Narsi's Hofbrau, currently fighting for its life to stave off eviction at Santa Rosa's Coddingtown Mall, has been serving up fresh roast beef, turkey and ham for over 25 years. Sadly, that may come to an end soon, and local fans are already wondering where else they could go that offers up the same warmly old-school eating environment.
Operating as an old-fashioned cafeteria-style restaurant, Narsi's has attracted hungry families and budget-conscious diners for years, and has also built a large following of senior citizens who fondly remember the days of smorgasbords and cozy neighborhood buffets. Narsi's is the kind of place where the PA system plays "The Girl from Ipanema" while behind the counter, a guy with a sharp knife waits to carve thick slabs of the meat of your choice, either piling it up on pieces of bread or laying it on a platter with mashed potatoes, vegetables and gravy so thick it could be its own food group. Narsi's is the kind of place they don't make anymore.
Now a big juicy serving of the bad news.
Last year, the Coddingtown Mall, owned by the Indianapolis-based Simon Property Group, initiated eviction proceedings against Narsi's to make room for a better-known national franchise, with the Cheescake Factory high on the mall's list of potential replacements. Narsi's is fighting the eviction, claiming its lease gives it until 2015.
Simon, claiming that Narsi's hasn't been a big money-maker—a charge owner Narsi Samii disputes—hopes to make room for something more upscale, in keeping with its plans to give the aging mall, built in the 1960s, a 21st-century facelift. The multimillion-dollar upgrade means the removal or relocation of several Coddingtown sites already. But Narsi's isn't planning to budge without a fight.
Ringing up meals at the register, owner Samii said, "I think this is going to go to court, and who knows what will happen, but we don't plan on moving for a while. We will stay right here."
Meanwhile, news of Narsi's potentially impending demise has brought swarms of fans to the already bustling eatery, where on a recent Sunday, the line at the counter stretched out of the restaurant and well into the mall. Samii's next court date in his fight to save Narsi's is in May, and he's even feeling a little confident about its outcome. "Destroying our business is no way," he said crisply, "to fix this mall."
Narsi's Hofbrau, in the Coddingtown Mall, 342 Coddingtown Center, located near Wolf's Coffee. 707.545.6237.—D.T.
In a little hamlet tucked away in the shadow of Sonoma Mountain, there's a historic old brick inn where one can enjoy the finest vin de pays paired with an appetizer of maïs soufflé. That is to say, cheap wine and popcorn. The landmark brick building in between the Jack London Lodge and Wolf House restaurant, the Saloon at Jack London Lodge is everything that a rustic Sonoma hideaway should be, and less. Less crowded, more low-key. Pool tables, a big-screen TV. A comfort to regulars and the touring class alike. By "cheap wine," "nice price" is meant; the good stuff is from locals Benziger, St. Francis and Mayo by the glass, starting at $3.50 and filled to the brim. No sniffing, no swirling here. Just sipping. Grab a free bowl of appetizers at the popcorn machine; a few shakes of parm-in-a-can and it's gourmet. The patio by Sonoma Creek is usually quiet but for the burbling of the water, and maybe the carping and laughter of a tasting-room crew as they hash out the waning day's tribulations, or you and a friend whiling away the transition from afternoon to evening as the sunlight winks out behind a dense veil of oaks.
The Saloon at Jack London Lodge, 13740 Arnold Drive, Glen Ellen. 707.996.3100.—J.K.
Quintessa Winery is tastefully opulent and very new-world Napa. Visitors are greeted by expensively dressed, almost painfully well-behaved personnel in a large reception area to which one later returns to taste the wine. The reception area reminds of a New York restaurant; all gray stone and dark wood, with little bistro tables where the tasting is done. (The staff emphasize that people do not taste at the bar here, although there is one. Things at Quintessa are very proper.) The building recently won a national architectural award, and the wines are made 100 percent biodynamically, a big ecological step by its owner, Agustin Huneeus, the CEO of the world's largest wine conglomerate and the founder of the Chilean Concha y Toro. Quintessa only makes one wine a year, and after tasting it, you won't want to drink anything else. There's a very limited supply of the Bordeaux-style blend available; it's mostly sold through restaurants. The hourlong crème-de-la-crème tour includes a visit to the vineyard, a traipse through the production facility and a stop in the caves. Appointments only, obvio. Quintessa Winery, 1601 Silverado Trail, Rutherford. 707.967.1601.—E.L.
