Ume Japanese Bistro, 8710 Old Redwood Hwy., Windsor. 707.838.6700.
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Foodie noun (informal)
1. A person with a particular interest in food; a gourmet.
2. The demographic for whom Sonoma County Restaurant Week was created.
In this issue, we take a trip to Asia, showcasing the diversity of flavors of Sonoma County Restaurant Week, from Thailand, China, Vietnam and Japan, even adding American and French twists in places. At times the food and atmosphere at these restaurants feels so authentic, it's like taking a mini vacation. One half expects to see Anthony Bourdain chatting with a fellow chef while a film crew awkwardly careens in for a close-up of glistening fat globules floating atop a bowl of piping hot beef noodle soup.
But, no, these places are all within reasonable driving distance, and the only cameras will probably be part of a smartphone, destined for Instagram. Hashtag delicious. Hashtag foodporn. Hashtag—OK, you get the picture.
But there was a time when food wasn't about "likes" but about taste and presentation. These restaurants are a prime example of that. Pongo's Kitchen and Tap Room in Petaluma offers Thai-inspired plates and local brews; Eight, in Sebastopol, combines Cantonese, French and American styles for a unique Asian fusion flavor; Kettle's in Santa Rosa brings Vietnamese cuisine to the table, including the messy and wonderful Vietnamese crepe; Iconic Santa Rosa Chinese restaurant Gary Chu's is still a top-notch favorite; and Windsor's Ume makes elegant Japanese dishes that are as beautiful as they are tasty.
By the end of the week, you might wish it were Sonoma County Restaurant Month, because there are far more prix fixe options at all three price points—$19, $29 and $39—than allotted meal times in the week. But, hey, take it as a challenge to try as many new places as possible, revisit some old favorites offering a good deal and make a list for next year's event. As Mae West said, "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful."
Tried and True Comes Through: Gary Chu's Chinese Cuisine
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CHU IT GOOD The pooh-bah of Cali-Chinese cuisine
Say the words "Chinese food," and the name "Gary Chu" probably comes to mind. Chu's flagship restaurant on Fifth Street in Santa Rosa wasn't the first in the North Bay to serve wonton soup, spare ribs and chow mein, but it was the first to serve innovative California-style Chinese cuisine, rather than plain old Chinese cooking.
With his brother, Christopher, Gary crafted a stunning menu that includes steamed sea bass, rib eye steak, tea-smoked duck and lobster with scallions and ginger. These days, Christopher does most of the cooking at Gary Chu's on Fifth, while Gary slices fresh fish with the sharpest of knives at Osake, his popular Japanese restaurant near Montgomery Village.
I first ate at his Chinese restaurant in the 1980s, when he greeted everyone who walked through the front door. Now, more than 30 years later, his hair is whiter, though he still has youthful energy, an infectious laugh and he's as articulate as ever on the subject of food.
"When I started out in this business, there was very little competition from other Asian restaurants," he tells me. "Now, Thai and Vietnamese are all over the place, and we have to hustle more."
The other major challenge, he explains, was to balance the old with the new. "Almost everything we do, we do according to American taste buds," he says. "Americans like things sweeter than the Chinese. I do my best to respect tradition, even as I give customers what they want."
For those who demand authentic Chinese food, Chu goes out of his way to make dishes using ingredients like dry scallops and pork belly. "I don't have secrets," he says. "But I'll tell you this, my Chinese cuisine is unique."
At his downtown restaurant, I enjoy the pork pot stickers doused with hot sauce. I then devour the fresh pea leaves sautéed in garlic, the imperial fried rice with pork and the seafood chow fun. For special occasions, I have made it a point to call in ahead of time and ask for Peking duck; a 24-hour notice is required, but it's worth it. Tried and true, Gary Chu comes through.
"I'm not retiring anytime soon," he says. "I have kids in college, and, besides, I love doing what I do."—Jonah Raskin
We Eight the Whole Thing: Eight Cuisine & Wine
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THE WOK MASTER Michael Ly holds down the Cantonese fortifications at Eight
"Eight is a super-lucky number in Asian culture," says general manager Michelle Speakes as she explains the genesis of Eight Cuisine & Wine, the latest culinary outpost from restaurateur Steven Zhao. "In Shanghai, if your car has a license plate number with three consecutive 8s, you'll never get a ticket."
But it's not just the lucky signifier—the numeral also represents the regions represented on the Eight Cuisine menu. The Sebastopol pan-Asian newcomer—it's been in business about a year—offers classic Cantonese Chinese dishes (orange sesame chicken, pork spare-ribs) alongside Shanghai noodles and other French-classical dishes, prepared, as it were, with an Asian twist.
