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On First Encountering Cyrus Restaurant

LPM Apr 23, 2007 04:57 AM

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.

  1. t
    thinks too much Apr 23, 2007 05:39 AM

    Can I just say wowww. *sigh*

    1. Carrie 218 Apr 23, 2007 08:17 AM

      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
        LikeFrogButOOOH Apr 26, 2007 05:56 PM

        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. j
        jrhsfcm Apr 23, 2007 10:16 AM

        Reading your report made me smile - brought back good memories of my recent trip ( http://www.chowhound.com/topics/390370 ). 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
          LPM Apr 23, 2007 11:08 AM

          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. l
          linz Apr 23, 2007 12:01 PM

          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
            susancinsf Apr 23, 2007 01:10 PM

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

            1. re: susancinsf
              LPM Apr 23, 2007 01:30 PM

              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
              j
              jrhsfcm Apr 23, 2007 01:41 PM

              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. kevin h Apr 23, 2007 01:47 PM

              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
                j
                jrhsfcm Apr 23, 2007 01:53 PM

                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
                  LPM Apr 23, 2007 05:54 PM

                  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
                    kevin h Apr 23, 2007 10:47 PM

                    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
                      The Dive Apr 24, 2007 07:31 AM

                      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
                        j
                        jrhsfcm Apr 24, 2007 11:37 AM

                        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
                  SanseiDesigns Apr 24, 2007 06:12 PM

                  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
                    m
                    mapep May 28, 2007 11:42 AM

                    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.

                  2. s
                    skimc Apr 24, 2007 01:08 PM

                    I agree that the food is just wonderful, but I thought the service was a little confusing. It seemed like everyone on the floor was our server. I think we had about 6 different people waiting on us. Is this a new trend in service? This is the only restaurant I've been to with this style so maybe I just need to try it again. Although it didn't detract from the food or our overall enjoyment of the meal, it was a little awkward at times. I tend to like the continuity of one server.

                    1. l
                      linz Apr 24, 2007 05:42 PM

                      OK, what I mean by snooty. (and there were two other parties eating at the bar while we were there, and we hadn't made reservations or anything which was why we thought to sit at the bar and eat if we wanted to). It was pretty early when we got there and we weren't hungry so we ordered some cocktails but had questions about one of them and the bartender, a girl, barely deigned to answer the questions and in general treated us like second class citizens from the point of sitting down on. With that kind of first impression I'm definitely not going to rush back, and if I do meander back I will hope for something different.

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: linz
                        j
                        jrhsfcm Apr 24, 2007 06:07 PM

                        I'm curious how you felt like second-class citizens, which you haven't elaborated upon. Was your impression formed by the way the bartender answered your questions or by some other means? Were you ignored or treated rudely, or did you just feel as though the bartender could have been more friendly in the way she interacted with you? Even the friendliest people will be somewhat "efficient" in answering questions if particularly busy.

                        Frankly, depending on the specifics of your treatment, I'd say it might be a bit hasty to write off the restaurant in general.

                        1. re: jrhsfcm
                          l
                          linz Apr 26, 2007 10:53 PM

                          we were treated fairly rudely, not asked if we wanted anything more, had to ask to see menus and were surly handed them...there were like 3 people at the bar, it wasn't crowded, it was quite early on a random summer weekday. initial drinks were gotten quickly, but rudely, and in general it just felt...frosty...which isn't how you want to feel when eating a nice meal or enjoying a stiff drink. we were treated like it was a privilege to be there and our questions about the drinks or the menu were suffered, like we should just be grateful for the privilege of getting bar seats without reservations and fork over hundreds of dollars on food.

                          i understand you all have had great experience, but i didn't. I understand cyrus is the darling of the food world, up for a beard etc etc, so it is un-hip to be saying that I was underimpressed but it's true. sorry to all you cyrus-lovers.

                          1. re: linz
                            Bhutani May 22, 2007 12:43 PM

                            I cannot say enough positive things about my recent experience at Cyrus. While I had exceedingly high expectations based on all the raving reviews, the dinner surpassed them in every facet (food, service, ambience, cocktails/wine). I hold a special place in my heart for the French Laundry b/c I celebrated my engagement there but Cyrus has me now reconsidering my top dining spot in the US.

