Around the Bay

Sunset on the Jenner coastline

Sunset on the Jenner coastline

Weekending at TIMBER COVE INN

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

The historic Timber Cove Inn

The historic Timber Cove Inn

Driving north up Highway 1 along the Sonoma Coast to Jenner feels worlds away from San Francisco or even “typical” Wine Country towns. Though I’ve lived in the Bay Area over 12 years, weekending and day-tripping in remote towns all over, I had not driven this stretch of coast further north from Bodega Bay, well south of Mendocino. As with the rest of Highway 1 and Sonoma County, it’s an inspiring, if slow, drive. Taking in rocky coasts, dramatic waves, rolling, green hills, farmland and vineyards is absolutely rejuvenating.

View from my living room

View from my living room

A June weekend away at historic Timber Cove Inn, particularly as they celebrated their 50th anniversary, was the ideal way to experience this remote stretch of California coastline. The closest town (and ATM machine) is a 30 minute drive away. Once you arrive, you become enveloped by the waves, moonlight, sunrise and birds cruising the coastline.

Magic evenings around the campfire

Magic evenings around the campfire

Timber Cove celebrated their June 1963 opening with a weekend of festivities: a “Vintage & Vino” classic car show and wine tasting, Friday night live jazz, and an afternoon cocktail session from spirits educator (and friend) Danny Ronen. Encouraged to dress retro/vintage if so desired, I sported my everyday wardrobe. Evenings around the campfire are a communal affair where guests of the hotel converge. I found myself sharing a dram of whisk(e)y and cigars with friends and strangers… a highlight of the visit.

Spirits education & cocktail hour with Danny Ronen

Spirits education & cocktail hour with Danny Ronen

Though there is a dated aspect to the hotel, it is charmingly so, from the warm, open lobby with massive stone fireplace to giant stones lining the restaurant wall. The spirit of the 1960′s hasn’t left the place, keeping it humbly appealing as it remains pampering. AS part of a media weekend for the anniversary celebration, I did not stay in the recently remodeled rooms overlooking the cove but did take a peek in that wing where remodeled rooms are modern and refined, boasting stunning views.

Timber Cove's cozy lobby

Timber Cove’s cozy lobby

My roomy suite was upstairs off the lobby with a living room jutting out and ocean vistas viewable from windows on three sides. There was a fireplace, our own private deck and absolutely stunning views of the sea. Entering the room felt like a retreat, cradled by the wind and an eternal ocean skyline. Curling up on the couch with a book, listening to the waves as you fall asleep or gazing at the lush, green coast from the deck with a cappuccino in the morning, is healing.


Fresh-caught seafood – a highlight at Alexander’s

Though far from any restaurants or options but the hotel’s restaurant, Alexander’s, I was surprised at the quality of the dinners. Breakfasts entailed long waits for average food, but dinners yielded multiple delights from Chef William Oliver, originally from Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay. His CIA (Culinary Institute of America) education and years as Sous Chef with Chef Joachim Splichal show in his skill with local ingredients and seafood.


Eggplant Parmesan

I sampled Alexander’s $50, three-course anniversary dinner, available all June, a fresh interpretation of dishes from their original menu in 1963, including photos and history outlined in a special menu.

Juicy, 5-spice pork ribs

Juicy, five-spice pork ribs

On the regular dinner menu, even common dishes, like fresh Dungeness crab with grapefruit, is impeccably fresh and generous, enlivened by pink peppercorn dressing and fennel puree. Asian-style, five spice pork ribs ($13) are also the kind of dish I’ve seen often over the years but here they are juicy and well-prepared in sweet chili glaze with Asian coleslaw.

Burrata & Heirloom tomato salad

Burrata & Heirloom tomato salad

Roasted duck breast ($32) is appropriately medium rare and tender, brightened by tart Bing cherries, comforting alongside German spaetzle and fava beans. Unexpectedly, an elevated rendition of eggplant parmesan ($21) was a favorite, serendipitous after a discussion about my Jersey years and craving for “red sauce”, American-Italian cuisine smothered in sauce and cheese. This was a Cali-fresh version that remained blessedly cheesy with creamy house ricotta and mozzarella, balanced by sweet-savory tomato sauce made with Heirloom tomatoes just coming into season.


Visiting Fort Ross Vineyards

The wine menu is heavy on nearby, local Sonoma Coast wines, particularly from what is Sonoma’s newest AVA, Fort Ross-Seaview, including wines like the highly lauded Flowers Chardonnay. Of the few vineyards in the region, most are not open to visitors, but I had an appointment at Fort Ross Vineyards, about a 20 minute drive up the mountainside at 1500 feet. A striking orange-rust-colored winery – matching the gates to the property – sits on a crest surrounded by trees, with views to the ocean. Fort Ross is known for their Pinot, so I tasted through various Pinot Noir vintages, as well as Chardonnay, Rose and Pinotage (the latter a nod to South Africa – Pinotage territory – where husband/wife owners, Lester and Linda, are from).

Timber Cove is a retreat from the city or anywhere, really. One that actually feels like a retreat: removed and restorative.

