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The Wow Factor

Craft beer and highly inventive food put Sunol Ridge in a league of its own.


Photography by Shannon McIntyreSunol Ridge—a blend of craft beer and culinary phantasmagoria—is one of the most exciting restaurants to open in Contra Costa.

Formerly Cypress, located between the casual Pyramid Alehouse and the upscale Lark Creek Walnut Creek, the new place has a clientele that’s a bit of both.

Chef Frank Jordan, who has worked in Hollywood and is a disciple of Ferran Adri—Spain’s mad scientist of cooking—delivers plates that are playful, intricate, and highly innovative. Meanwhile, owners Mark Flaherty and Christopher George, who first brewed in a barn on Sunol Ridge in Pleasanton, display a passion for beer that ignites the restaurant’s celebratory atmosphere.

You enter through glass doors into a booming SRO beer bar that feeds into a crafty lounge (flying saucer lamps, modular couches, sculpted marble table with trickling rivulet). Off the lounge, a swanky dining corridor leads to an airy lodgelike room defined by distressed wood. It’s warm but can feel tacked on—a place to park the overflow. The final venue, a spacious and chic back patio, offers a fire pit and a meditative water wall.

We opted for the patio, and our dinner demonstrated Jordan’s lively, delicate touch. An order of tuna poke came merely with drifts of “coconut snow” and not under the “yuzu dome” as described on the menu. (The chef, we were told, was concerned the wind might blow the presentation over.) The ahi poke is a Rubik’s cube–like construct of diced ruby-red tuna compressed over a foundation of smashed avocado. What’s more, the poke’s sublime flavor was as compelling as the eye-popping presentation.

We ate family style, and each plate was stunning. Our favorite was thick slices of dry-aged New York steak, pink from edge to edge. Then, there was the lustrous, darkly seared diver scallops adorned with a triple take on carrots, including a single newborn with a feathery top. And the devilishly good pork belly shared the stage with creamy corn grits and palate-cleansing shallots pickled pink. For dessert, Jordan’s hot, chocolate-stuffed doughnut holes—served in a mini fry basket—created a comforting conclusion.

This is surprisingly good beer food. The lengthy on-tap menu is divided into eight craft styles, plus cider and bottles. If the dozens of choices overwhelm you, go for a flight—three five-ounce pours served in a custom metal basket. (There are only three flights on offer; creating your own would be fun.) With a lounge packed with beer drinkers, you wouldn’t know there was wine on tap—16 California wines, to be exact. There is also a serious all-California bottle list.

The main menu is pricey, but there’s a “taste my vittles” sheet featuring noshes under $10, including spicy almonds and shoestring fries. While these are pub friendly, they still reflect Jordan’s inventive style. On my way out one night, I heard a man say, “What is this?” as he toyed with the grilled Meyer lemon relish on the salty and piquant whole drumsticks.

“What is this?” is a common refrain for molecular gastronomy, a style of cooking that employs agar gum liquid, nitrogen blasts, and multitudinous other techniques in the creation of dishes that can look like creatures from the bottom of the sea. Such cuisine can include syringes of foie gras, centimeter squares of pizza essence, and  forest-mushroom soup nested in steaming pine needles.

Jordan doesn’t go this far. He commonly uses controlled vaporization, a heating method that aromatizes food. But my dinner during opening week revealed some challenges of highly manipulated food: Jordan’s chicken rolled with lamb sausage and bacon and cut into mosaic slices was beautiful but salty, gamy, and, well, weird. However, Jordan makes it abundantly clear that his visionary cuisine can work, and this is evident in many corners of his inspired menu.

So come for the beer, and stay for a menu that offers such delights as “vertically cooked salmon.” What vertical cooking involves isn’t exactly clear, even after our waiter’s explanation. But the fish, served with crisped skin on a plate bejeweled with an exquisite baby radish, speaks for itself.

Contact: 1388 Locust St., Walnut Creek, (925) 278-1948, sunolridgerestaurantandbar.com. Dinner Tues.–Sun.

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