Mike Mullins just might be the best Sonoma County chef you’ve never heard of. The young toque is limping around the dining rooms of downtown Santa Rosa’s newest restaurant, Perch + Plow, delivering plates of sweet potato chips and olives with a 500-watt smile. Wearing a FEED Sonoma baseball cap (a produce aggregator for regional farmers), loose chef pants and an apron, it’s a pretty safe bet that none of the diners here know he’s the culinary captain of what may be one of the most promising restaurants in Santa Rosa.
The hitch in his giddyup doesn’t slow him down, and in fact is a source of a bit of embarrassment — a small skateboarding mishap after work last night. He nods toward a table in the back where his parents sit eating lunch, beaming. “Don’t tell my mom,” Mullins laughs, heading for a box filled with mushrooms. “She told me to stop,” he grins impishly, never slowing down as he walks the produce into the walk-in refrigerator, then heads into the wee kitchen of the otherwise expansive restaurant.
By wee kitchen, we mean that the mis en place could fit on a postage stamp and staff is packed in like Tokyo subway riders. A stray elbow or knife blade could have serious consequences. But Mullins takes it all in stride, equating the staff’s movement more to a graceful dance they’re perfecting. A few stepped on toes are the price of entry. Plus, he says, everything’s easy to reach.
Out of the diminutive galley, however, is a lineup of stunning dishes from coconut curried cauliflower with harissa to his grandmother’s fried chicken sandwich, yellowtail ceviche and a frisée salad with pork belly and a soft egg. There’s also an unforgettable burger that’s just become our new favorite. Mullins starts all of his dishes with fresh, local produce and local meats, which give him a head start on deliciousness. Having come up through top-notch restaurants including Michelin-starred Cavallo Point, Petite Syrah and the Kenwood Restaurant along with stints in the canteens of Silicon Valley (Apple, Google) he’s got plenty of culinary chops.
Suffice it to say Mullins’ is easily the best food I’ve ever had from a week-old restaurant. “And it’s just going to get better,” Mullins says.
Expect a mix of small plates, snacks, salads, several raw fish dishes and just a handful of larger plates. With prices ranging from $8 to $22, it’s an affordable luxury for most. Cocktails are equally impressive under Alec Vlastnic (formerly of Spoonbar) who whips up boozy magic with fresh produce, artisan spirits and exotic infusions (bacon fat-washed bourbon, dill foam, strawberry balsamic shrub). At Perch + Plow a $12 cocktail is worth every penny. A brief beer and wine list seems a little bit tacked-on, but will likely expand. Non-alcoholic choices should be expanded.
The former Christy’s on the Square, an upstairs space overlooking the new Courthouse Square, has always had the potential for greatness, and finally seems to have a team up to the challenge. The interior space has been transformed into a sleek, modern design with a large Bud Snow octopus mural as an eye-catching centerpiece. It’s easily the most beautifully-designed in the downtown area. Large windows open onto the square and skylights fill the restaurant with a soft glow. The handful of bar tables and stools with front row views of the action and warm breezes below are among the most coveted.
As downtown Santa Rosa continues its transformation from quiet county seat to a Wine Country destination, restaurants like Perch + Plow lead the way.
Charred cauliflower ($8): Chunks of fresh multi-colored cauliflower are caramelized in the oven, then placed atop a pool of sweet coconut curry sauce. A spoonful of homemade harissa perks the whole dish up. Bitter, sweet, salty, with a hint of spice, makes it a vegetarian dish that’s required eating for the whole table. After several visits the size seems to have gotten smaller, but the dish has remained a favorite.
Grilled octopus ($12): Perfectly cooked, with a light char on the outside and a soft, meaty bite — no hint of the rubberiness that occurs with less deft chefs. Bean puree seems more a glue to stick the bits to the plates, but lightly dressed arugula enhances the flavor with a bit of bite.
House burger ($16): Baptized in butter, draped in aged Fiscalini cheddar, this burger has reached a higher plane. Made with ground Sonoma County Meat Co.’s Angus on a brioche roll, we won’t even pretend its anything but hard on the arteries, but if you’re going to indulge, do it without regret.
Fried chicken sandwich ($15): “My Texas grandma’s recipe”, says Mullins, presenting the plate. I’ve been tough on fried chicken sandwiches because so many are so lackluster, but this version has light, crispy, flavorful batter that won’t tear up your mouth; wonderfully moist chicken, coleslaw, pickled onion, and house-made aioli (the real deal). You also won’t have to wait an hour for it.
Pork belly ($12): A nest of bitter frisée holds a warm soft cooked egg and crouton-sized bites of pork belly and sunchoke in a tarragon vinaigrette. We’d like to see bigger pieces of sliced pork belly. Either way, watch for fork attacks from your dining partners.
Seared halibut ($21): Sunchokes are the base for a brilliantly cooked piece of halibut — a lighter fish that’s easy-eating even for folks who shy away from seafood. Ahi tuna poke ($12): Tuna tartare has been so badly abused by incompetent chefs trying to put it in ring molds and douse it with too much sesame oil. We like the simpler poke style Mullins executes with a light ponzu sauce that lets the fresh tuna flavor shine.
Beef Carpaccio ($14): Thin slices of raw beef with balsamic vinegar and olive oil. We tend to like our carpaccio as unadulterated as possible, but this version is a bit more approachable for folks who aren’t quite sure they’re ready for raw beef.
Farm Salad ($10): This salad is drop dead simple, but shines because of the luxurious raw ingredients–nothing more than carrots, fresh cauliflower, radish, cucumber and ginger vinaigrette. This is truly what a salad should be.
Desserts aren’t the highest priority at Perch and Plow and are still works in progress. The cheesecake is light, fluffy and tart, but pineapple compote isn’t the ideal match. Chocolate mousse has improved significantly since we first tried it but is still a little dense. Just order another cocktail and call it a day. The kitchen is still in its infancy, and Mullins is training new staff, but little inconsistencies seem to be quickly overcome.
Overall: A strong team headed by GM Jhaun Devere has gotten this restaurant off to a solid start, and Mullins’ talent should make Perch and Plow a long-term downtown jewel.