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Around the Bay

Still dreaming of A16 Rockridge's fried pizza with smoked tomato sauce

Still dreaming of A16 Rockridge’s fried pizza with smoked tomato sauce

Get Thee to Oakland for
FRIED PIZZA & AMARO at A16 Rockridge

Photos and article by Virginia Miller


Seventh Circle cocktail

There’s only a few places in the country where one can find fried Neapolitan pizza, a twist on Italy’s perfect pies. There’s Forcella and La Montanara in NYC, and now A16 Rockridge. Even in Naples, there are few restaurants making this style of pizza. The owners of A16, included Wine Director/Sommelier Shelley Lindgren, fell in love with fried pizza in Naples, wanting to replicate it at their brand new, second location of A16, open merely a month.

The original A16 opened in San Francisco in 2004, well before the Neapolitan pizza craze that hit much of the country in ensuing years. Rockridge is not merely a copycat of the original. Yes, it boasts Lindgren’s impeccable, regional Italian wine selections and authentic pastas and pizzas. But there are two draws the SF original does not have: the aforementioned fried pizza and a full bar, including one of the best amari/Italian herbal liqueur collections in the Bay Area.

Chef's antipasti selection ($14)

Chef’s antipasti selection ($14)

First, the bar, which offers plenty of excellent small batch, craft spirits to choose from. Though not touted as an amaro bar, in the first week of opening, I was immediately impressed with a full shelf of Italian bitter liqueurs, aperitifs and digestifs. There was not a bottle I wasn’t familiar with, but it’s unusual to see the convergence of rare amari (plural for amaro) I find at bars nationwide all in one place. Typically, when I come across such a selection, it’s an amaro-specific bar, like Balena in Chicago or Amor y Amargo in NYC, not merely one aspect of a restaurant bar.


Monterey anchovy crudo

Amongst the cocktails ($9-11), there are light, aperitif sippers like Amalfitano (limoncello, soda, Amaro CioCiaro, mint) on to boozy beauties like Catch 22 (gin, Cynar, vermouth, orange bitters, olive). I immediately took to the lively Giusto, bracingly elegant with aged grappa, Campari and Punt e Mes vermouth, and to the subtle heat of a lush Seventh Circle, the spice of rye whiskey playing off the bitter of Campari, and the heat of Calabrese chilis balanced by lemon and honey.

Impressive amaro collection

Amari collection

But how can one stick to only cocktails when Lindgren’s wine selection is calling? Explore specific regions of Italy and if you’re lucky enough to be there on a night Lindgren is, ask for her pairing recommendations with each course. Expect unusual, thoughtful pairings. I continue to recall the earthy, fruity sparkle of Cantine Federiciane Lettere Penisola Sorrentina, a frizzante-style red from Campania which Lindgren paired with a couple of my plates.


Geoduck Cavatelli

Executive Chef Rocky Maselli serves a range of dishes, all happy companions with the wines, like Monterey anchovy crudo ($11), a fresh acqua sale ($11) salad of cherry tomatoes, green melon and sesame-semolina croutons, or silky burrata ($12) with crostini, crumbled pistachio and dragoncello (aka tarragon). An impressive cavatelli ($12/20) of cannellini beans and geoduck sugo has been my favorite dish in initial opening weeks (outside of the fried pizza). Rarely is strange-looking geoduck this buttery and delicious.


Coffee cocktail for dessert

Then there is fried pizza. The Montanara Rockridge pizza ($17) is only at the Rockridge location and is alone worth trekking across the bridge for. Where a Montanara pie would typically be a straightforward marinara, olive oil, basil proposition, the mozzarella is sometimes smoked and the pizza dough is lightly fried, ending up even more puffy and crispy than the typical Neapolitan pie.  A16 takes it a couple steps further using the creamiest, most expensive mozzarella: burrata; then they smoke the tomato sauce vs. the cheese, adding a fantastic layer of sweet-savory tomato smoke.

It’s hard to write about this pizza without wanting to drop everything and head straight to Oakland for another.

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Around the Bay

Equator Coffee's first cafe in Mill Valley

Equator Coffee’s first cafe in Mill Valley

MARIN TALES: Coffee, Beer, Italian Feasting

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

Join me at three Marin stops in coffee, beer and food, including one newcomer as of this week, another that opened in 2010 – now coming into its own, and one classic that remains great for a decade.

EQUATOR COFFEE at PROOF LAB SURF SHOP, 244 Shoreline Hwy, Mill Valley, 415-209-3733

Strada espresso machine

La Marzocco Strada espresso machine

Equator has long been a favorite Bay Area coffee, with 18 years roasting some of NorCal’s finest beans. I awaited their long-rumored cafe that never opened in San Francisco. Their first cafe arrives, opening June 21st in Mill Valley at Proof Lab Surf Shop. I attended a preview with female owners,        Helen Russell and Brooke McDonnell (Brooke is also the master roaster), who founded Equator in 1995, roasting in a garage for years, then opening their roasting facility in 2003 in San Rafael.

Long having respect for their ethically-sourced, robust coffee, I gained even more after meeting Helen and Brooke. In a male dominated field, it’s inspiring to see humble-yet-savvy business women with such taste for quality, concern for their world, and a pioneering spirit.

