Blue Ridge Kitchen combines fine dining with comfort

As the server poured silky gazpacho over a chunk of lobster in the bowl before me, I suddenly realized how much I’ve been missing fine dining. After so many months of take-out meals or eating on casual patios, it was so nice to enjoy the upscale service offered at the new Blue Ridge Kitchen at the Barlow in Sebastopol.

After my first spoonful of the refreshing soup, I knew chef Matt D’Ambrosi is putting a lot of thought into his Cal-Creole-Cajun recipes. The chilled gazpacho is marvelous on its own, in a sweet-tart, peach-colored puree of melon and tomato dotted with radish, a round of chopped avocado and shiny drops of basil oil ($9). With the generous chunk of seafood (add $7) and the elegant tableside presentation, it’s luxurious.

All the details line up so well at this classy spot, which took over the former Zazu Farm + Restaurant space that was vacated in 2018. For now, we eat on the patio, a pretty area set with wood tables and European-style bistro chairs, all shaded by sailcloth and flanked by trees, herb gardens and flowers. I’m looking forward to when we can eat inside, too, and admire the centerpiece cocktail bar and the open kitchen.

D’Ambrosi was known for his creative cooking at Healdsburg’s Spoonbar, Harmon Guest House and Pizzando. Here, he comes up with inventive dishes like carrot cake pancakes. The brunch specialty makes a delicious statement; it’s a sweet but not sugary hybrid of carrot and apple soufflé cakes on a pond of cream cheese-poppy seed glaze and topped with golden raisins, candied pecans and smoked maple syrup ($18).

Overall, though, there’s nothing weird on this expansive, all-day menu. You can get something as simple as a perfect smash burger with secret sauce ($9.50) or as indulgent as a nicely charred New York steak served in a metal pan with grilled asparagus, sauce béarnaise, crispy ham fingerling potatoes, cowboy steak sauce and roasted tomato ($39). The constant theme is the kitchen’s skill, making this my new favorite place to dine.

You can eat affordably, filling up on a first-rate rigatoni sugo dressed with braised pork cheek, San Marzano tomatoes, basil, Parmesan and breadcrumbs ($22). Or you can splurge, with a monster-size Tomahawk steak that feeds several people ($95), embellished with a whole lobster for a surf and turf ($58).

Some items are classics, such as the ahi tartare on a round bed of smashed avocado with cucumber, spicy aioli and big, puffy rice chips that melt in the mouth ($18). Yet an Asian pear coulis adds modern brightness to the dish, crispy quinoa adds crunch and a cute bouquet of daikon sprouts peeking out of the tartare’s middle adds peppery bite.

Another classic, the “raw platter” (daily market price), brings two tiers of iced seafood: a whole Maine lobster tail, sumac-spiced jumbo prawns, ceviche, oysters, horseradish cocktail sauce, smoky apple mignonette and a scoop of refreshing Meyer lemon hibiscus granita. Arranged with sea greens, edible flowers and lemon wedges and anchored by a lobster head, the look is dramatic.

Lobster lovers should try the Croque Madame, too. In a twist, small chunks of the crustacean are nested in the open-face toasted brioche sandwich amid country ham and melted Fontina, crowned with two sunny side-up eggs and bacon bits, then all set on a puddle of neon yellow saffron béchamel ($25). It’s messy and rather complicated with so many flavors, but satisfying.

The chef likes working with a wood-fired grill, which lends depth to a very good appetizer: two humble, pecorino cheese-sprinkled baby artichokes that we dress with tarragon aioli and olive salsa verde ($13). For a po’ boy, meaty portobello meets the grill, too, and is tucked into the sandwich with heavily breaded, crispy fried green tomatoes and layered with Fontina, lettuce and spicy Cajun sauce alongside sweet pickles and frites ($16).

The grill also makes for crispy skin on the king salmon fillet, the rich fish set atop a mouthwatering corn puree sweet potato mash and a succotash of late summer vegetables and juicy tomatoes, paired with two fans of grilled artichoke ($29).

For a more southern slant, show up on Tuesdays, when the blue plate special is shrimp and grits. It’s the usual concoction of creamy Anson Mills grits, crispy okra, smoked bacon and sweet peppers, but then the chef adds crawfish cognac cream, which is earthy, a touch sweet and terrific ($26).

At dessert we see D’Ambrosi’s fine dining experience again. I really like the warm, jumbo toffee cookie finished with sea salt ($5) and capped in a scoop of Sebastopol’s own Screamin’ Mimi’s banana ice cream ($4). Yet the Mississippi Mud Pie steals the show, with its artistic tower of scoops of velvety milk chocolate pudding and pillowy vanilla cream on a cocoa pavlova (fluffy meringue) scattered with cocoa crumbs, all beneath a graceful rim of spun ganache ($11).

Blue Ridge Kitchen marries the best parts of fine dining with a comforting, friendly mood. It’s exactly what I, and I bet a lot of other people, have been craving.

Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at [email protected].

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