Willi’s Seafood & Raw Bar in Healdsburg
When Willi’s Seafood opened a few years ago, I probably ate here about six times in the first year, mostly as a solo diner at the bar, making my way through just about the whole menu. Then I dropped it. Other than the ceviches and raw bar items, nearly all the dishes were loaded with butter, cheese, or bacon. Robust and delicious, for sure, but also too heavy and rich for my tastes. Recently I read about owner Mark Stark’s conversion to healthier eating and dramatic weight loss on the caveman diet, http://blogs.kqed.org/bayareabites/2011/09/12/starks-steakhouse-chef-loses-55-pounds-on-caveman-diet/ , and wondered if the menu might have changed along with the expansion of the space. Last week my mom and I stopped in for dinner.
The place was packed the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and fully reserved. Mom and I hopped up on the tall stools at the raw bar.
First two dishes up were the Scallop Ceviche, $10, and the Green Bean & Cashew Salad with Goat Cheese Ranch, $9. Ordered medium spicy, the ceviche had a sweet element as well, whereas I would have preferred less adulteration of the citrus flavor. We really liked the yucca chips and the seasoned oyster crackers served alongside.
The skinny green beans were firm to the bite but cooked enough to develop the flavor (and they didn’t squeak against the teeth). Blended with some shaggy bits of frisee, this heavily coated salad brought back memories of how good the Laura Chenel goat cheese dressing is here. If you’re going to eat ranch dressing, this is the one you want. With no sign of a cashew on the salad, I asked the prep cook across the bar if it was incorporated into the dressing or some other invisible way. She apologized for omitting the nuts which would normally be tossed in and offered us a small dish of cashews on the side.
Mom loves petrale, so we tried the Almond Crusted Petrale Sole, Lemon Caper Butter, Wilted Spinach, $13. When it was served, Mom asked what this armadillo-thing was. Quite an interesting presentation, the nut-coated filets curled to create a tunnel around a cylinder of sautéed spinach on a pool of delectable lemon caper butter. This was the least successful dish, as the fish was less than fresh and also overcooked in achieving the golden brown crusting. The spinach was great, and it was hard to resist the butter sauce.
Then, the Alaskan Halibut “Cazuela”, Sweet Corn & Bacon Succotash, Charmoula Aioli $13. The thin filet of halibut was also overcooked, tough and dried out on one corner but better toward the center. I didn’t pick up much charmoula taste in the aioli. We loved the corn, and why not since it was studded with bacon. But really it didn’t need the bacon, the seared corn was so flavorful.
Interestingly, we found the kitchen’s touch with the vegetables --- green beans, spinach, corn --- to be better than the fish-cooking skills in this meal. Personally, I’d like to see more vegetable sides that can be ordered with the raw bar items. Mom enjoyed her meal and I was happy to return even though little has changed on the menu.
Willi's Seafood & Raw Bar
403 Healdsburg Ave, Healdsburg, CA 95448
We had a late lunch at Willi's in downtown Healdsburg on a warm April weekend afternoon. It is serviceable.
Willi's is busy with visitors and with residents. Its fare is accessible and simple: mostly seafood, mostly small plates, nothing particularly challenging.
Whitefish crudo, piled needlessly high with oily and salty vegetables, primarily roasted red sweet peppers. Not necessarily a bad dish, but hard to dig out with just a fork.
Hamachi ceviche, which was described as not very spicy, but was in fact moderately piquant. (I eat a couple of chiles de arbol at bedtime; I like spicy.) Too acidic, too robust, and without the fine flavor of hamachi. Uncalled for, hard, and otherwise disappointing taro chips.
A lobster roll with lots of butter. Good Atlantic lobster, shut down by mediocre wine-country bread. It reminded me a little bit of Tuscany, where the food is simple and often delicious, but the bread is a salt-free, flavorless pap. Maybe that's what Willi's is after.
Thin french fries. Good - especially when dipped in the mignonette that accompanied the oysters for reasons that are completely beyond me. Why would anyone dip a 26-bit oyster in vinegar?
3 Kusshi oysters. Unremarkable, expect for their $3.25 price. Perfectly good oysters.
3 kumamoto oysters. A reminder that you should always order kumamotos rather than kusshis. These were fine, although Hog Island has better and I've had better and cheaper in the depths of winter at Zuni.
Lunch for two was about $80 with no wine.
The service was perfunctory and functional. My recommendation: down a couple of cocktails or a bottle of wine when you visit Willi's, because it is a pleasant enough place with pleasant enough food, but it doesn't merit sober scrutiny.