Equator is among the first and the only California-based Certified B Corporations, heavy on environmental sustainability and social responsibility, from bio-friendly farming techniques to health and 401k insurance for all their employees. Growing their own plot (200 seeds) of ultra rare (and expensive) Geisha coffee, sometimes referred to as “God in a cup”, they utilize profits towards meaningful contributions like micro-credit loans, and are a coffee of choice for none other than Thomas Keller at The French Laundry.

Gardens with 100% native California plants

Gardens with 100% native California plants

The light-filled, airy cafe is lined with surfboards. Front and back patios are surrounded by greenery from SF’s Flora Grubb Gardens, in a space designed by Boor Bridges Architecture. Making a statement in Equator’s signature red, the building stands out on a busy Mill Valley road across the street from chains like Starbucks and Subway. Proof Lab is a unique community center of classes and activities for youth alongside shops in an alternative retail model. There’s a surf shop, indoor skate ramp, a garden of 100% native California plants, biodiesel fill-up station, music and art labs, a natural backdrop to the Equator cafe.

Artful salad at Mill Valley Beerworks

Artful salad at Mill Valley Beerworks

Equator is serving high end single-origin coffees and espresso drinks made on a La Marzocco Strada espresso machine. Mochas are made with SF’s TCHO chocolate (notable for its “no slavery” mission and scientific approach to flavor profiles in chocolate). Baked goods are delivered fresh daily from nearby Beth’s Community Kitchen (my favorite bakery in the area), and gluten-free, vegan baked goods from Flour Craft Bakery in San Anselmo.

Here’s hoping this might signify more Equator cafes in the future, including one in SF.

Mill Valley Beerworks brewing in-house

Mill Valley Beerworks brewing in-house

MILL VALLEY BEERWORKS173 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley, 415-888-8218


Boysenberry, pistachio, brown sugar scone

Opened in 2010, Mill Valley Beerworks was one of the only places in Marin one could find a draft beer list reminiscent of the range and quality one can find in the city. As it’s now three years old, the restaurant and small brewery has evolved into the place for beer in Marin. Even if there are better local beers, the beer selection on draft alone is worth a detour for beer geeks, ever rotating with beers from Italy and Belgium to Canada and around the US. The bottle selection takes it even further, while house beers are interesting and varied. Local beers are plentiful, too – one might see something like San Francisco’s Almanac Farmers Reserve No. 3, a sour ale brewed with strawberries and nectarines, on draft.

Open faced salmon sandwich

Open faced salmon sandwich

In a narrow, cozy space of dark woods, pressed tin and communal tables (nevermind the somewhat uncomfortable wood stools), food is also of high caliber. Baked goods arrive on a wood slab (or are available for takeout with coffee up front). A warm boysenberry, pistachio, brown sugar scone ($4) is sheer comfort lathered with apricot jam happily contrasted by salted butter. At lunch/brunch (Friday-Sunday only), an open faced cured salmon sandwich ($13) topped with avocado and pickled red onion drizzled in house Thousand Island dressing, boasts pristine, silky salmon. Feel better about downing beer with artful salads like one of lemon cucumbers and roasted beets accented by pickled carrots, creme fraiche and cilantro sprigs ($13).

Beerworks has come into its own, feeling like an oasis for adults in the midst of family-friendly Mill Valley.


Veal bolognese spinach lasagne at Poggio

POGGIO, Casa Madrona, 777 Bridgeway, Sausalito, 415-332-7771

Sformatino (savory leek custard)

Opened in 2003, Poggio has been an oasis in touristy-yet-dreamy Sausalito. The coastal town that feels like a (rich) Mediterranean village has more mediocre (or worse) restaurants than it does great ones. But Poggio has remained great in its decade of existence, accomplishing that rarity: retaining chefs for years, in the case of Peter McNee who served authentic Northern Italian dishes here for 7 years.


Dayboat scallops

Poggio has always felt like an escape to Italy in Sausalito. I have memories of sun-splashed weekends lunching open air on fresh sardines and crisp Alto Adige white wines, contrasted by fog laden evenings wrapped in the warmth of Tony’s Negroni (Tony being the restaurant’s longtime barkeep; a Negroni being Italy’s greatest cocktail, and long a ubiquitous San Francisco favorite) and that sigh-worthy house bread baked in rosemary.

House cured prosciutto

House cured prosciutto

Visiting after new Executive Chef Benjamin Balestri came on board earlier this year confirmed quality remains, thankfully still under the guidance of Proprietor Larry Mindel. Young chef Balestri is a Monterey, CA, native who has cooked in Italy and New York City, and was schooled at the CCA (California Culinary Academy), where I used to work.

One warm Spring night, sformatino, a traditional, savory Italian custard – and a starter I feel compelled to order every time I see it on a menu – was a fluffy mound of leek custard paired with English pea puree, mint and ricotta salata ($10). Capesante dayboat scallops ($14) are salty, smooth and golden lined up over sunchoke puree and miners lettuce, punctuated by pancetta and almonds. Though a tad too heavy on the creamy lemon anchovy dressing, gem lettuces ($10) are lush in dressing, garlic and Parmigiano.

