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Satisfying Saturdays
SYRAH Restaurant: Santa Rosa’s Best

By Charles Olken

92 SYRAH BISTRO 205 5th Street Santa Rosa 707 568-4002

I came out to San Francisco in search of education. I found sun, wine and crab cakes as added bonuses. I knew about the sun and the area’s natural beauty. They, and good schools, are what brought me here in the first place. The wine quickly became part of our weekend routine, but it took a while for the crab. Graduate students are not blessed with the resources for cracked crab. It was burgers and spaghetti, rice and beans for us. Early on, I dated a “locally grown” co-ed just long enough to be invited home to meet her parents. That was where I first encountered piles of fresh Dungeness crab and bowls of melted butter, warm sourdough bread and much better wine than we had been drinking in our Palo Alto sidestreet digs.

There were not many crab feeds after that, but the idea had been planted, and soon, I also discovered the wonders of crab cakes. Back east, the closest we ever came to crab cakes were stuffed quahogs (pronounced “coe-hog”), which may not sound like much but taste a lot better than they sound. A quahog, for the uninitiated, is a type of hard shell clam from which chowder is made. For those who care about such things, it is a different clam from the soft-shelled clam that is served up as those uniquely New England delicacies, “steamers” and “fried clams”. No, the quahog is not such delicate flower and gets chopped and cleavered into submission. Stuffed quahogs are a mix of bread crumbs and seasoning with bits of clam put back into the roundish shell and baked in the oven. The New Englander in me is still a lover of fried clams “with bellies”, but the San Franciscan that I have become is addicted to fresh Dungeness crab in almost any form that it appears.

A couple of decades ago, I found what for me has been the standard by which all crab cakes are measured. A local restaurant opened up nearby, and its opening chef, a fine broth of a lad by the name of Josh Silvers produced crab cakes so good that the very thought of them makes my mouth water. In time, the restaurant failed, for reasons beyond the chef’s doing, but Josh moved on. I discovered him years later up in Santa Rosa at his own place called Syrah. It is right there in downtown Santa Rosa, near Railroad Square just west of the freeway. Josh cooks what might be called Mediterranean food—things with extra layers of flavors all made from local natural ingredients. And, during crab season, he has a ready supply fresh off the boat just a few miles west in the Pacific Ocean.

There are a limited number of restaurants in wine country to which I will make a pilgrimage for the place alone, and Syrah is one of them. Not only is the food superb and the wine list impeccably drawn, but the crab cakes remain at the top of list for me. Syrah rates as my number one restaurant in Santa Rosa, and it is rated number one in Santa Rosa by TripAdvisor and Zagat. Go for the crab cakes and tell Josh that Charlie sent you.

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Syrah and crabs
by ThomasPellechia
Posted on:10/16/2010 6:01:20 AM

Yes, indeed. Been to the restaurant and agree it is a destination to keep in mind. Terrific food preps.

As for crabs, obviously, you have not met a Maryland blue.

Uh Oh
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:10/16/2010 8:25:16 AM

Sounds like an East Coast West Coast throwdown....hope no one gets shanked

Maryland Crabs
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:10/16/2010 8:36:05 AM

Soft shelled crabs. Not my fave but Mrs. Olken will order them anytime she sees them on a menu.

soft shell--only 1/3
by ThomasPellechia
Posted on:10/16/2010 9:43:43 AM

Soft shell is just 1/3 the beauty of Maryland blues--hard shell boiled with a touch of cayenne, plus the original crabcake recipes round out the experience. Dungeonesse, to me, are not nearly as tender, savory and sweet.

Soft shell blues are on my list of last food before I kick off, if the crabs are not extinct by then. Sam, there's a recipe for them in my Garlic, Wine and Olive Oil book.

One of the best times in my life was being stationed at Maryland's Andrews Air Force Base for 2.5 years, followed by some time spent asleep in classes at the University of Maryland--crab heaven!

soft shell--only 1/3
by ThomasPellechia
Posted on:10/16/2010 9:44:58 AM

Or is that dungeness???

by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:10/16/2010 5:53:18 PM

Thomas, I saw it...the one with the sliced tomatoes on top right? Sounds wonderful although I must admit I am not a huge soft shell lover, something about eating the shell just bugs me. Not the idea as much as the texture, get the same thing with shrimp in Asian places where you are expected to eat the shrimp shell and all, just never breaks down enough for me.

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