Two chefs help Eight Cuisine hold down the span-Asian offerings, says Speakes. Michael Ly (shown) is the wok-master trained in classical Cantonese cooking. The other, Ryan McDonald is "a young white boy who's worked with Scott Howard and others," she says.
McDonald is responsible for what Speakes describes as the "elevated higher-end side of the menu," whose tantalizing offerings include a grilled Australian lamb with red curry lentils, bacon, coconut milk, cauliflower and mint chutney. Duck confit is served with baby kale salad, carrots, honshimeji mushrooms, hearts of palm and mandarins. A filet mignon is served with Korean bulgogi sauce.
There's a burger, too, from Montana. That's not quite in Asia, but the burger does feature Sriracha-based ketchup and Korean kimchi, along with the old-fashioned American fries (or your choice of a salad).
The signature "Incredible Eight Cuisine Noodles" is a noteworthy and recommended option on the lunch menu (there's also brown and jasmine rice, and the noodles are also offered as a side dish). Incredible, indeed: monstrously thick and chewy chow mein noodles are prepared very simply with minced garlic, basil and butter. Call it Asian-Italian, or call it whatever you want—just order it.
A lunch plate called the Triple Green Jade features a basic, fresh-green-and-crunchy preparation of wok-fried snow peas, broccoli and green beans, cooked in a white wine sauce and featuring fried tofu rectangles peppered throughout the verdant victuals. It goes well with a side of noodles. A preliminary bowl of hot and sour soup reveals itself as a salty and jumbo portion of the classic Chinese offering, with a thick but never gummy broth. On a cold and rainy day in Northern California, it's the perfect soul warmer.
Speakes says everything at Eight Cuisine is made fresh in-house every day, with high-quality ingredients rounded up from a who's who of local purveyors of note, including Andy's Produce, Golden Gate Meat, Rosie's Organic Chicken and others.
The restaurant's décor and general outlook wholly befits the casual elegance of Sebastopol itself: tablecloths are cream-colored, and service is all smiles and ease. "We don't like stuffy service here," says Speakes. "And we tried white tablecloths, but they were way too bright."—Tom Gogola
Pho Real: Kettles Vietnamese Bistro
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KETTLE OF DELISH Cat Do keeps up with the vegans
"It's been quite a ride," says Kettles Vietnamese Bistro owner Cat Do, who opened her Santa Rosa restaurant almost two years ago after bailing out on an accounting career. "I didn't want to sit behind a desk all day," says the 35-year-old Sonoma State University graduate. "I wanted to be my own boss."
Do, who moved to Santa Rosa from her hometown of San Diego 15 years ago, oversees a menu that spans Vietnamese food choices from classic pho to various curries and noodle-based lovelies, including specialty items such as the iron pot rice combo, a tantalizing offering of free-range chicken, pork sausages, barbecue pork and various things called "vegetables."
Spring and summer rolls and dumplings make their de rigueur appearance on the starters menu, which also features my all-time favorite Asian appetizer, sugar cane shrimp (chao tom), which is exactly that: minced shrimp grilled on sugar cane sticks.
Do was busily putting together Kettles' updated menu of vegan fare during my recent weekday visit. The crowd was heavy on lawyers and judges from nearby Sonoma County outposts of justice, along with various other worker bees out for a fresh and filling lunch. The vegan-friendly update, says Do, came about after customers approached her asking for modifications to dishes such as the bánh mì, which has a pepper-mayonnaise spread that's off-limits to vegans.
The menu also notes, with pride, that Kettles' dishes are 90 percent gluten free. "I noticed a lot of people approached us saying they are becoming more and more allergic to gluten as well," says Do. "It's been really fun to try and cater to this niche," she says, adding that it's "not fully emphasized in a lot of restaurants, at least not in Asian restaurants." Another menu tweak that bespeaks the regional tongue: most dishes come with a suggested wine pairing.
The bánh mì is a hit. The classic Vietnamese sandwich is loaded with pickled carrots and daikon, cucumber, fresh jalapenos, cilantro and soy, all served on a crunchy-chewy French baguette. I ordered it with barbecue pork (other options include braised beef oxtail and lemongrass tofu), and doused it with numerous mega-squirts of the blessedly hot Sriracha sauce, which appeared in a tableside condiment rack, as if in a dream.
We passed on the suggested Barrique Chardonnay pairing, but the house-made limeade was a welcome accompaniment to the sandwich as we wept tears of hot-sauce bliss while devouring the super-fresh sandwich.
