Best Destination for Culinary Cheats
"That was the best roast chicken I ever tasted," raves your dinner party guest wistfully prodding the small pile of gnawed-clean bones on her otherwise empty plate. Alas, it's all gone. "What's your secret?" she continues. "I must have the recipe!" You can only smile mysteriously and mutter something unintelligible about having "simply stuck it in the oven," then rapidly divert the subject to "Coffee?" and dart into the kitchen. You are a fraud. The beautiful golden roasted chicken redolent with garlic and rosemary and stuffed with lemons that you proudly served this night is not your own. You bought it ready-cooked from the local gourmet-deli Pearson & Co., then disguised it in aluminum foil and laid it to rest atop mother's old baking pan. Everyone adored it. You have some Pearson & Co. handmade fruit tarts waiting in the fridge for dessert. They look great on your new yellow plates. You hadn't planned to take all the credit, but ... .Your mind is already scheming. Next time you'll serve Pearson & Co.'s old-fashioned meat loaf with brown-sugar glaze accompanied by the "homemade" roasted garlic mashed potatoes and blue lake beans with roasted shallots and basil. Once again, you'll bask in the glory and admiration of your dinner guests. And you won't ever tell. Pearson & Co., 2759 Fourth St., Santa Rosa; 541-3868.
Best Place to Get a Heart Attack on a Plate
This header is a bit of a misnomer. You aren't going to have a heart attack from eating just one platter of anything--not even the sweet 'n' spicy beanless chili that's been flowing freely since 1951 at Ingram's Chili Bowl. You'd have to eat it morning, noon, and night for years to rack up conclusive guilt in the postmortem. Mondays over enchiladas, say, Thursdays over a cheeseburger pillowed on a soft white bun, Sunday mornings over a plate of hash browns and two wide-eyed eggs. You'd have to hover near the counter for decades, toying with the flashy red slot machine that dispenses free meals and extra pulls, before your lungs gave any hint of reacting to the salty grease that hangs thick in the air. Some of the folks in the booths have probably been coming here for that long, and look how good they're doing. Anyway, it wouldn't be a bad way to go. Ingram's Chili Bowl, 3925 Old Redwood Hwy., Santa Rosa.
Best Local Red Wine You Can't Buy
Why is it that things which are unattainable have the greatest allure? Flashy sports cars. Hillside mansions. Heather Locklear. Add to this list the 1995 Herzog Special Edition Cabernet Sauvignon. Made from grapes grown in the Alexander Valley, this wine--encountered by chance at a Southern California wine shop's annual "Cab Fest"--possesses everything a cab lover craves: a smorgasbord of fruit flavors, a toasty oak frame, a hint of vanilla-spice, and a creamy texture. The tariff is steep: $46. And this wine is almost impossible to find, since a mere 230 cases were produced. Our advice: Grease the palm of your favorite vino purveyor and see if that does any good. If not, perhaps Heather will be more accessible now that "Melrose Place" is ending its run.
Best Local Red Wine You Can Buy
It's amazing how three-figure price tags can actually motivate deep-pocketed wine lovers to reach for their plastic. Our friends over the hill in Napa offer a number of $100-plus cabernet sauvignons--Harlan Estate, Bryant Family, and Diamond Creek come immediately to mind--and these bottlings are gobbled up almost as quickly as they're released. But if you're interested in buying wine to drink, rather than fawn over, there are many tasty choices right in our own backyard. The best value of the past year in Sonoma County cabernet? Our money's on the 1996 rendition by St. Francis. This polished wine has a lot going on in the glass while managing to remain smooth and accessible. And with a modest $12 price tag, you can buy eight bottles of St. Francis for the same amount of dough you'd spend on one bottle of Napa juice. You do the math.
Best Debut in a Dining Desert
When X-Files empress Gillian Anderson (aka agent Dana Scully) sauntered in unannounced for supper one recent evening, Mariposa co-owner Shawn Kearney-Tang knew the tiny new Windsor restaurant had found its place on the gourmet map. "[Anderson] suddenly walked into the restaurant, and I just stared at her and thought, 'Yesss!' " recalls Kearney-Tang, who together with her chef-husband, Ray Tang, has changed the image of the county's youngest town from culinary wasteland to chic-dining destination with their popular bistro. Windsor is a-changing. Maybe it's a conspiracy! We can't guarantee you'll spot a celeb during a trip to Mariposa, but we do know you'll encounter sophisticated seasonal fare (soups, seafood risottos, et al.) with a French-Asian twist, and delectable wines by the bottle or glass. But take along your autograph book--just in case. Mariposa, 275 Windsor River Road, Windsor; 838-0162.
