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Staff Picks: Food & Drink
Naked lunch--a frozen movement
when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.
--William S. Burroughs
Best Place to Get Battered and Fried
Forget the bubble and squeak, the spotted dick, the toad in the hole, and other bizarre-sounding British delicacies. If they had to choose just one comfort food to take to a desert island, true Brits wouldn't be without their beloved fish and chips. You know the kind--wrapped in yesterday's newspaper, covered in a generous shake of salt with lashings of tangy malt vinegar, and feeling deliciously like lead boots in the belly. Betty's Fish and Chips, a casual and cheery takeout or eat-in restaurant filled with British souvenirs, fries up hearty traditional Brit fare. Folks can't get enough of Betty's golden-battered flaky cod and great crunchy chips washed down with a nice cuppa tea. An extra bonus, if you have room, is the selection of sweet homemade pies.
4046 Sonoma Hwy., Santa Rosa. 707.539.0899.--P.H.
Photograph by Michael Amsler
Best Way to Get Shaken and Stirred
A work week haunted by screeching phones and jangled nerves finally gives way to Friday, and the profound power of a fortifying cocktail awaits. Belly up to the small but bustling bar at Roberto's Italian Restaurant, where acidic and highly amusing bartender Deadpan Bobby is the star attraction. This is one tough biscotto who makes a mean margarita, an even meaner Manhattan, and the absolute meanest martini. Old-time loyalists elbow each other for property rights to one of the six or so barstools. You see the same happy, shining faces every Friday. Warning: The drinks here are cheap and strong (just like some of the customers, no doubt).
4776 Sonoma Hwy., Santa Rosa. 707.539.0260.--P.H.
Best Place for Brazilian Booze and Cuban Chow
Local restaurant maven Cindy Pawlcyn--chef and restaurant owner who's the name behind the gourmet comfort food served at Mustards Grill in Napa and the upscale and unusual Fog City Diner in San Francisco--is back in the culinary spotlight. Her Miramonte Restaurant and Cafe recently opened in St. Helena dazzling both food critics and fans of the ultra-exotic cocktail. Pawlcyn, who has designed a menu focused on food of the Americas, teases taste buds with authentically ethnic flavors from North, Central, and South America. Peruvian coconut ceviche shares the menu with Chilean style grilled chicken, Cuban pork tinga torta, and more. Miramonte Restaurant and Cafe is a cheerful, light, and airy place decorated with orange, yellow, green, and white mosaic tiles. And the cheerfulness is further heightened with some dynamite cocktails blended up at the popular zinc bar. Savor a refreshing and exotic Brazilian caipirinha or an eye-popping Sazerac.
1327 Railroad Ave., St. Helena. 707.963.1200.--P.H.
Best Place to Record a Food Memory
Slip between the silver beaded curtains at the one station inside the Forks in the Road permanent exhibit at COPIA--Robert Mondavi's working monument to food, wines, and the arts in Napa--and pose before the video camera to record a favorite food memory. Hey, you could talk about the time the waiter dropped the entire Peking duck on granddad's head, or the best meal you ever had at that sleazy truck stop just outside Paris. Whatever it is, they want to hear about it. Or, if you're camera shy, click on another control and watch the recorded food memories of other COPIA visitors. Fascinating, amusing, and engaging stuff. It's just one activity in the multitude of offerings, including wine tasting, cooking demos and movies, concerts and art shows, held at the center.
COPIA, 500 First St., Napa. 707.259.1600. --P.H.
Best Mediterranean Meal with Portuguese Soul
You don't need to search out some dusky tavern in Lisbon to share in the soulful expression of fado music and partake in a little Portuguese soul food--LaSalette restaurant in Sonoma has it covered. LaSalette dishes up flavorful Old-World recipes, using not only the cuisine of Portugal but also its former colonies in Africa, Brazil, India, and China. Chef and owner Manuel Azevedo cooks lusty specialties such as caldo verde, Portugal's national soup, a rich potato broth thickened with beef consommé and enlivened with collard greens and spicy linguica sausage; and porco à Alentejana, a classic, fragrant stew with marinated pork tenderloin, tomatoes, onions, and Manila clams. Live fado music and recorded smoky-voiced Portuguese and Brazilian vocalists, white stucco walls, diffused light, and bright artwork all help create a sun-splashed vacation-like atmosphere.
