Chef Dustin Valette is in the weeds.
His namesake restaurant, Valette, has been open just nine weeks, but on a Saturday night in bustling Healdsburg, every table is full and the orders are coming fast and furious. From the open kitchen, he calls out shorthand “fire” instructions to his sous chef, and meat starts hitting the griddle. The whole time, he’s grinning from ear to ear, because for once this is his kitchen, his food and his restaurant.
“It’s been like this every night,” he said from behind the open kitchen pass-through, with a bewildered look. In the controlled chaos of the restaurant, the former Zin Restaurant, reborn, is a who’s-who of Wine Country gentry.
“Up ‘til now, Healdsburg’s been an ‘A’ location with a lot of ‘B’ restaurants,” said one well-known winemaker, digging into dessert. “But if you attribute that to me, I’ll have to kill you.”
This is a small town, after all.
Last January, Valette left his position as executive chef of Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen to begin full-time work on the Center Street space. But the inspiration for the restaurant goes back 75 years to when Valette’s grandfather, Honore, owned the building.
“We spent some serious time thinking about what to call our new little ‘baby’ and we couldn’t get away from Valette,” he said. “It pays homage to our family’s history with the building.”
His brother, Aaron Garzini, is co-owner and runs the front of the house. Brother Les Garzini built the charcuterie box, and Valette’s dad, Bob, plays unofficial host from the bar, flitting from table to table.
The interior is minimalist, with the focus on hand-hewn furniture made from a 750-year-old redwood stump and a pop of fire-engine red from a vintage Berkel meat slicer given as a gift from one of his culinary admirers for his housemade charcuterie.
That leaves plenty of breathing room for the dishes, which have more unexpected twists and turns than an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
Get ready for some pretty involved descriptions of what you’re eating. One feels a little sorry for the wait staff who have to remember things like the deconstructed Nicoise salad of ahi tuna, olives, cucumber, chive, 64-degree egg and olive oil “snow.”
But the idea is that every sense should be stimulated before the food actually gets to your mouth. Verbal descriptions fire the imagination (“What in the world is olive oil snow and how will that taste?”). An artistic combination of colors, spacing and texture visually stuns. Wafts of ocean, olive and cucumber tease the nose. The pudding-like egg begs for a touch. And finally it all goes into the mouth as the culmination and, if you’re lucky, chewing becomes an out-of-body experience. Seriously.
Here’s a tip: Immerse yourself in the chef’s “Trust Me” tasting menu, which is a guided tour through four (or more) dishes on the menu. At $15 per course, you’ll get the most bang for your buck.
Also on the menu (prices are a la carte):
Day Boat Scallops en Croute: A signature dish, this is a visual stunner. Puffed pastry topped with squid ink, hiding a giant scallop in creamy champagne beurre blanc with Pernod and shaved fennel ($17).
House-made semolina pasta with walnut pesto, English peas, arugula and prosciutto ($12) is the essence of spring.
Foie Gras Two Ways (tasting menu only): Welcome back, foie. A seared lobe of foie gras, and terrine atop kiwi, kumquat and almonds with grilled brioche ($15).
Crispy Skin Bass with saffron risotto pave, charred octopus and roasted pepper sofrito ($28).
Seared Kobe beef with foie gras butter (tasting menu only): So rich it seems almost sinful. Almost. ($15)
Charcoal roasted potatoes — so dark black that they look like mussel shells (is that a hint of squid ink?) with a smoky quality that’s either reminiscent of a campfire or an ashtray, depending on your outlook. ($7)
Brown butter ice cream, rhubarb and brioche, and the Mignardise (petit fours). Prices vary.
There’s a reason why people spend hundreds of dollars for a meal — to delight every sense, one at a time. Showcasing the best local products, well-studied technique and creative execution from pan to plate, Valette delivers on that promise.