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Apr 23, 2007 04:57 AM

On First Encountering Cyrus Restaurant

Is Cyrus the best restaurant in America? Is it better than The French Laundry? It's difficult to say. The French Laundry has a mystique that is hard to top (and a special place in our culinary psyche). At Cyrus, I was able to get a reservation merely by calling about 3 weeks in advance. I could even do it online. I did not have to wake up at exactly midnight, Pacific time, 60 days before my desired reservation date, and start dialing and re-dialing and praying. That raised the question: How good could it be if it had me as a customer? Fortunately, Cyrus is phenomenal without being exclusive.

TFL edges Cyrus on ambiance, but only slightly. I prefer TFL's garden location in Yountville over Cyrus's dining room off the lobby of the Les Mars Hotel in Healdsburg. The dining rooms themselves are luxuriant equals. The wait staffs are both attentive and omniscient, yet at ease and relaxed. Nothing stuffy about either place, except for maybe the baby artichokes.

And the big question: What about the food? I think the food is a tie. I think you could slide any dish from Douglas Keane's kitchen onto Thomas Keller's Tasting Menu and vice versa, and even the most discerning diner would be hard-pressed to notice a difference. Cyrus is that good. The philosophy and execution of both places are identical: Beautiful and fresh ingredients prepared perfectly and plated immaculately, with unusual flavor combinations that miraculously work every time.

I give Cyrus the edge over TFL in three categories:

(1) Price -- Cyrus is expensive, too be sure, especially if you go full monty and do the 7-course Tasting Menu with wine pairings (which we did). But we still got out of there for 2/3 the price of TFL's Tasting Menu with a couple of moderately-priced half-bottles and Champagne.

(2) Cocktails -- For the serious cocktail drinker, Scott Beattie's drinks at the Cyrus Bar are a revelation. It has more high-end spirits than a Beverly Hills cemetery. The Trauma Whisperer started with something called a "Frond Song" -- Sarticious Gin, fennel, anise, edible flowers, hyssop, and a couple of other things I failed to remember. It was served in a tall cocktail glass with a metal straw. It looked like an arrangement. It tasted delicious. A brown liquor drinker could be forgiven for flipping out of his bar stool upon first seeing the large glass vats of vanilla-bean infused Weller 12-year old Bourbon, which they use for their house Manhattans.

(3) Butter -- Cyrus gives you two pats of butter, one cow's milk and one goat's milk. The goat's milk butter was the best butter I've ever tasted. You could taste the grass that that goat ate, I tell you. Unparalleled.

Our vacation culminated with dinner at Cyrus and the experience was nothing short of extraordinary. We ate great for a week, but then we went to Cyrus and, like our encounter with TFL two years ago and Alinea last year, reveled in a whole different level of culinary skill and sophistication. Here is a summary of our meal:

* Caviar & Champagne (Not a la carte, but from the cart) -- As soon as we sat down, a waiter rolled the cart to our table. On one side of the cart, about 6 bottles of champagne necks stuck out from a dome of ice. It looked like a weapon. On the other side, a red scale and several tins of caviar. How can you pass up something like that? For geopolitical reasons, we went with the American Hackleback over the Iranian Osectra. The caviar was served with Anson Mills grit cakes (think mini McDonald's hash browns), creme fraiche, chives, and egg yolk. I was in patriotic revelry with every bite.
* Canapes - asparagus something on a spoon, miniature hush-puppies, one with Indian spices, the other Jamaican. Each tiny bite bursting with clean, distinct flavors.
* Amuse Bouche - big eye tuna in a tiny silver spoon with spices. Refreshing. Delicious.
* "Steak & Eggs" Wagyu steak and lobster tartare with horseradish creme fraiche and caviar -- The lobster tartare was plugged into the cavity of a veal marrow bone and topped with caviar, the marrow fried into mini disks, the Wagyu draped over a soft-boiled then fried quail egg. Phenomenal.
* Chorizo-crusted scallop, mirepoix and Manila clams -- in a shrimp broth you wanted to slurp with one of these metal straws.
* Rabbit loin with spring onions and matsutake mushrooms, stuffed baby artichoke, sherry jus. Beautiful. Perfect.
* Palate cleanser - cold mango-melon lollipop that melted on on your tongue.
* Foie gras with braised duck cannelloni and green garlic, Moscato sauce. The foie was astounding, though it lacked the "dinner theatre wow factor" of the foie on the main menu, which was placed before customers and flambeed "Bananas Foster" style, so it seared before their very eyes.
* Veal with morel mushrooms, white asparagus, & crispy sweetbreads. Lusty. Iconic.
* Artisanal and farmhouse cheeses ranging from the creamy to the armpit stinky, sliced, cut, and whizzed table-side.
* Palate cleanser - cherry-mint soda pop served in a shot glass with a metal straw
* Mochi rice cake with Yamamomo ice cream
* Caramel soup with kettle corn sorbet and chocolate filigree -- sorbet and pop corn in the bowl, chocolate spider web (the filigree) suspended over it and topped with a few kernels of pop corn like Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst in the trailer for "3". The server then pours hot caramel over it, which causes the filigree to melt. Hot, cold, sweet, salty.
* Mignardises -- Wherein the waiters mock your inability to eat any further by offering chocolates, Gewurztraminer jellies, banana something or other, caramels, and bon bons.