Whole roasted fish, fileted tableside

Whole roasted fish, filleted tableside

As it has been historically, strengths at Poggio remain house cured prosciutto – in March I savored meat cured for 24 months (during McNee’s run), delicately shaved and on a platter with pear, almond, arugula and Parmigiano ($14) – and sometimes blissful pastas, like spinach lasagna ($18), lush with bechamel sauce, Parmesan cheese, and veal bolognese, oozing comfort. Feeling transported back to coastal Italy happens when sharing a whole fish, like a roasted sogliola (petrale sole – $29) filleted tableside and served with a side of lemon-soaked artichoke, sunchoke and almond.

Here’s to another 10 years, Poggio.

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Around the Bay

Elegant roadhouse-style fun at Rocker Oysterfeller's

Elegant roadhouse-style fun at Rocker Oysterfeller’s

Roadhouse Perfection


Photos and article by Virginia Miller


Rocking chairs on Rocker’s front porch

A drive along Tomales Bay is everything I want in a day trip… fresh air, vistas, farmland, grazing horses and sheep, bay, ocean, forest, and a car loaded with just the right music.

Rocker Oysterfeller’s in the tiny blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town of Valley Ford with the warm, comfortable spirit of a roadhouse turned foodie, with fresh, farmland ingredients and the best cocktails for many miles around.

The namesake plays on the dish Oysters Rockerfeller, which they serve using oysters pulled straight from nearby Tomales Bay, baked with bacon, cream cheese and cornbread crumbs (6 for $14). It’s a classic New Orleans dish created by 1800′s restaurant Antoine’s. How can I help but adore the creamy, briny appetizer created in 1899? Though Rocker’s version works, our server rightly steered me to her favorite oyster dish, doused in Louisiana hot sauce and garlic butter with local Estero Gold cheese melted on top. Dreamy.


Oysters Rockefeller

Greens go down easy in a salad of nearby Bloomfield Farms‘ romaine, shaved Achadinha Capricious cheese (from Petaluma) and white anchovies in a Creole Caesar dressing ($10). A Cajun-style seafood and andouille sausage gumbo ($8/$12) is comforting on a fog-soaked day. Entree joys peak with buttermilk fried free-range chicken ($20) in a Lagunitas Ale and caraway gravy over mashed potatoes with a smattering fried cilantro and sage.

All this goes down beautifully with classic cocktails (like a Margarita, Sazerac, Vieux Carre) made from Northern California craft spirits like a lovely Pimm’s Cup ($9) mixing Pimm’s No. 1, ginger beer, cucumber, seasonal fruit, and topped with a float of Anchor’s Junipero Gin, or a Creole Sidecar ($12) mixing Germain Robin Fine Alembic Brandy with a Creole shrub.

Rocker Oysterfeller’s garnered a bit of buzz when it first opened in 2007, and I’m pleased to say it’s still worth a detour.


Buttermilk fried chicken in Lagunitas ale & caraway gravy

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Brunch dishes are memorable at Santa Rosa’s The Spinster Sisters

WEEKENDING in Healdsburg & Santa Rosa

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Dumplings - the one strong dish at Chinois

Dumplings – the one strong dish at Chinois

Dozens of weekends in Sonoma over the years and each is a pleasure, a respite from incessant work, as I breathe in vine-soaked air, taking in new and old restaurants and wineries.

Recent weekends in Healdsburg and Santa Rosa have offered many joys. There have been but a few disappointments, like the bland Asian “fusion” of Chinois in Windsor and likewise the ambitious mashup of Asian cuisines, inconsistent at Sebastopol’s Forchetta/Bastoni, though I dig their Go’s Balls, fried curry rice balls dipped in sweet chili sauce.

Cafe Lucia's tasca tasting plates

Cafe Lucia’s tasca tasting plates

Similarly, the new Café Lucia, tucked down a narrow walkway off of Healdsburg’s town square, lacked the familial focus that makes it parent restaurant in downtown Sonoma, La Salette, so special. At Lucia, Bacalhau no Forno ($23), one of my Portuguese favorites, a baked “casserole” of North Atlantic salt cod, potatoes, onions, olives, is one note (salty) and quite dry.

As ever in the ingredient rich region, highlights abound. Here are a few recent additions:

SPOONBAR, Healdsburg (219 Healdsburg Ave., 707-433-7222)


Gorgeous Sage Canyon Flip

Thanks to the legacy of Scott Beattie who launched Spoonbar’s exceptional bar and to current manager Cappy Sorentino who has kept standards high, Spoonbar is easily Healdsburg’s top cocktail bar. Weekending a few blocks from the town square was reason enough for multiple visits, working through the latest menu ($8-10.50 per cocktail). I even sampled a few of the “Trashy Cocktails” served for $5-7 during their weekday happy hour (5-7pm) where bar staff try to make artificially flavored, lowbrow spirits tolerable, like mixing Stoli Peach with house jalapeno shrub.

Cocktail highlights are many, including their rotating carbonated cocktails, like a vibrant Carbonated Sidewinder’s Fang (Appleton Reserve Rum, El Dorado 8 year Demerara Rum, orange, lime, passion fruit) or an herbaceous, elegant Carbonated Corpse Reviver # 2 (St. George Dry Rye Gin, Cocchi Americano, Cointreau, lemon, St. George Absinthe).