18625 Sonoma Hwy., Sonoma. 707.938.1927.--P.H.
Best Scent at a Winery
While the vivacious vinos poured at Matanzas Creek Winery may bring some of the swirl-sniff-sip-and-spit set, that's not the only intoxicating attraction. Other folks go for the other purple enjoyment--the sheets of lavender billowing in the breeze like a violet ocean. The winery's artistic landscape design is widely regarded as one of Northern California's most unique and most beautiful. Together, wind-blown native grasses, exotic perennials, terraced rows of vineyards, delicate olive trees, and dramatic, rugged mountains frame the winery's crown jewel: a two-acre lavender field. Matanzas Creek Winery also offers a unique line of products for the bath, home, and body, all handcrafted from Matanzas Creek's own estate-grown lavender. Why go to Provence, when you have Sonoma County?
6097 Bennett Valley Road, Santa Rosa, 800.590.6464.--P.H.
Best Schizophrenic Eatery
Emile's Creekside or Hank's Creekside? The signs outside this little neighborhood bistro on Highway 12 in Santa Rosa proclaim that both are true. It's Hank's restaurant. And it's Emile's restaurant. And it's confusing. Restaurateurs Hank Vance and Emile Waldteufel have hit on a novel way to bring in clientele: Share the space and operate two distinct eateries in one locale. The concept has caught on. This is actually a schizophrenic eatery with an unlikely double life. By day, the sunny place awakens as the wildly popular all-American Hank's Creekside Cafe, where they flip a short stack of fresh blueberry pancakes and dish out sizzlin' Cajun sausages and warm homemade biscuits, with plenty of strong coffee to wash it all down. But at night, they bring out the long-stemmed wine glasses and the floral plates, and the place morphs into Emile's, a charming little country French bistro, where coq au vin, candles, and crème brûlée set the stage. Experience them both.
2800 Fourth St., Santa Rosa. 707.575.8839.--P.H.
Best Thai Motel Food
Well, it's not technically Thai motel food, but JhanThong BanBua does share a parking lot with the dauntingly rundown Gold Coin Motel on Santa Rosa's Mendocino Avenue, halfway between the junior college and the county jail. Diners traveling from car to restaurant entrance often get a glimpse of squalid local color (not to mention empty beer bottles) through the open doors of the motel. But the real spice is inside the restaurant. JhanThong BanBua is a pastel and gold paradise complete with the fragrance of ginger, lemongrass, and Thai basil, and lovely women in long, slim skirts bearing platters of exotic delights. Everything is delish, from the deep-fried vegetarian balls with yellow beans, cilantro, green onion, and yellow curry, to the butt-kicking spicy green papaya salad with crushed peanuts and lime dressing.
2400 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa, 707.528.8048.--P.H.
Best Place to Tour the World with a Shopping Cart
G&G Supermarket, or "Hay-Hay" as my Spanish friend calls it, is a 40-year-old Santa Rosa institution that began in 1963 when Gee Kai Gong and Robert Gong formed a partnership and opened at the original 901 West College Avenue location. The venerable local supermarket is probably the closest you'll come to shopping in a mish-mashy foreign food and beverage bazaar without needing a passport. It's here you'll discover little known treasures from all over the globe. Both gourmet grub and peasant fare at bargain prices lurk in various nooks and crannies throughout the store. The ethnic foods offered hail from many different international cuisines: Russian, Greek, kosher Hebrew, Chinese, Japanese, and Mexican to name a few.
