Entering 256 North in Petaluma, you’re greeted by a bakery case full of cheesecakes. Lots of cheesecakes, in an array of flavors like Snickers, chocolate raspberry, or a Neapolitan Fantasy of cheesecake layered with chocolate cake and strawberry mousse on a sweet shortbread crust.
That’s not surprising, considering that 256 North owner Jan Rosen has been known since 1983 for her J.M. Rosen’s Cheesecakes wholesale bakery, when her confections immediately became favorites of celebrities like Frank Sinatra, then-President Ronald Reagan, and West Hollywood doyenne restaurateur Maude Chasen. Today, Rosen’s still-thriving bakery sits just around the corner from her new restaurant on Petaluma Boulevard North near Washington Street.
But keep on walking, past those tempting cakes, past the piano lounge, and past the big wraparound centerpiece bar with its TV sets and crazy fun atomic sputnik chandeliers hung from the open rafter ceiling. Let the hostess – often Rosen herself – seat you at a rustic wood table, and hand you the menu.
You’ll find that Rosen has revived her earlier career in running full restaurants, including the former J.M. Waterfront Grill overlooking the Petaluma River, Rosen’s Eastside Grill in Petaluma, and J.M. Rosen’s in Santa Rosa. Now, she presents contemporary American food for lunch and dinner, with indeed, cheesecake by the slice ($8) for dessert all day long.
The cheesecakes, cakes and mousses are rich, rich, rich.
And I got an inkling from my first bite of French onion soup ($8.95) that the restaurant kitchen appreciates equally bold cooking. The steaming hot broth is thick with brandied onions, and it’s much more sweet than beefy, soaking up big chunks of bread under a cap of molten Gruyere. At first bite, I didn’t really like the brandy character, but it grew on me, and soon, I’d finished every drop in the pottery crock.
Another appetizer, crudo trio, layers lots of flavors, too, and deliciously. Arranged on a triangular plate, it could actually make a light lunch, thanks to generous dollops of seared ahi carpaccio drizzled in pickled ginger aioli over lemongrass ginger soy, diced scallop ceviche, sweet salmon poke, and wakame for scooping with taro and wonton chips ($17.95).
Prices seem a bit high, but starters are easily enough for two, including a tennis ball size round of chopped Kobe-style beef filet tartare, anchored with an open-shell quail egg in the middle and a swath of Dijon mustard spiked with cornichons alongside ($13.95). Spill the egg, spoon the meat on French bread crostini, and you’ve got a very satisfying nosh.
You could also fill up on the Manila clams appetizer ($13.95), delivering two dozen-plus shellfish augmented with tender white beans in a rich, buttery white wine sauce that doesn’t skimp on the garlic. As expected, it’s sloppy to eat, dunking the grilled, herbed bread in the broth, yet one evening, I admired a guy sitting at the bar with his laptop, bravely taking the dish on while still trying to type.
There’s good wild king salmon coming out of this kitchen, meanwhile, the skin a bit over-charred (to be fair, I had requested it cooked crispy) and the meat moistened with a pond of delicate, sunflower yellow saffron cream sauce. Set on a bed of juicy Bloomsdale spinach, artichoke hearts, Toy Box cherry tomatoes and gnocchi, it makes a perfect summer dish ($25.95).