2, and appetizers range from $2 to $5.

If you're thinking about a place to celebrate your birthday, choose Equus and you'll receive a free bottle of Korbel sparkling wine.

The restaurant offers weekly prix fixe special dinners. Sundays through Wednesdays, you can get a house salad, big plate of herb-roasted prime rib, and a house-made dessert for $22. Thursdays through Saturdays there's a pistachio-crusted rack of lamb with a pomegranate reduction, mashed potatoes, and broccolini for $32.

On a recent night, the soup du jour was <b>Roasted Chili Soup</b> ($8, 3 stars), flavored with cumin and pureed roasted chilies, and loaded with chunks of chicken and kernels of corn. It was creamy-thick, delicious and hearty. <b>Dungeness Crab Cakes</b> ($13, 3 stars) consisted of three small, round, slightly spicy cakes with extra crunchy surfaces dressed with tomato chutney and given a lemon beurre blanc. The cakes were mostly crab, not filler.


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