Nov
15
2014

Top Tastes

In the Napa town of St. Helena: The Restaurant at Meadowood bar bites (see eat at

In the Napa town of St. Helena: The Restaurant at Meadowood bar bites (see How to Eat for $30 at Top-Rated Restaurants)

My Top Food Articles: November 1-15

Photos and articles by Virginia Miller

From my many articles a week as Zagat Editor, I summarize and link to some coverage highlights here – you can follow along on Twitter @ZagatSF, where I post daily, or on my own @ThePerfectSpot via Twitter or Facebook.

New SF Openings

First Look: ALEMBIC’s new kitchen opens – what to eat on the new menu

7 things to order at Traci Des Jardins’ new Arguello in the Presidio

3 things to order at the new Klyde Cafe near Union Square (including one of the best new burgers in town)

What to order all day long at the new Brenda’s Meat & Three (yes, a sister restaurant to the long-wonderful Brenda’s French Soul Food)

Sweet Tooth: Lush Gelato opens on Polk Street

The Whole Beast Menu at The Hall: beef spider cuts & duck hearts

Tikka Masala reopens as Tikka Masala & Pizza in the Upper Haight

Every Friday: 25 NEW RESTAURANTS TO TRY IN THE BAY AREA

Cedar-smoked trout - on  Alembic's excellent new menu post-new kitchen buildout

Cedar-smoked trout – on Alembic’s excellent new menu post-new kitchen buildout

Underrated & Established Spots

3 things to know about Yuzuki Japanese Eatery & its new chef (hint: it transports me back to Japan)

How to eat for $30 or less at 8 top-rated Bay Area restaurants

10 coziest Bay Area restaurants

East Bay

3 new East Bay brunches

10 coziest Bay Area restaurants

Wine Country

12 Essential Sonoma Restaurants

How to eat for $30 or less at 8 top-rated Bay Area restaurants

10 coziest Bay Area restaurants

Authentic, lush Japanese desserts at Yuzuki in the Mission

Authentic, lush Japanese desserts at Yuzuki in the Mission

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Nov
01
2014

Top Tastes

Artful food at under-the-radar Napa gem, 1313 Main

Artful food at under-the-radar Napa gem, 1313 Main

My Top Food Articles: October 16-31

Photos and articles by Virginia Miller

From my many articles a week as Zagat Editor, I summarize and link to some coverage highlights here – you can follow along on Twitter @ZagatSF, where I post daily, or on my own @ThePerfectSpot via Twitter or Facebook.

New Bay Area Openings

BURMESE fare & BRITTANY-style CREPES arrive at Upper Haight’s SECOND ACT MARKETPLACE

First Look at HUXLEY in the TENDERLOIN

2 NEW OAKLAND BURGER OUTPOSTS (also with Asian-influenced tacos and craft beer)

TWISTED DONUT & SWICH: Outer Sunset’s sweet new duo

TINY WARRIOR: A new Mission coffee outpost with creative iced coffees & a pour over coffee menu from various producers

PAPABUBBLE: Barcelona import with housemade hard candies

Every Friday: 25 NEW RESTAURANTS TO TRY IN THE BAY AREA

Squid at brand new Huxley

Squid at brand new Huxley

Underrated & Established Spots

8 Under-the-Radar LUNCHES in San Francisco (including new lunches, off-the-beaten path spots and upscale places with discounted lunches)

SECRETLY AWESOME: 10 Under-the-Radar Bay Area Gems

10 SF COMFORT FOOD CLASSIC DISHES

CAFE JACQUELINE, an Unsung Hero – the “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” of souffles

$10 Lunch: JANNAH, SF’s best Iraqi cuisine?