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  1. Can I just say wowww. *sigh*

    1. Maybe its time for me to re-visit. My one and only stop at Cyrus (shortly after they opened) was anything less than stellar. Looks like they may have ironed out some of the serious flaws that existed then.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Carrie 218

        I had the same experience maybe about a month or so after it opened. Our French server was possibly the funniest and most charming I've ever met, the decor was palatial, and everything arrived seamlessly, but the food itself left some to be desired. Because the cheese course was so wonderful, I knew they were working with top quality ingredients and had some hope for later. It sounds as though I should make it back sometime soon!

      2. Reading your report made me smile - brought back good memories of my recent trip ( ). Sounds like the tasting menu was fairly similar, although it was nice to see that there were a couple of changes.

        Btw, the California Select caviar is also sustainably produced. It's a little bit more expensive than the Hackleback; however, I think the flavor more closely resembles caviar from Caspian waters. If you haven't tried it, you might want to give it a whirl.

        1 Reply
        1. re: jrhsfcm

          I couldn't have said it better myself -- and I didn't. Great write-up (your descriptions are spot-on) and it sounds like comparable experiences. It's funny because Per Se seems like the logical next choice for '08 "to keep the streak alive." I agree with you about the impossible standards we set for some restaurants. My wife wanted to re-try TFL on this trip, but I demurred. Our only and only time was so perfect that I feel that any return will be hard to compare. I'd rather savor the memory. Needless to say, neither of us regretted going to Cyrus. I'll keep an eye out for the Cal Select.

        2. wow. I guess my not-very-stellar Cyrus experience is not the norm. I went into the bar with my mother in august to have some cocktails after wine tasting all day and the bar staff was so snooty (and the portions of food that went by so undersized compared with the hefty price tag) that neither of us wanted to stay for dinner even though we *knew* it was supposed to be the best restaurant in healdsburg/california/etc.

          were the cocktails good? yes, they were. was the atmosphere stuffy and exclusive? yes, it was. would i try cyrus again? maybe, but i would hope to be better treated and i would probably do it in the same way-go to the bar with a small party, not make a fuss about reservations, and if i was treated tactlessly, not drop my money on them.

          3 Replies
          1. re: linz

            I'm just curious: can you give us a sense of what you mean by 'snooty'?

            1. re: susancinsf

              Definitely not my experience. Everyone was gracious and polite, from the receptionist to the bartender (who, I later learned, was Scott Beattie), to the entire wait staff. And believe me, my wife and I don't exude (or have) "old money." (not much new money either after paying the tab!) I asked plenty of questions, some of which may have been dumb (Why is it called Cyrus? Would there be a foie course on the tasting menu (which is not printed)?), and everyone was happy to answer them. Not a whiff of condescension. They even laughed at some of my bad jokes.

              The portion size on the 7-course tasting was just about right. If anything, desserts were too large, but we were stuffed by then. I could have probably gotten away with the 5-course option. Worth every penny to us.

              If I were you, I would make a reservation, forget about the prices, do the tasting menu, and let the chef surprise you course after course. You might just have the meal of a lifetime.

