Much to like at 'new' Ravenous

In 1991, John and Joyanne Pezzolo bought Ravenous, a little cubbyhole of a restaurant next to the Raven Theater on North Street in Healdsburg. It was cute but crowded in the 16-seat dining area.

Ten years ago, they moved Ravenous to a much roomier bungalow on Center Street, just around the corner from the old location. While Healdsburg over the next 10 added more restaurants, including some upscale like Dry Creek Kitchen and Cyrus, locals could always count on Ravenous to be a warm, comfortable place for a drink and a good plate of food. Chef Joyanne wrote out her nightly menu in a stylized longhand that was hard to read but worth the effort.

Despite splitting up as a couple, she and John remained business partners and now have sold the bungalow to Mark and Terri Stark. The Starks plan to re-open it as Brava, a tapas place, later this summer; it will be the Starks' fifth restaurant in Sonoma County, all located in Santa Rosa or Healdsburg.



The owners of Ravenous, in turn, have moved back to the cute cubbyhole. The menu continues to be ambitious and expensive, but here without the benefit of a full bar. Some of the old Ravenous quality is in evidence, and some dishes soar as high as they ever have.

The room has been rearranged now to seat 19, by my count, and given a brighter look, with butter yellow and ochre walls and old-fashioned lithographs of vegetables on the walls. Chef Pezzolo still writes out the menu by hand and many of the Center Street signature dishes remain, so those who have loved Ravenous in its various incarnations will feel at home.

One of those signature dishes is Crab Cakes ($13 **?). Two patties are loaded with crab, but the crunchy crust spent a wee bit too long in the pan and came out dark brown and too hard. Ginger and cilantro aioli, an upscale substitute for tartar sauce, helped out, as did a small salad of onion, carrot and lettuce.

The wine list is varied enough to make some excellent pairings. Our table paired the crab cakes with a 2011 Picpoul (a Rhone white variety whose name translates to "lip-stinger") from Languedoc in southern France at $33 a bottle. The list includes 21 reds, a prosecco, a rose and 11 whites, with 10 of the wines offered by the glass as well as the bottle. Superstar wines dot the eclectic list, such as the 2010 La Follette "North Coast" Pinot Noir for $45. Corkage is $20.

Corn kernels, tomato and diced potatoes swam in the Soup of the Day ($3.75 cup ***) — a rich, meaty-tasting broth of goodness. This was followed by a cool and crunchy Mixed Lettuce Salad ($9 **?) of chicories and lettuces dotted with dabs of blue cheese and seeded with spiced pecan halves, all dressed in a vanishingly light vinaigrette.

The fish portion of a plate of Grilled Icelandic Arctic Char ($25 **) glistened from its brushing with herbed lemon butter. Grilling gave this salmon relative of the far northern seas a slightly smoky flavor and the flaky pink flesh melted in the mouth. The accompaniments, though, left something to be desired. Black risotto cakes were cooked hard so they became tough and crunchy - not what you want in risotto. And sauteed bok choy and radicchio added chewiness but not a lot of flavor.

To go with our Braised Beef Short Rib ($24 **), the tablemates chose a 2010 Navaherreros Garnacha (Grenache) from Spain. This juicy wine trumped the tough, dry, overcooked short rib, although it paired nicely with the sweet citrus achiote and ancho chili sauce. Also on the plate, slender asparagus, garlic cloves roasted in their paper skins and wedges of roasted Yukon Gold potatoes. The sides didn't really make up for the disappointing short rib.

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