$10 Lunch: sandwiches at MORTY’S DELICATESSEN near Civic Center

Secretly Awesome: GUSTO in SAN CARLOS

Wine Country

10 TOP EDIBLE STOPS in SANTA ROSA (Sonoma County)

6 things to know about 1313 MAIN in DOWNTOWN NAPA

NOBLE FOLK PIE & ICE CREAM in Healdsburg (Sonoma County)

FLAVOR! NAPA VALLEY readies for its 4th year mid-November

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Aug
15
2014

Top Tastes

Urchin Bistrot Mussels-Virginia Miller

Mussels cooked escargot-style at Urchin Bistrot

My Top Food Articles: August 1-15

Photos and articles by Virginia Miller

From my 15 articles/posts a week as Zagat Editor, I summarize and link to just some coverage highlights here – you can sign up for Zagat’s weekly newsletter for highlights here and follow along on Twitter @ZagatSF, where I post daily.

As I have been for over a decade, I’m on the ground daily looking for early standouts at each new opening, while sharing underrated places and dishes you’ve seen me write about here at The Perfect Spot for years, and, of course, plenty of drink coverage (cocktails, wine, spirits, beer).

New Bay Area Openings

First Look: What to Eat & Drink at Modern French Bistro, URCHIN BISTROT, in the Mission

First Look at PLIN, Italian Newcomer in the Mission

Hidden New Seafood Gem in Bernal Heights: RED HILL STATION

FERRY PLAZA SEAFOOD – Reborn in North Beach

Every Friday: 25 NEW RESTAURANTS TO TRY IN THE BAY AREA

Underrated & Established Spots

SF’s Most Underrated Italian Food ‘Hood

$10 Lunch: DINING ON CHINESE HAKKA CUISINE in Outer Richmond

Unsung Heroes: LUCCA RAVIOLI in the Mission

Secretly Awesome: TONGA ROOM‘s bao, Spam fried rice and Tiki cocktails

Secretly Awesome: CHOLO SOY’S PERUVIAN COUNTER

HOG & ROCK‘s Late Night Korean Pop-up

NorCal

7 Top FOODIE ROAD TRIPS Around NORTHERN CALIFORNIA

Events

The 6 Best Things We Ate at OUTSIDE LANDS

The Best Things We Ate at EAT DRINK SF 2014

The LAST STREET FOOD FESTIVAL in the Mission – What to Eat

TASTE OF SONOMA Weekend Happens Pre-Labor Day

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Mar
01
2014

Around the Bay

View of the Mayacamas Mountains from St. Francis Winery lawn

View of the Mayacamas Mountains from St. Francis Winery lawn

Sonoma’s Unsung Tasting Menu “Steal”

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

ST. FRANCIS WINERY & VINEYARDS, 100 N. Pythian Road, Santa Rosa, CA 95409

A peaceful garden surrounding a statue of St. Francis with his beloved animals (namesake of the winery and the city of San Francisco)

Peaceful garden surrounding a statue of St. Francis with his beloved animals (namesake of the winery & San Francisco)

Consider it the unsung “steal” of a tasting menu on the idyllic grounds of St. Francis Winery & Vineyards in Santa Rosa. For a mere $50 including wine pairings, Executive Chef David Bush (previously of The Girl & the Fig) creates an imaginative menu roughly every six weeks or so. The menu is lunch only; on Fridays-Sundays there are three seatings each afternoon.

Dining room for St. Francis' lunches

Dining room for St. Francis’ lunches

It’s an intimate number of less than 20 people, allowing for interactive conversation with the chef and wine staff about pairings and food in an expansive dining room gazing out at the Mayacamas Mountains.

Here’s a photo journey through each of course of my winter visit where the value and quality of the food impressed (reservations here):

My favorite course: Red curry-braised squashes with kale falafel (instead of parsley), fried cashews, baby kale, minted yogurt paired with 2012 Viognier that spent 7 months in French oak ($24)

My favorite course: red curry-braised squash with kale falafel (instead of parsley), fried cashews, baby kale, minted yogurt paired with a 2012 Viognier that spent 7 months in French oak ($24 per bottle)

Mushroom ricotta agnolotti with seared oyster and crimini (?) mushrooms, pickled red onions, mache, shaved Grana Padano paired with 2011 Cuvee, a blend of 57% Cabernet and 43% Syrah; they haven't released this wine in a couple years and it's only sold at the winery ($40) - surprisingly light and acidic

