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