Wine Country favorite Willi's Wine Bar combines small plates, big flavor
The plates may be small at Willi's Wine Bar in Santa Rosa, but then you get an extra large helping of fun with each one.
Owner and Executive Chef Mark Stark devises little dishes so appealing, and Chef John Stroup executes them so well, that you might be tempted to keep ordering more than you can comfortably eat.
The answer, of course, is to make return trips on different days until you've tasted through the entire menu. Couple the intriguing food with a savvy bartender who will suggest an unerring wine pairing for each plate, and you'll have more fun than any one person is entitled to.
Most wines are available as 2-ounce pours, so you can try a variety of wines without drinking too much. A glass of wine is generally a little over 5 ounces, so you can pair three different 2-ounce pours of wine with three small plates and drink just a little more than one glass of wine — but with all the sensory satisfaction of three glasses.
If there's a wine you and your party particularly like, 5-ounce pours, half-bottles and full bottles also are available. Corkage is $15 each for the first two bottles, $25 a bottle after that, but will be waived for one of your bottles for each bottle purchased from the restaurant.
This being a wine bar, you will not be surprised to find some fabulous wines on the list. To name just a small sampling, here's the 2008 Stuhlmuller Chardonnay with its focused lemony lime and peach flavors, the 2007 "32 Winds" Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast showcasing the layers of flavors from Hirsch Vineyard fruit, and the spicy intensity of the 2008 Turley "Cederman" vineyard Zinfandel from Howell Mountain.
Speaking of Turley label wines, winemaker Ehren Jordan poured three samples of his wines on a recent "Tasting Tuesdays" event at the wine bar. Each Tuesday, a winemaker from a regional winery comes in to pour wines for a $10 fee from 4 to 5 p.m. — another good reason to leave work early.
Willi's isn't a fancy restaurant. It occupies an old frame house with a checkered past next to Cardinal Newman High School. Tables fill the inside of the building and an attached enclosed porch. Local folks have found it a convenient and fun place to get together and there's usually a whole lotta schmoozin' goin' on. The quality of the little plates — each one as appealing in its own way as the next — makes the trip to Willi's something to look forward to. And there's a gluten-free menu.
For instance, over two visits, the following dishes all went down easy, without leaving a full feeling.
The highlight of all the plates was Curried Crab Tacos ($12, 4 stars). The menu says "with red pears and mint," but those pears seemed an awful lot like red bell peppers. The taco shells were crispy-crunchy, the crabmeat was in lusciously large lumps, the curried dressing was creamy, peppers were fresh and raw, and mint was a brilliant touch that added refreshing flavor.
Pressing a chicken breast against a hot griddle cooks it fast and seals in the juices, and that's how the kitchen makes Organic Brick Chicken ($10, 3? stars). It comes with a hot sauce for dipping and a cooling tzatziki sauce, plus a nice little salad with a vinaigrette dressing topped with crisped fried onions. Pulled Duck Barbecue ($10, 2 stars) wasn't as successful as the first two dishes. The duck was flavorful enough, but it was tough and chewy. It was served with two thin wedges of white cheddar polenta.