Tasty and legit $1.50 tacos in Sebastopol—the town that cheap, good ethnic food forgot? ¡Si, como no! Navigate on over to the gas station across from the Holiday Inn in south Sebastopol, and you should see a taco truck, between 10am-ish to 6pm-ish, with the name "El Navigante" emblazoned atop. Be sure to order the tacos al vapor, soft corn tacos steamed in a spicy something or other, filled with your meat of choice and topped with crunchy cabbage and salty queso (plus crema and avocado, if you please). My trusty translator Selena loves the carne asada, and on weekends you can get shrimp and ceviche tacos. The man, the white-cowboy-hatted navigator, order-taker and sweet talker (he told me my Spanish was excellent—ha!), is your entrée to righteous Jalisco-style fare. Antonio Vargas is his name. What's the key to good Mexican food? we asked. "The salsas!" he replied, which at this truck do not disappoint—and for some extra heat, there's a bag of serranos awaiting you on the communal table. Where did he get his nickname? Sr. Vargas got started in the mobile-food business pushing a Sno-Cone cart in Guadalajara. The girls at a high school where he parked his cart were so delighted to see him after school, they named him "el Navigante," because he always seemed to know how to find the people that needed him. El Navigante taco truck at Flyers gas station, 1080 Gravenstein Hwy. S., Sebastopol.—M.T.J.
Always packed with an attractive mixed crowd, Zuzu is more of a see-and-be-seen scene than anything else. Zuzu buzzes with a very European feeling, as though you've been transported to one of the common Greek restaurants that dot Parisian alleyways. No reservations accepted, which adds to the "Lemme in! Lemme in! This place is H-O-T!" vibe. And if you're left with any doubt, follow the crowd that knows: the county's waiters. Servers from Yountville, Napa and Rutherford head to Zuzu post-shift to blow off steam, which to certain of us, adds even more, ahem, ambiance. Zuzu, 829 Main St., Napa. 707.224.8555.—E.L.
At Petaluma's Graffiti Restaurant, bartender Drew Grove has developed a knack for making vodka martinis so good that people specifically ask for their martinis to be made by him. Truth is, every bartender at Graffiti can serve up a first-rate cocktail with four fat, slightly spicy olives and glacially floating glimmers of artfully slivered ice. But it's Grove who talks about the art of martini making the way some poets write about the art of love. "It's a martini! You can't rush it. You have to take your time with a martini," he says, referring to the speed with which a martini should be concocted, but also to how slowly and sweetly it ought to be savored. Explaining the silvery hints of ice on the surface of the drink, he says, "Bruising the ice is an art. It happens when you shake the martini, and getting those little bits of ice comes from really putting a lot of love into the shaking. Some bartenders give it two shakes and quit, but the icy coating comes from giving the drink a good, long shake. "Martinis should be served cold," he continues, "and the ice particles keep it cold without taking anything way from the strength of the martini." Whether people enjoyed as accompaniment to conversation in the bar or as a warm-up to a meal of stuffed pheasant or Caribbean jerk sea bass (both popular items on the Graffiti menu), martinis, Grove says, evoke strong opinions: how to enjoy them, when to drink them and what vodka to use in making them. "Here, Gray Goose is the most popular vodka," he says.
"It's a great martini vodka. Smooth and flavorful. Gray Goose is the one."
Graffiti Restaurant, 102 Second St., Petaluma. 707.765.4567.—D.T.
It sounds like the pipe dream of a couple of slow-roasted foodies:
"What if, like, the food court at the mall was gourmet organic?"
"Like, instead of Hot Dog on a Stick?"
"Yeah, Fatted Calf fennel sausage instead of Orange Julius."
"Awesome. Like, you could just get a snack, but it's all seasonal, local stuff like—"
"Winter squash soup?"
"—and Dungeness crab salad! You'd have disposable dishes and table setups, OK—"
"—but they're certified compostable! Even the plastic forks and knives. Killer. Pass the warm olives. Man, I am so braised."
Folio Enoteca restaurant inside Napa's new Oxbow Public Market is exactly this. A sideline of the Folio wine group headed by Michael Mondavi, it's the size of a mall food-court operation. The assiduously seasonal menu is determined partly by the produce and meat available in the very market hall. While settling down with a promptly served, warm, compostable bowl of three-cheese mac and a taste of Hangtime Syrah, patrons can watch the transparent kitchen in front of them or, through Plexiglas barrel windows, the drama of wine as it ages in the 80-square-foot micro-winery. For Slow Food fans without a minute to spare, there's a convenient cold case of grab-and-go sandwiches. Precious and yet—so cool. Folio Enoteca & Winery, in the Oxbow Public Market, 610 First St., Napa. 707.256.3700.—J.K.
