A Visit To The Matheson
Walking through the doors of the soaring, three-story The Matheson in downtown Healdsburg, which opened this summer, there is no doubt that this place is as personal as it gets for Chef-Owner Dustin Valette.
All you need do is turn your head left and right, as you look high up on the walls. There, you’ll spy the evocative, colorful murals by San Francisco painter Jay Mercado that vividly depict “Sonoma heroes.” Prominent among them are Valette’s father Bob, a recently retired CalFire pilot who helped battle wildfires far and near; and Valette’s French immigrant great-grandfather Honore, who owned the Snowflake Bakery, which nearly a century ago sat on the same site as The Matheson. Lushly hued, they are symbols of a proud family legacy. But one that was almost lost to so-called progress.
More than four years ago, a developer bought this $7.5 million property with its prime location on the square with the intention of leveling everything to build a luxury hotel and condos (priced at $4 million each). Dustin, who opened the popular Valette’s restaurant six years ago on the square, was approached to see if he was interested in building a restaurant on the first floor. Moments after he heard the details, though, he walked out of the meeting.
“I said that I couldn’t be a part of this,” he recounted as we chatted last week. “I couldn’t watch as they tore down something that got my family here.”
One of the partners, tech entrepreneur Craig Ramsay, followed Dustin out of the room to ask what the chef would build there instead.
When Valette responded off the cuff that he’d create a restaurant that was fine-dining on the first floor and casual on the floor above. He also would preserve the existing businesses on the property, Copperfield’s bookstore and Plaza Gourmet, a specialty cookware store, which are integral parts of the town.
It didn’t take long for Healdsburg resident Ramsay to not only buy into that vision, but to buy out the other partners, and make Dustin’s vision a reality.
Two years in the making, The Matheson is a testament to community and fortitude. More than that, it’s just plain fun.
Dustin envisioned a restaurant that was welcoming to both locals and tourists alike, where couples could go for date-night to enjoy an upscale dinner or pop in on weeknights with friends on the spur of the moment to kick back with pizza and cocktails.
The Matheson offers exactly that range of experiences, as well as a sushi bar on the first floor that was conceptualized by acclaimed sushi savant Ken Tominaga of acclaimed Hana in Rohnert Park.
When I was invited in last week as a guest of the restaurant, I took the elevator up to the third floor to its Roof 106 bar and lounge. My intention was to dine outside on the plant-filled terrace with fire pits. But a rain storm put the kibosh on that. However, with a state-of-the-art filtration system, and an expansive dining space with a lofty, barrel-shaped ceiling, being indoors felt safe enough.
The menus differ in each dining space. At Roof 106, you can see the gleaming tiled, 3,800-pound Mugnaini oven, from which flatbreads and pizzas emerge made with wheat grown organically by Dry Creek winemaker Lou Preston and a “Williams Selyem strain” yeast.
The crust is quite different — flatter, thinner, without the usual air holes within, and more like a flatbread. It has a developed flavor like that of great artisan bread. We shared one ($21) topped with cubes of house-cured pork belly atop nutty Gruyere, pungent roasted garlic creme fraiche, and slivers of red onions. It’s a pizza lashed with creaminess and porky succulence.
Cocktails are a delight, especially the Shiso Collins ($13), a breezy blend of gin, cucumber, shiso, lime, and basil seeds, which came with a paper straw that resembled a white birch branch. With a name like “Unhinged Horchata” ($13), I couldn’t pass it up. If you were expecting a milkshake-thick drink, this creamy blend of almond-rice horchata, tequila and allspice will surprise with its light body. Served over plenty of crushed ice, it is an autumn-spiced sip that’s oh-so easy to drink, whether it be a warm afternoon or a drizzly cold evening.
Another homage to his great-grandfather is the house-made charcuterie. To this day, Dustin Valette has memories of his great-grandfather carving his own house-cured prosciutto and salumi. It’s one reason he built his own USDA-certified curing room at Valette’s.
At The Matheson, experience it with the charcuterie board ($23), that shines with the silkiest duck liver mousse, along with spicy chorizo, and paper-thin slices of sweet, melt-in-your-mouth lomo (air-cured pork loin), along with olives, pickles, house-made fig mostardo, and flatbread. You could make a meal out of this alone.