Best Way to Slip Somebody Some Tongue
First, place it between some lettuce and slices of rye that have been slathered with mayo and tear-jerking horseradish. Then surround it with lots of pickles and chips. Voila! Great tongue, great sandwich at the mother of all sandwich-making establishments, Mac's Deli. Mac's has been holding down the center of Fourth Street between Mendocino Avenue and D Street for 46 years, making it the oldest restaurant on Fourth Street, and the menu certainly has retained that timeless feel. The classics get piled on generously, the old-country meats--from herring to headcheese to liverwurst--served up with nary a sideways glance. Mac's also cooks up a mean breakfast, but the main focus of the menu is the full page of sandwiches, with lots of room for personal inventiveness. Mac's Kosher-Style Delicatessen, 630 Fourth St., Santa Rosa; 545-3785.
Best Local Cheap (Real) Zinfandel
Advisory: This is not a paragraph about white zinfandel. The next 76 words are about real zinfandel. Red zinfandel. Specifically, cheap red zinfandel. Our definition of "cheap": under $10. And the winner is: Rabbit Ridge 1995 California Barrel Cuvee, priced at a mere nine bucks. Rabbit Ridge knows zin, and even in this ultra-affordable bottling, the winery manages to squeeze out tasty cherry and spice flavors. Willing to spend a dollar more? Cline Cellars' California bottling offers a similar flavor spectrum with a touch of plum thrown in.
Best Local White Wine You Can Afford to Drink Every Day
Chardonnay lovers must deal with sticker shock on a regular basis, but not so fans of sauvignon blanc. This under-appreciated grape, when put in the hands of a talented vintner, blossoms into wines that are bright, refreshing and easy to love. All of those descriptors apply to Geyser Peak's 1997 Sonoma County bottling. Flavors? Think Sprite, sans bubbles, with a little kick. And at $7, it's an absolute steal. Runners-up in the affordable sauvignon blanc category: Canyon Road, Chateau St. Jean, and Benziger.
Best Place to Get Halitosis
Lovers of the stinking rose, rejoice! Johnny Garlic's is the kind of joint where it's perfectly permissible, if not absolutely required, to emerge from a meal with the type of pungent dragon breath that would fell Dracula at 50 paces. The chefs at Johnny Garlic's don't let a trivial thing like food get in the way of their daily tribute to the full-flavored god. They will cram the bodacious bulb into just about every item on the sizable menu, from the wonderfully addictive garlic salt-clinging potato chips, to the fragrant creamy soup, to the garlic-infused chicken. This is the place for true garlic aficionados, who will devour the aromatic root any way they can-- baked, fried, roasted, caramelized, or raw. And they won't wait to exhale. Altoids, anyone? Johnny Garlic's, 1460 Farmers Lane, Santa Rosa; 571-1800. Also, 8988 Brooks Road, Windsor; 836-8300.
Best Place to Eat If You Can Afford Only One Meal a Day
We discovered El Farolito in high school, when you could drive to Roseland at lunch and not have to worry about paying for the gas because it was Mom's car anyway. They've got about 10 items on the menu, but the whole point of going there is for a burrito, staple of the Financially Challenged Sonoma County Young-Person Diet. When I first bit into their vegetarian burrito ($2.65), I knew I'd be a customer for a long, long time. It's years later and although it seems a bit dubious that you can get a three-pound, foot-long burrito filled with rice, beans, cheese, onions, salsa, sour cream, and an entire avocado for under three dollars, I still frequent this fine establishment because (1) I'm strapped for cash, (2) their food tastes incredible, and (3) I've gone there at 11 p.m. and they're still open. Caveat emptor: The bathrooms are in perpetual need of cleaning. Taqueria El Favorito, 565 Sebastopol Road, Santa Rosa; 526-7444.
