A Taste of Willi’s Wine Bar

Initially launched in 2002, Willi’s Wine Bar was an ambitious project, as one of the first Sonoma County restaurants to introduce the concept of shareable, international-theme small plates paired with a wide variety of wines.  It was an immediate success and became the first of what is now a mini-empire of six restaurants owned and operated by chef Mark and Terri Stark.

crab tacos at Willi's Wine Bar in Sonoma County
Crab tacos

Housed in a historic 1886 landmark roadhouse on northern Santa Rosa’s Old Redwood Highway, the restaurant tragically was a victim of the 2017 Tubbs wildfire. But the Starks vowed to rebuild, and the new Willi’s debuted in mid-2019 at the Town & Country Center neighborhood marketplace northwest of Pacific and Montecito avenues in Santa Rosa.

The look:

The intimate, 75-seat dining room captures a mid-century modern bistro mood, in laid-back elegance with rich wood accents, communal areas, private nooks, and an expansive wine bar. A 30-seat patio is covered for cool summer shade and heated in the winter.

Interior view of Willis's Wine Bar in Sonoma County

To eat:

The original Willi’s Wine Bar won loyal fans for many of its signatures, and several of those statement dishes reappear on the new menu. Regulars will recognize chef Stark’s Tunisian roasted carrots sprinkled with pine nuts, olives and mint ($10), Moroccan-style barbecued lamb chops atop preserved lemon couscous with toasted almonds and arugula ($17), and ahi tartare with lemon, shiso and pine nuts ($15).

Filet mignon sliders at Willi's Wine Bar in Sonoma County

Filet mignon slidersAs it always has, the menu mixes surprisingly creative recipes with comfortingly familiar flavors. Our table started with a classic comfort treat of warm skillet bread, fancied up with melted Gruyère, sea salt and green olive tapenade ($7), then moved on to a light, crisp French green bean salad, dotted with radishes, pickled onions and toasted cashews dressed in tangy goat cheese ranch ($11).

Plates are served as soon as the kitchen has them ready, and soon, our table was laden with a feast including crab tacos, the sweet meat lightly curried and tumbled with diced apple, cucumber, and mint ($14). We dug into fat, tender scallop dumplings dressed with pea shoots, pancetta, and sweet-tart sherry vinegar butter ($14), rich and chewy five-spice pork belly potstickers with shiitake mushrooms ($11), and thick filet mignon sliders crowned in creamed spinach and whole-grain mustard bearnaise on brioche ($17). And then we ordered a second round of goat cheese fritters – the fried bonbons are decadent, sprinkled in smoked paprika and lavender honey ($9).

Tunasian carrots dish at Willi's Wine Bar in Sonoma County
Tunasian carrots

To note:

Vegetarian options are abundant (heirloom tomato soup shooters are a standout, dunked with herbed mozzarella grilled cheese, $11). Gluten-free options are extensive, as well, including beverages like Repeat Kolsch (gluten removed) Sufferfest beer (can, $8).  

Dessert:

We started with great bread, so we ended with great bread, diving into a sensational chocolate chunk and banana croissant bread pudding ($10), with an order of butterscotch crème brûlée sprinkled in orange fleur de sel ($10) for good measure.

To drink:

Wine flights are specialties here, and the two-ounce sips are perfect for small plate pairings. One exotic, delicious example: the Old World Whites flight ($12) includes​ Fento Albariño Bico da Ran Rías Baixas, Andrea Felici Verdicchio Castelli di Jesi, and Weszeli Grüner Veltliner “Langenlois” Kamptal, 2017.

If you’re a big spender – cha-ching – check out the “private stash” with valuable quaffs such as a 2016 Paul Hobbs Richard Dinner Vineyard Sonoma Mountain Chardonnay ($170), and a 2015 Staglin Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford ($475).

Details: 1415 Town & Country Way, Santa Rosa, 707- 526-3096, starkrestaurants.com.

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