If you want to be transported immediately back to your childhood, don’t pass up the push-pop for dessert, which is available only at the restaurant’s Roof 106 dining area.
Yes, the retro ice cream classic has been reinvigorated here. Instead of the paper cone and stick, this one is plastic. Two flavors are available. We went with the non-alcoholic one ($5) of yuzu-strawberry. Smooth and utterly creamy, it goes down easy with the perky taste of floral-imbued berries.
My husband and I weren’t done just yet. Next, we plopped ourselves in a booth downstairs to get a taste of the more upscale menu. While doing so, I sipped a Honey Phosphate ($6), a non-alcoholic soda made with house-made acid phosphate, fresh thyme, and California star thistle honey. Lightly fizzy, it was full of deep, sweet honey taste.
The menu lists it as just “bread and butter” ($6). But what you actually get are house-made Parker House rolls that arrive steaming hot in a mini red Staub. These are glorious — with burnished, crisp tops, fluffy interiors, and a milky-sweet taste. Spread on the house-made butter, and fall in love.
On the sushi side, we shared the Ken’s Omakase of six pieces of sushi ($36), which included mackerel, shrimp, Kindai, and sea bream, each fresh, firm and clean tasting. We also enjoyed Ken’s Roll ($22), an inside-out roll with crisp shrimp tempura and avocado at its center that was topped with spicy tuna and pine nuts that provided crunch and added butteriness.
We shared an entree of Aged Sonoma Duck ($38) that had the crispiest skin I’ve had in a long time on duck. It was like crackling. The duck is air-dried for a few weeks, concentrating its flavor beautifully. Also on the plate is juicy duck-pork sausage, pieces of sweet-smoky caramelized persimmon, and Okinawan sweet potato so charred that it looked like a beet. Cooked like that in the embers, it takes on a deep smokiness that adds incredible depth to its starchy sweetness.
Because the sushi bar and main kitchen operate autonomously, don’t be surprised if your entree arrives nearly at the same time as your sushi, which is what happened to us.
Desserts by Pastry Chef Skyler Spitz are $13 each, and you can’t go wrong with whatever you choose. The Black Sesame Semifreddo is simply gorgeous, a composed sweet of black cocoa rye cake on the bottom topped with chocolate ganache, the nutty-tasting melty semifreddo, and pomegranate arils. Dabs of sesame-tahini sauce dot the plate. It’s Asian and Middle Eastern flavors melded with rich chocolate in this none-too-sweet dessert.
Then, there’s the head-turning 106 Grand Bar, a play on the 100 Grand Bar but echoing The Matheson’s numerical address. It’s an eclair-shaped creation with a hard chocolate shell crowned with cocoa nibs. Crack it open to discover passionfruit caramel and Valrhona Caramelia milk chocolate-caramel mousse for the heightened taste of caramel — squared and beyond.
Even after all that, we weren’t done just yet. Lastly, it was a visit to the cuvee wine bar that spans nearly an entire side wall of the dining room. It’s a help-yourself wine bar with 88 selections available.
A host will load whatever amount you like on a plastic card. Then, you need only hold it up to a sensor on the wall to activate, then take a wine glass, and hold it under the spigot of the wine you want to try. Press the button for a “splash” (a 1-ounce pour), glass or bottle, and it will flow into your glass.
Depending upon the vintage, the “splashes” cost anywhere from a couple bucks on up to a max of $44 for posh Chateau d’Yquem. There are whites, reds, and even sakes to choose from. It’s a non-intimidating way to discover new favorites or to try a bucket-list wine you’ve always dreamed about.
After bringing this massive project to fruition, Dustin isn’t taking a breather yet He’s now creating a custom salumi with Journeyman Meat Co. of Healdsburg, made with Valette Wines’ Cabernet Sauvignon, cocoa nibs and pink peppercorns.
In the weeks to come, look for it to be served at Valette’s and The Matheson, and to be sold for take-home at the restaurants and nearby Journeyman Meat store.