Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Sonoma County

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.

The rest of the vacation wasn't quite as food-filled as described above. We had our moments of swimming and kayaking on the Russian River; bicycling around Gureneville, and just relaxing. But there is one other food related experience I do want to share. Guerneville, a very small resort town, happens to have a used bookstore. We were at the coffee place next door one day and wandered in. I asked the owner if he had any cookbooks and boy did he. Several shelves full and more coming. A local man who had a huge cookbook collection had died recently; the store owner bought the whole collection at the estate sale. I snatched these books up: 'Craig Claiborne's Kitchen Primer,' 'Beard on Pasta,' 'Food In Good Season' by Betty Fussell, 'James Beard's Treasury of Outdoor Cooking,' and probably my favorite 'La Cuisine de France - The Modern French Cookbook' by Mapie, the Countess de Toulouse-Lautrec! It's over 700 pages long. The copyright is 1964. She was only three years after Julia and 'Mastering The Art of French Cooking'. It's written in English; each recipe has the title in both English and French.

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.
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  1. Thanks Jo. I thought of you while eating all those pork inspired dishes!

  2. Sounds you had a wonderful vacation! I like Sonoma better than Napa too. Did you do any wine tasting?

  3. Oh how I wish we were there with you guys! Sounds like so much fun, the food looks delicious glad you enjoyed it!
    (I love all the wine tasting spots there too)!!!

  4. I will say this, Charles - if I weren't headed there in 3 weeks, I'd be even more envious of you than I am right now. What a trip you had. It sounds relaxing, quiet, and filled with food adventures.

    I love the logo for bovolo. I stared at the snail and wondered why they chose that image. Were they French? Did they serve snails? Using a slug in your restaurant's logo seems odd. But after you described it (slow food) it made perfect sense. I love it, very clever.

    The food looks amazing, and you did a great job explaining it. We rarely try new places when we go there now, because it just seems wrong to pass up an opportunity to eat at Ad Hoc, which only comes once a year. But we may have to make an exception this time around.

    And you are SO RIGHT about Sonoma (and Napa for that matter). It does have that feel of France. The food, the wine, the atmosphere -- even Eric Ripert said it when he visited The French Laundry with Bourdain on A Cook's Tour.

  5. Thanks to all for the comments. Always appreciated.

    Natasha: we did do some wine tasting both in Healdsburg at Stephen & Walker, and in the Dry Creek area at Papapietro Perry, and Hop Kiln. I drove, Robert drank!

    Afaf: thanks. We just love it up there. Robert got some wine tasting in too.

    Phil: thanks as always. You guys should think about Zazu for dinner if you can get over there. I forgot that you mentioned the Bourdain/Eric Ripert comment in another comment before. If he said it then I know I am not off base.

  6. What a great vacation! The next time we head that direction I'd love to spend more time in Sonoma. It sounds like it is really our speed.

  7. Thanks Phoo-D. I definitely recommend it. If you do end up going let me know and I'll have more recommendations for you.

  8. Looks like a simply dreamy vacation! Our friend has a boutique winery in Sonoma & they have a rather nice guest house, so I'm thinking we should head up there soon!!

  9. Thanks, Lori. I just love it up there. You should definitely go up especially if you have a great place to stay.