It’s said that cooking is an art, and it is, in certain ways, much like painting, at least in the hands of Dustin Valette at his namesake restaurant in Healdsburg.
With a painting, you start with a key color and then play off it with other colors related in harmony or dissonance. At Valette, the chef starts with a key ingredient and then layers in other ingredients to complement or contrast with it. What a beautiful painting does for the eye, a well-crafted dish does for the palate.
For instance, take a look at Valette’s Roasted Carrot + Ginger Soup ($12 ★★★★). Over his six years as chef at Dry Creek Kitchen, the chef made strong relationships with local farmers and suppliers of ingredients. Those bonds came with him when he opened his restaurant on Healdsburg’s Center Street, where Zin used to be.
The carrots for this exceptional soup come from Bernier Farms, a small, organic farm just north of Healdsburg. They are roasted to caramelize them and intensify the flavor, then pureed. If carrots are the key, what did Valette choose to layer into the mix? Brilliantly, he chose little fried shrimp. It’s not an obvious choice, but it works perfectly. The rich, earthy flavor of the carrots and the taste of the sea melt into one another.
Now he adds a dollop of crème fraiche to the soup for something creamy yet tangy, and he intensifies that tangy bite by flavoring the crème fraiche with ginger. The ginger flavor shakes hands with the shrimp, just as it does in Southeast Asian cuisines. But he’s not quite done with the shrimp idea, and he makes a shrimp cracker from dried shrimp that again references the salt sea.
But there was something else, a flavor I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Spoonful after spoonful, I could taste it. During the dinner, the chef came out and toured the room to greet his patrons, so I asked him about that elusive taste in the soup. “Coriander,” he said. Of course! The sweet, warm flavor of coriander, with its hint of orange peel, plays nicely with ginger and seafood. And the proof of that was in the soup.
Just as you miss almost everything by rushing through an art museum, you’ll miss these nuances if you rush through your food. Give it some time.
You’ll find plenty of interesting wines to sip while you ponder your dinner. Wines by the glass include a crisp chablis from Domaine Jean-Marc Brocard, and the Lando pinot noir is delicious. By the bottle, the 2012 Arista pinot noir from the Anderson Valley is $65, and while the 2011 Paradigm cabernet sauvignon from Oakville is pricey at $125, cabs don’t get much better than that. You’ll find good wines in whatever your price range. Corkage is $20.
Ahi Tataki ($15 ★★★★) takes us west to Hawaii and then on to Asia. Chunks of sashimi grade ahi are topped with the Japanese condiment furikake, made of dried, ground fish and sesame seeds. These are set on a bed of wakame seaweed salad, then partnered with spicy, pureed kim chi and a soy-seaweed emulsion. Finally, dried sesame seed powder is sprinkled on top.
Going in the opposite direction to Italy, we find House Made Semolina Pasta ($13 ★★★½). The pasta is rigatoni, dressed with arugula-walnut pesto and fresh English peas, all enhanced with slivers of prosciutto.
Where: 344 Center St., Healdsburg
When: Lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Fridays through Sundays. Dinner daily from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. except to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Reservations: Call 473-0946
Price range: Very expensive, with entrées from $23 to $37
Wine list: ★★★
★★★ Very Good
★ Not Very Good