Remember back when Napa was a tiny agricultural town and the biggest thing it was known for was having a mental institution? Yeah, me neither. But you can wager that Buster does. Reminiscent of the blue-collar Napa of the past, Buster's Southern Barbeque is worth trying for the authenticity. You won't find grass-fed sliders, Rocky or Rosie fried chicken or Ciao Bella sorbet here. The meat is most likely not organic, but you'd better believe that Buster's mama made the sweet potato pie. Buster himself gets up early every morning to start the coals on his rotisserie. Grillin' up all kinds of meat chunks, Buster makes it all fresh every day. Pork loin, tri-tip, spicy hot-links (actually, everything's spicy) are served up with little flair and excellent potato salad and coleslaw. Wash down all that spicy love with a nice, cool glass of lemonade. Buster's Southern Barbeque, 1207 Foothill Blvd., Calistoga. 707.942.5605.—E.L.
Anyone old enough to remember Vic Morrow's WW II television series Combat may recall battle scenes shot in and around a certain Russian River vineyard. Yes, that would be Korbel. Before creating bubbles, the Korbel brothers carved out their living turning Sonoma redwood trees into cigar boxes for clientele in San Francisco. The Korbels even built a railway to transport their product. But long after these real-life Bohemian brothers (as in fraternal Czechs) had bid this life adieu, the Heck clan, who had purchased the vineyards and winery from the Korbel brothers' heirs, faced a somewhat deep-rooted problem. Redwood tree stumps hogged their vineyard space. What to do about the expensive and work-intensive job of uprooting these enormous stumps? An agreement was struck. Korbel properties would provide canvas for cinematic depictions of world-war mayhem, and, in return, Combat's producers promised to set blasts taking out all of those damned vineyard stumps. Korbel Champagne Cellars, 13250 River Road, Guerneville. 707.824.7000. —P.J.P.
Everything you might hope for in an American diner and more, Taylor's Automatic Refresher is both nostalgic and conscientious: drippingly juicy classic burgers are wrapped crisply in plain white paper, but the beef's all-natural; the fish and chips are crunchily deep-fried, but the fish is mahi-mahi; all the old-timey, greasy snacks you could want (mmm, onion rings) are posted on a marquee board, but you can pay by credit card. The only hint of a problem is in deciding whether to order from the extensive local wine and microbrew list or to get one of the best, and most expensive, milkshakes around. Made with Double Rainbow ice cream, the shakes ring up at almost $6 with tax, and are worth every last penny. At the original outlet (a new one just opened in Napa's Oxbow Public Market), the seating is outdoor-only. Squint and you can just about see poodle skirts swishing by the kids leaping toward a Slip 'N Slide. Taylor's Automatic Refresher, 933 Main St., St. Helena. 707.963.3486. At the Oxbow Public Market, 610 First St., Napa. 707.224.6900.—E.L.
Pat Kuleto may be opening up restaurants with seemingly wild abandon these days—two at a time? Hello, Epic Roasthouse and Waterbar!—but let's not forget one of his best old classics. All of Kuleto's restaurants—including Jardiniere, Boulevard, Farrallone, Nick's Cove and Kuleto's—can be discerned by their over-the-top interior décor, usually including lots of big wrought-iron and blown-glass things. Martini House is no exception. But we're here to talk drinks. Though you'll undoubtedly have a great meal at the restaurant, the bar deserves a special mention for its high-end everything, including spotless service, golden mood lighting and cozy bar stools, making this place an off-hours waiter favorite for those servers who have fistfuls of cash to blow. The Martini House has an excellent wine-by-the-glass list and perfect classic cocktails. And even if you're not a fancy type, for the hour you can nurse a glass of Pinot Noir, you'll feel like royalty. Martini House, 1245 Spring St., St Helena. 707.963.2233.—E.L.
Why is Rosso Pizzeria in Santa Rosa packed—packed!—every lunch and every dinner? Because we love it. Let me count the ways:
1. Attentively and passionately made, charred 'n' bubbly, thin, crisp-but-chewy crusted Neapolitan pizza made in a 700-plus-degree wood-burning oven.
