Inspired by a 19th-century homestead ranch in the Fremont Hills, Sunol Ridge Restaurant and Bar offers East Bay diners hearty yet gourmet takes on American comfort food as well as what is likely one of the largest Northern California craft beer programs in the Bay Area.
If you like local craft beers -- Faction (Alameda), Altamont (Livermore), Heretic (Fairfield) and Calicraft (Walnut Creek) -- on one list you need to check out certified cicerone Chad Moshier's (Handles Gastropub) selection. We drank it in.
Open since June in the spot formerly housing Cypress, Sunol Ridge is the dream project of East Bay friends Mark Flaherty and Christopher M. George. They don't have restaurant backgrounds, but they are major beer geeks, and with the help of Moshier and executive chef Frank Jordan, former chef de partie for Season 6 "Top Chef" winner Michael Voltaggio's Hollywood restaurant, Ink, they've created a dining destination that is off to a relatively strong start. Desserts need refinement, and servers need to be more informed on the dishes they present.
Still, Sunol Ridge has a few driving forces in addition to that killer beer list. Namely, the restaurant's decor and ambience: Here rustic-meets-modern like so many trendy restaurants these days but with added touches, such as a sexy wine wall separating the serpentine bar and dining room, arty lamp shades and an outdoor patio and fire pit.
When you walk in, the first thing you see (besides numerous flat-screen TVs) is a coveted community table near a babbling rock waterfall. It's pretty sleek, as are the buttery, neutral tones and animal print accents dotting the dining room. Most of the dishes we sampled during our recent visit were well executed and delicious, except for one salad and one dessert.
But first, the appetizers ($10-$15) -- all impressive. We especially loved the barbecue pork belly ($12), a smart preparation (it tasted and tugged like ribs) for those of us who love pork belly's flavor but find its texture too fatty. It came with fresh, buttered corn off the cob and crispy collard greens. The seared calamari ($10) was easily my favorite dish of the night: hot, chewy calamari steak strips in a spicy tomato and green onion grenobloise with pimentón spiked potatoes. Quality and craftsmanship were high and reminiscent of Spanish tapas at Michael Chiarello's Coqueta.
The entrees were also good, from the enormous, twice-ground prime chuck burger ($12) with zucchini pickles to the crisp, greaseless fried chicken half ($19) served with an elegant Southern cornbread spoon bread and a drizzle of jamon gravy. Our favorite main course was the short rib poutine ($26), finger-licking, flavorful short ribs braised for 40 hours and served alongside millet cheddar fries and charred padrón peppers. The very definition of gourmet comfort food.
For lighter fare, we liked the vertically cooked salmon ($28) with its crispy skin, and accompanying farro and mushroom salad and tangy-sweet yuzu koshu sabayon. What didn't work was the fussy heirloom tomato salad ($10). It's hard to mess up heirlooms in August, but they did by dressing the slices with hard white crumbles called "farm lychee cheese," dried blackberries and basil seeds that had the consistency of chia seeds. The flavors and textures collided, and even our server had no idea what farm lychee cheese was.
In fact, both of our servers were unable to answer our questions about ingredients, preparation and execution, though they were friendly and willing to seek out answers to whatever we asked, including questions about a bread pudding ($9) dessert that lacked sweetness.
Savory desserts are certainly on trend, but without dabs of the berry coulis on the plate, the bread pudding was beyond bland, and the two accompanying beer ice creams were missing sugar. As my sister told the waiter, "These taste like frozen beer." He tasted them, concurred and apologized. They have since switched it out for chocolate ice cream. Good call.
Luckily, the minicake doughnuts ($9) were delightful: warm, freshly fried doughnut holes filled with dark chocolate. They came in a darling mini-metal fryer so cute we wanted to go extra piggy on our waiter and order a second round to go. We'll just have to come back another time.
* * ½
WHERE: 1388 Locust St., Walnut Creek
CONTACT: 925-278-1948; sunolridge
HOURS: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; until 11 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; until 8 p.m. Sundays; and 3 p.m.-10 p.m. Mondays
VEGETARIAN: Try the risottolike Bomba rice with roasted beets and goat cheese mousse
BEVERAGES: An impressive and almost exclusively California craft beer program featuring 49 craft beers from San Diego to Eureka, with a large NorCal presence; plus, 51 wines and specialty cocktails
NOISE LEVEL: Moderate
PARKING: Street parking
KIDS: Try the fried chicken or burger
PLUSES: Killer appetizers, good entrees
MINUSES: Desserts need work
DATE OPENED: June
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Restaurants are rated on a scale of one to four, with four representing a truly extraordinary experience for that type of restaurant.
$ Most entrees under $10
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