Michael Perlis Picks Rick Fraga on Santa Rosa’s Willi’s Wine Bar

Have you been wine tasting up in the Northern part of Sonoma County lately?  Maybe on a little wine vacation with friends?   Yeah, that’s it……..you’ve been tasting great wine, enjoyed beautiful scenery, possibly had a couple of excellent tasting experiences in some of the local tasting rooms.  In general, you have been talking, laughing, meeting people and having a great time.

Now, it is late in the day and thoughts of dinner come to mind.  Granted you may have had a delicious lunch or maybe even a picnic with some fantastic deli sandwiches, but now your brain locks into something special for the dinner meal.  You thought about a gourmet spot to end the day, possibly Bistro 29 or Lococo’s in Santa Rosa.  Maybe a road trip up to Healdsburg to enjoy a culinary delight at Bistro Ralph, Dry Creek Kitchen, Scopa or any of a number of great places in the region.  Mmmmmm, they all sound good and your crew is mulling over the possibilities over wine at your last tasting stop.  As you all are talking, the mood is to continue the fun, maybe you are not up for a full sit down meal, but still are hungry and want tasty treats without the fuss.  At this point you ask your tasting room host where they would go if they were in your shoes.  They stop, think, hmm!  If I was your host I’d send you to one of my favorite spots, especially after a recent visit there with friends.

Willi's1Where is this special treat???  Well I will tell you about my recent experience at Willi’s Wine Bar in Santa Rosa and then you decide if I am right on or not.  I had been working all day pouring wine when a couple, good friends of mine, Patty and Dave from out of town, popped in at the end of the afternoon to say hi.  We poured them wine, chatted as we were winding up the day in the tasting room and then finally ready to close, when I invited them to my home for some wine and cheese.  Now I won’t go into detail on the food, wine and service at my place right now, mainly because it is a limited access establishment (plus if you have to ask the price you can’t afford it).  But we sat outdoors and enjoyed each other’s company, the wine and cheese, when my friends said they were hungry and wanted to treat me to dinner.  It was a brief discussion as to where to go, because we all wanted to go somewhere we could laugh, be a little loud and have a casual, fun dining experience.  It was a no brainer for me, down the road to Willi’s Wine Bar we went.

I grabbed a bottle of wine to take, but also intended to order from their wine list to get started, as they do have a smallish, but well thought out wine selection.  We did call in and make reservations, as it was late into a Saturday evening and it could be busy (usually is).  They booked us for indoor seating, as the outdoor areas were all spoken for, but not a problem.  Anyway, we arrived just a bit early, but they were ready and seated us promptly.  In just a few minutes we had our waitperson and were off on our culinary adventure.  Patty and Dave instantly had the Chilled Oysters on the Half Shell catch their eye, so round one was on its way.  I picked a local Chardonnay off their list, a “The Gardener” 2011 Chardonnay from the Don Miguel Vineyards in the Russian River Valley.  So, the wine was ordered and our server also took the bottle I brought, opening it as well.  It is a favorite of mine, the 2009 “Velvet Sisters” Pinot Noir from Hartford Court Family winery, also in the Russian River Valley, even though the wine is from a vineyard in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley.

Willi's2In less time than it takes to tell a couple of stories, we were sipping on the delicious, “Gardener” Chardonnay.   It was at the perfect temperature and gave the right combination of acidity, minerality, lemon peel and pear to please our taste buds.  Dave, Patty and I all agreed that this would be a great complement to the oysters, which, of course it was.  As the oysters were served we ordered round two, one of my many favorites here, the Pork Belly Potstickers with Five Spice and Shiitake Mushrooms, a dish that loves pairing up with a dark and slightly earthy Pinot Noir.  At the same time we asked our server to also queue up the “Mu Shu Bacon” with Chive & Chiso crepes and Hoisin BBQ Sauce.  Yes………..back to back Pigs and Pinot pairings, the only way to go on an evening full of friends and fun.  We reveled in the flavors of oysters and Chardonnay, powering through them while catching up on life and wine.

We had a brief amount of time to finish both of the Chard and oysters when out came the “Potstickers”.  Our Pinot was poured and we proceeded to embark on our next well prepared course.  Patty and Dave marveled at the complementing flavors between the “Velvet Sisters” and the potstickers, as we sampled them and sipped.  While still enjoying this treat the next course arrived and we were creating our “Mu Shu” wraps, complete with thick crispy slabs of bacon.  Honestly, it got quiet for a while at the table, except for the gentle “oohhhs and ahhhhs” that arise from something special being eaten and enjoyed.  I can’t remember all the the comments we each uttered while devouring the amazing pork delicacies, but awesome, fantastic and wow were key words used quite a bit.  At this point Patty spoke up and said, “After that, I just have to try the “Jones Farm Rabbit Rillettes with Spiced Grape Chutney.  If it is half as good as what we have started with I will be a very happy girl.”  The order went out and round four was coming.

Now I do want to remind you that Willi’s is a Tapas restaurant so everything is small plates, so it is not like we are devouring mounds of food.  Just deliciously well prepared small amounts of excellently crafted treats.  We also were prudent about conserving our wine to make sure it lasted through the meal, or at least until dessert, which I had already committed to providing, having a craving that I was sure Patty and Dave would love.  In what was a very reasonably timely manner we were feasting on the Rabbit dish and once again sighing and moaning pleasurable sounds of enjoyment.  Patty was exceptionally pleased with the vibrant flavors of this and all the other dishes we had experienced, as were we all.  Even though these were small plates, the rich delicious flavors made us feel as if we were powering our way through a family style dinner.  Finally, we had made it to the end of our “dinner courses” when I took the server aside and asked him to bring us our finale, the Warm ScharffenBerger Flourless Chocolate Cake with Peanut Butter Caramel, Vanilla Bean Ice Cream and Sea Salt Peanuts.  I added that we needed just one order with a spoon for each of us.  With that order I selected a glass for each of us of 2001 “Quinto do Vesuvio” Vintage Port to accompany our finishing course.

As the three of us sat back and praised the food, the wine and the fantastic service we received this evening, it was not long before dessert was delivered, smiles grew as we enjoyed our final pairing of the night.  A perfect finish to a great reunion of friends and an evening of fine food and wine.  Needless to say we rewarded the waitstaff appropriately for the high quality treatment we received all night long.  I do want to add that this is an establishment that has such a professional staff, that if one person has food up for a table and they are busy, a peer will pick it up and deliver it to the appropriate table for timely service of the food at the right temperature.  Again, this is a business where the customer is appreciated and great service is taken pride in.  In short, another excellent meal at Willi’s Wine Bar and two more friends impressed with what you can find in the Santa Rosa area.

So………what do you think?  A meal worth seeking out when on a wine vacation next time you are in the Northern portion of Sonoma County?  It is just one of many possibilities available to you the visitor.  Come up to Sonoma County, wine taste, tour around and enjoy all the area has to offer, but know that when it comes to dinner time.  Willi’s is a great option.  Check them out on the internet, along with their sister restaurants Stark’s Steak House, Monti’s, Willi’s Seafood and Raw Bar, and finally the newest of the family Bravas.  I have dined in all of these establishments and can only say good things about each of them.

I hope you all enjoyed this adventure, as we definitely did and I have been back since to treat my sister to a great birthday dinner.  Check this out and more when you come to visit.  If you have a chance stop in at Martinelli Winery and pay me a visit too and I will  pour you some fine wine from the Russian River Valley and the coastal region of Sonoma County.  Remember, “Drink Well” as “Life is too short to drink bad wine”!

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