            2. re: linz

              I'm sorry to hear your experience wasn't the best during your visit. Unfortunately all restaurants (and people) have "off" nights - I know this is particularly hard to accept when spending a large sum of money at a restaurant. I would highly encourage you to try Cyrus again; though I would recommend you make a reservation for the dining room. Bar dining inherently has a different "feel" to it - at this price point I think you deserve the best the restaurant has to offer (re: the dining room). Fridays and Saturdays can prove to be a little bit tricky making reservations (possibly a few weeks notice required): Sundays - Thursdays are a lot easier. They also maintain a waiting list for filled evenings, and they certainly do call in the case of an opening..

              As for the portion sizing, I think Cyrus does an excellent job of appropriately portioning dishes based on the number of courses. Our tasting menu courses were nicely sized: I left full, but I never once felt longing for more (outside of just loving the course and wanting to gorge on it) nor did I feel like I was tackling a food marathon. I observed two tables around ours whereas the diners were not participating in the tasting menu. Those individual courses looked much larger - in fact I remember staring longingly at a woman's particularly large lamb dish.

              If you do give it another shot, I certainly hope you walk away with the same wonderful experience I (and many others) have had.

            3. Thank you for this post! I will be dining at both Cyrus and FL back-to-back in mid-May. I will be sure to share my findings. My only concern is that my comparison might not be fair, since I plan to "only" get the 7-course at Cyrus while I will be having the unadvertised extended 16-course at FL. Does Cyrus offer anything similar?

              7 Replies
              1. re: kevin h

                Of this I am not aware. I think it would be in your best interest to call the restaurant and discuss this with them. As this is not an "advertised" option at The French Laundry, perhaps the same may be true at Cyrus. If it is, please.please.please report back and let us know: I would certainly love to go on the gastronomic adventure, too! :)

                1. re: jrhsfcm

                  7 courses was the max on the "printed" Cyrus menu, but w/ caviar, canapes, amuse bouche, 2 intermezzos, cheese course (not counted as one of the 7), and mignardises, it worked out to 13 different tastes.

                  Can't wait to hear you report back on your double feature.

                  My only regret about Cyrus is that I was staying 15 minutes away, so couldn't finish all my wine in every paired glass. At TFL, we stayed within stumbling distance -- and we did.

                  One other thing about Cyrus. I told them when I booked the reservation that we were celebrating my wife's first "real" job after her medical training. The congratulated her upon arrival and, at the end of the meal, gave us a copy of the Tasting Menu with "Congratulations on the New Job!" typed up top. Nice touch.

                  1. re: LPM

                    I think the 16-course at the Laundry means 16 straight courses, with any amuses and whatnot counted separately, but we'll see. I'll ask if Cyrus can do an extended tasting. I'll make sure to get a copy of the menu in either case, signed by the chef of course.

                    The wine pairing concerns me a bit. I'm assuming it's a half-glass not a full-glass per course at Cyrus, so that should be fine. I don't want my senses to be dulled, too much. Since FL doesn't do pairings, we'll probably bring an '82 Pichon Lalande and purchase some Riesling and dessert wine at the restaurant.

                    1. re: kevin h

                      I really love the wine pairings at Cyrus -- they do an excellent job of matching courses with interesting selections. If you are concerned about too much wine, you can split glasses or aske for pairings that might work with more than one course. We tend to stay at the Hotel Healdsburg, which makes it easy to stumble back from Cyrus. I am of the camp that Cyrus may be better than TFL.

                      1. re: The Dive

                        Agreed - the pairings at Cyrus were phenomenal. I'm sure they'd be happy to work with you to keep the inebriation to a minimum given the driving concerns. :)

                2. re: kevin h

                  Cyrus is so accommodating to the desires of the diners. I've gone with a light appetite (not the best circumstances to do their cuisine justice), ravenouse, and somewhere in between. When in the mood for a tasting menu, I've simply given them my time frame, what piques my curiosity and palette, and things I cannot eat (not much limits me, but there are a couple things I simply don't enjoy). I've had a few courses for the small appetite evening and countless courses for the latter. Great fun! I loved it the first time, and I continue to enjoy the creativity of the kitchen and the graciousness of the front of the house staff. Enjoy May, you will be getting the bounty of the spring.

                  1. re: kevin h

                    We did Cyrus and FL back to back in March and to me there was no comparison. Im sure that many would disagree with me, but both me and my wife were very disappointed with the FL and thought Cyrus was amazing. We had much better food and service there, and the 7-courses does end up being more then that with all the give aways, and its wonderful. Plus Cyrus has wonderful wine pairings, while for some reason the FL doesn't do that.