Sonoma County (EATS)
August 11, 2010 § 2 Comments
This week, we’re renting a house in Sonoma to get our dose of sunshine-administered vitamin D for the summer. I’ve been feeling hemmed in by the fog and 50-degree weather in San Francisco. As a native Midwesterner, where summer was heralded by radio announcements warning the elderly and small children to stay inside lest they die of heatstroke, I just can’t equate San Francisco’s chilly June, July and August to summer.
Lucky for us, Sonoma is an hour and a half away with traffic. It’s hot enough to go swimming, to wear tank tops and to sweat. The sun shines brightly enough that you want to sit under an umbrella with a chilled glass of rose or a cold beer. And the food up here, with a focus on local purveyors and ethnic variety, is right up my alley.
I’ve been a fan of the burger and the cheese plate with fig compote at the girl & the fig on Sonoma’s square ever since we moved to California. So I was interested in trying those folks’ latest restaurant, Estate, located in an elegant old home right outside the square.
The dining room had a warm glow, our waiter was friendly yet professional and decisive in his recommendations (a quality my husband and I favor), and the food was excellent. My husband’s wood-roasted pork chop was juicy and savory, the salty, crispy fat tied to the bone good enough for me to gnaw right off even though I was sitting in a public place. The waiter recommended one of the best pinot noirs we’ve had in a while: Blue Farm 2007 from an extremely small batch made by a family winery. But my favorites were my entree of bucatini all’amatriciana, with san marzano tomatoes, guanciale, red onions and grana, and our dessert of sugar-dusted doughnuts served with Nutella.
And, if all of that weren’t enough, the restaurant let our friends, who make their own limoncello with home-made grappa and lemons from their neighbors, bring it in to pour us (and our waiter and the manager) a nightcap.
No vacation is complete for me without a visit to the local farmers’ market. Yesterday, we went to the Sonoma Town Square Tuesday night farmers’ market, and it seemed to be the thing to do in town. Vendors dished out hot food to eat right there, from corn dogs to pad thai to gyros, while stands sold fresh produce, high-end vinegars and olive oils. There was an energy to the whole thing that faintly reminded me of night markets in Southeast Asia: groups of teenagers were flirting and laughing while snacking, couples were purchasing bags of eggplants and heirloom tomatoes and summer squash, and young families were balancing plates of noodles while trying to keep an eye on their toddlers.
We sampled an artisanal syrah vinegar made by a trio of folks with day jobs in finance and technology but a passion for hand-crafting vinegar out of their own wine, using traditional French methods (www.vivovinegar.com). The guy manning the table had me taste the vinegar by sucking it off of a sugar cube. Local, tasty, produced and sold with flair: needless to say, we left with a bottle.
We wandered over to the Oak Hill Farms stand and picked heirloom tomatoes, corn, a bagful of salad greens and figs for our vegetable extravaganza dinner tonight (although my husband, who’s chopping away in the kitchen as I write this, informed me that he’s adding chicken quesadillas to the menu because he is not a fan of going meatless).
Which brings me to the tortillas.
When my husband woke up groggy on Saturday morning and realized that I’d gone to the Santa Rosa farmers’ market (yes, it’s an obsession) and left him at the Sonoma house with no car and no coffee, he was forced to walk three miles to find caffeine. But, the upshot was that he discovered El Molino Central.
The small restaurant was opened in June by Karen Taylor Waikiki, the force behind Primavera, which sells tamales, tortillas and salsas at farmers’ markets and groceries throughout the Bay Area. Waikiki named the restaurant after the tradition that every town in Mexico used to have a molino where people took their dried corn to have it ground into masa. Waikiki and her staff stay true to the name: they hand-grind organic corn daily for all of their tortillas and chips. Waikiki studied Diana Kennedy’s Mexican cookbooks and took several of Kennedy’s cooking classes at her Oaxacan ranch, so the menu, while short and on the pricier side, is authentic.
I give first prize to the pork tamales, followed closely by the tortillas and chips and the chalupas de pollo. Tamales are one of my favorite foods ever, and these were delicate masa cases surrounding meltingly tender pork melding with a mildly spicy green sauce. The tortillas, which you can buy by the dozen, are made by a stout woman cranking a wooden press; they’re large and make a tasty quesadilla, while the chips are thick and shatter with a satisfying crunch.
The chalupas de pollo are street food at its best: a masa bed topped with refried beans, chicken stewed with carrots and tomatoes, salsa verde, onions, cilantro, avocado and cheese, handed to you on a paper plate.
Of course, we sampled more from the menu than that, but the rest wasn’t as good as the top three. The enchiladas verdes suizas were rich and creamy but not that flavorful, and the chicken mole tamales were a solid runner-up but nothing to drive an hour and a half for (oh yes, we would definitely drive an hour and a half just to eat here).
Pho to Drive For
The other restaurant I’d drive an hour and a half to eat at up here is Simply Vietnam in Santa Rosa. We first found it the Sunday after our wedding, when we stayed an extra night in wine country to recover from the festivities. My ultimate comfort food is a bowl of Asian noodle soup, ideally Vietnamese pho or Japanese ramen, and that’s exactly what we went to eat that Sunday night.
Any time we’re near Santa Rosa, we return. I always order the pho with rare steak and well-done brisket. The broth is clear yet aromatic with spices and the umami undertone of beef bones, the thinly-sliced beef is tender and a dish of fresh licorice-scented basil, crunchy bean sprouts, jalapenos and lime wedges accompany the noodles. Happiness in a bowl!
Estate, 400 West Spain Street, Sonoma, CA. 707.933.3663. www.estate-sonoma.com
Sonoma Farmers’ Market, Sonoma Plaza on the Square, Sonoma, CA. 707-538-7023. Tuesdays, 5:30 pm – dusk, April through October
El Molino Central, 17999 Sonoma Hwy, Sonoma, CA. 707-939-1010.
Simply Vietnam, 966 N Dutton Ave, Santa Rosa. CA. 707-566-8910.