Best Address for a Cyber Imbiber
Key in www.rodneystrong.com and you'll be transported electronically to a virtual tour of Healdsburg's Rodney Strong Winery. This site has everything a cyber imbiber could want: detailed descriptions of available wines, a brief history of the winery, hours of operation, and a schedule of upcoming events. There's even a "Menus" section featuring an array of recipes keyed to the seasons, including--do you have your bib in place?--wild mushroom-crusted tournedos of beef with merlot pan sauce. The site features classy graphics, easy-to-read text and gorgeous color photography. Go there directly, or take a slightly circuitous route through www.visit. sonoma.com and check out several other "sites" along the way.
Best Concession to Health Consciousness
Eating well does not mean you can't enjoy your food. That's what they say, at any rate--"they" being nutritionists, dietitians, and other health professionals who make their livings in part off of telling people what not to eat. I want to believe, but it's so damn hard when "healthy food"in restaurant parlance too often involves reshaping classic recipes out of reluctant ingredients. All food needs to resonate with its own inner purpose and beautiful taste, not be a pawn in the healthier-than-thou game. California Thai meets that challenge head-on, with a full vegan menu that gets handed out automatically--you don't even need to ask! The food captures the essence of Thai cooking--ginger, lemongrass, basil, mint; crunchy, salty, sweet--in such a way that you won't notice what's missing, because everything that's needed is there. A special heartfelt bow to the vegetarian rice crepes, a sort of a spring roll-in-the-raw, with fresh bean sprouts, carrots, and spinach, dipped in sweet sauce. California Thai Restaurant, 522 Seventh St., Santa Rosa; 573-1441.
Best Place to Get Battered and Fried
A sparse salad of Sonoma leaves and a glass of chilled viognier may be enough to assuage some dainty appetites at teatime, but it's not enough for this former Londoner. Pay no heed to W. Somerset Maugham, who once proclaimed: "If you would eat well in England, you must eat breakfast three times a day." It just ain't so. When it's time to refuel, forget the porridge and boiled eggs. Sometimes a hefty portion of golden battered fish, a mountain of crunchy chips (naturally, with lashings of malt vinegar and a liberal shaking of salt), and a steaming mug of industrial-strength tea with milk is the only way to fortify flagging spirits. Betty's Fish & Chips delivers these traditional delicacies in a cheery, casual eatery and take-out filled with British souvenirs. And you don't have to be an expatriate to find comfort in the supremely insulating qualities of Betty's flaky Icelandic cod, crisp chips, and sweet homemade pies. Betty's Fish & Chips, 4046 Sonoma Hwy., Santa Rosa; 539-0899.
Best Local Winemaker Rolling in Dough
Picking a winner in this category was easy: Preston Vineyards may be the only local winery that also makes bread. But even if Lou Preston weren't the sole winemaker rolling in dough, he'd likely lay claim to being the county's best vintner/baker. Trust your trusty reporter on this one. Having grown up in a bakery and formed 10s of thousands of loaves over the years, I know bread. And Preston's bread is heavenly. Little wonder: Preston has turned the bread-making process into a science. After much trial and error, he opted for a brick oven over metal, wood fuel over gas, and wet dough over firm. Take one bite of Preston's chewy sourdough bread, and you'll understand that he possesses just as much passion for baking and he does for winemaking.
Best Place for an Al Fresco Feeding Frenzy
The culprit is El Niño. Or maybe it's La Niña. Or perhaps there's some truth to the claim that the government is performing strange experiments on the weather and creating climatic extremes of all kinds. Whatever the reason, it's sure getting tough to predict when the time'll be right for a little outdoor noshing. When that elusive sun-caressed day or temperate evening finally arrives, we'll head over to the cozy, sheltered garden at Della Santina's restaurant off the Sonoma Plaza. There, on the rustic brick patio, we'll luxuriate in the fresh, fragrant air, surrounded by shade trees, overhanging grape vines, and ivy-decorated walls. We'll watch the water spritz forth from the nearby fountain and listen to the background opera arias emanating from the sound system. As the sun sets and the table candles begin to glow, we'll maybe order a plate of meltingly soft gnocchi and a bottle of sangiovese. We'll settle back in our wrought-iron chairs and make a toast to the fickle weather gods--and hope we won't have need to curse them tomorrow. Della Santina's, 133 E. Napa St., Sonoma; 935-0576.
