When I lived in the Sonoma wine country in the 1970s, a cutting-edge meal in one of the area’s most sophisticated restaurants was lamb chops gilded with fat hunks of brie. Really.
That was so very, very then.
Now Sonoma cuisine is as innovative and sophisticated as anything in the country, whether served up at a posh hotel eatery in downtown Healdsburg that would be right at home in any food-centric big city or at a ramshackle diner off Highway 12 that looks straight out of an Ozarks’ holler, where virtually every ingredient on the menu comes from within 200 miles of the restaurant.
That there actually is a “Sonoma cuisine” is a matter of debate, even among chefs. But there’s no debate that at the heart of their cooking are ingredients second to none—all artisanal, most local and sustainable, many organic. “Farm to table” isn’t a culinary trend — it simply is. Like sunsets and gravity and great pinot noir.
When Momofuku’s David Chang dissed San Francisco (and by implication, all Northern California) chefs for not “do[ing] something with your food,” locals sniffed and fired right back. “We don’t need to work our food as hard as David Chang does,” says chef, caterer and 22-year Sonoma resident Rob Larman. “Because we’ve got so much amazing product, it’s more about enhancing what’s already there than making it into something new.”
I sampled some of that amazing product at last year’s Taste of Sonoma, a day-long orgy of local food and wine. Creamy goat cheese from Redwood Hill Farm in Sebastopol, organic honey redolent of citrus and flowers from Bear Foot Honey in Santa Rosa, dry-farmed tomatoes so sweet they could have been candied from Petaluma’s Canvas Ranch, exquisitely ripe and luscious peaches like none I’ve ever tasted from Dry Creek Peach & Produce in Healdsburg.
Getting those kinds of products, and the fruits of the labors of 150 growers and cheese makers to quality-conscious chefs is the business of Sonoma Organics. Owner Richard Robinson left the New York corporate world for California in 1992 and spent the next several years working on farms throughout the state. Five years later he landed in Sonoma and, noticing that “it was hard for local restaurants to get local products,” he founded Sonoma Organics.
Today he supplies some 200 restaurants throughout the San Francisco Bay Area/Northern California, all of whom, he says, “appreciate the value of small farms in the area and value their products and are more than happy to pay a premium for them.”
And pay a premium they do, 30 to 50-percent more than the equivalent (but hardly comparable) ingredients from less fastidious sources. Still, nobody is complaining. “We live in fantasyland in California,” Robinson says.
Of course, any talk of Sonoma food, wine and restaurants invites comparison to that other wine country across the Mayacamas Mountains. Even today, the Napa Valley is the tux and tails to Sonoma’s jeans and work boots. Napa has the world-wide name recognition, the wineries designed by the likes of Frank Gehry and Michael Graves, the abundance of high net worth restaurants whose heavenly food is matched only by their stratospheric prices.
Napa has the culinary superstars: Thomas Keller, “Iron Chef” Morimoto, Tyler Florence, Michael Chiarello. Sonoma has, well… Probably its best-known chef to the rest of the country is the Food Network’s Guy Fieri, who has a surprisingly non-frat house-like restaurant in downtown Santa Rosa. Though “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” may have made Fieri rich and famous, he’s viewed with more than a little bemusement by the local restaurant community.
“Why’d you do that?” one chef asked when I told him I’d had lunch at Tex Wasabi’s, his tone as incredulous as if I’d just confessed to putting hot sauce and monkfish liver on my ice cream.
If there is a poster child for Sonoma food and dining, however, it’s Fieri’s polar opposite. Chad Harris is chef-owner of The Fremont Diner just outside the town of Sonoma, a charmingly funky former fast food joint on four acres of land, where Harris raises chickens, grows vegetables and smokes meat for the restaurant.
Though much of that production is on hiatus now — the diner became so popular so fast it outgrew Harris’s ability to keep up — he’s just hired a ranch hand to help get a grip on it. In the meantime, he’s sourcing ingredients from an extensive network of local growers and ranchers. “They’re my buddies,” he says. “I trust them. I know they’re doing the right thing, not just for my cuisine but for my family and kids.”
