Wednesday, September 8, 2010

It Was With Some Anxiety . . .

that I walked through the doors of Johnny Garlic’s California Pasta Grill in Santa Rosa, CA.

Why? Because this restaurant is co-owned by my hero, the man that I want to be (and this is Kate speaking here), the Food Network’s Guy Fieri. We’ve used Guy’s show—“Diners, Drive-ins and Dives”—along with his two books from the TV series as a culinary roadmap, and I was afraid that one of his own restaurants would prove to be a disappointment.

“Johnny Garlic’s is a dynamic California Pasta Grill that bursts with energy and a diversity of food choices that reflects the personalities of its owners Guy Fieri and Steve Gruber. Started in 1996, Johnny Garlic's has grown to three locations (Santa Rosa, Windsor and Roseville, California) and showcases the famous Tri Tip Dip sandwich, Fire-Roasted Quesadilla, Cajun Chicken Fettuccine Alfredo, The Tortilla Cake, Pesto Goat Cheese Pizza, and the famous Breathe Mint Pie for dessert. While the menu is expansive and ever-evolving, the atmosphere is warm, inviting, and also stimulating with a buzz of camaraderie that creates an almost theatrical experience” (from Johnny Garlic’s web site).

If I had to guess, I would guess that the building that houses Johnny Garlic’s has lived another life as a Chinese restaurant. At least, that’s how the entrance appears to me. Inside, there are some Guy Fieri reminders like the giant caricature and equally giant facsimile signature. One of the three flat screens in the bar was playing “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” (another was showing tennis and the other, baseball), but other than Guy’s likeness on the menu, that was it. I had expected (or feared) more.

There is nothing subtle to the food here. As one writer described it: “It's Guy Fieri's restaurant, so we weren't expecting super fancy-schmancy gourmet stuff. It's dude food and it's good.” Like Guy Fieri, the food is bold and brash, but—despite the name Johnny Garlic’s—not every menu item is redolent of garlic. As we perused the menu, we munched on a basket of homemade foccacia that had a light topping of onions and parmesan cheese.

For starters, there were: American Kobe Sliders (Wagyu beef, sweet onions, and cilantro lime aioli), Sashimi Won Tacos (sashimi grade ahi, mango jicama salsa and wasabi soy), Roasted Duck Taquitos (cherry BBQ duck, sweet onions and mango jicama salsa), Crispy Artichoke Hearts, Garlic Potato Chips, Key Lime Calamari with Cilantro-Lime Aioli, roasted garlic soup, butternut squash soup, and the day’s soup.

There was a selection of wood stone-fired, thin crust pizzas including: BBQ Chicken with red onions, cilantro and sweet BBQ sauce; the Hot & Spicy with hot links, 7 spice chicken, pepperoni and fresh tomato sauce; the JG Classic with sun dried tomatoes, roasted garlic, basil and extra virgin olive oil; the Classic Cheese or Pepperoni with and fresh tomato sauce; the Chicken Bacon Ranch with applewood bacon, tomatoes and ranch sauce; the Mediterranean with olives, roasted bell peppers, artichoke hearts and pesto sauce; and the Cherry Duck with sweet onions, pulled duck, cilantro, cherry BBQ sauce and white sauce.

Pasta choices included: Cajun Chicken Fettuccine (blackened chicken breast, sun dried tomatoes, and creamy parmesan sauce); Chicken Mamou (7-spice chicken, cappellini pasta, mushrooms, tomatoes and spicy Mamou sauce); Penne Pesto Vegetable (artichoke hearts, olives, tomatoes, mushrooms and pesto cream sauce); Shrimp Scampi (gulf shrimp, cappellini pasta, white wine and lemon garlic butter; Chipotle Shrimp & Hotlinks (fried leeks, penne pasta and chipotle cream sauce); or Parmesan Chicken (breaded natural chicken breast, whole-milk mozzarella, cappellini pasta and tomato sauce).

And there was a selection of Kobe Burgers (half pound ground Wagyu steak on grilled buns and served with garlic potato chips, seasoned, or garlic fries), seafood, steaks, ribs, chops, and something called Hunter’s Creation, which is a rotating selection of exotic game, such as, alligator, buffalo, elk, venison, wild boar, ostrich, rattlesnake, pheasant, quail or rabbit.

We consider ordering from a menu to be the equivalent of choreographing a dance. The various tastes need to be complimentary, but not repetitive, and we want to take the measure of what the kitchen can do. In this case, we had one misstep that probably would get us eliminated from Dancing with the Stars. We started with a cup of the day’s soup—a sun-dried tomato bisque and an order of the restaurant’s new appetizer—the Lava Rocks.

The soup was extremely good, not too thick, but yet not thin and watery, and had that intense and almost sweet flavor you get from sun drying a tomato.

But the Lava Rocks were—to use a Guyism--“On the bus to Flavourtown.” The serving contained six ounces of rock shrimp that had been lightly fried and then tossed in a honey/lime/chipotle sauce, served on a bed of shredded lettuce and crisp rice noodles, and topped with a jimaca and mango salsa. The shrimp were cooked to perfection, and the sauce was hot, tart, and sweet all at the same time. To use another Guyism: “I could put this on a flip-flop and it would taste good.”

We then decided to share an order of the Cajun Chicken Fettucine (blackened chicken breast, sun dried tomatoes and creamy parmesan sauce)—but our server mentioned that she preferred this dish with penne rather than fettucine. Penne it would be. And the kitchen divided the order into separate bowls for each of us.

When you see the word “Cajun” on a menu, you immediately think fiery. And while the pasta sauce had some heat, it was not overly spicy and had a creamy richness from the sauce. And the dish contained large chunks of moist chicken and a generous amount of sun dried tomatoes, thus making penne the perfect pasta choice.

Now here was our misstep. We also ordered the JG Classic pizza with sun dried tomatoes, roasted garlic, basil and extra virgin olive oil. After sun dried tomato bisque and a pasta sauce with lots of sun dried tomatoes, a pizza loaded with more sun dried tomatoes became too much of a good thing. The crust was great, there was a bountiful application of roasted garlic cloves, but there were too many sun dried tomatoes. And, I thought that the dish was a little dry and could have used more olive oil.

We did manage to clean our plates and still have room for dessert. Our choice? The Johnny Garlic’s Classic Mint Pie made with a double chocolate cookie crust and Junior Mint studded mint chip ice cream. I haven’t had a Junior Mint since I was in grade school going to the Saturday afternoon movie matinee. For a dime, I could get both a box of Milk Duds and a box of Junior Mints and be set for the double feature. Wow.

I worried for naught. We had a great lunch with warm, friendly, and helpful service and give Johnny Garlic’s a 4.5 Addie rating.

We leave you with a few scenes shot on our walk around Old Courthouse Square in downtown Santa Rosa.

This is the Empire Building, completed in 1910 and a Sonoma County landmark. It was seen in Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Alfred Hitchcock's personal favorite.

Located across the street from the building above were two interesting works of art. This bench provided a good vantage point for watching people and enjoying this Robert W. Ellison sculpture called "Renaissance," showing a whimsical pair of pinking shears cutting a flowing ribbon in celebration of some-thing new. Said Ellison, "Large public sculpture design and construc-tion, along with smaller, more exploratory pieces have been my primary focus for three decades. I like to create large, whimsical pieces in rich colors using steel, aluminum, concrete, neon and clockworks."

The city deserved more time from us, but we were short of that commodity.

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