Best Chardonnay-Growing Region
In recent years, chardonnay lovers have uttered the word "Carneros" in tones almost as reverent as those reserved by cabernet sauvignon aficionados for Napa Valley. And with good reason. The Carneros region in southern Sonoma and Napa counties has produced some mighty tasty chardonnays in recent years. But who wants to share a region with Napa? When it comes to exclusively home-grown chards, we tip our fedora to the Russian River Valley. In this 150-square-mile area stretching roughly from Sebastopol to Healdsburg, world-class bottlings are being produced by dozens of vintners. Some are pricy, but many are very reasonably priced. Among the former: Iron Horse's Green Valley Cuvee Joy ($50), Williams Selyem's Allen Vineyard ($42), and Rochioli's South River Vineyard Reserve ($40). Among the latter: Mueller ($15), Dehlinger ($18), and Martinelli's Gold Ridge ($20).
Best Maitre D'
Technically, there is no maitre d' on duty at the award-winning dining room at Healdsburg's famous Madrona Manor Inn. Brian White's title is dining room manager, but he is so efficient in his duties, so unfailingly charming and helpful in his interaction with his patrons, that he is often called maitre d' by grateful visitors. White--a longtime Sonoma County resident--having worked his way up from waiter, is quietly building a reputation as one of Sonoma County's best ... well, you pick the title. In the course of his job, he's also become something of a wine country ambassador, introducing out-of-state visitors to the sundry glories of Sonoma County wine and food. "Brian is a valuable asset to us. He's very good with people," says Madrona Manor's innkeeper, Carol Muir, who co-owns and runs the place with her husband, John Muir. "Brian's very knowledgeable about wine, always upgrading our wine list, trying to make it as good as it possibly can be. He's responsible also for the design of the menu itself and how it's set up." The restaurant serves three- and four-course meals. White selects and suggests appropriate wines to accompany each course. "A lot of our guests don't want to have a whole bottle of one wine while they're dining," says Muir. "They want the experience of enjoying and savoring several different wines. Brian is the one who set that up with our chef. Then Brian can explain how to get to the various wineries, and the operating hours and all that kind of thing. He's a pretty busy fellow." On a particularly warm night during last summer's heat wave, it was White's careful attention to his customer's potential discomfort, along with his friendly, easygoing demeanor, that made the Madrona Manor experience delightful--in spite of the heat. "That's the kind of person he is," enthuses Muir. "He makes people feel very welcome." Madrona Manor, 1001 Westside Road, Healdsburg; 433-4231.
Best One-Liners from the Wait Staff
Dempsey's Restaurant and Brewery waiter and freelance writer Rob Loughran possesses perhaps the most monumental store of gags, schtick, and one-liners of every color (including off) in Sonoma County. The 43-year-old father of eight, grandfather of three (no typo), hones his humor while slinging brews and mining his muse for such national publications as Omni, Men's Health, and Ladies' Circle. Currently at work on a screenplay, the Sonoma State grad regularly turns his day job into a veritable stand-up act, its degree of bawdiness dependent on his familiarity with his customers. Those interested in extreme humor are advised to get familiar. "Since humor is something that you think of five minutes too late, I'll have something for you as soon as you leave," Loughran quips when squeezed for some gags. Half a beat later comes a deluge of wit fit for print. "How many Sonoma State students does it take to screw in a light bulb?" Hella. "A snail goes up to a policeman and says, 'Help! Help! I just got mugged by two turtles.' The policeman says, 'Can you describe them?' The snail says, 'I don't know, it all happened so fast.' " "Did you hear about the cannibal that passed his cousin in the woods?" "What do call five guys from the Pyrenees standing in the same doorway? Having all your Basques in one exit." "Shortest joke in the world: A baby seal walks into a club." Ba-da-boom! "Polar bear walks up to its mom and asks, 'Am I 100 percent polar bear?' She says, 'Sure, why?' He says, ''Cause I'm freezing my butt off.' " Dempsey's Restaurant and Brewery, 50 E. Washington St., Petaluma; 765-9694. Ask for Rob.
From the March 25-31, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
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