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.