The memories are so vivid: I was swooning over a cup of Billi Bi at Cyrus, as chef-owner Douglas Keane stepped out of the kitchen to explain the origins of the luxurious mussel soup. I’d already said hello to Chef Drew Glassell and Nick Peyton, the maitre d’hotel, and was looking forward to an evening of spectacular food at the two Michelin-starred restaurant.
That was more than a decade ago, when Cyrus was still in Healdsburg, before it closed after a dispute with its Les Mars Hotel landlords. Yet here I was again, in late 2022, spooning up the same, velvety Billi Bi, with the same remarkable team. It gave me a feeling of deja vu, and joy, that our fancy, fantastic corner of the Wine Country culinary world felt whole again.
Cyrus is back. As anyone who follows food knows, it’s in Geyserville now in the former Sunsweet prune packing plant that has been transformed into a contemporary glass, stone, steel and wood palace. Dare I say, it’s even more spectacular than before, with a 20-course tasting menu of seasonal California fare accented by Japanese and other global influences.
Yet because this a project from Keane, Peyton and Glassell, as fancy and precise as the cuisine is, it’s also a relaxed experience. It feels like we’re dining with friends.
In a sense, we are. New friends, at least, as the restaurant limits dinners to 36 guests per night, divided into groups of 12 for the partly communal experience.
A captain is assigned to each seating, guiding our party through a progressive Champagne and canapes “Bubble Lounge” reception, hors d’oeuvres at an interactive chef’s table in the kitchen, entrees at private tables in the dining room overlooking Alexander Valley vineyards and dessert in the Chocolate Room.
Keane describes it as a “dining journey,” a departure from “luxury restaurants that were stupefying diners with extended multicourse meals running for hours at the same table, in the same room.”
At $295 per person, with wine pairings an additional $250 and a mandatory 20% service charge, this is definitely a special-occasion immersion. Be prepared to spend even more: all Bubble Lounge drinks cost extra, the wine pairings are modest 2-ounce pours in each dining area and other wines by the glass or bottle are sold a la carte.
Yet in the scheme of dining out in these expensive days, I still think Cyrus is a good value. As one perfect plate after another is paraded out, I’m fascinated by every morsel. At the end of the evening, I’m thrilled with the beautiful flavors and even a bit stuffed with the good portion sizes.
The menu showcases the five essential flavors: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. So, at the Bubble Lounge, bites are lined up with sweet, firm figs crusted with grated chorizo, followed by a lovely lobster tail nubbin with a sour dressing of herbs and Thai fish sauce. A salty taste arrives as a warm gougère filled with liquid Comté Bleu fondue, while bitter brings charred French radishes for dunking in matcha-tea butter dusted in sea salt.
“For umami,” our server explains, “We take late-season ripe tomatoes, cook them down to their very essence and then serve them in a little Parmesan tart, savory and slightly sour.” (I’m pretty sure he said that — it can be hard to hear the descriptions over the shake-shake-shake of martinis being made at the glittering ice-laden bar cart steps away.)
The highlight of the night, for me, is the next experience. In the restaurant’s expansive kitchen, our 12-person party is seated at a U-shaped counter right next to the chefs’ workstations.
Here, chefs perform their ballet in the gleaming stainless-steel space next to us. Then Keane appears, to guide us through more marvelous bites. He explains exotic ingredients in his casual way and clearly still loves the magic of food even after winning the James Beard Award for Best Chef Pacific and appearing on “Top Chef” and “Hell's Kitchen” as a judge and on “Top Chef Masters” as a winning contestant.
“This is interactive, and there are no rules. It’s mostly finger food here.” He invites us, too, to shout out questions and wander the kitchen to see the work for ourselves.
Keane brings us each a black pottery tray adorned with exquisite vegetables, the plates shimmering beneath spotlight beams that radiate from tubular steel pendants above our heads.
There’s a ramekin of umeboshi dip made with preserved plum with a touch of Kewpie mayonnaise, bonito flakes and yuzu juice.
“Really, the significance … is that this place used to be a plum packing plant,” he says, to the delight of the diners.