Sunday, August 16, 2015

Sonoma for the Holidays

Much has been written about California’s wine country and its epic foodie spots.  In the summer and fall people head to Napa and Sonoma in droves sampling wine all day and eating amazing food into the evening.  Though I live than three hours away, I had never ventured that way until this past December.  Sonoma proved a great holiday and culinary getaway. 

My wife and I started the unwinding at Larkspur’s Pizzeria Picco.  Thrillist listed it as one of the 33 best pizzas in America, so I had to try it.  I can’t say I have had enough great pizza to list 33 places worthy of such recognition, but Picco did prove to have a delicious pie.  Sitting on the sidewalk patio eating pizza as a late afternoon snack a few days before Christmas at the start of a completely agenda-less retreat might have had some impact on the deliciousness of everything, but I do believe it was legitimately great.  We split a Rocket Man salad and had two Neapolitan, wood fired pizzas, the Yeti and the Cannondale.  The Yeti featured mushrooms, leeks, thyme, garlic and three cheeses.  The aroma was strong from this one.  The combination of the hen of the woods mushrooms with leeks was amazing.  Bubbled crust, light cheese, fresh light tomato sauce, and this pizza really had proper balance of all the elements.  The Cannondale (Marin County is a cyclist’s paradise) was topped with house-made fennel sausage that was ground so fine as to be delicate, paired with roasted peppers, basil and onions.  Delicious!  The sausage was by far the defining element and I wanted more, but again this was a well-balanced pizza.  Rounding out our late afternoon snack was a hoppy glass of Russian River’s Pliny the Elder Double IPA.  Welcome to vacation!

In Sonoma the next day we opted for the Sunflower Café for a late breakfast.  Seeming to be little more than a large coffee shop, Sunflower was an amazing surprise.  For breakfast we had a scone and Peruvian Chicken Sliders.  The scone was obviously fresh and so flavorful – a flawless accompaniment to a cup of coffee.  The sliders were packed with flavor, highlighted by a citrus chili sauce.  We lounged, savored and contemplated the day ahead.  Sunflower ended up feeling so relaxed we ended up there again the next day for lunch.  The kale and sausage salad and the Italian grinder did not disappoint.  If you are in Sonoma looking for a cheap meal, Sunflower Café will fit the bill…and they’re open for dinner.

After a day of wine tasting and good conversation (Madone, Chateau St. Jean and St. Francis) we ended up in Santa Rosa.  It was late afternoon and seemed to be a great time for a snack and a beer.   It just so happened that I knew Russian River Brewing was in Santa Rosa and would be a great snack stop.  And it could provide my second consecutive day with a Pliny the Elder, this time on tap.  Walking into the brewpub felt as though we had crossed an imaginary line dividing metro San Francisco from the Pacific Northwest.  Flannel and facial hair were everywhere, trucks filled the streets and beer was the beverage of choice.  The beer was beautiful, the food perfectly pub-ish, and atmosphere exuded holiday relaxation.  I can’t wait to return.

On our last night we took in our special treat meal, dinner at The Girl and the Fig, on the square in Downtown Sonoma.  A casual bistro atmosphere greeted us with a small selection of souvenir food item, after all this place has become a destination.  Our cheerful host brought us to a lovely table for two in a small, intimate but well lit room.  Our server quickly dropped by, Susan.  She turned out to be amazing, so before going any further, ask for one of her tables if you go.  On the walk to our table I spied a couple plates of steak et frites.  I am not one to ever get a steak in a restaurant, but something about the atmosphere and the look of the plate was flawless.  I didn’t even have to look at the menu.  But I did and saw that I would be challenged.  Cassoulet, pork bellies, short ribs…this was going to take determination to stick to my first instinct.  But I did and would not be disappointed.  Cooked flawlessly, juicy and over a bed of phenomenal pommes frites, this classic French bistro dish is at its best at the Girl and the Fig.  In fact, everything was great…the soup, the appetizers – chicken livers were worth the trip alone.  The Girl and the Fig lived up to the hype.

Sonoma lived up to its reputation for simple, unadulterated pleasures.  It reportedly lacks the glitz and glam of Napa, but offers more than the Paso Robles region for now.  If you are looking for some California Wine country relaxation paired with great food, but without ridiculous prices, Sonoma is your place.       
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