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High praise for Petaluma’s 256 North


From the beginning of construction, 256 North exuded a sense of class. Unlike some other locations, which languish during construction, start but never finish, or ignore media requests for information, 256 North was all business from day one. In short order, the simple yet classy “256 North” was hung from the front of the historic building, telling us their name.

This speaks volumes about co-owner Jan Rosen’s understanding of Petaluma, as well as her insight in collaborating with long-time restaurant builder, but first-time restaurateur Joe Castro. For those that are new to Petaluma, Jan is a legend, in part because of her restaurants and cheesecake, but more importantly, because of how she treats people. She is like that aunt that you cannot wait to visit. She is not afraid to tell you how it is or call you on your shenanigans, but her love and support is all-encompassing.

A New York transplant in the early 1970s, Jan has created some of Sonoma County’s most memorable restaurants, including J.M. Rosen, a silver service restaurant on Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square, and Petaluma’s Salad Mill, J.M. Waterfront Grill and Rosen’s Eastside Grill.

However, Jan is probably best known for J.M Rosen’s Cheesecakes, which she and sister Michelle started in the early 1980s, when Jan discovered she could not find a good cheesecake on the West Coast. Her cheesecake quickly became a Hollywood favorite among celebrities like Frank Sinatra and the Reagans, and is still wowing customers almost 40 years later. For many, this would go to their head, but Jan remains a down to earth, no nonsense business woman, who knows that without customer loyalty, a restaurant cannot survive, no matter how good the food.

Jan’s expertise in running a restaurant gave us confidence that no matter what the menu, we could expect a meal like no other in Petaluma. Sure enough, the dishes were on par with what one would find at the likes of John Ash & Co., only much closer to home. Chef Damion Jones most recently ran the kitchen at Bourbon & Beef in Rockridge, an upscale Oakland neighborhood known for great restaurants, and certainly helps bring the menu to life.

First up was the Trio Crudo ($16). Crudo means “raw” in Italian, and 256 North’s trio came by way of three excellently prepared raw fish presentations. Ahi tuna carpaccio, rock shrimp ceviche, and salmon poke were served with lemongrass ginger soy, pickled ginger, aioli, taro, wanton chips, and a small serving of a delightful seaweed salad.

I have always been skeptical of grilled octopus because I grew up on the chewy Asian imports, but 256 North’s Grilled Octopus ($17) was excellently prepared, and artfully plated. Thankfully, Chef Jones knows that the only place to source tender and flavorful octopus is the Iberian Peninsula and loyal to its Spanish octopus, this dish also offered a unique Spanish chorizo chimichurri.

I am always excited to see Dungeness Crab Cakes ($9) on the menu, especially during the season, because it shows that the chef is paying attention to his surroundings. This particular one comes with mango avocado caper relish, wasabi aioli, and frisee.

I am partial to Petaluma’s Liberty Duck, so I was pleased to see them highlighted in the Liberty Duck Meat Balls ($15), which came with pixie mandarins, grilled Asian pear, jalapeno and ricotta salata.

The Penn Cove Mussels ($14) are steamed with lager beer, garlic, sweet peppers and onions along with the second appearance of the night for Spanish chorizo, which brought this dish to a completely new level. This dish also gave us yet another reason to order more bread, because the sauce was a captivating meal by itself.

The next three dishes kept the pescatarian in our midst more than happy, once we removed the prosciutto from the asparagus. The fried Brussels sprouts ($9) came with cauliflower puree, furikaki, togarashi and toasted cashews, the fried calamari ($13) was expertly prepared, with a tomato basil aioli, and the grilled asparagus and burrata ($14) was delicious and eye catching, from what I heard, because I avoid asparagus at all costs.

Served alongside crushed pistachios, extra virgin olive oil, aged balsamic and sea salt, the asparagus dish was a major hit, and although I avoided the asparagus, all the other flavors, mixed with the prosciutto, reminded me of my travels through Italy.

When the Masami pork belly ($14) arrived, it was not only well received, but was yet another dish that had two distinct and delicious personalities. The pork belly was topped with pickled cherries and bacon jam, which were elegantly divided by a cut of paper-thin carrot. This all sat atop a portion of unassuming grits, which were a crowd favorite once we realized they were truffle mascarpone grits.

The wild sockeye salmon ($26) was cooked to perfection, and the saffron sauce, Bloomsdale spinach, artichoke hearts, toy box cherry tomatoes, and Kalamata olives gave us yet another reason to sop up the sauce once the main offering had been devoured. We also ordered the organic fried chicken ($22) with sweet corn puree, collard greens, fried herbs, truffle honey and grilled lemons, which will be the first thing I order the next time I visit 256 North to watch a game at the bar.

The day boat scallops ($27), were at the perfect crossroads of tender and firm, and the sea urchin risotto, chanterelle mushrooms, and sugar snap peas made for a multitude of great flavor and texture combinations.

Before breaking for dessert, the chef insisted that we try the coffee braised beef short ribs ($32), which was served with celery root puree, young carrots and baby turnips. These ribs were phenomenal.

Chef Jones’ presentation is sophisticated enough to please the eyes, yet stops well short of being perplexing or convoluted. Dishes are robust, yet refined, and never approached the unnecessary. Each dish is an experience unto itself, with unique combinations of familiar flavors. I generally refrain from criticizing dishes that I do not particular like, instead focusing on my favorites. However, in the case of 256 North, every dish I tried was a complete palette pleaser.

No meal at 256 North is complete without at least one slice of J.M. Rosen’s cheesecake. Along with the original, 256 North also offers all the other great J.M. Rosen cheesecake flavors, like fantasy cheesecake, Neopolitian fantasy, Snicker cheesecake, and my favorite, the lemon mascarpone cake.

256 North is an enormous space, with possibly the largest bar in Petaluma, but the exposed ceiling trusses, natural light, decor, and personnel give this new restaurant a comfortable feel. Moreover, even though it sits at 256 Petaluma Blvd. North, with picture windows facing the passing traffic, there is serenity to the dining room and bar, enhanced by the fact that there are multiple seating areas around the restaurant, including a very comfortable lounge in one of the front corners.

Our group of five fit nicely into one of the alcoves, which give us just enough privacy to feel cozy, while never feeling isolated or forgotten.

Jan always strives to bring something new and fresh to Petaluma, which is a tall order these days. However, she, along with partner Joe, Chef Jones, and bar manager Jabbar, has done just that with 256 North. The restaurant has a metropolitan feel, especially given the quality and creativity in the menu, but the view across the street to Penry Park keeps diners connect to Petaluma. The ambiance is reminiscent of the posh San Francisco restaurants of yesteryear, yet Jan and Joe’s ever-friendly presence gives 256 North a genuinely comfortable hometown vibe.

The combination of class, comfort and community is truly unique and does in fact give Petaluma a grand new dining experience that is sure to please locals and visitors.