Mushroom ricotta agnolotti with seared mushrooms, pickled red onions, mache, shaved Grana Padano cheese paired with a surprisingly light, acidic 2011 Cuvee (blend of 57% Cabernet & 43% Syrah; only sold at the winery; $40)

Bouillabaisse fish and shellfish of the day: bluenose seabass, mussels, calamari, shrimp, fingerling potatoes, fennel fronds with grilled crostini in piquillo pepper, garlic, olive oil, potato rouille paired with 2010 Cabernet Franc ($45) - vanilla, berry, oak

Bouillabaisse of fish & shellfish of the day (bluenose seabass, mussels, calamari, shrimp), fingerling potatoes, fennel fronds with grilled crostini smeared with a gorgeous spicy-bright piquillo pepper, garlic, olive oil, potato rouille paired with an oaky 2010 Cabernet Franc ($45)

Grilled bavette of beef, bloomsdale spinach in sesame miso vinaigrette, baby turnips, garlic chips, truffled ponzu with 2010 Amann Vineyard Zin ($45) and 2011 Anacleto Old Vine Zin ($40)

Grilled bavette of beef, bloomsdale spinach in sesame miso vinaigrette, baby turnips, garlic chips, truffled ponzu paired with 2010 Amann Vineyard Zinfandel ($45) & 2011 Anacleto Old Vine Zinfanedel ($40)

Chef's seasonal cheese selection (blue cheese) and peanut butter mousse, dark chocolate ganache, red wine soaked blueberries, pretzel crunch (streusel) with 2011 Port (Cabernet, Merlot, Alicante Bouschet) distilled at St. George/Hangar One

Dessert course: chef’s seasonal cheese selection and a peanut butter mousse with dark chocolate ganache, red wine-soaked blueberries, topped with pretzel crunch/streusel paired with 2011 Port (a Cabernet, Merlot, Alicante Bouschet blend) distilled at St. George/Hangar One in Alameda, CA

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Nov
01
2013

Around the Bay

Goose & Gander's Pisco Sour Brava with Encanto Pisco

Goose & Gander’s Pisco Sour Brava with Encanto Pisco

WINE COUNTRY Bitters & Cocktails

Photos & Article by Virginia Miller

It gets easier and easier to find an elevated cocktail in Wine Country, besides the superb cocktails at Healdsburg’s Spoonbar and Campo Fina or gratifying refreshers at The Thomas (Fagiani’s) in downtown Napa. Here are a few recent cocktail highlights and one top-notch bitters shop:

Bitters Heaven

NAPA VALLEY DISTILLERY’s Bitters Shop, Napa

NVD's charming bitters & barware shop

NVD’s bitters & barware shop

Tiny Napa Valley Distillery (the first licensed distillery in Napa since Prohibition) makes vodka from Sauvignon Blanc grapes, bottled cocktails with retro labeling, and soon-to-be-released Hollywood Gin, while they age experimental brandies and whiskies. Husband/wife owners, Arthur and Lusine Hartunian, are also collectors of gorgeous vintage glassware, cocktail accoutrement, books, and bitters, which they sell in their Oxbow Market shop.

NVD's barrel-aged, bottled cocktails

NVD’s barrel-aged, bottled cocktails

I’ve not seen a bitters collection like this anywhere, including The Meadow in NYC, a lovely shop with a thorough bitters selection for purchase but none to taste. Not only is the Hartunian’s collection the most extensive and filled with rarities, but best of all, almost all bitters are available to taste. It’s a rare offer: the chance to “try before you buy” from fascinating, hard-to-find bitters, like AZ Bitters Lab meaty, spicy “Mas Mole”.

The shop elevates Oxbow to new heights and is just the sort of place I wish was in San Francisco.

A Break from Wine: Cocktails

CHALKBOARD, Healdsburg (Sonoma County)

Chalkboard cocktails

Chalkboard cocktails

In the former, legendary Cyrus space, Chalkboard is Healdsburg’s bustling, convivial new hotspot with a strong bar and spirits collection. Alongside intriguing small plates like roasted baby carrots ($7) over caraway yogurt, accented by sesame seed brittle and dill, or maple-glazed pork belly biscuits ($10) with chipotle mayo, sip cocktails ($10) like War of the Roses, a twist on a Whiskey Sour with lemon, egg white, and subtle cherry-infused Cyrus Noble bourbon.

