You know a restaurant has got it going on when it is packed on a Monday night.
The start of the week is typically a sleepy night for most restaurants. But not for Valette in downtown Healdsburg. On a recent Monday night, when I dropped in to dine at the bar solo (paying my own tab at the end), the place was bustling shortly after opening at 5:15 p.m.
Chef Dustin Valette and his brother Aaron Garzini opened the beloved restaurant in 2015 in the same property that their great-grandfather once owned. They turned it into a convivial space, with warm polished wood, big hefty leather bar chairs, and a golden glow from globe chandeliers.
Dustin was off that night. But I did get to meet his father, who in his mid-70s, still flies for the state Department of Forestry, responding to forest fires, including the devastating fires in Napa and Sonoma in the last two years.
When Dustin was a kid, his father would take him to school — dropping him off in his plane — because it was quicker than the school bus. How’s that for one cool ride?
Valette is a restaurant that attracts tourists, but also a loyal following of locals, which is always a good sign. In fact, a woman sitting next to me at the bar, who has lived in Healdsburg for years, was enjoying a mushroom soup special with shaved truffles that she fondly remembered from Dustin’s time heading the nearby Dry Creek Kitchen.
The menu is deceptive. It’s filled with dishes that seem familiar enough, maybe even too routine like a lamb duo or day boat scallops en croute. But what lands in front of you will have you sit up and take notice. It’s clear from the get-go that this is food with intention and purpose, like the best version of itself that it can be.
Take the Hawaiian Ahi Poke Style ($17). It’s as far from the thrown-together, piled-on poke bowls of today. Instead this gorgeous rendition arrives on an artsy, rippled black plate. Tiles of ahi are arranged with tempura-fried avocado slices that are dreamy-creamy within. The nori sheets are fried, too, leaving them with a surprising potato-chip-like shattering crispness. A dressing of soy and kombu finishes everything with a lick of umami and saline. It’s the most glamorous poke you’ll ever dig into.
The bread rolls arrive warm and yeasty-puffy, so don’t refuse when asked if you’d like some.
Again, Dungeness Crab-Stuffed Petrale Sole ($32) sounds pretty old-school quaint. But here, it’s simply perfection. The petrale is rolled up around sweet, fluffy crab meat, and seared to a deep golden on the outside. It’s served with buttery spaghetti squash, plus not one, not two, but three types of cauliflower, another way the restaurant goes that extra step when composing a dish.
For dessert, Spiced Carrot Cake ($9) wedges are wonderfully toasty crisp on the outside and moist within. They’re not smothered in cream cheese frosting; rather that is used only as an accent dabbed on the plate. That means the intensity of the spiced cake comes through first, so you don’t end up with a heavy, goopy dessert. The orange-hued carrot-cardamom gastrique swoop on the plate is so flavorful, playing up the characteristics of the cake.
This is a place I can’t wait to go back to again. And I can’t wait to check out The Matheson, a two-restaurant and retail concept that Dustin and his brother are in the midst of building nearby on the square.
More Places to Enjoy in Healdsburg: SingleThread Farm & Restaurant
And: Dry Creek Kitchen
And: Madrona Manor
And: Jordan Estate