December 6-12, 2006

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First Bite

Cafe Saint Rose

By Molly Jackel

I was immediately charmed by the collection of vinyl propped up against the wall on the counter of this wee restaurant in the South A Street section of Santa Rosa, and by how tucked-away it is on a residential street, like a juicy secret. But apparently it's no secret because at 1:15 on a recent Friday afternoon, all the tables were full. (At this point, there are only a handful of tables and most of them outside. But I hear tell that the restaurant, only eight weeks old as I write, is already growing out of its onesie and will soon break through the wall to incorporate 20-plus more tables.)

The waitstaff are helpful and smart, and pretty much all have the same name as me. While we waited for a table, I flipped through the albums: classic Miles Davis, Al Green, Sergio Mendes & Brasil 66! The chef, whose calm, constant motion is framed by the pass-through, suggested that I should play a record if I liked. How, with a full house and no sous chef, he was noticing my secret wish, I'm not sure, but I am sure that I was delighted. One of the Mollys opened up the record player in the black vinyl case and I dropped the needle on Sergio for a little samba on a sunny afternoon.

The chef is Mark Malicki, formerly of Truffles in Sebastopol, which I'm sorry I missed but is my husband's favorite Sebastopol restaurant to date--he still talks about the dumplings. Malicki also runs a thriving catering business. The menu at the Cafe Saint Rose is nice and short and changes often. Ingredients are seasonal, local and organic whenever possible. Malicki offers a three-course prix fixe menu ($30) on certain nights.

Soon, and thankfully before I started pretend samba dancing in anticipation, a table opened up outside. We saw a grilled cheese sandwich ($6.50) pass by that we had to have. It was pressed, buttery, crisp and chewy. The bread (from genius bakers Della Fattoria in Petaluma) is perfect for pressing. It came with a fresh frisČe salad with a creamy-garlicky dressing.

We also ordered the three Moroccan salads ($9), which on this day consisted of dates stuffed with pigeon, roasted peppers with pomegranates and a chickpea purée--strong, distinct flavors and a nice trio of textures and colors. Lastly, we had the duck rillettes with persimmons, arugula and almonds ($7). The duck (a kind of chunky paté) was spread on a soft Della Fattoria whole wheat. The combination of flavors--the fatty, rich duck with the spicy arugula and perfectly ripe slices of Fuyu, plus the crunch of the roasted almonds--was divine.

We did save room for dessert: a fig galette and an Ecco cappuccino (yum, and in a bowl). The galette ($5) was thin, flaky and buttery, with a giant dollop of crème fraîche--a perfectly executed savory dessert. Also, respect to the cucumber-flavored water the staff pours freely. So refreshing!

Even without the vinyl, I'd still have been charmed by the adorable, neighborhoody, side-street location, the fresh, sophisticated food, the generous portions, the service (slow but attentive and sweet), the local art on the walls and the nicely designed menu.

Limited seating means reservations are a must for dinner. Call ahead to confirm hours, as things are changing fast. Lunch, Monday-Friday; dinner Wednesday-Saturday. 465 Sebastopol Ave. (between Santa Rosa Avenue and South A Street), Santa Rosa. 707.546.2459.

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Quick-and-dirty dashes through North Bay restaurants. These aren't your standard "bring five friends and order everything on the menu" dining reviews.