Smoke ‘n Mirrors exhibits soft smoke from Don Amado plato mezcal, perked up by layers of green: jalapeno, cilantro and lime. My favorite on the initial menu is the Ballyhoo cocktail, a fine showcase of Brazilian cachaca. A tart strawberry ice stick slowly dissolves in the cocktail, balanced by basil, lime and a black pepper rim. It’s savory, sweet and garden-fresh.

If you crave wine (it is Wine Country, after all), Chalkboard offers international and local flights, featuring wineries like Banshee ($17.50 flight includes 2012 Sauvignon Blanc, 2011 Pinot, 2010 Mordecai), who just opened a tasting room off the Healdsburg square.

MERCANTILE SOCIAL at ANDAZ NAPA, Napa (Napa County)

Ukiah Sour

Ukiah Sour

The Mercantile Social bar at the Andaz Napa hotel was a welcome addition to the Valley the moment the hotel became an Andaz property in 2012. I’ve visited a few times since and it’s one of Napa’s stronger cocktail bars, displaying the rich produce of the region.

With a focused collection of mostly Northern California spirits, they showcase locally imported Tapatio Blanco tequila in a Ukiah Sour #3 ($12), herbaceous with bay leaf syrup, tart with lime, given earthy complexity from Tempus Fugit’s gorgeous crème de cacao. Local Blade Gin from Old World Spirits is put to sprightly, green use in a Sage Tom Collins ($12), blessed with lime, sage and citrus bitters.

Their lovely cocktails go well with heartwarming bar bites like cheesy queso fundido with chorizo ($7).

GOOSE & GANDER, St. Helena (Napa County)

Painkiller

Painkiller

Scott Beattie, Michael Pazdon and crew continue to craft gorgeous drinks at atmospheric Goose & Gander, a cozy basement bar below a restaurant in a historic St. Helena house, surrounded by an outdoor garden/patio.

Recent cocktail loves (at arguably the best bar in the county) include a Pisco Sour Brava ($11), a frothy egg white cocktail featuring Encanto Acholado pisco and Oro Italia pisco, tart/sweet with pür Spice (blood orange liqueur), lime juice and bitters.

Their dreamy version of classic Tiki drink, the Painkiller ($11), gains funky complexity from Appleton and Smith & Cross rums, creamy with Pazdon’s coconut cream, lively with lime, pineapple, orange and fresh nutmeg. In typical Beattie/Pazdon fashion, the floral garnish turns the drink into art.

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Oct
15
2013

Around the Bay

Flowers growing on Jordan Winery's farm

Flowers growing on Jordan Winery’s farm

Napa & Sonoma: EDIBLE ADVENTURES

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Jordan Winery food pairings

Jordan Winery food pairings

Late summer and harvest season have brought me to Sonoma and Napa for numerous excursions. Fall is my favorite season and time of year in Wine Country as vineyard leaves transform from green to blazing reds, yellows and oranges.

Here are a few fall ideas – unusual tours and quality Mexican food (plus mezcal and tequila, when you need a wine break!) – for weekend or day trips to one of our great treasures: Wine Country.

SommFor an insider look at the agony of becoming a master sommelier and a better understanding of the dedication I often witness behind the scenes in cooking, wine, spirits and beer, watch the documentary film, Somm (just out on DVD in September; available for download on iTunes).

Wine & Food Tours

JORDAN WINERY, Healdsburg

A stay at Jordan Winery is magical, with its Bordeaux-influenced chateau and clear focus on only two varietals since 1976: Chardonnay and Cabernet.

Jordan's farm

Jordan’s farm

Jordan is a family affair with their enchanting grounds, farm, animals and vineyards. All this is now accessible to the public via a just-launched estate tour and tasting ($120) that is about so much more than wine.

I partook in a preview before the three-hour tour launched in September (it runs through November, starting again in the new year – reserve here), exploring the estate, sampling Jordan wines and olive oil, walking through their edible garden, meeting farm animals, and eating the estate chef’s generous array of artful bites both lakeside and from a 360-degree hilltop vista.

