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.
On Peter Lowell's website, there's a chart that seems to represent some sort of great cosmic message. It's a circle with "West County," "Biodynamic Winery," "Local Farm" and other feel-good terms hanging like bracelet charms around it. Click on the words and the secrets are revealed. With "Coffee Cooperative," a link pops up, explaining that the restaurant uses Fazenda Santa Terezinha's Brazilian beans and why. Same for "local farm" (the bistro supports sustainable-organic growers) and "winery" (green practices).
The cafe promises Italian-inspired healthy fare that changes constantly with the seasons and what's fresh each day; there's seafood and cheese but no meat, and everything is artisan or heirloom and homemade.
It's all about community, the website reminds us, and why not? Most of this food is as enjoyable as it is earth-saving.
It can be confusing, though. One evening, I stood at the counter trying to order dinner. Nightly choices aren't written on the very abbreviated printed menu or chalkboard over the deli case. A staffer tried to explain them in rapid fire: marinated roasted crab with winter greens; Matsutake-chanterelle risotto with goat cheese; pappardelle pasta with fried eggplant and ricotta salata in marinara. I think.
Except that the staffer kept forgetting ingredients and kept getting interrupted by guests lined up behind me, asking, "What was that?" "How is that prepared?" and "What is [insert obscure vegetable/grain/meat substitute here]?"
I defaulted to two menu-printed dishes I could simply point at: a pizza of rapini, tempeh, cannellini beans, rosemary and fontina ($13), plus a salad of punterella (a bitter Italian green like Belgian endive) braised with garlic, chile and capers finished with Pecorino Romano and organic EVOO ($5).
The kitchen can be uneven. The pizza was good, thin-crusted and crackly from an 800-degree oven with an intriguing blend of textures and a not unpleasant nutty-acrid tang. Unfortunately, the salad was so extraordinarily bitter and terribly oversalted that even the capers sent up a white flag.
At lunch a few days later, I found that a Reuben ($6) —wasn't. Instead, it featured excellent toasted dark rye cradling mounds of house made crunchy sauerkraut laced with thin shards of marinated, peppered, grilled seitan under Gruyère and thin, zingy "Russian River" dressing. A tuna melt ($6) is more straightforward, piled with chunked dark albacore, ceci beans (chickpeas) and Gruyère on superb crisp-crusted sourdough.
Gemischte salat ($5) is beautiful, tumbling baby lettuces colored like fall leaves among radish moons and sunflower seeds in crystal-bright cilantro vinaigrette, while another salad of heirloom chicories ($5) is a portrait of winter with sliced local apples, sweet almonds and crumbles of Point Reyes blue cheese glistening in vinaigrette.
Ultimately, what's a little chaos and imbalance in this crazy world? Peter Lowell's is a very welcome addition to the West County cosmos.
Peter Lowell's, 7385 Healdsburg Ave., Sebastopol. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Monday-Friday; lunch and dinner, Saturday-Sunday. 707.829.1077.