1211 W. College Ave., Santa Rosa. 707.546.6877. --P.H.
Best Vegan Pig Out
Eating sumptuously and creatively needn't mean masticating on something that once had a face. And eating philosophically needn't mean downing rice and beans only. Alex Bury, chef and owner of Sparks restaurant in Guerneville, which serves almost 100 percent organic vegetarian fare, is proving that enlightened eating can be delicious--and she's winning vegan, vegetarian, and even carnivore fans. If you think vegan food is boring, take a look at Sparks' recent and highly sumptuous Valentine's Day "love foods" menu. The decadent meal included Perigord black truffle cakes with a crispy gremolata breading, citrus borscht with cashew cream, golden roasted tofu with 40 cloves of garlic served with wild rice and edamame pilaf, and red velvet cake with white chocolate mousse frosting and blood orange compote. A flight of wines completed the meal. From its themed Winter Comfort buffets to new cooking lessons, Sparks is bringing organic vegan fare into the mainstream.
16248 Main St., Guerneville. 707.869.8206. --P.H.
Best Champagne Tasting without the Pain
When my significant other developed another of her significant obsessions, this time it had to be champagne. It was champagne after dinner, champagne on a picnic, champagne tasting on the weekend. Being on a beer budget, however, I found even those options limited. The local champagne houses seem to have taken winetasting to a new level of tourist hustle. Here's their game: We tromp up a hill, then up the steps of this great chateau or villa or whatever, like the awestruck peasants we are. The tasting-room staff condescends to charge us $6.50 for one taste and can't wait to whisk us to a table outside to wonder where our skimpy drink is but with a bowl of warm nuts in front of us. Sure, the view may be glorious, but I can have a helping of warm cashews at a local dive bar and have a better time--and cheaper drinks. Fortunately, historic Korbel Champagne Cellars on the Russian River offers tastings of more than a dozen champagnes for the attractive price of free, including my favorite, the original 1882 recipe Korbel Sec. The staff is always friendly and down to earth, and the atmosphere is cozy on a wintry day. It reminds me that champagne is about having a good time.
13250 River Road, Guerneville. 707.824.7000.--J.K.
Best Guy to Stay Away From at the Farmers' Market
Sure, sure. Sean Penn's performance in I Am Sam is warm, accessible--even cuddly. As I watched Penn play a mentally challenged father fighting for custody of his daughter, I just wanted to go up and give the guy a hug (though, admittedly, some hardened critics only wanted to go up and ask, "When did you start doing Jerry Lewis impersonations?"). Either way, Sean Penn is suddenly being seen as a somewhat nicer guy than his reputation has previously suggested. Fine. Just don't make the mistake of thinking he'd actually welcome a hug from you or even a handshake. Though rumors suggest that Penn treats the various vendors quite politely when purchasing tomatoes or nectarines at San Rafael's popular outdoor farmers' market, he exercises very little patience with people who approach him for autographs or breathlessly tell him things like "I think you're a great actor" or (even worse) try to give him a script. And who could blame him for getting a bit testy at such intrusions? When he goes out in public with his family, he's there to enjoy himself just like you. Would you want some heavy-breathing film fan approaching you as you fill a bag with kiwis? Of course not. And just remember, he was once married to Madonna, so leave the man alone. He's suffered enough. --D.T.
Photograph by Rory McNamara
Best Place to Be King for a Day
With a name like Lafayette French Pastry, you might expect a bit of continental flavor. And this popular San Rafael patisserie doesn't disappoint. Their Epiphany king cake, available on Jan. 6, is a brioche bread baked thin with a hole in the center and filled with a sugar garnish. Baked inside is a porcelain doll and a lima bean--traditional fare from Brittany, France, in honor of Little Christmas when the Magi visited the baby Jesus (the family member who gets the bean is the servant for the night; the person who gets the doll is the king). During Mardis Gras season, Lafayette offers a Mardi Gras king cake (yeah, there's a free baby in the cake), a sweet confection of almond-paste-filled sweet dough topped with butter-cream icing and oodles of colorful sprinkles (purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power). Just remember: The person who gets the baby buys the next king cake.
