Sonoma County reminds me of France. I mean look at the above picture of Dry Creek Valley. It could easily have been taken in the south of France. The Languedoc maybe. Or Burgundy to the west even. It also has a lot of what makes France special. Great food, amazing wine, beautiful countryside. Sonoma County, the step-sister to the more well-liked, more popular Napa Valley, is my preference of the two. Slower, rougher, less populated but just as interesting in the areas of food and wine -- and it also has the stunning Sonoma Coast. So take that Napa Valley!
On a recent vacation to the area I was reminded how much folks in the Bay Area like to eat. I'd always known this; from living in San Francisco during the early 80s through the early 90s, and from working in the food and restaurant business. I sold cheese at Oakville Grocery -- the S.F. food emporium; I cooked at Jeremiah Tower's Santa Fe Bar & Grill in Berkeley; I helped Chef Tower open Stars restaurant in San Francisco; I met all the chefs and foodies in town; I ate at all the great restaurants in the area: Stars, Zuni Cafe, Chez Panisse, Square One, Masa's, Mustard's in Napa, on and on. It was a great time to eat in San Francisco. The food scene during that period was phenomenal. Once I'd left it and moved on, I missed it terribly.
Thankfully I was able to experience it again. Robert and I ate very well during our week's stay in Gureneville on the Russian River. I'd read about Zazu Restaurant & Farm, and Bovolo somewhere on the Internet and knew I wanted to try both. Both places are owned by married Chefs Duskie Estes and John Stewart; they also own the Black Pig Meat Co. where they make their own bacon and salumi from pigs that come from a sustainable hog operation, Pure Country Pork, in the Northwest. John is the salumist, studied with Mario Battali, and is responsible for the Black Pig meats, bacon and salumi that Zazu and Bovolo serve. Bovolo is a cafe inside a bookstore in Healdsburg, and Zazu is located on the edge of Santa Rosa and has a kitchen garden.
We ate at Zazu on a Wednesday night. The place was packed. The food was bliss. They describe themselves as a roadhouse restaurant serving playful Americana and Northern Italian inspired food. That is apt and I love the idea of an old-fashioned roadhouse. The place absolutely had that feel. Long and narrow; set just off the two-lane road; a dirt parking lot; and a counter with stools when you first walk in. We started with the Black Pig Salumi - 'Butcher's Plate'; four 'flavors' of salumi: backyard thyme, lomo, harissa, and felino served with pickled grapes. The salumi was rough and coarse and nicely fatty. The four preparations each distinctively different from the other without dwarfing the cured pork flavor of the meat. The pickled grapes? Really interesting -- little grape explosions in the mouth. We shared a "Caesar" -- romaine leaves with Vella dry jack and boccorones, or sardines. Robert had Seared Day Boat Scallops, Orzo Stuffed Squash Blossoms, Fennel Pollen, Backyard Tomatoes and Herbs. I had the Grilled Flat Iron Steak with Little Point Reyes Blue Cheese Ravioli, Ruby Chard. We ended with a house-made Chocolate Gelato with Scharfenberger Chocolate Sauce. I love cooking like this. Using local ingredients (as close as the kitchen garden); earthy and big in flavor and style. Somehow the food is exactly what should be served in the middle of wine country. European country cooking without being in Europe.
Bovolo was as good. The menu more simplified. The menu cover says 'Pizza, Gelato, Salumi.' They refer to the food as 'Slow Food... Fast.' Note the snail on their sign. I ate the World Famous Pork Cheek Sandwich with Roasted Peppers, Salsa Verde. The picture explains it better than I can. I'm still at a loss for words weeks later. The sandwich was served hot; the pork, the peppers and salsa verde all melded together into one crazily delicious taste sensation. These cooks know what they're doing. I also had the White Bean Salad -- spinach leaves, white beans, red onion in a green goddess-type dressing. Robert had the Farfalline Pasta Carbonara, Housemade Bacon, Farm Egg, Parmesan. It was the perfect wine country lunch. We'd spent an hour or so wandering around Healdsburg's town square and finished up sitting in Bovolo's garden eating this food. Napa Valley? Never heard of it.
And I'm still not sure if there's any connection to the French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec but there must be. I haven't had time to read through it yet. I'll report back. I couldn't leave without this book. The crowning moment in the used bookstore came when I noticed that the owner had a copy of 'Mastering The Art of French Cooking - Volume One' on a shelf behind the register. I asked about it. He said he hadn't had time yet to inventory, price and shelve it; he pulled it out and put it down on the counter in front of me. I opened it: there on the title page were three signatures, Julia Child, Simone Beck and Paul Child. The book was in pristine condition. He was asking $2,000 for it. I left without it. So that's it for my Sonoma County based food adventures for the moment. It's a magical place and I love it there. I can't wait to go again next year. Or sooner even.
In This Post: Zazu Restaurant & Farm, Bovolo, Black Pig Meat Co., Pure Country Pork
My Status: trying to get back on track after a wonderful vacation. More cooking, eating, dining out, writing and blogging. Thinking ahead to cooler fall weather and praying that the fires in Los Angeles end soon, and that there are not more of them.
Upcoming Posts: 'gleaning,' or the act of gathering public produce, or leftover farmer's market produce, and giving it to the poor, needy and hungry. A history of the movement, and those that are involved with it. Reviews: 'The Berghoff Cafe Cookbook' and 'Cooking Light,' a review of the redesign of the Time Inc. magazine.