Wine Country favorite Willi's Wine Bar combines small plates, big flavor

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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.

The cheese board lists eight selections, and a charcuterie menu has five items. For a cheese course, I selected Three Cheeses ($12, 3 stars). Pleasant Ridge Reserve is a mild and creamy cow's milk cheese from the Upland Cheese Co. in Wisconsin. Another Wisconsin cheese, Cave Aged Marisa from Carr Valley, is made from sheep's milk. Sheep's milk is richer than cow's — about 6 percent butterfat compared to 3 percent or 4 percent for cows — and the cheeses are richer in flavor and have a superb texture because of it. The third selection was the best: Cabot Cloth-Bound Cheddar from Jasper Hill Farms in Vermont, a tangy, intense cow's milk delight of a cheddar cheese. The cheeses come with honey, fig paste, raisin toast slices and house-made crackers. These selections paired beautifully with a glass of that Stuhlmuller chardonnay.

The green leaves of the Little Gem Lettuce Salad ($9, 3? stars) look like a buttercrunch type, but this compact head is actually a kind of romaine — the most nutritious lettuce of them all. Its crunchy leaves are dressed in mustard vinaigrette and tossed with flakes of Fiscalini cheddar, ultrathin slices of Fuji apples and candied walnuts. Mark Stark serves a variation of this salad at Monti's, his restaurant in Montgomery Village. He and his wife Terri also own Stark's Steakhouse in Santa Rosa and Willi's Seafood & Raw Bar in Healdsburg.

One of the most popular items on the wine bar's menu is Filet Mignon Sliders ($15, 4 stars). Two rectangular chunks of seared, rare filet mignon glazed with a whole-grain mustard b?rnaise sauce come with brioche buns and real, honest-to-goodness, old-fashioned, nutmeg-y, garlicky creamed spinach. Dessert was Warm Fuji Apple Crepes ($8,3 stars), served with a scoop of cow-and-goat's-milk ice cream and walnuts drowned in "sticky bun" caramel.

To sum up: Willi's Wine Bar is always fun, wine-educational and scrumptious.

Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review column for the Sonoma Living section. You can reach him at

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