2. Mostly local and organic toppings like roasted fresh artichokes, local mushrooms and goat cheese.
3. Daily specials, like short-rib Saturdays and whole-roasted-suckling-pig Sundays.
4. A beautiful, thoughtful, profoundly reasonable wine list that offers 250 ml and 500 ml carafes, along with their glasses and bottles. Plus, the entire $10 corkage fee goes to charity.
5. An affordable, spot-on kids menu and kid-friendly 'tude: if it's not too busy, kids can make their own pizzas.
6. Super-professional and genuinely gracious service amid smart décor featuring bold food- and wine-inspired poster-style art, concrete floors, exposed-beam ceilings, soft leather banquettes.
7. Appetizers like the flatbread (which is basically a pizza bianca) for a mere $3.
8. Burrata, a housemade, fresh mozzarella curd pouch filled with ricotta. It's soft and pillowy with a fresh, milky taste and is really hard to impossible to find anywhere in the county (it's flown into the Cheese Shop in Healdsburg, but it's something you pretty much want to eat the day it's made, so best to skip the imports). Order this with your flatbread.
9. Organic salads like a caesar with anchovy filets and Calabrian chile paste, and a wedge with local blue cheese.
10. And finally, full-time FUTBOL! on the TV at the bar.
Rosso Pizzeria and Wine Bar, Creekside Center, 53 Montgomery Drive, Santa Rosa. 707.544.3221.—M.T.J.
Way back in 2003, Stag's Leap Winery posted a recipe for wild mushroom bread pudding, a dangerously enticing dish created by Point Arena chef Shannon Hughes that has been downloaded zillions of times over the last five years. It sounds delicious, whether or not it is paired with a 2000 Stags' Leap Estate Merlot Reserve as suggested. What is notable about the recipe is the beauty of the writing. This bread pudding, usually a dessert but here reimagined as a savory side dish, does more than just sit on the plate and taste good; it "heralds the autumnal light." That's some bread pudding. Also, please note that, according to the recipe, this dish is best when made with wild mushrooms. We told you it sounded dangerous. Bon appétit. http://www.stagsleap.com/restaurants/2003_fall/wildmushroombreadpudding.html.—D.T.
People have been touting the revitalization of downtown Novato almost as long as they've been bemoaning the horrific Highway 101 traffic. It's almost like white noise at this point, but Grazie Cafe Italiano on Grant Avenue is making the impossible dream seem of this world. Serving traditional Italian fare with a modern California twist, Grazie offers something for everyone, including the 21st-century foodie. "We definitely try to do the healthy thing," says manager Tara Pariani. "We have vegetarian options, all our chicken is free-range, our lettuce is organic, all that kind of good stuff." And the good stuff is delicious enough to satiate the throngs of near daily regulars scrounging for a patio table at breakfast or lunch. When pressed for Grazie's signature dish, Pariani hesitates. "Off the top of my head, it's really hard," she says. "One of the most ordered things is the beet and chicken salad." The Grazie salad mixes roasted beets and a spring mix with grilled chicken, goat cheese, red onions and candied pecans, all tossed with a maple balsamic vinaigrette. Mmmm is right. The warm staff's service is also a standout. "One of our biggest things is customer service," Pariani says. "Smiles, hellos, goodbyes, thank yous. I think we're definitely a part of making Grant Avenue good again." I sure the hell hope she's right. On a recent trip to Tahoe, an old bellhop asked what town in Marin we were from, having been raised in the county himself. After we said Novato, he scoffed then replied, "That doesn't count!" I still tipped him, but with a Whole Foods Market opening as well as several charming new boutiques and unique restaurants like Grazie as frontrunners in the ongoing Grant Project renovation, by this time next year I hope to make him eat his words. And then eat at Grazie. Grazie Cafe Italiano, 823 Grant Ave., Novato. 415. 878.0202.—D.S.
The fact that the Calistoga Inn literally rocks is apparent as soon as you call to make a reservation. "We're not quiet, we're fun," warns the receptionist at this self-described European-style inn. Although the only thing that really strikes me as European about the Calistoga Inn is the shared bathrooms for the lower priced rooms that start at $75, it's worth a visit. The onsite microbrew, plus the lively atmosphere, plus the live music until midnight on weekends all contribute to give the Calistoga Inn its well-deserved rep as the place with the best nightlife in town.
The bedrooms are right above the pub, so plan to close the place down, because you won't sleep much if you try to turn in before the music's over. This place is a deal, too, with breakfast included. Calistoga Inn, 1250 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga. 707.942.4101.—E.L.