The shady brick courtyard of Sarah's Forestville Kitchen is packed with diners enjoying the dappled shade of the huge tree and listening to a jazz trio while eating Sunday brunch. Greg Hallihan, chef and owner, welcomes the end of the rainy season, happy to see customers at the bar and tables inside and out. "I like to tell people to come out and sit under the big tulip tree with a good friend or two or three or four," says Hallihan, "and have a nice meal."
Hallihan's culinary passion began as a five-year-old, when his family went out for Chinese food. "I thought Chinese hot mustard was the best thing in the world," he laughs. "My mom was a terrible cook and couldn't even fry an egg. Becoming interested in cooking was more of a survival thing."
Returning to the North Bay, Hallihan worked on the west Sonoma County food circuit as a sous chef at both the Willowside Cafe and Cafe Lolo in Santa Rosa. He also ran a catering company and took to the road with Bonnie Raitt during her "Nick of Time" tour.
Soon after returning, he met Sarah Burkdoll while catering a dinner at her home. The two became friends, and Burkdoll urged him to start a restaurant. The result was Stella's Cafe, which opened in 1999 to rave reviews and packed houses.
Hallihan moved westward again, this time landing in Forestville's center. Sadly, while Hallihan was renovating his new restaurant, Burkdoll died after a long illness. Sarah's Kitchen, which opened in May of last year, is named in her memory.
Sarah's offers lunch, brunch and dinners that reflect the chef's love for ethnic food. "I like eclectic food with different flavors," Hallihan enthuses. Menu specialties include a Vietnamese salad ($9.95) with crispy veggies, papaya, peanuts and a spicy sesame ginger dressing; fish tacos ($8.95) with Bodega Bay red snapper; and a truffled egg salad sandwich with asiago cheese and crumbled bacon, a touch of French influence.
"As long as it's different and I can switch it around, that's my passion," says Hallihan. "Eating the same thing all the time is not too much fun."
Hallihan hopes to keep the menu affordable (the highest-priced item is $18.95), while adding more small plates, theme nights and more live music. Winemaker dinners are offered several times per year.
"Nothing makes me happier than a braised short rib with garlic mashed potatoes and a big glass of zinfandel," says Hallihan. "I love the social aspect of cooking."
Sarah's Forestville Kitchen, 6566 Front St., Forestville. 707.887.1055. Breakfast and lunch, Wednesday-Friday; dinner, Friday-Saturday; brunch Saturday-Sunday. Closed Monday-Tuesday. Cash only. 707.887.1055. www.sarahsforestvillekitchen.com.