Baci in Healdsburg: well intentioned and adequate
Healdsburg shouldn't be a culinary conundrum. It is full of visitors who are ostensibly visiting the area for gustatory reasons. There is a measurable density of prominent chefs. It's theoretically possible to find competent young staff. And the local produce is what almost every town on every continent can only dream of - and can hardly dream of paying for.
And it's a place with lots of choices: from bar food through upmarket sandwiches at Oakville Grocery up to an endless tasting menu at Cyrus, you can pay what you want and find something you like.
But I keep wondering if it's all too easy. It's a beautiful Saturday night in April. Your clientèle are tired and maybe still a little lubricated from an afternoon of wine tasting. You're going to fill all your tables, anyway. Does each dish have to shine? Does each staff member have to be attentive? In economic terms, probably not. If you look at the restaurant business with the cold, analytic vision of a Marxist, you would conclude that the experience under these conditions will achieve only modest goals.
I liked Baci just fine, but it underwhelmed me.
The ambiance is what the restaurant guides describe as "up tempo", which is one step below "lively" (you can't understand what your waiter is saying) and two steps below "energetic" (you can't understand what you are saying yourself). Tables are adjacent but not jammed into the space. You can see your neighbors' meals but don't need to be part of their conversation.
Dishes we had:
Rocket salad with chicory and pears, filberts, citrus balsamic dressing. We asked for a side plate for the menu's listed gorgonzola, which was a good idea: it did complement the salad, but it wasn't necessary. In flavor terms, this is much more a chicory salad than a rocket salad, but both were present. This is a sound salad, and dressed mostly in olive oil and salt - very wise. I'll make this salad.
Ragù alla bolognese, which is listed with spaghetti. That's a silly dish to have on any menu, as spaghetti is not capable of holding that sauce. We tried it, at the waiter's recommendation, with gnocchi: delicate, light gnocchi with good starch flavor. Not the slightly firm kind, but the meltingly soft kind. The ragù was definitely informed by the classic, with the right mixed meat flavors, enough milk, and not too much tomato - I am convinced that another tear falls in Bologna every time someone squeezes another tomato into alleged ragù bolognese. But there was too much meat, and it was cut coarsely, so the dish approached stewed meat with gnocchi for dumplings, rather than dumplings gently held together by ragù.
Risotto frutti di mare. I would travel a long way for what this dish should have been. In the right hands, with enough time, with the perfect shellfish, and with good fumé stock and grana cheese, it could be the great Medusan seducer: all the flavors of the sea come to shore to woo your palate.
This was not that. It was instead a slightly runny, tomato-flavored rice gruel with some chunks of pretty good but not extraordinary shellfish. Shrimps: nice. Small octopus: quite flavorful. Squid rings: correct texture but flavorless. Scallop adductor muscles: neither sweet nor flaky. If you concentrated hard, you could feel the pearls at the center of the Arborio rice grains in all that paste.
But worse that those comments, this dish had no edge. Even canned clam chowder has an edge, albeit a salty, metallic one. Brighter wine in the sauce might have helped. Crisped onions would have done wonders. Red chili flakes. Sumac powder. Something.
At the other tables in view, the best looking dish was agnolotti with lobster, which looked simple, stuffed, barely touched by their cream sauce, and like they pleased our neighbor. The pizzas appeared adequate - medium thin, slightly charred - although I noticed that our neighbors on both sides left part of theirs untouched. Hmm.
The wine list is thoughtful and long - common in Healdsburg. There are some highlighted wineries, and I chose a riesling from them. Potable.
At the arrhythmic and unpredictable times that our waiter came by, she proved friendly, forthright, and knowledgable. Her recommendation about the gnocchi and her accommodation with the cheese on the salad earned marks.
To Baci's credit, the correct dishes came out in the correct order.
The whole restaurant looked and felt like they were short at least one wait-team. That's unfortunate and unfair. I saw more than one diner revert to a broad wave to attract wait-staff attention. And even at the beginning of the evening, when we walked in, we were at the podium for bit without attention and the host seemed bewildered when I said we had a reservation for 2 under my one-syllable name. It's isn't a nightclub with grumpy bouncers who look straight through you; it's a middle-rung wine-country restaurant.
Baci, 336 Healdsburg Av, Healdsburg.