                            While I sadly did not do the tasting menu, everything I had on the a la carte menu was top-notch. I would put a particular plug in for the gnocchi with fava and ramps. The cocktails were like nothing I have had anywhere (Scott Beattie is a mixology genius). While we had a number of servers that took care of us, the service was always timely and never obstrusive. All in all, this is a dining experience that I will be talking about for some time to come and look forward to the next time I am in Sonoma to eat there again.

                      2. lamoufette Aug 9, 2007 09:36 PM

                        Cyrus was wonderful. Lean back and let the food gods take over. Needs to be done once, but not after a long busy day,and not at the bar. The bar end is rude and overly efficient. But once thru the magic portal of the restaurant, you are in heaven. The wines were divine. Sometimes the service smacked a little bit 'Cruise Ship' as in too slick and repeated and rehearsed. We called it 'dinner theatre' for a special occasion. You have to be in the mood. One area that needs improvement is "The Welcome" - no one in particular greets you and no one is in charge of what happens to you until your reservation comes due. We wound up standing in the lobby because the bar was full of casual dinners and hotel guests.

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: lamoufette
                          u
                          uvahustla Jun 30, 2008 12:04 AM

                          I had at the moment the best meal of my life at Cyrus last January. The way the service makes you feel both important and awesome coupled with all the little extras and food quality is unique. Just how good is Cyrus?

                          I recently had the opportunity to eat at the three Michelin star Schwarzwald Stube in Alsace, Germany and two of the dishes I had were similar. Foie Gras terrine was served in an apricot and almond gelee with fresh apricots and brioche in Germany and terrine with persimmon gelee and chutney at Cyrus. Alsace is the foie gras capital of the world, and I thought both dishes were even. I also had a lamb dish cooked two ways with braised red cabbage at both places. The Cyrus dish had awesome pappardelle with the dish and a celery root puree but the lamb at Cyrus was not as tender. Food quality wise Cyrus was very close to one of the icons of Alsatian cooking. The price point $300 a person pre wine compared with $120 at Cyrus and the more personable service made Cyrus a more memorable experience. The desserts weren't as breathtaking or memorable, but dollar for dollar Cyrus is upppppppp there.

                          1. re: uvahustla
                            maria lorraine Jun 30, 2008 12:12 AM

                            <<<Alsace is the foie gras capital of the world>>>

                            Seriously? More than Perigord?

                            1. re: maria lorraine
                              u
                              uvahustla Jun 30, 2008 02:17 PM

                              It's definitely a subject up for debate as they've both been perfecting it as far back as the middle ages. In my personal experience I've found better texture and more frequent use of goose liver (which I think is better) in Alsace. I know Perigord makes and exports a lot more foie gras as awhole, but I think the quality suffers as a result, even if it's not by much.

                        2. Eat_Nopal Jun 30, 2008 08:51 AM

                          Am I the only one that finds the dining room at Cyrus to be quite ugly for the price point?

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: Eat_Nopal
                            LikeFrogButOOOH Jun 30, 2008 03:28 PM

                            Unless they've renovated it, I thought it was gorgeous. When I went, it wasn't the decor or the service where I found any fault. I'm very much looking forward to getting back to Cyrus for some of those mixed drinks these magazines keep raving about.

                          2. e
                            elleV Dec 3, 2009 09:10 PM

                            I hated this place. Overated and pretentious without the genuine warmth of the french laundry staff. Cyrus is all about show and making money. Most of the vegetarian dishes were not good. Even the bread was bad. Not worth the money or the time

                            4 Replies
                            1. re: elleV
                              s
                              skwid Dec 4, 2009 07:40 AM

                              Why was the bread bad (they have their own bakery)? Was it stale? Underbaked? Overbaked? Why were the vegetarian dishes not good? Were the vegies limp? Poor quality? I've been thinking of going but your note leaves me with no reference as to why things were bad so I'm not sure how to compare this to glowing reviews like the one at the start of this thread.

                              1. re: skwid
                                o
                                OldTimer Dec 4, 2009 10:07 AM

                                I think someone just had a bad day.

                                1. re: OldTimer
                                  r
                                  rahir Dec 4, 2009 02:40 PM

                                  Sounds like it! I did the veggie tasting menu at Cyrus last December and loved it, including the bread (which was piping hot and very satisfying). Below is a link to images and overview from my meal.

                                  http://groovethang.blogspot.com/2008/...

                              2. re: elleV
                                b
                                budnball Dec 11, 2009 10:13 AM

                                I have to agree, not worth the money. An ugly loud room, mediocre wine pairings and too many servers at my table. And after dining at Manresa and Masa's, The food was not special.

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