Barndiva is a quirky name for an artful restaurant


(originally posted January 19, 2010) The Patch, AOL's new online community-specific news and information platform has a feature about Barndiva this week. To read Leslie Harlib's article with photos, click here.

The restaurant's name is so curious:  Barndiva. What could it mean?

My first thought: It's an opera singer who performs in a barn. Or it's Swedish for 'farm-driven local food star.'

But according to Jil Hales, who has owned a working farm in Philo for 30 years and who founded and co-owns Barndiva with her husband Jeffrey Hales (her son Lukka Feldman is general manager; their farm grows much of what they serve), the restaurant's moniker honors Sonoma County farmers as the stars of the dining experience.

"Barndiva is an old nickname from the year I used to jam in my barn years ago," she explained. "In terms of this restaurant, it has to do with people who hit the high notes in their worlds — people who are at the top of their game.

"Whether they come from barns, stables, fields, make a great bread or cheese, they hit a high note in their craft," she said. "I wanted the concept of diva to be more encompassing than just referencing someone who sings opera.

"Sometimes people think of divas as having tempers," she continued. "The word really means people who excel and are the finest. I think we have that in Sonoma in terms of food.

"People shouldn't feel it's beyond their comfort or their budget to experience that level of local culinary diva in our restaurant," she said.

Based on the feel of the place and the extraordinary meal I sampled there recently, Hales and her team are making good on the unusual name.

Just a block away from Healdsburg Avenue, you don't really feel Barndiva's mass until you walk across the street to marvel at the immense building that's been quietly weathering away on Center Street for nearly seven years. From the outside, it resembles a giant barn designed by a hip architect. Hale and her husband, neither of them architects, conceived of and designed the space; they live in a pied a terre above the 16-foot-high main floor.

Even the entrance is a bit of an adventure. It's not visible from the street. You walk along a flagstone path past hedges growing over metal arches, to enter what feels like an art gallery crossed with a restaurant.

Huge wire sculptures of farm animal heads hang on the wall and cast shadows like seductive webs. There's a sculpture of old wooden cobbler's shoe molds positioned near the check-in podium. The long, full bar is awash with dramatic lighting, as is the visible floor-to-ceiling wine cellar that glows golden, lit from behind. It's also an incredibly comfortable restaurant, with plump banquettes, padded chairs, even padded stools at the long, elegant bar.

Art is as important to the experience of dining here as the food, says Hales. Three years ago, the Hales bought the next-door building and opened Studio Barndiva. By day, it's an art gallery featuring paintings, sculptures and crafts. At night, it becomes event space. Barndiva's private parties, weddings and other special celebrations are held there so the restaurant never has to close, she outlined.

The hands-on Barndiva team includes Hales overseeing the artisan-style cocktails, chef Ryan Fancher, formerly of the French Laundry heading the kitchen, and pastry chef Tracy Mattson, a Cyrus alumna, turning out the desserts, They make a formidable triumvirate.

"I'm a drinker" Hale said. Her interest in artisan cocktails shows in the stimulating line-up of seasonal drinks. Midnight Harvest may one of the most unusual tipples in town: a martini glass brimming with a chilled brew of cognac, house-made pumpkin-curry liqueur, fresh and burnt orange accents ($12). It's like liquid pumpkin pie with Humphrey Bogart overtones.

If there's a must-have in the small plates, it's Fancher's signature goat cheese croquettes with house made tomato jam and lavender honey ($10). Get a half portion, because these are mega-rich. Balls of local goat cheese are rolled in crumbs, quickly deep fried, then sprinkled with lavender sprigs and swirls of honey. All the flavors are at once tangy, sweet and floral. I've never had anything like them. With cocktails, they make a knock-out snack.

Another small plate, crispy sweetbreads with poached quail egg, bacon, leek and truffle butter ($15) offered up lavish layers of texture: crispy, smooth, crunchy, pulpy. Wow. It was utter seduction and thankfully, the portion was just small enough to be a perfect shared starter.

I loved the esoteric combination of braised dandelion greens packed into gossamer-thin noodle dough to become ravioli, served with whole chestnuts, honey glazed turnips and truffle ($24). It was surprisingly light, yet had enough dimension to fill you up. When many restaurants rarely offer tempting or creative vegetarian options, this one was a high point. (The menu also states that chef is happy to prepare vegan or vegetarian entrees upon request.)

Main dishes included a combination that was as much about theater as it was about savor — an entire roasted poussin with assorted root vegetable confit, olives, and a delicate wine-enriched brown sauce one heart-beat silkier than natural jus ($25). This beautifully autumnal dish was carved tableside. Tendrils of aroma swirled up as the suited host sliced the bird and arranged the plate; the experience feel like the gourmet equivalent of a 3-D movie.

That tableside theater continued in a dessert of baked Alaska ($11). Fire shot up higher than a foot as the server ignited the confection's liqueur. For a moment, we were the focus of every other diner. We said"ooh," like awestruck kids. As for the pastry, it comprised a thin, crispy cake base mounded with house made butter pecan ice cream that had a heart of coffee granita, a slick of lemon sauce, and that elegant meringue browned to a fare-thee-well in the flames.

"We plan to offer more dishes served tableside, and train our waiters to do this" said Hales in a phone call following my meal. "It doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg to have the fun of tableside dining. It allows diners to get closer to the food and brings them back to the actual ingredients."

It impressed me that a meal of this caliber was not overwhelmingly pricey. Two can dine here for $100 (that would include one or two cocktails) which I consider to be a reasonable price for such high-quality ingredients from a menu that changes seasonally. Expect to find a complete turnover of options four times a year, though our waiter assured us that one or two staples, including the goat cheese croquettes, will always be available.

If you want to leave the experience up to Fancher and his team, chef's tasting menus are available for $75 with an additional $45 for wine paring.

Between the soft lighting, the art and the artful food, Barndiva may be one of the most romantic, as well as high-end earthy, restaurants in Healdsburg.

Barndiva is at 231 Center St., 431-0100 for reservations, www.barndiva.com. It's open for lunch and dinner noon to 11 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; noon to midnight Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to midnight Sunday. Reservations are recommended.

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