820 D St., San Rafael. 415.453.2696.--G.C.
Best Local Tomato Fanatic
Neil Dunaetz of Easysweet Farms in Sebastopol is the van Gogh of tomatoes. He suffers for his art--and the way he grows tomatoes is definitely an art form. After moving to the North Bay from the Midwest last year, Dunaetz didn't have enough money to rent both a plot of land to farm and an apartment. So he just rented some land and erected a tent by his beloved tomato plants, which produce some of the best tasting tomatoes around. Of course, in no time the lucky folks at the farmers markets bought up the fruits of his labor, and Neil's back indoors these days. Tomatoes and other produce from Easysweet can be found at the Oakmont and Sebastopol farmers' markets.
Easysweet Farms, 5972 Vine Hill Road, Sebastopol. --M.W.
Best Way to Claw Your Way to Health
The bear claw pastries at the Bovine Bakery in Pt. Reyes station are roughly as big as a baby, though they are guaranteed not to cry if you put them down (that'll be you weeping). Made of croissant dough, these $2 wafts of down-home heaven fuel many a bike ride, motorcycle trip, and hike through the adjacent national seashore. In fact, there's probably some ancient law on the books making it illegal not to exercise after eating one of Bovine owner Bridget Devlin's almond-poppy-seedy confections. "Morning rolls are also quite popular," confides clerk Laura Scott, beginning to list their poetry. Scott herself has to stay in the bakery all day, so she prefers the maple-syrup-sweetened oat-almond cookies, which, she avers, are "the healthiest thing we've got." Ah, but health is sometimes in the head, and after a hot cuppa and a Bovine bear claw, it's hard not to feel terribly robust.
11315 State Route 1, Pt. Reyes Station. 415.663.9420.--G.G.
Best Disposable-Cup Coffeehouse Slogan
Until that glorious first caffeine blast from our all-important, life-giving, early-morning, triple-shot lattes, nothing matters aside from getting the java juice into our systems as quickly as possible. Right? I mean, who cares what's printed on the side of the disposable paper coffee cup? (Hell, until some people are into their third cup, they can barely even read!) But eventually, once the caffeine-addicted jitters have subsided, it's nice to have something to stare at while our eyes finally begin to focus. For that purpose, there's nothing better than a clever, humorous--and short--coffeehouse catch phrase. The First Place award for Best Slogan in the North Bay goes to the Calistoga Roastery (1631 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga) for their witty and succinct slogan, "No wine. No Mud. Just Great Coffee." Runner up goes to Dr. Insomnia's Coffee & Teas (800 Grant Ave., Novato), for the simple and elegant battle cry, "Caffeinate & Dominate"--a beautiful sentiment, if we say so ourselves.--D.T.
Best Down-Home Restaurant To Hang Out In
If you don't mind the schmaltzy music, the uninventive American meals, or the throw-back-to-the-'60s atmosphere (minus the hippies), you just might appreciate this relaxed, politically neutral spot to hang, with or without company. You won't find the cool, the famous, the trendy, those in the know, or even the discerning. You will find friendly waitresses who greet you with a "we were hoping you would show up" kind of manner, families and seniors at the dinner hour, a bustling breakfast crowd for the design-your-own omelet menu, and that good-to-be-home kind of feeling. Unlike some of the more hip coffee shops in the county, the Village Cafe on Guerneville Road in the Raley's shopping center is the kind of place where you can hear yourself think or hear your friend talking in the seat across from you if you are trying to have a conversation. If you've got the time, they've got a seat with your name on it.
2575 Guerneville Road, Ste. 515, Santa Rosa. 707.579.6087.--K.A.
Best Free Fruit
Should I tell? Or should I keep it a secret and hoard them for myself? OK, I'm gonna regret this, but Harmony Farm Supply and Nursery in Sebastopol has the most incredible cherry tree in their parking lot. During cherry season, the folks at the store fill paper cups with the luscious fruit and offer it to their customers. The polite ones graciously accept and leave it at that. But there are always a few true fruitaholics whose pride doesn't stand in their way of scampering about the tree to get another mouthful of sweet perfection.
