It’s become a ritual. Every fall, the team at Healdsburg’s Madrona Manor celebrates as they receive the coveted Michelin Star award yet again. It’s been happening for the past 10 years now, honoring the elegant, candlelight dinners served in the gracious 1881 Victorian mansion that also operates as a luxury inn.
Keeping that star shining is no simple feat, as Madrona chef Jesse Mallgren can attest. In charge of the kitchen since 1999, he’s pressed with preserving the formal dining experience that longtime customers expect, while offering the ever-more creative cuisine that new customers crave.
After a recent dinner, I’d say he has an 11th star coming his way this fall. In keeping with his seasonal bent, chef Mallgren is showcasing spring cooking right now, offering a new, seven-course tasting menu with each course containing at least one item from his on-site, 1-acre hillside garden. The estate produce is vital — in fact, chief gardener Pedro Lopez is credited on the menu right alongside the chef.
You can also order from the à la carte list which offers most of the same plates plus more options, but for me, the tasting is the way to go. It’s a great value at $98 (plus $55 for wine pairings), and offers a superb opportunity to taste an array of the chef’s marvelous dishes. The feast also brings several amuse bouches, petit fours and chocolates.
Just be clear you’re ordering the correct tasting menu. On my visit, two quite stylish young men at a table next to me looked up from their phones long enough to tell the waiter they wanted “all of it.” The waiter double-checked — were they requesting the “I’ll Have One of Everything” lineup, where duos can share the entire, 15-dish à la carte menu? Indeed yes, they did want the $468 indulgence, plus double wine service, plus extra servings of foie gras torchon ($16) and Wagyu ($45 3 ounces; $85 6 ounces).
My companion and I stuck with the $98 option, thank you. So the kitchen can pace courses, the tasting does require the entire dining party to participate. But this works well, since several courses include choices, and this way, you can share and savor them all. For example, which do you prefer for an appetizer — scallop crudo, or caviar? The crudo is must, the velvety Hokkaido scallop sliced thin and decorated in slips of mountain potato, edible flowers, a jolt of fresh wasabi and splash of persimmon vinegar (regular menu price $16). But the Bulgarian Osetra caviar is a must, too, as a tablespoon dollop flanked by crème fraiche dots atop a circle of shiitake gelée ($12 supplement to tasting menu). The caviar goes neatly with the paired 2014 Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs Napa Valley Brut.
Mallgren appreciates clean, uncluttered flavors, and the French white asparagus is an excellent example. Three plump beauties are glazed in silky Mangalitsa lardo vinaigrette, sprinkled in hazelnuts and leaf herb, and need absolutely nothing else except an accompanying glass of 2016 Monte Carbonare Soave Classico from Italy.
King salmon enjoys similar restraint, seared to a crisp crust and moist interior, set on a pond of fava bean puree and finished with spring garlic, a touch of estate Meyer lemon and a flourish of society garlic flowers ($38). It’s lovely paired with 2013 Russian River Valley Small Vines Estate Cuvee Pinot Noir.
While the Japanese Wagyu presentation is quite plain — a hunk of meat, a few emerald green chard leaves, and a tidy ball of rice — the flavors are dramatic. Aged soy permeates the beef with salty richness, and Asian spices brighten the rice. A 2013 Alexander Valley Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon is bright and bold alongside.
Dessert brings a fancy flourish, with selections changing frequently. On my visit, pastry chef Oanh “Sally” Nguyen crafted kuchen, a dense, deliciously damp cake stabbed with almond brittle, topped with rhubarb gel and flower petals, and partnered with sour cream sorbet. The play of gently sweet and tart was marvelous, and played nicely with its pairing of 2013 Dr. Loosen Riesling Beerenauslese, an ultra-concentrated botrytis dessert wine with notes of honey.
As marvelous as the tasting menu is, the à la carte items deserve exploring, too. Charcoal-grilled duck yakitori is a particular standout, showing how Mallgren marries classic with cutting edge. Yakitori is all the rage in restaurants these days, and here, the chef presents as sort of a liver-n-onions idea ($11), crafted with gizzards and heart and young onion, all spiked with rosemary and tare glaze (thick, sweet soy). An entrée of hand cut pasta, meanwhile, displays that simple sophistication again, laced with lightly smoked maitake mushrooms, egg, black pepper and Parmigiano-Reggiano ($19).
A final note: Madrona Manor is old-school luxurious, with double draped white tablecloths, floor-to-ceiling drapes, glittering chandeliers in the five cozy dining rooms, and hushed, polished service. But don’t think that means pretension. Dining is a relaxed affair, and well paced so that I was in-and-out within two hours.
And through June, the restaurant is offering Mallgren’s Madrona burger, plus live flamenco music on Friday nights, for just $19. It’s a hefty meal of dry aged chuck, white cheddar, housemade pickles, cornichon-mustard aioli, and grilled onion roasted with bacon and thyme on a house-made ciabatta-brioche bun. The platter includes French fries with spicy house-made ketchup and malt vinegar aioli.
If all that doesn’t put stars in your eyes, what will?
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.