Food Adventures in Sonoma County and West Marin
The rain in San Francisco in March is unceasing and Carol’s Spring Break is approaching. We wanted and needed a getaway.
On Wednesday, April 5, we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco and drove out of the rain. We didn’t see sunshine for a few more miles, but out of the rain is a good start. Our immediate destination is the Anderson Valley Wine Country, particularly the Navarro Vineyards, northwest of Boonville. I like Navarro wines a lot and they’re mostly under $20, but they only sell to the public at the winery or by mail order. Otherwise they sell to restaurants. Frank J. Prial wrote in his NY Times Blog about how pleased he is to now be able to get them delivered to New York. Navarro is a little too far from San Francisco for a day trip, so we must plan for our occasional visits.
partial ocean viewtop floor, third from left
We spent the night at the Wharf Master’s Inn in Point Arena, an out-of-the-way fine and funky placeâ€”or as they say in their brochureâ€””A Romantic Hideaway.” Early Thursday morning we headed for Healdsburg, hoping for a grand foodie experience.
Armed with a last year’s New York Times story on Healdsburg Restaurants by Frank J. Prial, we were ready. We drove around the Healdsburg Plaza and found a place and parked. Three hour parking, no meters! How good is that?! We walked around the Plaza looking for the noted restaurants, and generally enjoying the very nice day. There’s Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen in the Hotel Healdsburg, looks toney, but the menu is not exorbitantly priced, I took a copy and we wandered on. There’s Bistro Ralph, we expanded our search to off the Plaza and found Ravenous and Manzinita and Zinâ€”we ate there our last tripâ€”and Willi’s Seafood and Raw Bar. Nearby is Cyrus, in the Les Mars Hotel, way too opulent and formal for me. We went looking for Barndiva on Center Street, which was recently reviewed by Carolyne Zinko in the San Francisco Chronicle. We found it. It’s about one-thirty, time for a late lunch.
We enter facing the bar. Dining areas flank the bar, one opening onto a garden, the other onto a courtyard fronting the street. The place is empty of customers but the Barndiva factotum, seated at a table to our left, looks up from his laptop, greets us cordially and leads us to the street end of the restaurant, we can sit where we want.
enter on the sidefrom our table
The place is striking, barn-like in form, but a new building, sophisticated in materials; daylight streams in from expansive glass with minimal frames, mirrors and many kinds of hanging lights lend scale to the space. The tables are solid redwood, subtly inlayed with the Barndiva logo at the corners. Even with no other people, this is a great feeling room, comfortable in its opennessâ€”muted jazz-rock fills the grand space with warmth.
Carolyne Zinko said this is a nighttime hotspot; the lunch menu is brief. Carol orders the Ruben Sandwich and I opt for the Pork Belly Salad. When our lunches arrive, Carol’s Ruben looks very much like a Ruben. My salad bears a more interesting presentation: a clean mound of butter lettuce varying in color from the stark white of the interior leaves to more brilliant greens is glistening with olive oil and a hint of vinegar. Sprawled across the top is a slab of crisp pork belly about the size of my iPod. Propped against the lettuce mound is a fan of very thinly sliced grilled half pear. On the other side of the plate is a blunt three-inch row of red-orange spiced breadcrumbs. I have the sweet anticipation of goodness, yet I haven’t tasted a thing.
Ruben, Pork Belly Salad… Yummy
I start with a piece of lettuce. The vinaigrette is sublime. I take the pork… place it on the crumbs, cut and eat. Oh, my, god, crisp on the outside, the inside juicy and bursting with the fresh pork flavor, all natural and lovely. I examine a slice of pear. There are grill marks on the flat side and the first bit of flesh is warm. The round side is cool, raw and unpeeled. It is undressed and the mild sweetness perfectly complements the saltiness of the pork. I repeat, savoring each flavor and texture.
Meanwhile, Carol is ravishing her Ruben. She had told the waiter that the Ruben is her favorite sandwich. He replied, “This will be the best you’ve ever had.” She judged it among the bestâ€”perhaps the best considering the venue and presentation. Soon enough, Carol’s square white plate and my round black plate are utterly clean and we are utterly satiated. French Press coffee and a shared Meyer Lemon Tart complete the lunch.
Barndiva is built for the night. “It’s the only nightlife in Healdsburg,” our dinner hostess remarked when told we had lunched there. Clearly, it is undeservingly still undiscovered for lunch. I’ll spread the word.
Exhausted from the driving, walking, wine tasting I didn’t tell you about, and the lunch, we checked into the Best Western motel and flopped for a nap. We had decided that for Healdsburg, we’d rather spend good money on dining than lodging.
Dressed in khakis and a new brown and green Marimekko shirt, we decided to go for Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchenâ€”best place in townâ€”without a reservation. It’s seven o’clock. Our fallback is Willi’s Seafood and Raw Bar, but we don’t need it.
