St. Helena’s Roadhouse 29 worth a detour

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By my math (not my strong suit, true), the new Roadhouse 29 in St. Helena shouldn’t be making any money. In a culinary gift to diners, the barbecue eatery offers so much good stuff for such reasonable pricing that it’s one of the best values in Wine Country.

Let’s break it down. Roadhouse 29 is the work of Top Chef Masters talent Douglas Keane, who previously owned the high-end, two Michelin Star Cyrus in Healdsburg. After closing Cyrus, he and partners Nick Peyton and L.A. chef Sang Yoon opened the 150-seat, upscale Cal-Japanese Two Birds One Stone in 2016 in the historic Freemark Abbey Winery. Then this January, citing factors like wildfire-slowed visitor traffic, Keane and crew closed Two Birds, changing it to the casual ‘cue roadhouse concept.

Yet casual doesn’t mean cutting corners. As with his earlier restaurants, Keane still focuses on premium ingredients, such as Journeyman Meat Co. handcrafted bacon and hot dogs, Berkwood Farms Berkshire pork, American Wagyu steak, Akaushi beef, Sonoma Brinery pickles, Napa Valley heirloom beans and Straus Family Creamery dairy. Still, somehow, prices are quite moderate, comparing closely to the parking lot-style cult ‘cue joint Buster’s, just up the street in Calistoga.

There are blue plate specials every night, too, including fancy fare like Saturday’s roasted prime rib complete with creamed spinach, onion rings and nasal-clearing horseradish ($29), or Thursday’s chicken pot pie studded with carrots, onions, potatoes and peas under buttery, flaky crust ($21). Kids under 5 always eat free, while tykes under 10 can nosh on favorites like chicken fingers with French fries, baby carrots and ranch dip for $6.

We get still more. There’s no charge for corkage, even though the restaurant has its own well-chosen, mainly Napa-Sonoma wine list featuring a 2017 Miner Family Napa Valley Viognier ($40) alongside a 2005 Lokoya Mt. Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon ($650).

Weekday happy hour is another bargain, offering bites like deviled eggs (two halves for $1), and a pulled pork slider for ($2.50), plus drinks like a Moscow Mule ($5), domestic beers ($3) and the 2017 Freemark Abbey Sauvignon Blanc ($7). On Fridays, live music plays from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. with no cover charge.

And even with all this, customers aren’t expected to tip. Staff earn living wages well above minimum, bolstered by efficient touches such as the order-at-the-counter lunch setup, which morphs to full table service at dinner. It also helps that Jackson Family Wines owns Freemark Abbey and helps support the restaurant.

Of course, all of this wouldn’t matter much if the place was mediocre. But it’s pretty great, from its elegant setting to its first-rate food. I wish it was closer to my Sebastopol home, in fact, so I could visit more often and bring my many out-of-town guests with me to show off the find.

Two Birds was gorgeous, certainly, with its rock walls set with arched windows, a concrete floor, dramatic arched wood ceiling with skylights, tufted couch booths and well-spaced wood tables for a modern, formal feel.

The setting remains the same, including the gorgeous, sleek wood full bar at the entry, yet it’s been made whimsical, accented with neon truck art, a funky truck sculpture, an antique cake and bread case, and model trucks set in a cut-out in the long, eat-in bar.

Still, on my visits, the sunny patio was the popular spot, the tables shaded by cherry red umbrellas, and the mood down home with a Southern Pride smoker and rotisserie/broiler hunkered at the entry.

Most tables, not surprisingly, were laden with those slow-cooked meats that lounge prettily on wood cutting boards next to tin pot sides of crisp-topped aged gouda and cheddar mac-n-cheese ($10) or creamed sweet white corn ($7).

All the options I’ve tried are pleasing, from the St. Louis Pork Ribs ($20 half rack, $36 full), to the spicy garlic-chile marinated Creekstone Farms tri-tip sandwich ($14), to the 42-hour-smoked 6-ounce American Wagyu short rib steak served only at dinner ($29). Smoked over California oak and Freemark Abbey cabernet barrel staves, the tender meats aren’t overly wood-perfumed, which I love, because it allows me to really taste the quality meat and the gently spicy-tart tomato-vinegar sauce.

Served simply with lots of excellent, crunchy, sweet-acidic pickles, warm King Hawaiian rolls and coleslaw, they’re generous meals. That slaw, by the way, is terrific, in a mix of finely chopped Napa cabbage, microgreens and earthy bean sprouts barely moistened in mayo.

Pulled pork shoulder, on the other hand, is less exciting for me, since I like a good amount of fat for extra flavor, and this healthier meat is on the lean side ($15 for an eight ounce dinner entrée, or $14 for a lunch sammy on a sesame seed bun).

When I heard that Two Birds was closing and chef Yoon was departing, I immediately thought, oh no, the chicken. That kitchen, see, sent out a marvelous weekly special, a whole, Rocky Free Range bird that had been kimchee-brined to spicy juiciness for 48 hours, battered and fried crispy golden, then tossed with candied-spicy Korean barbecue glaze ($65). Served with pickled lemon cucumbers, kimchee and compressed spiced watermelon, it was different, and delectable.

Yet the bird is on the everyday Roadhouse menu, too, at an incredible price. These days, it’s $39 for a whole, and $24 for a half, presented with housemade pickles and kimchee. A platter of this with a Hot & Sour Thai Chile-spiked Vodka Gimlet ($12), and I’m beyond happy.

Really, just because Keane’s new restaurant is more relaxed doesn’t mean that it’s lost his inventive spark. Not at all.

The sparkling touches still impress, in dishes like a towering mound of thinly sliced kale and purple cabbage salad that’s crunchy joy sprinkled with scallions, crispy rice, black and white sesame seeds, and a robust black garlic dressing ($12). Then, there was one day’s special of suckling pig tacos ($14).

The pork was roasted to succulent tenderness with a nice bit of chew, draped in a complex, slightly smoky Oaxacan mole, then dressed with queso fresco, avocado, cilantro, onions and a spritz of lime. It was a knockout.

And at the end, as we’ve licked our fingers clean and wiped a final napkin across our sauce-stained lips, we’ve got some pretty perfect desserts to look forward to. No fancy foams, curious concoctions or gold leaf gaudiness, just a really delicious sweet like a big, gooey warm skillet baked chocolate chip cookie topped with chocolate or vanilla soft serve.

I’ve always adored Keane’s upscale recipes and his brilliant creativity. But here, as he treats us to more basic, but so delicious comfort favorites, I love that, too. My wallet, meanwhile, is over-the-moon thrilled.

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.

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