3244 Hwy. 116 N., Sebastopol. 707.823.9125.--M.W.
Best Place to Hallucinate Celebrities
Perhaps you're not seeing things when you're certain you espy a rocker, an actor, or a filmmaker at Comforts takeout deli restaurant in San Anselmo. We didn't believe certain mothers we know who swear to have seen actress Robin Wright Penn peering through the glass there more than six times, so we called. "She's in here all the time," confirms Comforts' catering manager Shirl Aukeret. "Him too," she assures, possibly referring to husband Sean Penn. Our cagey pose dropped, we beg for more. "Oh, Carlos Santana is a regular customer. George Lucas. Bonnie Raitt. They all love this place." OK, so it's one thing to drag celebrity information from Aukeret, but it's a whole different problem to get to the most important stuff. "What is it with the Chinese chicken salad?" we demand. "Have you had it?" she innocently asks. Indeed, we explain. It's not a salad; it's a religion. "Ah," she demurs, "well it's just the dressing and the ingredients. However, we sell so much of it, it's in Marin peoples' blood."
335 San Anselmo Ave., San Anselmo. 415.454.9840.--G.G.
Photograph by Rory McNamara
Best Place to Savor the Past (for the Next Month)
In a world filled with 21st-century pretension, Isak's Coffee Shop is retro refuge. Go ahead, call it a greasy spoon--since 1973, this tiny diner has been a landmark in San Rafael's rapidly gentrifying downtown. There are plenty of artery-clogging dishes on the menu, Formica on the tabletops, an affable smile at the door, and vintage psychedelic posters on the walls. Seventyish proprietor and grill cook Isak Zadlin is a Polish Jew who emigrated to the States in the early '50s and still holds forth over the smoking grill. Back in the heyday of the counterculture, Zadlin and his brother ran a Haight Street deli and operated the food concession at the venerable psychedelic music emporium at the Avalon Ballroom (thus the psychedelic posters, Formica, and burgers motif). This ain't a Madison Avenue concept of a '60s diner--no $7 milkshakes or perfect coconut cakes on the counter. Just a gritty, working-class burger joint where the past is something you can savor without the taint of gentrification. Unfortunately, Isak's is closing down after next month, so soak in it while you still can.
920 B. St., San Rafael. 415.456.5810.--G.C.
Best Sunday Breakfast Eaten Off Mismatched Porcelain
It's the kind of diner you wish you could keep secret and not tell 40,000 readers about, since the line to get a table is already out the door most Sundays, but that wouldn't be much in the spirit of a Best Of guide. The Parkside Cafe sits inconspicuously next to a hair salon across from Juliard Park on Santa Rosa Avenue. The dining room has two sides; one half looks like a roadside diner, the other like the dining room-kitchen you grew up in, only with more tables. Whoever purchased the dishware had a field day at a garage sale or thrift store--nothing matches (you'll likely get some kitschy gem to eat off), which is always a good sign, I think, that attention is placed elsewhere--like on the food. This is the only diner I've been to that serves breakfast specials, and they're doozies: a several-sausage sampler with eggs one weekend, a shrimp omelet another. The staff, too, is exceptional--attentive and truly friendly, never overbearing and smarmy. Give it a go--but try to keep it a secret.
404 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa. 707.573.5955.--G.B.
Best Place to Eat Excellent Taqueria Fare while Gazing at Taco Bell
¿No quieres Taco Bell? ¿Por que? Is it because their food sucks? But you're attached to the cute little Chihuahua, aren't you? Love him, touch him, but for the love of God, eat some decent Mexican food. The best taqueria fare can be found at Pepe's--trust the name. They serve everything from a grilled-beef-strip-filled burrito to a light and crisp veggie tostada. One of the specials often on the menu is the Burrito de Camarón: grilled prawns, onions, and bell peppers with refried beans, Mexican rice, sour cream, avocados, fresh salsa, and the perfect amount of fresh cilantro, all firmly wrapped in a warm tortilla. If it could talk, it would whisper in your ear, "Eat Me! Eat Me!" You don't even have to chase it, it's right there on your plate, next to the free chips and salsa, along with your choice of Mexican beer, soda in a cool, glass bottle, or Snapple. While your stuffing your maw with your paw you can look across the street and know that Taco Bell is still with you in spirit.
2000 Sebastopol Road, Santa Rosa. 707.545.7425.--J.W.
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From the March 21-27, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.