Entering 256 North in Petaluma, you’re greeted by a bakery case full of cheesecakes. Lots of cheesecakes, in an array of flavors like Snickers, chocolate raspberry, or a Neapolitan Fantasy of cheesecake layered with chocolate cake and strawberry mousse on a sweet shortbread crust.
That’s not surprising, considering that 256 North owner Jan Rosen has been known since 1983 for her J.M. Rosen’s Cheesecakes wholesale bakery, when her confections immediately became favorites of celebrities like Frank Sinatra, then-President Ronald Reagan, and West Hollywood doyenne restaurateur Maude Chasen. Today, Rosen’s still-thriving bakery sits just around the corner from her new restaurant on Petaluma Boulevard North near Washington Street.
But keep on walking, past those tempting cakes, past the piano lounge, and past the big wraparound centerpiece bar with its TV sets and crazy fun atomic sputnik chandeliers hung from the open rafter ceiling. Let the hostess – often Rosen herself – seat you at a rustic wood table, and hand you the menu.
You’ll find that Rosen has revived her earlier career in running full restaurants, including the former J.M. Waterfront Grill overlooking the Petaluma River, Rosen’s Eastside Grill in Petaluma, and J.M. Rosen’s in Santa Rosa. Now, she presents contemporary American food for lunch and dinner, with indeed, cheesecake by the slice ($8) for dessert all day long.
The cheesecakes, cakes and mousses are rich, rich, rich.
And I got an inkling from my first bite of French onion soup ($8.95) that the restaurant kitchen appreciates equally bold cooking. The steaming hot broth is thick with brandied onions, and it’s much more sweet than beefy, soaking up big chunks of bread under a cap of molten Gruyere. At first bite, I didn’t really like the brandy character, but it grew on me, and soon, I’d finished every drop in the pottery crock.
Another appetizer, crudo trio, layers lots of flavors, too, and deliciously. Arranged on a triangular plate, it could actually make a light lunch, thanks to generous dollops of seared ahi carpaccio drizzled in pickled ginger aioli over lemongrass ginger soy, diced scallop ceviche, sweet salmon poke, and wakame for scooping with taro and wonton chips ($17.95).
Prices seem a bit high, but starters are easily enough for two, including a tennis ball size round of chopped Kobe-style beef filet tartare, anchored with an open-shell quail egg in the middle and a swath of Dijon mustard spiked with cornichons alongside ($13.95). Spill the egg, spoon the meat on French bread crostini, and you’ve got a very satisfying nosh.
You could also fill up on the Manila clams appetizer ($13.95), delivering two dozen-plus shellfish augmented with tender white beans in a rich, buttery white wine sauce that doesn’t skimp on the garlic. As expected, it’s sloppy to eat, dunking the grilled, herbed bread in the broth, yet one evening, I admired a guy sitting at the bar with his laptop, bravely taking the dish on while still trying to type.
There’s good wild king salmon coming out of this kitchen, meanwhile, the skin a bit over-charred (to be fair, I had requested it cooked crispy) and the meat moistened with a pond of delicate, sunflower yellow saffron cream sauce. Set on a bed of juicy Bloomsdale spinach, artichoke hearts, Toy Box cherry tomatoes and gnocchi, it makes a perfect summer dish ($25.95).
Those powerful flavors return with the fried chicken ($22.95), however, overwhelmingly seasoned with herbs. My half-bird offered delicious meat and a crisp crust brightened with nicely subtle truffled honey and a spritz of grilled lemon, while a side of sweet corn puree was a refreshing accent. But those herbs, including a nest of whole, fried thyme sprigs atop the chicken, overpowered everything.
Coming back for lunch one day, I couldn’t resist ordering a burger ($15.95), after having seen several being delivered to other tables. The thing is monster-size, as a half pound of Snake River farms Wagyu beef enrobed in melted Sierra Nevada white cheddar, and stacked precariously high on a toasted brioche bun with lettuce, tomatoes, sautéed onions and thin sliced, intensely spicy-sweet pickle. A big sandwich and big flavor: paired with a metal canister of skinny, crisp and wonderfully salty French fries, it made two meals for me.
The bartenders, shaking and stirring craft cocktails, like high-impact recipes, too. What else to say about a Surprise Surprise Lemon Drop ($11), in a curious, sugary mix of Kettle One vodka, lemon juice, Chambord, simple syrup, and pink cotton candy garnish, or a Spicy Buck ($10) – which I really enjoyed for its earthy heat, by the way – of Casa Noble reposado tequila, ginger, jalapeno, lemon juice, simple syrup and ginger beer?
Less adventurous imbibers do really well with the expertly prepared classic cocktails, ample selection of international beers, and the French-Sonoma-Mendocino-Napa wine list, with almost ridiculously generous pours (is there such a thing?) of well known brands like 2015 Sonoma-Cutrer Sonoma Coast Chardonnay ($12).
For all the flair in food and drink, the space itself still needs decorating. Since opening in March, wall art, lounge furniture and such has been arriving in dribs and drabs, so the cavernous brick, metal and hardwood space feels cold and sports bar-like, rather than offering the sultry mood that live piano music on weekends would suggest (Sinatra tunes!).
Staff, too, while exceptionally friendly and attentive, still seem new, since during both my visits, servers had to return to the kitchen to ask for basic and somewhat bizarre information (yes, the crudo menu promised rock shrimp, but the chef confirmed those were diced scallops I got instead; and yes, it was possible to get a box to take home my leftover chicken, after the chef said okay - really).
Even with its small stumbles, though, 256 North is a great addition to Petaluma’s increasingly vibrant dining scene. Its energy is great, and its menu mostly spot-on.
Just a little less sugar and spice in some of the dishes, plus a little more décor all around, and this place is another Rosen winner.
Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.