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Seductive sips at Sonoma Cider Taproom in Healdsburg

Pork Bahn Mi with locally raised pork shoulder braised & tossed in Vietnamese bbq sauce, with pickled cucumber, shredded carrot, daikon radish, fresh jalapeño pepper, cilantro& aioli on a Costeaux sweet demi baquettfe rom the Sonoma Cider Taproom in Healdsburg. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

CAREY SWEET,

Banana. Cherry. Blackberry. Pear, rhubarb, lime, habanero, pineapple, passion fruit and organic sarsaparilla. There’s definitely a lot more than just apples in the ciders at Sonoma Cider, as the six-sample flight ($10, 3 oz. pours) in front of me proves.

Here, at this Healdsburg distillery, co-owners and father-and-son team David and Robert Cordtz ferment just about any delicious ingredient they can dream up. Apples make up the core of the drinks, yes, but there’s the unexpected, too, such as The Imperial I’m sipping now, the organic juice blended with eucalyptus honey then fermented in whiskey barrels for six months.

There’s always room for even more invention, though. After debuting their 16,000-square-foot distillery and warehouse in a former auto parts store on Mill Street in 2013, the duo decided that their cider needed another platform. So last October, they opened a 5,000-square-foot taproom and 60-seat restaurant, where their cider appears in food, too. That means bites like ceviche of shrimp tumbled with Thai chiles, avocado and a splash of Crowbar cider that’s a dramatic blend of organic apples, organic habanero peppers and organic limes ($12). Scooped up with sesame wonton crackers, the mix is spicy, tart and a touch sweet.

The ciders are superb, as bittersweet-bittersharp quaffs that burst with a near endless array of flavors, easy-drinking alcohol levels of 5.5 to 10.3 percent and crisp, clean finishes. The taproom, with its industrial-chic vibe and often boisterous crowd, is a great hangout for hipsters but also families with young children.

The food, however… that’s pretty much secondary, with a pub menu that wobbles between admirable, upscale pub fare and so-so standards like a boring grilled jack cheese sandwich tucked with sliced Granny Smith apples on Costeaux sourdough ($10).

The place has switched chefs a few times since its debut, and current talent Jordan Adorni most recently worked with The Tri Tip Trolley food truck of Glen Ellen, following stints with Healdsburg Bar & Grill and Shiso Modern Asian Kitchen in Sonoma.

One of the best bets, in fact, is his tri tip French dip, layering a generous amount of thin sliced grass-fed beef and dainty curls of caramelized onions on Costeaux French loaf ($15). The savory, chewy meat is moistened with a bit of horseradish crème fraiche and we dunk it in the slightly sweet jus alongside; the bread is too thick and hard-crusted for a sandwich, but when it such excellent bread, who cares? Crisp housemade pickles and a peppery greens side salad round things out.

I’d also happily make a trip here for the French onion soup ($6 cup, $11 bowl). The rich bone broth is stocked with sweet onions caramelized in Sonoma Cider’s own 85-proof apple brandy, nicely soggy croutons and a gooey-chewy cap of molten Gruyere — my companion and I nearly duel with our spoons as we share the serving.

More cider shows up in the Brussels sprouts, offering an interesting sour glaze to the chopped roasted vegetables and apples tossed with crunchy pistachios and slicked in lemon crème fraiche ($11).

There are the expected charcuterie ($23) and burrata ($18) boards, and they’re fine, the charcuterie in particular, dressed up with pickles, cider-brined olives, gently hot guindilla Basque peppers and Costeaux ciabatta crostinis. But the banh mi is much more compelling, small and pricey at $14, yet flavorful with braised pork shoulder, sweet Vietnamese barbecue sauce, pickled cucumber, julienne carrot, daikon radish, jalapenos, microgreens and cilantro on a Costeaux sweet demi baguette. A side of pickles and kettle chips, and it’s a delightful nosh.

I also like the sloppy-looking but tasty enough Northeast salad of shredded Napa and purple cabbages, carrot, red pepper, cilantro, thick sliced cucumber, whole cashews and a tangle of vermicelli rice noodles ($10). The sweet chile-lime dressing layers well with sips of cider, like the intriguing winter banana in a dry, crisp blend imbued with caramel, pepper and banana aromas alongside honeyed apple skin flavors ($6, 16 oz.).

When Sonoma Cider first opened, its mac and cheese was awful, the sauce greasy and separated, the noodles mushy. Chef Adorni’s version is much improved, and seems to be a bestseller from the many plates I see on the tin-topped tables around me. No wonder, since the three-cheese blend is baked to a bubbly golden crust and scattered with lots of breadcrumbs cooked to crunch ($11). If I wanted to go nuts, I could add in truffle oil, blue cheese or serrano ham ($4 each), or bacon, pickled jalapeños, pickles, spinach or broccolini ($3 each).

Beyond that, the menu sports a few usual entrées, such as decent braised short ribs ($24), or oven-fried chicken and waffles ($20) that need some decadent grease and butter to jazz the recipe up.

And really, let’s remember it’s about the cider here, such as the marvelous Westcider, a micro-release blend of Pink Permain, Winter Banana, Mac Mystery, Crispin and Baldwin Striped Gentleman apples all handpicked from a 2-acre orchard at Porque Ranch in the Russian River Valley ($6, 12 oz). The heirloom fruit marries bitter, sharp notes from the Pink Permain with the sweet fruitiness of the Winter Banana, and the semi-dry combination is riveting.

A sip like this, with an appetizer of Mary’s chicken drumettes, twice baked for a pleasing crunch and slathered in Anvil bourbon extract cider barbecue sauce ($9), and I don’t need much more to be happy.

Happy, happy, happy, as my fellow diners clearly are each time I stop in. The cavernous space gets insanely loud, with chatter bouncing off the concrete floor, hard-topped stone bar and roll-up garage doors leading to a parking lot patio. Groups play foosball and cornhole beneath a two-story metal catwalk, and there’s live music or comedy acts some nights.

Buzz, too, builds as guests sip signature cocktails like the devastatingly addictive Bad Hombre of apple brandy, fresh cucumber, organic carrot juice, simple syrup and fresh lemon juice all splashed with Crowbar habanero-lime cider and garnished with jalapeno ($12). The drink looks like iced tea, and goes down my gullet way too easily.

When my waitress checks in after one dinner to see if my table wants dessert, in fact — a dark chocolate pistachio salted caramel torte, perhaps — I shrug. I think I’ll save my calories for another cider or cocktail, I tell her, and she laughs.

When the cider is this good, a lot of customers do that, she replies.

Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at carey@careysweet.com.