Friday, October 31, 2008

Sonoma food roundup

We are back home and full of woe at no longer being in California, where the weather was hot and sunny and not in the least bit humid and the scenery was gorgeous, and the wines were delicious, and the food was fresh and bursting with flavor. Here in Ottawa it’s chilly and damp, although sunny today, and we’re headed into root veggie and frozen broccoli season. So here, for your reading pleasure, are the highlights of Ali and Chris eating their way through Sonoma.

(I will say that we didn’t hit a lot of fancy places up there, because after Slanted Door and Jeanty, we were kind of burnt out on the upscale dressy restaurant. We’re casual people at heart, and we love nothing better than going to dinner dressed in jeans and getting treated like family rather than ambassadors. So keep that in mind if you thought we might hit some of the Michelin-star joints near Healdsburg.)

Thursday morning we drove from San Francisco to Petaluma, up highway 101 across the Golden Gate and through Marin County, and went shopping at the outlet mall (even though the Canadian dollar crashed a few days before our holiday; we needed clothes, and they had nice ones). All that retail therapy made us hungry, so we went into the charming little town for lunch at a bakery I’d seen recommended by a commenter over at the Wednesday Chef. It’s called Della Fattoria and they make wood-fired oven bread that is honestly to DIE for. They have the bakery counter and then several tables, so you order your lunch from the counter and then go sit and someone brings you your delicious food in short order. From a short list of delicious sounding sandwiches, we chose the mindbending club (Chris) and the egg salad with smoked salmon and sun-dried tomato tapenade (me), along with two of the most adorable mini chocolate cupcakes and two glasses of iced mint tea.

Well. This goes on the short list of best sandwiches ever. The bread (semolina) was utter perfection, blackened on the edges and deliciously crumbly inside; the egg salad was simple, just chopped egg and mayo; the hints of olives and fish and tomatoes elevated it to a higher plane, and the bouncy greens lightly dressed that accompanied both sandwiches tasted of someone’s garden and someone who knows their way around French vinaigrettes.

Chris declared his mind definitely bent by the club, which boasted country bread, Niman Ranch bacon, and the freshest veggies ever. I think he may be spoiled for bacon from now on.

Our cupcakes were two bites of divine inspiration. Exactly what a chocolate cupcake should be.

Once we arrived at our B&B in Cloverdale that evening, all we felt like doing was chilling out, and we certainly had no desire to get back in the car that day. Fortunately, our hosts informed us that there were several good restaurants within walking distance, and since we hadn’t eaten any Italian food in SF, off we went to Piacére. It doesn’t look like too much from the outside, but inside it was a very cozy stucco-walled room done up with typical vineyard décor as well as some Hallowe’en stuff. We settled into a table tucked into a corner and proceeded to be very well taken care of indeed.

Piacére is a family business – the husband cooks, the wife works front of house in addition to several friendly wait staff. I believe the owner served us. She was a funny lady in her fifties, full of joie de vivre and positivity. We each chose mains that included a soup or salad, so both of us (feeling the lack of vegetables in our recent eating endeavours) chose a mixed green salad to start. Never underestimate the deliciousness of greens grown nearby and a stellar vinaigrette, is all I have to say. The bread was also very good.

Chris diverged from his usual choice of veal parmigiana and selected rigatoni with Italian sausage, which arrived as a deep and generous bowl of short pasta tubes, slices of mild, beautifully seasoned sausage, chunks of well-cooked peppers and onions and a sprinkle of fresh basil in a feisty tomato sauce. Grated cheese was offered and accepted. It was a hearty and very enjoyable plate of food.

My pasta special, meanwhile was beautiful to behold and divine in the mouth. Spinach pasta formed into perfect round ravioli, filled with a delicate blend of ricotta and artichoke hearts, arranged in a circle, napped in a roasted red pepper cream sauce, garnished with (this being California) two slices of avocado and some chopped fresh tomato. To say that I polished it off would not be exaggerating. Gorgeous presentation, rich but not overpowering flavours, and a reasonable portion size. What more could one ask for?

We each had a glass of red wine with our meals, both local, and I cannot remember the name of either one but they were both yummy. We shared a bowl of spumoni ice cream for dessert in a nod to our childhoods and found it a very sweet ending.

We had a great lunch two days later at a place called Kitchenette in Sonoma Plaza. It’s an offshoot of El Dorado Kitchen in the eponymous hotel, and is a sort of coffee shop/lunch counter, serving espresso and sandwiches and salads and juices. We met up with a friend from Sacramento and her young daughter, and had a lovely time together. My open-faced tuna nicoise sandwich was a pleasure for eyes and mouth, with its rows of hard-boiled egg and radish slices atop a mound of tuna and some chopped black olives. A springy green salad rounded out the plate nicely. Chris’s pressed ham and cheese on brioche looked very tasty as well and his fries were crisp and thin.

That evening we dined casually but deliciously at a place called Bovolo in Healdsburg. It’s located in the back of a bookstore called Copperfield’s, and is sort of a casual place to grab a pizza or some antipasti. Their website says they are located in the back of a gourmet food store and that they do a nightly prix fixe menu; however, neither of those things appears to be true anymore so I would suggest an update to their online presence. What we did eat (pizza and antipasti) was delicious, though, so I can’t fault them for that. The owners make their own cured meats, and the salami we had on our huge antipasti platter was delicious and clove-scented. The platter also contained some pillowy fresh mozzarella, a few chunks of dry jack, a scattering of olives in various sizes and colours, a mound of thinly sliced and oiled roasted peppers, some roasted and marinated eggplant, and a pile of pickled jalapenos (sliced into rings) alongside slices of bread from Della Fattoria. To round out our meal we ordered a pizza to share – thin crust topped with Laura Chenel goat cheese (made nearby) and mushrooms. No sauce, which we found surprising, but very tasty, and the second-best crust I’ve had, after Wooden Heads’.

Those two items alongside a quartino of Italian red wine made an excellent and filling “nibbly dinner”. We’d definitely return here for more yummy snacks.

The following day was our last in Sonoma, and the last of our holiday, and we were tired. Joyfully so, but tired nonetheless, and once we got home from a day of winery visits, we were again in no mood to drive more, so we walked in the other direction from our B&B to La Hacienda, the local Mexican joint. Both of us adore Mexican food, and Ottawa lacks many places with an authentic feel, so we thought we’d get one more meal in. Sadly (weep!) they were out of tamales that night, but the enchiladas verdes I ended up choosing were a very good consolation prize, filled with the most tender and delicious pork ever, napped in a thin but incredibly tasty green salsa, accompanied by rice, refried beans and salad. Chris’s tacos de carne asada were also perfectly seasoned and generously proportioned. The joint isn’t much to look at, but the heavy carved wooden chairs are something to see, and the head waiter was a nice guy.

A word, too, about the breakfasts served at our B&B, the Vintage Towers. HUGE. A few more words: homemade, tasty, locally sourced, and decadent. One morning there were Mexican soufflés with homemade salsas and cornbread; another, a Dutch Baby pancake with chicken sausages and maple syrup. There was a platter of homegrown heirloom tomatoes with feta, olive oil and salt; yogurt and berry parfaits; good, strong decaf coffee and a choice of juices and tiny muffins with things like pomegranate seeds (from the owners’ tree) and candied ginger baked into them. Most days, we didn’t need lunch until past one o’clock.

Thus endeth our vacation of eating, drinking and chilling out. Not with a bang, but definitely not with a whimper, either. We ate plenty of fresh, delicious and healthy food as well as lots of treats and treasures. I, for one, can’t wait to go back to California.

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