It’s perhaps that kind of bond — between those producing our food, those preparing it and those of us consuming it — that’s one of the most important aspects of food and wine in Sonoma County. “It’s community as a whole,” says Doug McIlory, director of wine-growing for Rodney Strong Vineyards. “A community that’s proud of everything we’ve got and isn’t afraid to share it and say, Come on in and sit down a while.”
Don’t mind if we do.
The Fremont Diner, 2698 Fremont Dr., Sonoma; 707-938-7370; TheFremontDiner.com. The Chez Panisse gospel of the freshest ingredients, sourced from local farms and preached in an aged building that defines “dilapidated.” EAT: Deviled eggs with pickled mustard seeds. WHY: Simple food never tasted so good.
Jimtown Store, 6706 Hwy. 128, Healdsburg; 707-433-1212; JimTown.com. Quirky, country-funky cafe-market-antique shop is every bit as charming as its simple, all-American food is delicious. EAT: Smoked brisket sandwich with bourbon barbecue sauce and chipotle aioli. WHY: You can’t beat that meat.
Tex Wasabi’s, 515 4th St., Santa Rosa; 707-544-8399; TexWasabis.com. Surprisingly subdued downtown restaurant with frat-boys-from-Flavortown fare by Guy Fieri, the Food Network’s spiky-haired carpet (and burger) chewer. EAT: Somewhere else. WHY: As a chef, Fieri is a fine TV host.
Willi’s Wine Bar, 4404 Old Redwood Hwy., Santa Rosa; 707-526-3096; StarkRestaurants.com/willis_winebar.htm. Pubby, bustling purveyor of exemplary small plates that seamlessly blend haute and homey, plus a killer wine list. EAT: Curried crab tacos with apple, cucumber and mint. WHY: Dungeness crab, any way you can get it.
Barndiva, 231 Center St., Healdsburg; 707-431-0100
Café La Haye, 140 E. Napa St., Sonoma; 707-935-5994
Dry Creek Kitchen, 317 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg; 707-431-0330
Hot Box Grill, 18350 Hwy. 12, Sonoma; 707-939-8383
Hook & Ladder, 2134 Olivet Rd., Santa Rosa; 707-526-2255; HookAndLadderWinery.com. Former San Francisco fireman Cecil DeLoach’s winery may fly under most cork dorks’ radar but don’t let it fly under yours. TASTE: 2010 Cabernet Franc. WHY: California cab franc is relatively rare, but this one is terrific.
Porter Creek, 8735 Westside Rd., Healdsburg; 707-433-6321; PorterCreekVineyards.com. The best winery you’ve never heard of turns out organic, biodynamic wines with French restraint and California savoir faire. TASTE: 2010 Fiona Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir. WHY: Merely one of the best pinots you can put in your mouth.
Ram’s Gate, 28700 Arnold Dr., Sonoma; 707-721-8700. Stunning contemporary winery turns out wines as compelling as its environmentally sensitive Howard Backen design. TASTE: 2010 Sangiacomo Vineyards Chardonnay. WHY: Everything you could ever want in a California chardonnay… and more.
Rodney Strong, 11455 Redwood Hwy., Healdsburg; 707-431-1533; RodneyStrong.com. A mega-producer with the soul of an artisan boutique, its reserve wines are an exquisite expression of the winemaker’s art. TASTE: 2010 Symmetry. WHY: The perfect balance of Bordeaux and California will make your taste buds rejoice.
Flamingo Resort & Spa, 2777 4th St., Santa Rosa; 707-545-8530; FlamingoResort.com. Smartly renovated retro hotel with an ideal central location.
Hotel Healdsburg, 25 Matheson St., Healdsburg; 707-431-2800; HotelHealdsburg.com. Posh lodging for the well-heeled in the heart of downtown Healdsburg.
Carneros Inn, 4048 Sonoma Hwy., Napa; 707-299-4900; TheCarnerosInn.com. Stylish, elegant individual cottages on the border of Napa and Sonoma.
Sonoma Hotel, 110 W. Spain St., Sonoma; 707-996-2996; SonomaHotel.com. Lots of historic charm in this B&B-style country inn on the town square.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Bill Citara, a Palm Beach County-based author and food and wine writer, is a former food and wine critic for the San Francisco Examiner, as well as for other Bay-area and wine country publications.