GLORIA FERRER, Sonoma

Picking grapes in the early morning light

Picking grapes in the early morning light

Visiting Gloria Ferrer this September, I awoke while it was still dark to pick grapes for their famed sparkling wine on a clear Carneros morning.

Years ago, I took a tour of GF, the first sparkling house built in Carneros in the 1980’s. As I learn even more of their operation, I’m most impressed by their over 25 year dedication to extensively studying clones and grapes from Champagne, France, replanted in California soil, learning what works best here for sparkling wines. They generously share their studies and decades of research with the region to improve Nor Cal sparkling wines across the board.

A range of Gloria Ferrer tours are available here.

Wine, cheese & charcuterie break after picking grapes at Gloria Ferrer

Wine, cheese & charcuterie break after picking grapes at Gloria Ferrer

HALL Wines, St. Helena

Restored 19th century barn at St. Helena location

Restored 19th century barn at St. Helena location

The idyllic grounds of HALL Wines in Rutherford – opened in 2005 from wife/husband, Kathryn and Craig Hall – are peacefully perched hillside in a winery originally founded in 1885. The Halls collect and display modern art sculptures and paintings around the grounds, while a large terrace looks out over invigorating Valley views.

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Swarovski chandelier

For parties and private tastings, it is hard to top their atmospheric, cool wine caves built by hand with Austrian bricks. Most impressive is a stunning Swarovski crystal tree chandelier over a massive table buried further into the caves.

While the Rutherford location tours are by appointment, Hall plans to open their massive new visitors center right off Highway 29 in St. Helena in 2014. I did a hard hat tour of the site this summer, an impressive array of buildings, both modern and historic (like a gorgeous, restored barn and a massive structure overlooking vineyards which will hold cooking demo classrooms and tasting rooms), an edible garden, an outdoor concert facility, and more. It’s going to be the winery to visit next year in Napa.

Hall's wine caves hand-built with Austrian bricks

HALL’s wine caves hand-built with Austrian bricks, Rutherford

Mexican Food Break

Carnitas platter

Carnitas platter

LA CONDESA, St. Helena

La Condesa is first and foremost the county’s best tequila/mezcal selection offering a range of cocktails and agave spirits in a winning bar program overseen by Eric Schulz.

While basics like guacamole ($15 for the tasting of all guacs) and some salsas are surprisingly bland, there’s plenty to love on the food menu.

Queso fundido

Queso fundido

They serve one of the best queso fundidos ($10) around, oozing with Mexican cheeses, housemade wild boar chorizo and poblano rajas, sprinkled with pepitas (pumpkin seeds). Gourmet tacos come two per order in a range of meats and vegetables ($9-13 for two), while they make a mean entree ($13/18) of Snake River Farms carnitas (in this case, pork shoulder confit) partnered with white rice, black beans and avocado.

Save room for dessert as house ice creams are one of the best items here ($3 per scoop). Executive Chef Chris Mortenson experiments with fascinating flavors I wish I could take home, like ghost pepper sour, mint cilantro chip, Pt. Reyes blue cheese, apple crema tequila, avocado coconut curry and ever-popular brown sugar banana.

LA TAQUIZA, Napa

Taquiza tacos

Taquiza tacos

The best “fast food” tacos in Napa? In a suburban strip mall, La Taquiza may serve the best fish tacos in Napa, whether Baja-style (fried, breaded) or grilled ($3.65-3.95). As a huge octopus fan, I was disappointed in chewy octopus tacos. But on the fish taco side, an obsession of mine since So Cal youth, theirs stand up. Check for daily taco specials and pair with daily changing agua frescas ($2.50), like a vivacious watermelon.

La Condesa's extensive tequila and mezcal bar

La Condesa’s extensive tequila and mezcal bar

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Jul
15
2013

Around the Bay

Sunset on the Jenner coastline

Sunset on the Jenner coastline

REMOTE SONOMA 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.

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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.

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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

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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May
01
2013

Around the Bay

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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)

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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.

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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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