Editor's note: First Bite is a new concept in restaurant writing. This is not a go-three-times, try-everything-on-the-menu report; rather, this is a quick snapshot of a single experience. We invite you to come along with our writers as they&–informed, intelligent eaters like yourselves&–have a simple meal at an area restaurant, just like you do.
The legendary John McReynolds no longer cooks at Cafe La Haye, just off the plaza in Sonoma, but his ghost seems to haunt this intimate restaurant where you could spend as much as $750 on a dinner for two or less than $100 if you order carefully and don't get the wine list's $400 bottle of Sauternes. McReynolds, who has moved on to greener kitchens elsewhere, made many of his signature dishes and a reputation that went far beyond Sonoma at La Haye by cooking with fresh produce from Sonoma farms.
Norman Owens, who cut his eyeteeth as a chef in Seattle, isn't afraid to feature local onions, grapes, beets, arugula, peppers and more. But the vegetables aren't the stars of the impressive show he puts on; the produce plays a supporting role to his pan-seared chicken breast ($17.95), hangar steak ($19.95) and pork tenderloin ($21.95). You can even watch Owens at work in the postage stamp-sized kitchen, especially when seated on the upper level of the dining room.
Tables at La Haye are snapped up quickly, and reservations are recommended, though seats are almost always available at the counter. Tourists sit elbow-to-elbow with local writers and chefs&–they were out in force on a recent Tuesday night&–but the noise level doesn't drown out conversations, and the art on the walls is pleasing to the eye.
There are specials every night, including the soup of the day, recently featuring Swiss chard, mixed peppers and bacon ($7). The seared scallops, on a bed of shaved Brussels sprouts and golden raisins with homemade grain mustard ($12.95), were cooked to perfection and elegantly presented. The bacon-and-egg starter that featured a soft-boiled egg over spinach and a celery root pancake, topped with crispy pancetta ($9.95), might not have been appetizing at breakfast, but the combination works well at dinner. The quail stuffed with figs and accompanied by a puff pastry filled with Pt. Reyes blue cheese and caramelized onions ($23.95) was very tasty indeed, and the tender, juicy lamb with Moroccan couscous, mint and pistachio pesto ($32.95) brought together rich, complex flavors.
To drink, I brought a Valley of the Moon 2005 Pinot Noir; the corkage fee is $20. (The least expensive wine on Cafe La Haye's list, a Zinfandel, runs $30.) The pumpkin financier with quince caramel and walnut whipped cream ($7) was sweet but not sugary, and sorbets and seasonal crisps are usually available.
La Haye, which rhymes with "cafe," turns out to be the name of the owner of the building, not an exotic village in France, as one might think. But the town of Sonoma, of course, has long had a romance with France, and at La Haye, Norman Owens marries the very best Sonoma ingredients with nouvelle French cooking styles. He's clearly carved out his niche as a chef, and put his own unique stamp on dishes that will bring in tourists from around the world, who come to Sonoma for the wine and the history, as well as locals looking for something above and beyond the usual fare.
Cafe La Haye. Open for dinner, Tuesday&–Saturday. 140 E. Napa St., Sonoma. 707.935.5994.