What’s new at Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg
Since Dry Creek Kitchen opened in Hotel Healdsburg in 2001, the upscale restaurant has followed a reliable format, offering contemporary American-California cuisine in a traditional, a la carte menu. Way back then, the elegant dining room, glassed-in theater kitchen and fancy locavore ingredients delivered sophistication that lured diners from San Francisco and beyond.
However, since new Executive Chef Wyatt Keith took over in June, the concept has switched to three-course prix fixe dinners for $75. It seemed like an odd move: Would diners want to commit to that structure?
After a recent meal on a Friday night with a packed house, I can say, “yes.” Delivering large plates instead of just tastings, the prix fixe ends up being a good deal for what has been one of the area’s most expensive restaurants. Better yet, there are plenty of choices within each category. Currently, we can browse among seven appetizers, six entrees and five desserts. The evening I visited, there were specials of another appetizer and entree, too.
It had been many years since I was last at Dry Creek Kitchen, distracted by so many new restaurants opening in ever-evolving Healdsburg. My visits after longtime Chef Dustin Valette departed to open his Valette restaurant in 2015 left me satisfied, yet unimpressed. The dishes were always fine, but, in the growing sea of Wine Country-themed restaurants, they felt predictable.
Happily, there’s renewed spark at the restaurant, with a focus on current harvests of pears, grapes and citrus from founding chef and restaurant partner Charlie Palmer’s Healdsburg estate, plus apple, fig and Meyer lemons from the hotel’s trees. It’s a collaborative effort dreamed up by Palmer, Keith and Consulting Chef Nate Appleman, formerly of A16 in San Francisco and now working with the Charlie Palmer Collective on multiple projects.
“Whether it’s specials or updates to our main menu, we like to regularly have new items to highlight how quickly the growing seasons change in Sonoma County,” Keith said.
The past year-plus has been challenging for Dry Creek Kitchen, as it has been for most of the hospitality industry.
The hotel and restaurant closed to the public during pandemic surges and provided meals for the nonprofit Corazon Healdsburg. Longtime Chef Scottie Romano left in late 2020, and the restaurant reopened in February with Chef Michael Lewis (transitioning from Calistoga Ranch, which burned down in the October 2020 wildfires).
But Keith knows his way around this kitchen. He started with Charlie Palmer Collective in 2017, first at Harvest Table in St. Helena, then moving to Dry Creek Kitchen in early 2018 as a line cook. He quickly moved up to executive sous chef and now is the top dog.
Dining here is still a special occasion for many, certainly including me. But viewed alongside a menu offered just before COVID-19 crashed the world, the prix fixe pricing becomes a more apparent value. In early 2020, a shrimp-avocado appetizer ran $18 and a Liberty Farm duck breast with chanterelles and persimmon ran $38. Most desserts were $12.
Consider, too, that consumer prices for meats, poultry, fish and eggs keep getting more expensive. They rose 10.5% for the year ended September 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Then factor in that minimum wage has been creeping up (thankfully, for workers) and all other future industry unknowns, and it’s impressive that restaurants can even keep things as polished as Dry Creek Kitchen does without hitting us with crazy bills. Indeed, even the signature focaccia is still served at no charge, freshly baked, buttery and hot in a skillet.
The team here has always been known for making an evening feel like an event, and it still does. General Manager Dan Prentice has been here forever and is still having fun (he’ll tell you how to make the elderberry liqueur used in some cocktails by pantomiming gently hand-massaging teeny-tiny blossoms). He also came up with the clever “stash your mask” envelopes on the table, a nice touch.
Wine Director Erin Miller stops by tables to suggest pairings from the 500-bottle, primarily local list. Even if you don’t go for the wine, it’s interesting to hear her poetic description of how, for example, a 2013 St. Andelain Soliste sauvignon blanc ($111 bottle) works so well with the cauliflower-chanterelle sformato appetizer.
The aged white wine has developed an earthy character, she explained, to enhance the meaty custard’s mushroom umami. If you didn’t already want that dish, after listening, now you do. It’s a real showstopper, served warm and silky, dotted with crunchy pepita-cauliflower crumb, flanked by bitter-ish endive and nubbins of tender baby broccoli and ringed in smoked California balsamic for a hint of sweet acid.