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Grilled steelhead at Petite Syrah, Santa Rosa. May 10, 2011.

Change is good

It's a truism of our modern, fast-paced life that we need to keep reinventing ourselves, even in the face of success, and maybe because success tempts us to rest on our laurels.

Santa Rosa chef Josh Silvers exhibits the kind of courage it takes to do this. He recently shuttered his very successful restaurant Syrah, which had been a culinary star in Sonoma County for years. He tossed out the old ideas, reinvented the decor and came up with a whole new gastronomic concept that he calls Petite Syrah. It's even better than the old Syrah.

For one thing, it's based on small plates. The era of a big plate of meat, starch and vegetable is fast disappearing, at least in progressive restaurants. Small portions of many items allow us to enjoy a much wider variety of interesting foods without stuffing ourselves.

For another thing, the emphasis today is on locally grown, organic and fresh, in-season foods. Petite Syrah hits all of these buttons.

For instance, take chef de cuisine Jamil Peden's Mixed Chicories Salad ($8, 4 stars). Spring is the time for the icy-sweet-bitter plants that are categorized as chicories. The salad contains red radicchio, the frilly endive called frisee and the crunchy leaves of Belgian endive.

Chef Peden strews the fresh leaves with bits of toasted hazelnuts. He adds chopped dates for a touch of sweetness. Then he creates a savory dressing using Roaring Forties cow's-milk blue cheese from a blustery south Australian island. The result is no ordinary salad, but a poetic homage to the bittersweet taste of life.

Another of his astounding creations is Pear Sorbet ($5, 4 stars), a perfect distillation of the essence of ripe pears. He works a little molecular gastronomy with powdered olive oil sprinkled on top of the sorbet. Then the chef adds a sprinkle of Maldon sea salt from Essex, England, and tops the sorbet with celery microgreens. It sounds precious, but it tastes fabulous.

(How can there be powdered olive oil? Mix olive oil with maltodextrin, available at health food stores, to make a paste. Spread the paste on a ceramic plate and microwave on high for 90 seconds. Put dried paste in a mortar and crush it into powder using a pestle. It tastes like sweet olive oil.)

Changing the decor has seemingly opened up the room's cramped space. Seven tall tables and seven regular tables are made from old-growth redwood salvaged from a Petaluma water tank. The wood grain is tight and the color a beautiful subdued red. The same wood is used to make some of the cabinetry.

The ceiling is removed to expose beams and air ducts. The color scheme is red and ochre, and the decor's theme continues into the Quonset hut's interior, where more tables are set up.

Service, as before, is professional and pleasant, performed by a squad that takes your comfort and satisfaction into account. And if you like to know how your food is prepared, sit at the small bar that looks into the open stainless-steel kitchen.

Beer and a wonderful list of wines are available by the bottle or glass. Example: 2002 Corison Cabernet Sauvignon for $10 a 5.5-ounce glass.

Tuck into some of the vegetable appetizers, which are as carefully crafted as the more savory plates. Potato Gnocchi ($11, 2? stars) are chewy, starchy little nuggets paired with fresh peas and sauteed pea shoot tips, little diced multi-colored carrots and shavings of Vella Dry Jack.

Roasted Beets ($9, 3 stars) are half-inch blocks of sweet Chioggia beets sitting in a puree of dark red beets. An accompanying panna cotta is flavored with just a whisper of horseradish and sprinkled with black leek ashes. A few rosettes of mache and tiny beet sprouts finish the plate.

Roasted Asparagus ($9, 3 stars) features fat spears (the greater the diameter of the stalk, the more tender they are) dabbed with thick, black balsamic vinegar and topped with red radish shavings, sunflower seeds and sunflower sprouts. All this sits on "soil" made from roasted, crushed sunflower seeds.

Grilled Steelhead ($15, 3? stars) is both simple and elaborate. Simple because the pink-fleshed fish is paired with cooked durum wheat berries and a puree made from fresh peas. Elaborate because capers, celery, raisins and toasted almonds cavort on the plate as well.

Several thin slices of California Halibut Crudo ($12, 3 stars), also known as sashimi, shine with good olive oil. Fennel and julienned radishes join the fish.

A leg and breast of chewy, salty, crispy and delicious Liberty Duck Confit ($10, 3 stars) comes with Israeli couscous, black garlic and shiitakes in a pinot noir sauce. And don't miss the rich, meaty, slow-cooked Pork Shoulder ($14, 3? stars), braised with fennel and oranges and served with white cannelloni beans and a spicy Calabrian chili aioli.

Still, the meatiest item on the menu is the Hanger Steak ($16, 3 stars), rolled in pepper and seared to rare, sliced and drizzled with chimichurri sauce, and partnered with maitake mushroom and foie gras arancini.

Despite all this goodness, we weren't prepared for the Chocolate Layer Cake ($8, 4 stars), as good a piece of chocolate cake as you'll find anywhere. Everything is perfect - the chocolate-caramel icing, the moist and tender but substantial chocolate-y cake itself, even the whipped cream. Pin a medal on the pastry chef!

To sum up: A fresh wind blows great new ideas through one of Sonoma County's finest restaurants.

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

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