"We focus on a lot of things here," Do says, "fresh, healthy and—I know it's an abused word—natural ingredients that focus on good health."
By all means, keep up the abuse. —Tom Gogola
Quest for Freshness: Pongo's Kitchen & Tap
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PONGO LOVE Chef Pleinnnikul will drop some mind-melting pork belly on your platter.
Tucked away in an unassuming strip mall in Petaluma, Pongo's bright, colorful interior creates a welcoming, tropical dining experience for its fresh Pan-Asian food. In fact, "fresh" and "local" are chef Pongo Pleinnikul's keywords for inspiration at his eponymously named restaurant.
In their quest for the freshest ingredients, Pleinnikul and his family planted a garden to supply the restaurant with homegrown vegetables and herbs, adding a just-picked freshness to the dishes. Pleinnikul also searches markets for the latest seasonal ingredients, coming up with cool and spicy combinations that include Thai, Vietnamese and even Mexican flavors.
One recent special included pork belly, marinated overnight in sea salt and black pepper then pan-fried. "It's like bacon on steroids," Pleinnikul chuckles. Traditional Thai curries share the menu with creative fusion dishes, such as chicken satay wrap or barbecued beef with a chili lime sauce. Lettuce cups, soup bowls, rice dishes, burgers and all kinds of noodles round out the menu. The most popular menu item at the moment is Nick's Special, created by Pleinnikul's son, Nick. "He was hungry, and pan-fried some noodles then added vegetables and topped it with our peanut sauce," Pleinnikul says. "Now it has become the most ordered dish." The peanut sauce is a velvety concoction made with house-roasted peanuts and coconut milk, adding an addictive richness to whatever it's served with.
The atmosphere at Pongo's is cozy, though it gets pretty happening at times, especially Thursday nights when live music is featured. "We get bands that are local acts that folks know," Pleinnikul says. Bands from Petaluma and Sonoma like Alec Fuhrman, the Messengers and Granular are a few of the acts coming up in the near future. Karaoke on Friday and Saturday nights is another popular draw.
In keeping with the local theme, the taps are filled with beers from Sonoma and Marin, including 101 North Brewing and Lagunitas. A full complement of local wines rounds out the bar, giving diners lots of options to pair with the spicy food. —Brooke Jackson
Passion for the Ocean: Ume Japanese Bistro
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UME-VISION Owner Kelly Shu in her Windsor sushi emporium
Like a bright urchin glistening in a tidepool, Windsor's Ume Japanese Bistro waits to be discovered by the curious ocean lover looking for the beauty of the natural world.
The uni, delivered fresh from Fort Bragg, tastes as if it had been plucked from the rocks that morning. The creamy, oceanic richness overwhelms my senses as I struggle to find words to show my appreciation to chef Eduardo Tejeda for making this simple yet complexly flavored dish so perfectly. But words aren't necessary—the veteran sushi chef knows everything I'm trying to say simply by reading my face.
"Some customers come in and ask for something special, just for them," he says. "I look at how they look at the fish. Reading the customers is a challenge, but that's why it's fun."
Tejeda has been a sushi chef for 21 years, five of them at Ume. The restaurant focuses on simplicity to achieve its elegant look, both on the plate and in the dining room. "It's like a painting," says Tejeda about the plating of his dishes. "I start with the background, then vocalize the colors."
And, as owner Kelly Shu chimes in, the visual aspect is a complement to the taste. Her husband, Chang Liow, is a certified sommelier, and Ume offers hand-selected sakes and wines to accompany their dishes, which can rotate on a monthly basis. Shu says Ume's style is at times experimental, thought it sticks mostly to classic sushi and sashimi, with "a twist to traditional Japanese dishes."
There are plenty of customers that don't even look at the menu, "They say, 'Just make me something,'" says Shu. Most are regulars, but some travel from as far away as Petaluma and Ukiah for the omakase, a dish that translates roughly to "trust the chef." It's a good bet that in a place like Ume that will be the best selection, even if it's a complete surprise. Tejeda takes immense pride in his work. Having studied in San Francisco's Japantown and being offered a job at Iron Chef Matsumoto's eponymously named restaurant in Napa, he chooses to work closer to home, in Windsor.
Tejeda says a key to the restaurant's success is teamwork. He is quick to praise his fellow chefs, saying he teaches them as much as he can. "That makes the restaurant better," he says. And, of course, all new dishes have to pass the Shu test.
Restaurant week is a testing ground for dishes that have become menu staples, says Shu, and every dish on the tasting menu is a new, off-menu item.—Nicolas Grizzle