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New life for historic Healdsburg restaurant Madrona

The historic Healdsburg hotel has dropped fussiness and added flair with a new menu.|

The Madrona

Where: 1001 Westside Road, Healdsburg

When: 5:30 to 9 p.m. nightly

Contact: 707-395-6700, themadronahotel.com

Cuisine: California, eclectic

Price: Very expensive, entrees $29-$56

Summary: After decades of love but too much neglect, the grand 1881 mansion has been reborn as a dramatic, cosmopolitan destination worthy of a big city. But the gorgeous gardens and approachable food keep this spot a local treasure.

The Madrona (formerly Madrona Manor) is Sonoma County’s biggest restaurant opening of the year.

I say that just in case you weren’t aware of its debut this April and the dozens of print and online articles published about the grand $6 million renovation, redesign and reopening of the stately mansion and 24-room hotel on a hilltop in Healdsburg’s Dry Creek Valley.

Here’s the thing: The buzz is well-deserved. Because even though I liked the grand old dame that’s been a point of pride on our luxury dining scene for decades, this new Madrona is so much better. Despite the tugs of nostalgia I feel for the memories I’ve collected here, this reinvention is so fresh and spiffy and different for our dining scene that visiting here has become a cosmopolitan experience guests of all kinds can embrace.

The original Madrona Manor, built in 1881, had long been known for bringing an over-the-top experience. Under its ownership by Bill and Trudi Konrad for 22 years, the place became a destination for numerous themed events, including Christmas celebrations when the three-story Victorian showplace was transformed into a dizzying display of toys, trees, flocking and ornaments covering every inch of interior space, plus novelties like a giant plush moose with Santa perched on his back and live, wandering carolers performing Dickens musicals.

It was fun, but a bit odd, and the minimally maintained property definitely looked worn-out after the decades.

So it’s fitting that one of the new owners is Jay Jeffers, a San Francisco-based interior designer who specializes in high-end residential projects and has a flair for flamboyance. Jeffers has stripped away every bit of the old and created a spectacular fantasy of the exotic, “sexy” (Jeffers’ word) and sometimes jaw-dropping (check out the abstract horse murals in the former carriage-house-turned-guest suites; they’re made of faux fur).

Anyone who has visited local wine titan Jean-Charles Boisset’s elaborate tasting rooms, such as Raymond in St. Helena and Buena Vista in Sonoma, will feel at home in the wonderland that is now the restaurant. It’s divided into intimate salons, parlors, lounges, a bar and a spectacular terrace, and each space has its own vibrant personality rich in antiques, busy wallpaper (sometimes on the ceilings, too), eclectic art and dramatic chandeliers.

The main dining room feels like you’re sitting in an elegant candy box, for example, framed with lemon-yellow walls and capped with rectangle frames inlaid with black and white print. A space-age chandelier is made of cotton-candy-pink glass balls clinging to metal rods.

If you’re curious, and you know you are, stop in for at least a cocktail and to wander the 8-acre property, soaking it all in.

And wander the property you can, sipping as you go. The gorgeous gardens (updated now to great splendor and culinary plantings) are visitor-friendly, including little seating nooks here and there, plus pop-up mobile bars for more drinks and snacks.

It’s tempting to go on and on about the mesmerizing setting, but I really went for the food, so let’s switch to that. I’m happy to say it’s well worth the trip, too.

Wisely, the new Madrona team asked longtime Executive Chef Jesse Mallgren to stay on board, recognizing that he is the talent who earned the restaurant a coveted Michelin star for 13 years.

Interestingly, Mallgren simplified things, even though he’s now pampered by an expansive new kitchen outfitted with all the bells and whistles. Instead of fancy dinner menus gussied up with entertainment like a sundae made tableside with liquid nitrogen-churned ice cream, we get a rather brief collection of 11 starters/shareable plates and five entrees.

They’re all excellent.

Upscale onion dip is popular at many restaurants these days, and Mallgren tops his thick, silky version with trout roe for scooping with warm, homemade potato chips ($28). Presented in the usual way, it’s a fun beginning, paired with an upscale cocktail such as the Apples to Apples, crafted with Calvados apple brandy, Palo Cortado dry sherry, herbal Chartreuse and spiced Angostura bitters garnished with tart, sliced, state-grown green apple ($18). Hipsters would love this arrangement, and so would their parents.

It’s not surprising to see Parker House rolls (decadent with schmaltz and flaked salt, $9) either, or a dozen oysters on the half shell (briny and bright after a splash of orange leaf mignonette, $42), but that’s a good thing. I'm happy to see these staples on my table any time.

And Mallgren has wisely kept his signature dish, the onion velouté, a creamy, ivory symphony finished with slow-cooked egg, croutons, Banyuls red wine vinegar and a whisper of Parmigiano-Reggiano ($17).

I like the crudo ($17). It varies depending on the catch, perhaps Mount Lassen trout on a pond of estate citrus ponzu or salmon laced with pickled daikon — the crisp puffed rice adds a nice texture foil to the fish.

I’ve been seeing chicken Paillard appear on local menus lately, too. That’s another good thing, for the comfort classic we all appreciate. Mallgren’s version is more elegant than most, the golden-brown bird showered in a bright-green aromatic salad of herbs from the estate garden, toasted rice powder and plenty of spicy brown butter ($29).

For the rest of the entrees, there’s nothing too novel — grilled black cod with estate carrots, peas, mussels and aromatic lemon thyme broth ($36); strip loin with fingerling potatoes and artichokes ($56); and Liberty Farms duck that gets a fun twist with rice porridge and pickled vegetables ($42).

But like everything at the new Madrona, all the elements are top-notch, meticulously presented and a bit playful. There will certainly be great new memories to be made here.

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.

The Madrona

Where: 1001 Westside Road, Healdsburg

When: 5:30 to 9 p.m. nightly

Contact: 707-395-6700, themadronahotel.com

Cuisine: California, eclectic

Price: Very expensive, entrees $29-$56

Summary: After decades of love but too much neglect, the grand 1881 mansion has been reborn as a dramatic, cosmopolitan destination worthy of a big city. But the gorgeous gardens and approachable food keep this spot a local treasure.

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