Slummin' it w/ Stoli Peach

Slummin’ it w/ Stoli Peach

Bartender Tara Heffernan crafts a Burning Shrub using Tapatio Tequila, Tara’s jalapeno shrub, lime, grapefruit and Fidencio Clasico Mezcal, a balanced mix of smoke, spice and tart citrus. Vodka works here, too, with spice and rosy, balanced sweetness in Jalapeno Business: Charbay Pomegranate Vodka, Clear Creek Loganberry liqueur, lemon, ginger, the texture just perfect topped with a layer of raspberry-jalapeno foam.

I love the texture of their clarified milk/whey punch, finely done here with Weller 7 year bourbon, but even more nuanced with Encanto pisco, the creamy whey enlivened by cinnamon and pineapple.

Classic Eastern European Slivovitz (plum brandy) doesn’t show up often on cocktail lists, but in The Mission Clear Creek Slivovitz subtly melds Encanto Quebranta pisco, the French apéritif Byrrah, elderflower and orange, into a nuanced, spirit-forward cocktail.


The New East Side: St. George Botanivore gin, lime, mint, yuzu, cucumber-elderflower foam

Beattie’s influence still shows in layered, garden fresh cocktails like Pear Pressure garnished Beattie-esque with a crisped pear. The drink blends Bartlett pear-infused Rittenhouse Rye with Clear Creak Pear Eau De Vie, Punt e Mes sweet vermouth and sherry, illuminated by clove and bitters.

Sage Canyon Flip was an immediate favorite earlier this year, simultaneously hoppy from Charbay R5 White Whiskey, lively with pear, sage and lemon, and textured with house orgeat.

Spoonbar remains the county’s “it” bar for artisanal cocktails, impeccable spirits collection strong on amari, whiskies, eaux de vie, etc… and knowledgeable bar staff.

THE SPINSTER SISTERS, Santa Rosa (401 South A St. at Sebastopol Ave., 707-528-7100)

At the Spinster Sisters bar

At the Spinster Sisters bar

Open since last August, The Spinster Sisters is helmed by Chef Liza Hinman from now defunct Santi in Santa Rosa, Eric Anderson (from Santa Rosa but in NYC as a founding partner of Prune Restaurant), and Giovanni Cerrone, a local in the California wine industry.

The sunny space welcomes me to its wrap-around, redwood bar in the center of the room. Dining at the bar for breakfast, I’d consider it possibly the best brunch I have had in the entire county over the past decade. I anticipate returning for dinner and lunch.

Deviled kimchi eggs

Deviled kimchi eggs

House pastries, Rancho Gordo bean tostadas, and Flying Goat Coffee flow as ‘50’s rock n’ roll sets a cheery backdrop. Thoughtful dishes are above and beyond the sameness one often finds on brunch menus.

A weekend special ($11) consisted of garbanzo beans, eggs, red bell pepper, caramelized leeks, chard, and mini-cauliflower sizzling in a cast iron pot, creamy with Greek yogurt and chili oil. Redolent of garlic, the dish proves why breakfast is no afterthought here.

Among the best po boys in the West at Parish Cafe

Among the best po boys in the West at Parish Cafe

The PARISH CAFE, Healdsburg (60A Mill St., 707-431-8474)

Fried oyster salad

Fried oyster salad

Parish Café was on my go-to list because they serve New Orleans cuisine in a charming, restored yellow house. The front porch is far more inviting than the rather bland interior, but one can sit at the counter inside and watch the kitchen staff churn out po boys and gumbo.

Parish Cafe's cheery, yellow cottage

Parish Cafe’s cheery, yellow cottage

I must admit my expectations were not high. Nola cuisine, and certainly po boys, are often a poor shadow of what they are in the Big Easy. But Parish Café’s po boys are blessedly authentic and among the best in the West. The bread, made by family members at nearby Costeaux French Bakery, is appropriately crusty and soft. Fried oysters and shrimp are plump, delicately fried and sauces and toppings plentiful. Gumbo may not be the ultimate, but it’s solidly done with a dark, rich roux and Andouille sausage. Cornmeal fried oyster salad ($11) is freshly gratifying over heaping spinach leaves, bleu cheese crumbles, bacon and buttermilk vinaigrette. Parish is a welcome addition to downtown Healdsburg and one of the best lunch options in town.

CAMPO FINA, Healdsburg (330 Healdsburg Ave., 707-395-4640)

Gorgeous beer cocktails

Gorgeous beer cocktails

Alongside its parent restaurant, ScopaCampo Fina is easily Healdsburg’s best Italian restaurant. Bocce ball in a glowing back bar and patio makes it all the more winning a place to spend an evening.

Where Scopa focuses on ubiquitous Neapolitan pizzas and antipasti, Campo Fina shines in shared small plates and cocktails, though their pizzas are also highlights (I’m partial to the sweet/savory speck and fichi, aka fig, pizza with preserved lemon, bufala mozzarella, aged balsamico and arugula contrasting the speck and figs. In true Venetian style, there’s cicchetti (little bites, $2.50-6) served all day, like tuna-stuffed sweet n’ spicy peppers ($3).

