Given the backgrounds of the guys who do the cooking at Santa Rosa’s new hot spot, The Pullman Kitchen, it’s hard to predict just what kind of cuisine might be delivered.
Executive Chef and owner Darren McRonald’s resume, for instance, lists stints at Le Cirque in New York; Chez Panisse in Berkeley; Tinhorn in Millbrook, New York; Bellavitae in Greenwich Village (named one of the best new restaurants in the city by The New York Times in 2005), and Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen in St. Helena.
Chef John Trunk worked with McRonald at Tinhorn and Bellavitae, was a private chef in the Hamptons, and took over as executive chef at Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen when McRonald turned his attention to Cindy’s Wood Fired Grill, also in St. Helena.
In the culinary world, this is some heavy hitting. Would their creations in Santa Rosa be wildly inventive? Outlandishly fancy? Retro or futuristic? None of the above, as it turns out. Their menu is simple and familiar, but perfectly executed, the way you always dreamed food could be.
For example, take the Fried Green Tomatoes ($12 ****). Unripe tomatoes aren’t as sweet as ripe ones and have a little more acid tang. Three slices are breaded and perfectly fried so they are crusty-crunchy as well as tangy. This makes them a fine partner for smooth, mild avocado. In case the tomatoes don’t have enough acid snap, they and the avocado sit on a bed of piquant tartar sauce. If it still isn’t sharp enough for you, a lemon wedge is provided. To drive home the point of this dish, leaves of very small, flat-bladed upland cress, similar in flavor to spicy watercress, have been fluttered on top. Fried green tomatoes is about as down-home a dish as there is, but McRonald and Trunk’s massive know-how turn it into something very special.
Though seemingly simple, their food is loaded with pleasant surprises. When the meal begins, there’s a basket of warm, slack-dough Italian bread and olive oil to snack on. The oil is fresh, pungent, and fruity, unlike much of the tired oil usually served with opening bread.
What could be surprising about a cup of chilled Melon Soup ($6 ***)? How about the cayenne that gives the cold soup some mouth-sizzling heat? And down under the waves are melon balls. If you taste carefully, you’ll recognize mint’s refreshing taste, and pear cider, too. It’s a wonderland of flavor in a cup.
The name of the place is a nod to the old Pullman sleeper cars and dining cars of bygone railroad days. The wine list is short at 30 selections, but the wines are knowledgeable picks from France, Italy, Spain and here at home, and they’re very reasonably priced. Corkage is a minimal $5.
It’s nice that Iceberg Wedge Salad ($9 ***) has made a comeback. The lettuce’s appeal is in the texture and the crunch you hear, as the lettuce has little flavor. But who needs flavorful lettuce when the wedge is covered with Louie dressing and chunks of pungent Maytag blue cheese? Micro-thin rounds of red-rimmed radishes add a touch of color to the greens.
The surprise in the Yellowtail Tartare ($14 ***) was a handful of fried capers sprinkled on the surface of the stack of spicy chopped fish. Frying capers opens them up to reveal them as the flower buds they really are, lowers the pickle factor, and turns them crunchy. This is an appetizer to love, with or without its perfect Kennebec potato chips.