"California cuisine" isn't a term used much these days, but there was a time when it was a hot buzzword in the restaurant world. It generally meant Mediterranean cuisine with Japanese influences presented in a whimsical, arty style on the plate. You know, teetering, vertically stacked foods with colorful squiggles of berry flavored beurre blanc sauces and such. The food never struck me as particularly Californian; in fact, some of the influence came from the even sillier spa-cuisine movement from the south of France.
But there are ingredients, dishes and aesthetics that are uniquely Californian. Looking at the opening menu at Sebastopol's Handline, a new restaurant from Peter Lowell's owners Lowell Sheldon and Natalie Goble, it comes pretty close to capturing what I think of California cuisine, at least coastal California, which really is a culinary entity of its own.
You can't talk about California cuisine without talking about Mexico, and Mexican food is a strong thread that runs through Handline—namely tacos, tostadas and ceviche. Goble learned to mill corn from the masters at Sonoma's El Molino Central. The kitchen will make tacos with made-to-order tortillas, including a Baja-style fish tacos that I can't wait to try. Also look for a fishermen's stew, raw and grilled oysters, fish and chips and a few burgers, beef and one bean-and-quinoa—very California.
Fresh fish will be the focus, but sourcing strictly local wild fish is tricky, Goble says. While she's commited to responsibly sourced seafood, developing regular Bodega Bay connections for fresh fish will take time.
The restaurant promises to be a destination with its light-filled dining room and spacious outdoor seating. The building is constructed around the former Foster's Freeze that once operated on the site, and it still echoes the mid-century architecture of the late burger joint. The wave-like designs and weathered steel in the building's exterior are supposed to conjure up images of the North Coast. The restaurant will be a real head-turner along Gravenstein Highway South when it opens at the end of the month.
Handline, 935 Gravenstein Ave. S., Sebastopol. handline.com.