Campo Fina pizza

Campo Fina pizza

Baccala (salt cod) croquettes ($11.5), are appropriately salty, contrasted by fennel, cherry tomatoes and aleppo chili. Charred octopus ($13.50) is dotted with potato, rapini/broccoli rabé, chicory and black olives. There’s a vibrant Italian wine selection or Bar Manager Erica Frey‘s lovely cocktails ($8), which thus far have utilized beer and wine – they recently gained their hard liquor license so there will be a wider range of cocktails going forward. Cleverly playing off a shakerato (an iced, shaken espresso), Shakerato Superiori is a winning blend of Marsala wine, Allagash Black Stout beer, cherry pistachio syrup, Angostura bitters and espresso, which plays as a rich, savory, bright dessert.

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Around the Bay

Brunch basket of house breads at The Thomas

A Day in NAPA in Three Meals

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

The Thomas' BLAT

With work (happily) permeating every trip and journey, my most restful weekends tend to be close to home. When I’ve been countless times, I needn’t dig and explore, but just relax and breathe in my surroundings. In recent Napa weekends, there are, as ever, fresh discoveries to share with you.

Breakfast: The Thomas

813 Main Street at Third, Napa, 707-226-7821

French toast

Over the past months, downtown Napa’s The Thomas in the old Fagiani’s bar is my favorite new Napa go-to. I’ve been for lunch, dinner, drinks… plus brunch just after it launched (now running close to 3 months). The three-level, AvroKO-designed space is as fantastic then as it is any other time of day, particularly the rooftop.

Welcoming 2nd floor booth

A basket of house breads ($9) is almost the brunch highlight: during my visit, it was pumpkin seed pecan and scallion cheddar muffins, and a yuzu-glazed coconut carrot scone with spreads of passion fruit curd and Black Mission fig-berry jam. French toast ($13) stuffed with banana and house hazelnut Nutella, topped with bacon is an optimal wake-up. Ditto their “BLAT” ($12 – also on the lunch menu), a massive sandwich of bacon, lettuce, avocado, and tomato, even better topped with a fried organic egg ($2).

Black pudding

I appreciate unique brunch specials like a baked apple in Chinese black vinegar or one of my most beloved Irish/Scottish regional foods: black pudding (blood sausage to you), savory with sage, parsley, pork and duck fat.

Napa Valley Biscuits

1502 Main Street, Napa, CA 94559, 707-265-8209

Napa Valley Biscuits

Unassuming, humble and off the beaten path, my latest “cheap eats” go-to in downtown Napa is Napa Valley Biscuits. Biscuit sandwiches ($4-8) are cheap, filling, fun, and oh, so Southern. There’s catfish, Western Carolina style BBQ pulled pork, country ham, sausage and the like, exploding from flaky biscuits. Similar to Soul Groove in San Francisco, chicken and waffles appears as a sandwich: The Pappy ($8), accented by bacon, hot pepper jelly, and sides of butter and maple syrup,

Fried chicken biscuit

On the “fresher side”, watermelon salad ($6) is bright with Heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, pickled peppers and crumbled queso fresco on top. To finish: housemade ice cream ($1.50 per scoop).

Lucy Restaurant & Bar

Bardessono Hotel, 6526 Yount Street, Yountville, 707-204-6030

Blini & caviar

From day one, Yountville’s eco-chic Bardessono hotel was home to a peaceful, modern hotel bar mixing better-than-typical Wine Country cocktails. The initial restaurant, however, was expensive and a bit staid. The hotel’s newer restaurant, Lucy, is still pricey but more approachable. Chef Victor Scargle and team deliver a garden-fresh beauty of a spread, some of it excellent, like perfect Russian blini topped with osetra caviar (in a 6 course, $95 tasting menu).

Carrot salad

Local ingredients are front and center, with dishes subtly changing over the seasons. On the a la carte side, mixed greens ($10) from their on-site garden become special with pomegranate seeds and pineapple guava in winter. Garden carrots ($11) are artfully displayed confit-style and as chips in curry shallot dressing accented by carrot fronds.

Dungeness crab salad

Warm Dungeness crab salad ($19) is layers of flavor from Thai curry coconut sauce, joi choi (a dark, leafy green), with a flaky rau ram (Vietnamese coriander) biscuit sitting atop the crab. Chef Scargle shines combining sweet and savory (my preferred combo), fruit and meat. Case in point: Iberico fresco pork ($39) over forbidden rice dotted with lychees and Burgundy okra in caramelized pear jus.

Lucy cocktails

Cocktails ($14) are pricey but well made, like a Tiki-spirited 3 Kings, infusing No. 3 Gin with cardamom, mixed with King’s Ginger Liquor, pineapple, vanilla, or Pop A Kappa, bright with Kappa pisco, lemon, egg white, bitters, with a hint of smoke from Del Maguey Minero mezcal.

Wine is a strong way to go at the recommend of Wine Director Brett Fallows. Crisp notes intensified when pairing a 2011 Signorello Estate Seta (Semillion/Sauvignon Blanc blend) with food (more oak apparent solo), while layered boldness is exemplified in 2010 Kunin ‘Pape Star’s blend of Grenache/Mourvedre/Syrah. Most appealing was Fallows selection of a fruity, creamy yet balanced Italian white from the Veneto, a 2009 Sartori Ferdi.