Dry Creek Kitchen is in the Hotel Healdsburg, a new building on the Plaza designed by David Baker, a San Francisco architect. The hotel is modern and elegant, but this room is very plain. Walls, columns and ceiling are warm white stucco. The kitchen is glassed in and the clear glass is covered by a gauzelike scrim so you can experience kitchen activity without the distracting sight and sound. Large windows open onto the street and the hotel courtyard. Tablecloths are traditional white, but the flatware is very elegant and modern stainless steel.
Our reception is friendly, our service is attentive, the room is bland, what makes this place so special? IT’S THE FOOD.
The wine list is extensive and almost all Sonoma County winesâ€”not a bad thing. The wines-by-the-glass are limited to one, sometimes two choices per varietal. The menu is varied, listing 9 First Courses and 7 Main Courses. There is a 3 course Discovery Menu and a 6 course Tasting Menu. I ordered two First Courses; Carol chose the Discovery Menu. By the time we were served, the room was pleasantly full. The waiter brought an Amuse Bouche of potato bisque with citrus oil in a tall, heavy bottomed, straight-sided shot-glass. Since one could pick up the glass by the heavy bottom, it didn’t appear hot. It was burny hot! I think it could have been served warm or even cold and would have been a better start to the dining experience.
The Discovery Menu started off with pureed artichoke soup with pork belly lardons (we used to call â€˜em bacon bits). It continued with a “48 hour Short Rib,” an amazing Frenched short rib, looking like a rib bone protuding from a rich brown baseball, perfectly cooked, tender and delicious. Asparagusâ€”very pale with bright green tipsâ€”and Point Reyes Blue Cheese Mashed Potatoes were served alongside (Meat â€˜n’ two, a Carol specialty), rich, heavenly city!
Her dessert course was called CrÃ¨me Brulee, but I called it twisted, deconstructed custard thingy, ginger gelato and custard on a cookie crust, topped with a crispy, twisted sugar. Carol called it really good.
She had a glass of Limerick Lane Zinfandel.
My first First Course is Ahi Tuna “Steak Tartare.” Definitely not meat â€˜n’ two. Served on a square plate, 3 disks of tuna tartare, each as thick as a half-deck of cards, are arranged vertically up the center of the plate. The smallest, lower oneâ€”the size of a half-dollarâ€”is topped with a quail egg. The middle oneâ€”the size of a silver dollarâ€”is garnished with dill. The top, next larger in that progression, is topped with slivers of the most amazing crisp, chilled leek. Aligned on the left are three circles of salt: black, red and white. Toast points are layered on the right.
The Tuna Tartare is almost bare, with a very subtle dressing/binder, and tiny capers. Tartare, salt, garnish, toast; a very rich but balanced dish, so rich I drank my entire glass of Hartford Pinot Noir. Little bites, little sips, and so on.
My second First Course: Pan Seared Foie Gras on a Fuji apple tarte tatin with red wine star anise jus. That’s what the menu says. This is no timid dish. The seared foie gras has a perfect crust; the apple tarte is the perfect foil and the jus holds the flavors together. Exquisite. Again, little tiny bites are in order. That took a glass of the Limerick Lane Zinfandel. I wanted to bring a bottle of Simi Zinfandel that we purchased earlier in the day, but Carol thought that was gauche. Turns out, they encourage guests to bring Sonoma County wines.
The verdict: an overall WOW. Better than lunch? Different. For a day’s eats, that’s about as good as it gets.
The next day was a whole â€˜nother food experience. We drove to Point Reyes for an 11:30 tour and tasting at Cowgirl Creamery. We left Healdsburg plenty early in case we got lost (nearly did) and promised ourselves a good breakfast when we arrived. We got to Point Reyes and found Cowgirl Creamery in fine time. Across the road we spotted the Pine Cone Diner, “good food, prickly service.” It’s your basic diner in layout; tables on the front wall by the windows, a long counter with stools, kitchen through an opening behind.
Carol ordered their cheeseburger plate (fries, lettuce, tomato, red onion) & iced tea. (Her second favorite sandwich.)
I had the Special Scramble, eggs with sundried tomatoes, jack cheese and cherry tomatoes, and, these home fries, really crisp on one side and mushy under. That was really good, eggs perfectly cooked. There’s this thing I have about tomato skins (see Peeling,), but I don’t know of a way to peel cherry tomatoes. Never mind, it was the perfect West Marin breakfast.
We walked across the road to “The Barn.” What do you know? Aside from Cowgirl Creamery, the Barn has Shorty’s fresh produce, breads, books, a cheese counter with their cheeses and other local cheeses, a deli counter with various charcuterie, and a handmade clothing and gift shop. Excellent. The glass walled Cheese Room is in the front right corner where two young men are dealing with the curds and whey. Our tour consisted of a tasting at a long wooden table outside the Cheese Room, of all the Cowgirl cheeses along with their history, how they’re made and how to use them. Yum.
After, we bought some stuff for dinner at home; Rabbit Pate, El Zornilla, an experimental Cowgirl cheese using the Red Hawk formula in a larger wheel, some Paul Bertolli Fra’Mani sausages, a roasted golden beet and asparagus salad, and some good bread.
Nice dinner, to cap off two wonderful and diverse food days.