It's funny how you can go to the same restaurant on two different nights and have two very different experiences. That was the case with recent visits to Willi's Seafood and Raw Bar in Healdsburg.
The first night, things seemed a bit off. The lobster roll ($14 ), which is usually the best lobster roll this side of Bah Hahbah, was a little short on the lobster. Not only that, it sat in a pool of liquid garlic butter that soaked into the hot dog-style bun, making it soggy and greasy. In the past, I thought the lobster roll was served on a top-loading bun, the way it is in New England. Details, but still.
Service was friendly enough, but not very attentive that first night. A plate of oysters arrived without the wire stand it'it's ordinarily served on. The serving plate is metal with a convex bottom, so every attempt to retrieve an oyster resulted in it wobbling around as if the plate and its oysters were trying to escape. And there was no small fork for lifting the succulent meats from their shells, just a tablespoon that proved inadequate to the task. Yet on a second visit two days later, almost the entire staff was different, everything was shipshape and snappy, and another plate of oysters came with a wire stand, small fork and even a little rockweed strewn daintily across the ice.
Well, individuals have their good days and off days, so why not restaurants? All in all, Willi's Seafood and Raw Bar, like Mark and Terri Stark's other restaurants — Willi's Wine Bar, Stark's Steakhouse, and Monti's Rotisserie and Bar, all in Santa Rosa — is a fine example of what a good restaurant should be: casual, relaxing, with good service and, above all, good food.
The place expanded this April into the space next door, and the raw bar has been installed in the new room. Tables are available as well as seats at the counter where the shuckers work beneath a neon sign that says, "Eat Oysters, Love Longer."
Since the menu lists eight kinds of raw oysters, it's fun to do some comparison slurping. Here's a rundown of half the list: Walker Creeks ($2.50 each ) are sharp and briny and supplied by the Tomales Bay Oyster Company. Fanny Bays ($2.50 each ) are salty, fat, and sweet and hail from British Columbia. Kumamotos ($3 each ) are small, salty and getting "creamy" — that is, they're getting ready to spawn and are not now at their peak. These are from Tillamook Bay, Oregon. Beau Soleils ($3 each ) are the East Coast species of oyster, which never get creamy. These, from New Brunswick, are sweet, with a hint of lettuce in the flavor. Expensive? Yes, but all the oysters are well cared for and fresh.
Speaking of expensive, corkage is $15 a bottle for the first two bottles, and $25 a bottle thereafter. But one fee is waived for each bottle purchased from the medium-sized but well-chosen wine list. A few bottles of note on the list: 2009 Hanna "Russian River Valley" Sauvignon Blanc for $31, 2008 Jordan Chardonnay for $50, and the 2009 Domaine des Lauriers, which is a Picpoul (translation: lip stinger) from the Languedoc, and great with shellfish, for $25. There's also a full bar with an extensive selection of ultra premium liquors and a list of fanciful cocktails like Te-quil-a Mockingbird (tequila, strawberries, mint, citrus and salt) for $10.
A generous 18 count of Prince Edward Island Mussels ($12 ) were drenched in a lemon, butter and herb sauce. They were fat, beige with dark piping, steaming hot and delicately textured, with a hint of musky mushroom and clean ocean flavors. Willi's also lists four different skewers from the grill on its menu, including chicken, lamb, and steak, but the most elaborate was the Barbecued Bacon Wrapped Scallops ($14 ). The bacon was chewy and rich, pumpkin seeds added more nutty richness, tamarind barbecue sauce gave a strongly spicy and acid snap and cilantro-pumpkinseed pesto dashed the tops of the skewers. All these flavors tromped on the delicately textured and flavored scallops so hard that the shellfish might as well have been chunks of tofu. If sometimes less is more, then sometimes more is less.
No complaints about the Fried Ipswich Clams ($11 ). Ipswich is the name given to New England's soft-shelled clams, or steamers, in the region where the Ipswich River flows into the Atlantic north of Rockport, Massachusetts. They make the ultimate fried clams, as you will experience if you order them toasty-crunchy from their battering and bath in hot oil. Not only are they perfect themselves, but they come with little Japanese shishito peppers. These are just a couple of inches long, green with longitudinal folds, thin-skinned and easy to eat, delicious, mild (although occasionally one will have a peppery bite to it) and are an inspired partner for the clams. A lemon-lime aioli completes the plate.
Here's a standing ovation for the Hamachi Ceviche ($11 ), an astoundingly good mixture of diced yellowtail "cooked" in lime juice and spiced with intensely hot South American rocoto chili peppers. Also in the mix are pickled onions colored with beet juice, cilantro and on the side, taro chips.