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January 18-24, 2006

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First Bite

Starlight Wine Bar

By Molly Jackel

The train car at Gravenstein Station in Sebastopol has a new passenger: the Starlight Wine Bar. For those who dream of an elegant past dining in a luxury train car, who have seen too many old movies or who just have a touch of hobo-inspired wanderlust, dining in a train car can be a nostalgic, romantic li'l getaway, especially in one as nicely appointed as this one. We can thank Karen and Lucas Martin of K&L Bistro (former engineers of the train-as-wine-bar) for their decorating skills when they opened the place originally as Appellations. New owners Ted and Heather Van Doorn--former Hollywood model makers who fell in love on the set of Titanic--found the business for sale online. Perhaps the theatrical nature of this space attracted these first-time restaurateurs.

It was sad seeing Appellations go (as undervalued as it seems to have been); I think the Martins really know how to run a sophisticated room. They left their mark on the art deco interior: the car features delicious fawn-colored nubuck chairs, beautiful vintage lighting and fabulous leopard carpeting. The Van Doorns reorganized the space a bit, and it's now a little more casual in appearance and in the service.

The service was very friendly and the waitstaff helpful and patient. They're very proud of their chef, Ted's cousin Thaddeus Palmese, who was convinced to move up here after a career of cooking in New Orleans, the effect of which was nicely evident in most of the dishes we ordered. The menu is divided into pizzas, small plates, charcuterie and desserts. For dinner we ordered a morcilla sausage, pepper, onion and fontina pizza ($12). There's no stone pizza oven in that wee kitchen, so the crust wasn't ideal, being of the puffy, too insubstantial, not-salty-enough type. But the toppings were beautifully arranged and generous. The onions, lovingly caramelized, formed a bed for the sweet red peppers and the morcilla, which is a kind of Spanish blood sausage.

Acting as waiter, Ted strongly recommended the New Orleans barbecued shrimp ($10), which was perfectly cooked by one who clearly knows the shellfish, and was covered in a thick, sweet-hot roux. We also ordered black mussels, which also came in a Big Easy-style rouille, a thick, tomatoey, sweet hot sauce flavored with saffron ($11). The mussels were fresh, a little overcooked, but the broth flavorful and unusual. Dishes I wanted to try but couldn't find the room for included the hot and cold charcuterie plates, the hot one with sopressata and pork belly, the cold one with duck breast and some other goodies (each $10); a confit of duck leg with whipped yams ($12); and the macaroni and cheese ($8).

Starlight has a good selection of local beers on tap and a wine menu that offers both two- and five-ounce pours for reasonable prices. Those half-pours are the kind of pairing encouragement I like to see here in wine country, though I would also have liked to see a few more local producers on the list. Ted Van Doorn explains that he and Heather intentionally serve wines that might be unfamiliar to area palates in order to offer something new and different to local winemakers as well as to promote smaller vineyards that don't have tasting rooms.

Perhaps the best thing of all about the Starlight was that we got to go out and get a delicious meal at 10pm on a weeknight. I'd jump aboard a moving a train for that, even if I weren't an aspiring hobo.


Starlight Wine Bar, 6761 Sebastopol Ave. (in the Gravenstein Station), Sebastopol. Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday; noon to 10pm, Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday; noon to 11pm, Friday-Saturday. 707.823.1943.


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Quick-and-dirty dashes through North Bay restaurants. These aren't your standard "bring five friends and order everything on the menu" dining reviews.