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Healdsburg’s Brass Rabbit a hoppin’ destination

Eggs Mimosa with Hackleback caviar and chive from the Brass Rabbit in Healdsburg. (photo by John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

CAREY SWEET,

I’m sitting at the bar in The Brass Rabbit in Healdsburg one afternoon, eating a French dip ($15) and watching a cook carve slab after slab of glistening pink meat at the counter next to the beer taps. It looks like ham, mounded high on a large aluminum sheet pan.

It’s actually rabbit, my server explains, and is destined for the evening’s rabbit pot pie, to be smothered in rabbit gravy with bacon, mushrooms, turnips and carrot in flaky puff pastry ($27). Yowza. My sandwich is just OK, thin and buried in caramelized onions, but suddenly, I know I’ll be coming back in for dinner.

As I should have figured, rabbit is the star concept at this stylish bistro on the Plaza. It’s a fun theme, from the stylized hoppity-creature logo, signage and plates, to the cute carrot painting on the wall, and the rabbit sculptures (in brass, of course) here and there.

Then, there’s the menu that showcases bunny-centric cuisine like grilled rabbit leg partnered with new potatoes, Swiss chard and earthy black truffle rabbit jus ($21), or a hearty duo plate of four superb rounds of proscuitto-wrapped rabbit loin and two confit rabbit legs alongside baby carrot and red potatoes in a pond of truffled rabbit jus ($36).

And, as it turns out, rabbit is the most compelling reason to visit here. Because otherwise, under the direction of chef Shane McAnelly, the Cal-French eatery somewhat channels McAnelly’s other restaurant, Chalkboard, just around the block.

Snake River Farms bavette steak, for example, shows up on the winter menu at both spots, as does butternut squash soup with toasted pumpkin seeds, and Ora king salmon. The main difference is that The Brass Rabbit is a much more casual venture than Chalkboard, even though it sometimes boasts higher prices, with its steak at $34 versus $26, and salmon at $28 versus $22.

The scenario begs the question — do we need two similar operations within two minutes’ walking distance of each other? Unless I’m craving, well, rabbit, I’m thinking no.

With just two dozen seats plus a dozen comfy leather counter stools, the long, narrow bistro feels friendly, if crowded and prone to being on the noisy side. It’s more elegant than its previous incarnation, Bistro Ralph, that occupied the space for decades before the Rabbit hopped in last May. Still, the mood remains warm in a palate of raw oak, brick, tin roof tiles and a shiny stainless steel expo kitchen glowing with a 6-foot Argentinian-style wood-burning grill, rotisserie and plancha.

The menu focuses on quiet style, too, starting with a twist on deviled eggs. Two orbs arrive on a black slate plate, their whipped yolks topped in American hackleback sturgeon caviar and chive ($8); they make merry partners with another good appetizer of brown bread toast amply smothered in smoked, shredded McFarland Springs trout, avocado, dill and a bit of sharp pickled fennel ($10).

Among the expected starters of oysters (Massachusetts sourced, $18), shrimp cocktail ($15) and crab cake ($19), chef de cuisine Jared Rogers puts together some standouts like Spanish octopus, the plump, chargrilled tentacles curled around shelling beans, roasted peppers, pork belly chunks and a swath of almond harissa kicked with plenty of chili ($18). Finished with a spritz of grilled lemon and a puddle of chimichurri, the flavors are rich and bright.

Entrées balance between straightforward classics and more interesting signatures, as well. The lineup changes frequently, but gnocchi is a consistent favorite, dressed on one visit with roasted mushrooms, chard, red pepper flakes and mushroom jus ($21) that’s so savory I sop up every last drop with fluffy, smoked sea salt-crusted Parker House rolls ($4). On another evening, the gnocchi is simpler and pretty bland, with roasted mushrooms, arugula, red pepper and Parmigiano ($15 half order/$22 full).

Nightly specials follow the comfort food theme, meanwhile, such as Thursday’s bouillabaisse ($24), arriving as more of a seafood platter than soup, moistened with a splash of salty broth, and Saturday’s beef bourguignon ($29) that’s satisfying though it boasts a thinner, saltier sauce than I crave.

I’m not impressed with standard petrale sole, either, the fillet soft and boringly paired with Brussels sprouts, roasted potatoes, almonds, grapes and a lick of lemon-caper sauce ($23). Grilled king salmon comes as ordinary, too, with an unimaginative presentation of new potato, grilled summer squash, blistered cherry tomato and hollandaise sauce hinting of preserved lemon ($28).

No, I much prefer the uncommon recipes, like Kurobuta pork schnitzel, the crispy panko meat delicious on its own, but wonderful when paired with creamy textured spaetzle, full-bodied mustard sauce and tart roasted radish sauerkraut singing with distinctive radish spice ($22). The roasted radish also elevates a grilled Kurobuta pork chop, rounded out with coal-roasted endive, spiced pear and mustard sauce ($32).

And that rabbit pot pie? Oh my. Perfect.

I can’t quite wrap my head around a creative cheesecake dessert, however. It tasted fine, made with tangy fromage blanc, but looked silly, in fat, piped squiggles topped in crumbled brioche “crust,” chopped berries, anise hyssop petals, and what the menu promised as golden balsamic but didn’t appear on my plate ($10).

On the drinks side, things settle back into mainstream. Cocktails (all $12) don’t pack many surprises, focusing on oldies like a Manhattan, Mint Julep and Moscow Mule. One quaff got my attention, though — the Rossini martini puts an opulent twist on its Beefeater gin and vermouth by adding black truffle tincture and foie gras stuffed olives ($15).

Both Brass Rabbit and Chalkboard are owned by the Foley family, led by insurance and winery magnate Bill Foley. So there are plenty of his wines on the list, like Chalk Hill Estate Chardonnay ($15/$80), Foley Sonoma Pinot Noir Rosé ($13) and Foley Johnson Malbec ($70).

So, lesson learned. The Brass Rabbit is a fine enough place, but for the best experience, we’ve got to love eating that rabbit, rabbit, rabbit.

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.