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Around the Bay

Saltfish and ackee, Jamaica's national dish, at Miss Ollie's in Old Oakland

ISLAND BREEZES: Searching for Caribbean

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Though not an island girl, I crave sorrel, that cinnamon-spiced, rosy-purple juice made from the petals of a sorrel plant, or multi-colored Scotch bonnet peppers, both common in the Caribbean and ideal together, sorrel cooling off the pepper’s scorching heat. One of my closest friends is Jamaican and we’ve been exploring local Caribbean food for years, though lacking in abundant options.

A Caribbean staple: sweet, grilled plantains

Saddened to lose Penny’s Caribbean Cafe – a tiny Berkeley dive with excellent Trinidadian home cooking – when Penny moved back to Trinidad a few years ago, I’ve trekked to San Leandro for festivals (Jamaican cornbread fritters) and curry goat at Sweet Fingers, savored the sunny patio though more Americanized food at Primo Patio Cafe tucked away in SF’s SoMa, dined at now defunct pop-up Kingston 11 in Berkeley, and appreciated Sarah Kirnon’s inventive Caribbean fusion (Jerk Cornish hen!) from her days as chef at Oakland’s Hibiscus.

Caribbean foods can also be found at Oakland grocers like Minto Jamaican Market and Man Must Wak where you can stock up on authentic ginger beers and Ting (beloved Jamaican grapefruit soda), to name a few items, and I’m curious about San Francisco-based caterer Lehi Cooks Jamaica. Thanks to my dear friend and her family who get their Jamaican food fix at this tiny haven, I’ve found my favorite Caribbean outpost in the most surprising of locales: Menlo Park.

BACK A YARD, 1189 Willow Road, Menlo Park, 650-323-4244 (also San Jose)

Drinking Ting with Friday's escovetich special

With squeaky front porch door and perpetual line out the door, closet-sized Back A Yard is clearly a locals’ favorite in suburban Menlo Park. The term “back a yard” refers to the way things are done “back home”, appropriate to this humble, comforting spot. Chef Robert Simpson began his cooking career in Jamaica, gained European perspective in Belgium, then cooked at various Caribbean resorts before coming to the Bay Area.

For vegetarians, Back A Yard's jerk tofu retains a meaty, grilled quality to silky tofu

Under fluorescent lighting, crammed into a handful of tables, I down a Ting which cools off the Thursday-Saturday tender curry goat special ($12.75). Generous platters come with sides of sweet plantains, green salad, and coconut-laced rice ‘n beans, different from New Orleans’ version but equally heartwarming and moist. Another top side are warm, honey-sweet festivals, like a doughnut meets cornbread. Jerk chicken ($9.50) appropriately shines, though jerk tofu ($8.95) likewise exhibits meaty, grilled tones amidst silky texture. Friday’s special is escoveitch: it was snapper on a Friday I visited. Choose a grilled filet ($12.75) or whole fish (market price), head and eyeballs intact, not so much an immaculate fish dish as Caribbean comfort food, recalling days I’d polish off a whole grilled fish in the countryside of Vietnam.

Thu-Sat special: tender curry goat

Jamaica’s national dish, saltfish and ackee, is a must, served here only on Saturdays ($14.50). Salty cod is sautéed with Scotch bonnet peppers and subtly sweet, soft ackee, a fruit related to the lychee. This version shines compared to others I’ve had, confirmed by my friend as authentically reminiscent of saltfish and ackee she grew up with in Jamaica. Dessert ($3.25) is the one letdown, whether a blandly cold sweet potato pudding or a sliver of key lime pie lacking the tart oomph I crave in what is one of my favorite pies. Nonetheless, this hole-in-the-wall is a treasure bringing heartfelt Caribbean cooking to South Bay folk… and worth a trek for hardcore foodies.

MISS OLLIE’S, 901 Washington Street at Ninth St., Oakland, 510-285-6188

Pull up to Miss Ollie's bar for chicory coffee & Creole doughnuts (call for availability)

Chef Sarah Kirnon (formerly of the aforementioned Hibiscus) just opened Miss Ollie’s at the beginning of December, currently only during Tuesday-Friday lunch in a corner location of Swan’s Market in Old Oakland. Visiting opening week, lines were already long and waits for food even longer (30 minutes), not ideal for a low-key, eat-in or take-out lunch. Despite opening kinks, Oakland is clearly craving quality Caribbean, packing communal wooden tables in a spacious, spare dining room.

Named after, and in tribute to, Kirnon’s grandmother, the food is decidedly more casual than in her Hibiscus days, modeled after the Caribbean one-stop shops she grew up with: affordable (under $10) daily changing dishes from curry goat to her popular fried chicken – grandma’s recipe.

Sorrel & Creole ham salad

Initially, dishes were uneven, whether flavorless, cold Creole ham and sweet potato salad ($7.50), or a two-note (salty and HOT) saltfish and ackee ($8), begging for more plantains and ackee to contrast Scotch bonnet peppers and uber-salty cod. But Miss Ollie’s sorrel is a superior, refreshing rendition, while lamb patties ($7) in a puff pastry evoke an Indian-Caribbean empanada, redolent of cardamom and allspice.

