Photograph by Michael Amsler
Fruits of the Kitchen: West Pole Bakery & Cafe owner Tom "Snap" Gonella shows off his wares.
West Pole Bakery now serves dinner, but for diners, it's safest to stick to the fruits of the oven
By Sara Bir
It was a dark and stormy night. The deeper into Occidental Road our car braved, the harder the spiteful buckets of rain came down, the steeper the hills loomed, the tighter the curves in the road became, and the blacker the path ahead of us grew. And all we could think was, "This had better be worth it."
It's not West Pole Bakery's fault that it's so far out there. Well, OK, it is, but the remote charm of Occidental is deeply ingrained in the appeal and general atmosphere of the place. We had just picked a crummy night to drive out there, but when our beleaguered little car pulled into tiny downtown Occidental and we neared the doors of West Pole Bakery, the heat from the ovens rolled out of the propped-open doors to greet us with a warm and cozy embrace. So we were soggy, but the air inside West Pole warmed our bones.
Owned by Tom "Snap" Gonella (who is also the chef, along with "some other people"), an avid biker whose bike shop, Gianni Cyclery, used to occupy the premises, West Pole Bakery and Cafe is itself still youngish, having opened its doors this summer as a breakfast and lunch place. Affiliated with the nearby Taylor Maid Farms, much of the produce West Pole uses is organic, and all of their flours are organic.
The wood-fired oven is the centerpiece of the place, both figuratively and literally: West Pole's culinary highlights emerge from it, and there's a counter facing the ovens and the prep area where diners can sit and chat up the sociable bakers. They serve pastries, flatbreads, salads, pastas, and sandwiches during their non-nocturnal hours, and the place has become a social hub for West County folk.
Lunch here is a pleasure. Try one of their panini, made on focaccia--the one with roasted artichokes, tomatoes, asagio cheese, and herbs ($7.50) is excellent. A small salad of flavorful greens tossed in a shallot dressing capped this off as a perfect midday meal.
West Pole Bakery's dinner service is at this point a bit like the scene in Bambi where Bambi first learns to stand and walk: It's charming but uncoordinated and wobbly. The demands of dinner are vastly more complex than those of the lunch crowd, and West Pole is in a mad dash to meet them.
The whole dinner service felt jumbled--at 7:30pm on a Friday, though, the dining room was packed, and both kitchen and servers were doubtlessly slammed. Our service was friendly but disconnected and scattered; my entrée came out a full several minutes before Mr. Bir du Jour's. What's more, it arrived tepid. Perhaps this is because the kitchen is not yet equipped with a large enough setup to keep food warm between the kitchen staff preparing it and the servers' picking it up.
These are some of the many hurdles and kinks to be encountered in stepping up to a full-scale dinner service with a menu that changes weekly. To give West Pole credit, the visible response (a crammed dining room) to their very new dinner service is quite possibly more than they had anticipated. These are all reasonable growing pains, and the dining patrons seemed all too happy to roll with the punches.
West Pole being a bakery, a substantial basket of country bread materializes at the beginning of the meal. It was good, crusty stuff, and we downed far too much of it, dipped into a shallow dish of olive oil and balsamic vinegar (I'd prefer straight olive oil, though--it would be nice to have the option of the server adding the balsamic at the table).
The salads arrive at the table in gigantic, shallow white bowls with wide rims--the type of ware that many fine restaurants prefer these days. The house salad ($7.25) was good, especially the greens (though, missing the promised almonds and tomatoes, the salad was basically a larger version of the small salad that comes with a sandwich at lunch), but its presence was totally dwarfed by the bowl's inflated presentation.
The desired entrée of beef ravioli with sage was out for the night--a gigantic party occupying two tables had ordered all of them. Fair enough. We also saw a procession of caveman-sized lamb shanks go by, looking mighty and hearty, but I went with the Italian-style bouillabaisse ($15). With local prawns, clams, mussels, almonds, and tomatoes in the broth, it sounded like a fine rainy-night dinner.
But the bouillabaisse arrived hastily arranged: a pile of mussels and clams with one paltry prawn. For 15 bucks, a few more prawns swimming in the bouillabaisse would have nicely kept the lone prawn company. If the kitchen had run out of shrimp, they should have either canceled the dish or advised diners that there were no prawns in the bouillabaisse.
The mussels and clams were plentiful and tasty, but the broth was underseasoned and watery. The tomatoes and almonds added no further dimension. The diced carrots, onions, and celery in the broth were still al dente and contributed neither excitement nor the desired flavor enhancement.
As for the pizza, now that's the ticket. West Pole offers all kinds of pizza topping combinations, but--this being a bakery--they understand that the success of a truly fine pizza lies in the crust, not in the frou-frou atop it (though the topping combinations were all inspired and appetizingly minimal). Their crust is the perfect thickness, crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside, and just the size to fill one very hungry person. What's more, it actually tastes like something. The pebbling on its surface and its golden-brown color give away its long, slow fermentation.
Mr. Bir du Jour got the Ring of Fire pizza ($11.50)--house-made Italian sausage and peppers, with Catch a Fire brand hot sauce. The Ring of Fire was not as blazing as the one Johnny Cash and June Carter had alluded to in song, but this was easily rectified with liberal applications of additional Catch a Fire sauce, a bottle of which graced every table. (And it's very tasty: dark with a vinegar pucker and a reasonable level of heat.)
West Pole does not yet have a wine list, but the majority of the diners there that night made do BYOB-style. West Pole also didn't yet have wine glasses, so people sipped their Merlots and Cabs from glass tumblers, a very European bistro touch that seems appropriate for a bakery situated on a blip of a town in the redwoods.
The napkins at West Pole are paper, the cool and smooth tabletops are naked and exposed, and the bathroom is a small trip around the porch out back. While this is all part of West Pole's appeal, it's also odd to think that the last time I ate at a place where entrées averaged $15, there were cloth napkins and small pepper mills on the tables.
It's such small touches like those that diners come to expect when prices rise above a certain range, and though West Pole is long on homey atmosphere, it's short on these amenities. I'm guessing that the cost of the organic produce is perhaps reflected in the menu's prices.
In a few months, West Pole shall have ironed out the wrinkles in its dinnertime identity dilemma. The upscale bistro's dinner intentions don't at this point gel with the existing vibe of the bakery: laid-back, neighborhood-friendly, and loose and bohemian.
West Pole would do better to focus more on its strengths--the ones that come from its ovens--than mess around with entrées that its kitchen can't execute consistently. As it is now, West Pole is an ideal neighborhood hot spot, and their expanded hours are filling a void for residents of one of West County's most splendidly remote locales.
West Pole Bakery and Cafe, 3782 Bohemian Hwy., Occidental. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 7am-3pm, and Thursday-Saturday, 5:30-9pm (hours may soon change for the winter; call first). 707.824.2408.
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From the December 26, 2002-January 1, 2003 issue issue of the North Bay Bohemian.