Downtown Healdsburg has turned into a foodie’s haven. Critically-acclaimed restaurants with top chefs are found, often, right next door to each other. So how does one choose? Sometimes it’s a matter of booking your table for two months in advance. Other times it means settling for an awkward 5pm or 9:15pm dinner rez. And, yet, my favorite maintains the secret third option: walking in to the least crowded restaurant when your stomach tells you it’s time to eat. Welcome to Cafe Lucia.
Cafe Lucia, opened in December of 2012, is owned and operated by Lucia Azevedo Fincher who partners with her brother, executive chef of La Salette, Manuel Azevedo. The restaurant features, what Azevedo calls, “Cozinha Nova Portuguesa” (new-wave Portuguese cuisine). Azevedo, along with her executive chef Jason Santos, take inspiration from both their Portuguese culture as well as the fresh produce that surrounds them in Sonoma County.
The entrance of Cafe Lucia, down a somewhat covert side-alley along Healdsburg Avenue, invites you into the romantically lit outdoor patio. With fairy lights hanging from the ceiling, lounge furniture for dining tables, and the fragrant scents wafting from the kitchen, it is, indeed, like a little piece of Brazil in the middle of Wine Country. If weather permits, al fresco dining is the way to go.
The menu can easily cater to any type of dining style. Stop by for tapas and choose 3, 5, or 7 items from the list ($17, $26, $35) and experience a whole range of Portuguese flavors, from simple pickles to fried pig ears. Those with a heartier appetite will want to go straight for the main menu — and don’t dare skip a starter ($10 – $15).
During a recent visit, the chef provided a complimentary amuse-bouche — red and golden beetroot soup topped with creme fraiche and chives. The perfectly smooth puree went down as easy as a shooter should. While there’s no decipherable difference in taste between the two colored beets, the visual is absolutely stunning.
The Starters will, as the name imply, give you a jump-start into the flavors of Portugal. The Salada Portuguese with the São Jorge cheese; the Caldo Verde Portugal’s national soup; and the Chourico Crusted Day Boat Scallops are all excellent options. My personal recommendation would be the Albacore Tuna Ceviche ($15). The diced chunks of tuna are just cooked after marinating in the citrus glaze; the cucumber add the perfect crunch-factor; and the cilantro gives the dish a dose of freshness all around. My only note is I could have used a few more slivers of pepper — the little extra heat kick I got every time I got one on my fork, gave the taste a much better balance of flavor.
When it comes to Mains, those less familiar with, or maybe even intimidated by, the bold flavors implied by the menu, will want to try the Pacific Wild Caught Cod ($27). Simply pan-fried, this meaty species of fish has a texture more akin to halibut than salmon (read: less oily). The fish itself is flavorsome, but the addition of the molho cruz (the warm pico de gallo style topping) adds both a bit of heat and a bit of freshness to the overall dish. The collard greens, though sautéed, still maintain the integrity of the vegetable — they’re more crunchy than soft and have a negligible amount of oil in and around them. The oven roasted beets add just a hint of sweetness, perfectly rounding out the balance of flavors.
If feeling a bit more indulgent, then there’s nothing more decadent than the risotto-style Arroz de Camarao. Three jumbo-sized, pan-grilled prawns sit atop a spice-filled bed of creamy rice. The red bell peppers add the crunch, the peas pop with sweetness, but it’s that chouriço that gives the dish depth of umami. While the uni butter may seem indecipherable, rest assured that’s the ingredient that ties everything together with it’s subtle flavor, but undeniable richness.
Cafe Lucia has an un-intimidating wine list which offers both local and Portuguese wines by the 3oz or 6oz ($4.25 – $16) glass as well as bottles ($32-$70). My personal recommendation is to drink by the glass. With so many different flavors offered with each dish, you’ll want to pick and choose which wine pairs with what. Of course, if completely lost (especially if interested in the Portuguese wines), don’t hesitate to ask your server — the staff is well-versed in the restaurants food and wine menus.
Would I come here again? Would I recommend it to a friend? Yes, Cafe Lucia ticks all those boxes. That just goes to show you what walking down a side-alley will get you in Healdsburg.
235 Healdsburg Avenue, Suite 105, Healdsburg, CA 95448; (707) 431-1113; cafelucia.net. Open daily, 11:30am – 9pm
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