Daily specials are announced via Facebook, like fresh loaves of Jamaican hard dough bread or chicory coffee sweetened by condensed milk with Creole doughnuts. Miss Ollie’s fills a needed void and is certainly one to watch.


Around the Bay

Jittery John’s bracing cold brew coffee sold and served at Doughnut Dolly


Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Beauty’s beauty of a bagel and lox

Bagels and doughnuts in their many iterations (beignets, malasadas, bomboloni, etc…) are two of the more comforting breakfast – or any time – foods. It’s tougher than it should be to find proper bagels, but alongside notable SF sources, the East Bay welcomes a few new arrivals.  I stop first for fuel at Berkeley’s just-opened coffee and wine bar Bartavelle for a well-executed Sightglass Coffee cappuccino in the tiny-but-charming former Cafe Fanny space next to Kermit Lynch and Acme Bread.

Coffee at the new Bartavelle

First, bagels. Like anyone who has ever lived near or in NYC, I miss New York bagels. There’s nothing like properly boiled and baked bagels, with dense, chewy insides and cracklin’ exterior, topped with excellent schmear and lox. In Manhattan, I’ve schooled my California born-and-raised husband, The Renaissance Man, on NY bagels, journeying to different neighborhoods, from Barney Greengrass and Ess-A-Bagel, to favorites like Russ & Daughters.

Outside NYC, we get little that is comparable. In the Bay Area there’s the likes of short-lived Spot Bagel or now the excellent Schmendricks in pop-up form at Fayes Video & Espresso Bar on Wednesday and Friday mornings or by individual order. I’m impressed by Schmendricks bagels from Brooklyn native, Dave Kover, his wife Dagny Dingman, lawyer-turned-baker, Deepa Subramanian, and her husband Dan Scholnick. While I anticipate a permanent storefront for Schmendricks, Wise Sons‘ bialys, as a cousin to the bagel, fill a void.

Beauty’s Bagel Shop

Then there’s Montreal-style bagels, less chewy than a NY bagel, slightly thinner yet dense, with a touch of char from wood-fired baking. Beauty’s Bagel has been the rave of Oakland since opening this Summer, their bagels hand-rolled, boiled in honey water, then baked in a wood-fired oven. Yes, it’s NY prices: $9 for closed, $12 for an open-faced bagel sandwich, or $1.65 per individual bagel (in a few choice flavors like sesame, poppy, onion, or everything). But the quality is a significant step up from most. After apprenticing at a Montreal bagelry and working as a chef at Delfina, Blake Joffe and girlfriend Amy Remsen, made roughly 800 bagels a week at Addie’s Pizza Pie in Berkeley before opening Beauty’s. Serving Healdsburg’s coffee king, Flying Goat, they also craft chopped chicken liver, deviled eggs, cream cheeses/schmear and pickles in house, sourcing smoked trout and lox. It’s a fresh lox, scallion schmear, tomato, red onion and capers bagel sandwich that makes me smile, almost as if I’m back in Manhattan on the hunt for a perfect bagel and lox… including the Manhattan prices.

A box full of Donut Savant

On to doughnuts. SF masters the best in both old school Bob’s Donuts (particularly at 1 or 2am when they’re pulling those gems out of the oven) or the newer gourmet wave at Dynamo Donuts, with their beautiful Campari or spiced chocolate donuts, to name a few. Oakland gained two doughnut newcomers this summer, Donut Savant and Doughnut Dolly.

Doughnut Dolly, down a cheery Temescal alley

Downtown Oakland’s Donut Savant serves essentially glorified donut holes, their Twitter feed making me crave flavors like key lime, pumpkin or an Old Fashioned with Bulleit bourbon glaze, Angostura bitters cream and a twist of lemon, which they introduced at Oakland’s Art Murmur in August. This led to disappointment when first crossing the Bay Bridge weeks after they opened only to be met with a sign during regularly scheduled morning hours saying they’d return hours later with more donuts.

When I was able to trek back to the humble shop and find actual donuts, I bought every one in sight. Flavors were straightforward, rather than the interesting aforementioned. Chocolate coconut donut holes won over chocolate or vanilla, though a dark chocolate donut with a light dusting of sugar was plain but more satisfying. One topped with butter cream stood out with creamy contrast and candied ginger strips.

Doughnut Dolly’s filled doughnuts

Doughnut Dolly charms in an alley off 49th Street. Pastel-striped walls and a friendly woman graciously attending to each customer makes it feel immediately like a beloved neighborhood secret. By the bottle or glass, Jittery John’s (JJ’s) Cold Brew Coffee is bracingly strong, New Orleans’ style chicory coffee, made by a Oakland local – adding cream or milk makes one $10 bottle stretch to 4-5 glasses of iced coffee. Dare I say it’s almost worth stopping in just for this eye-opening brew that reminds me of Nola? Doughnuts are the filled kind (no holes), the strawberry jelly donut superior to a childhood favorite with fresh jam inside. On my visits, flavors were a little basic for my tastes, the “naughty cream” basically a standard vanilla, with the chocolate pudding-like vs. dark and seductive, but the donut itself has a soft, gratifying texture. When taking a few additional donuts home, a few seconds in the microwave ensured they melted warm in my mouth.

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