When the fires came, wine country forgot about things like upscale cassoulet and $250 per plate fundraising dinners. The needs of evacuees, wealthy and not-so-wealthy alike, suddenly became more elemental . . . Wait, what about that cassoulet?
Sheana Davis, owner of Epicurean Connection in Sonoma, had made a cassoulet with wild duck, wild boar and sausages for a dinner at Bouverie Preserve in Glen Ellen, the former home of food writer M .F. K. Fisher, the night of Oct. 8. That night, they fed 100, but Davis had made enough for 1,000 for catering clients later in the week. It was timely, as there would be no business as usual later in the week. The preserve burned, the Fisher house was saved and Davis had a refrigerator full of food. Having evacuated to the Sonoma Valley Inn, she asked owner Norm Krug if she could serve dinner. She served cassoulet to 200 guests, in addition to first responders.
The next day, Davis and Depot Hotel chef Tony Ghilarducci served more food from his kitchen, until he lost power. "By Thursday, we all realized the fires were not going away," says Davis. A few phone calls brought in a commitment from Facebook to donate thousands of meals, which Davis and company distributed as "No Pay Café," while restaurateurs, under the impromptu banner SF Chefs Fight Fire, helped provide meals for people with serious allergies.
Meanwhile, similar efforts were underway in Napa County, while in Sebastopol, food writer Heather Irwin turned offers to help from restaurants into an idea: distribute complete, gourmet comfort food, beginning out of John Franchetti's Santa Rosa restaurant. She called the effort Sonoma Family Meal and fed thousands, thanks to scores of volunteers.
Five months later, there's still need, and some of these inspired efforts are still helping people, supplementing longstanding food security organizations like the Redwood Empire Food Bank. —J.K.
When the phone rings and you're issued a mandatory evacuation, you leave your home fast. When I found myself evacuated during the fires and in need of some human interaction, I headed to the Girl & the Fig. There are dozens of gathering places on the Sonoma Plaza, but the Girl & the Fig is always festive, no matter if there's a drought, flood or fire. By the time we arrived, the tables were taken and so were the seats at the bar. But the homey lounge was wide open, so we staked out the territory and ordered drinks. Sondra Bernstein, the restaurant's founder, and her partner, John Toulze, have infused the place with a sense of joie de vivre, which might be translated into English as "fun." Sitting next to me was a group of women, all from Sonoma, all burned-out and all eager for much needed R&R. "There are worse things in life than losing your property," a 93-year-old woman told me. I poured her a glass from the bottle of sparkling wine I had ordered. She shared her charcuterie platter. For my entrée, I had what I always have: the pastis-scented steamed mussel served with fries and toast. Disaster, I learned, has a way of making food taste miraculously good. For dessert, my friends and I shared the restaurant's signature chocolate-dipped fig kisses, our reward to ourselves for the fiery ordeal that drove us apart and brought us together again. 110 W. Spain St., Sonoma. 707.938.3534. thegirlandthefig.com.—J.R.
Beans are not the magical fruit that we think of when we think "Napa." The world-famous Napa Valley is all about Cabernet Sauvignon grapes purpling in the sun then magically maturing in red-stained oak—and, as the saying goes, the wine is bottled poetry. And the beans are . . . baked beans? Doesn't have quite the lyrical zip to it. That's what Rancho Gordo New World Specialty Food founder Steve Sando thought until he started puttering around in the garden to grow a little fresh produce and happened to grow an heirloom bean called Rio Zape. As Sando describes on the website of his now-world-famous bean company, "They were similar to the pintos I liked, but there was so much more going on. Hints of chocolate and coffee mixed with an earthy texture made my head spin. I was blown away by Rio Zape and the other heirloom beans I was growing, but also really confused why they were such a big secret." That secret's out, thanks to a shout-out from Oprah's magazine. Rancho Gordo works directly with growers in California, Oregon, Washington and New Mexico, as well as collaborating with small farms in Mexico. But again, why buy black beans at $5.95 to $6.95 a pound from a foodie darling company in tony Napa Valley, instead of a 99-cent bag of frijoles negros from the corner market? Well, Ayocote Negro, for instance, is a rare indigenous bean from Mexico, the bean-meisters at Rancho Gordo tell me, a bean you wouldn't necessarily be able to try in the U.S. It makes an inky dark broth, but the texture is more like a potato than a run-of-the-mill black turtle bean. Add a little house hot sauce, also available at the company's outlet in Napa, along with a whole hill of beans. 1924 Yajome St., Napa. 800.599.8323. ranchogordo.com.—J.K.
During the Cold War, a common comic trope depicted Soviet citizens standing in long lines for bread and other household essentials which may have been long gone by the time they reached the store, while in the United States, consumers waited in short lines at the supermarket to pay for their overflowing carts of groceries. The lesson was clear: boo, socialism; hurray, unfettered free market capitalism. Well, nobody called it socialism when Sonoma County grocery entrepreneur Steve Maass handed a substantial portion of Oliver's Market to his employees, making a majority eligible to buy into an employee stock-ownership plan by dint of their labor. Maass founded Oliver's Market in Cotati in 1988, growing the business slowly to four stores, popular with shoppers for their generous organic selection, and excellent deli and bakery, in particular. "I certainly didn't build the place myself. Everybody here participated." Maass could have sold out to a larger chain, which in turn might have been swallowed up by a larger corporation—all too often, that's the way the story goes when the founder of a successful local business bows out. But that wouldn't befit a social purpose corporation that emphasizes partnerships with locally owned businesses and investment in the community. Now, none dare call that communitarian or anarcho-syndicalism (if only because nobody knows what these vaguely "red" words mean anymore), or even socialism—certainly not, because, you know, the bread thing. Although, if my comrades would keep a certain $6 loaf of artisan multigrain bread in stock just a bit more regularly, my shopping struggle would be all the more glorious. oliversmarket.com.—J.K.
I've been told I'm a picky eater. So what if I don't like sushi? I have never been fond of the taste or idea of raw fish. This all changed at Santa Rosa's Tex Wasabi's. My parents were visiting around the mid-semester mark, when my mom's craving for sushi hit an all-time high. Of course, channeling my inner brat, I protested, but dad came in as the peacemaker and found rave reviews for Tex Wasabi's. He said this place would marry my pickiness with Mom's desire to break out of the ordinary because it was a blend of good ol' American barbecue and "rock-n-roll sushi." As we got ready to order, my dad, embarrassingly, explained our predicament to our waiter, who recommended we try some of the "gringo sushi." We decided on the Jackass Roll. It looks like your average sushi roll, but it's filled with pulled pork and avocado, wrapped with sticky sushi rice and dolloped with chile aioli. Tex Wasabi's is the place where hesitant foodies can cautiously widen their food horizons, and for the adventurous who want to see where unlikely cuisine fusion can take them. 515 Fourth St., Santa Rosa. 707.544.8399.—S.S.
That's "ham and Swiss on rye" in plain talk, for all you would-be gourmands who have not yet ventured into the epicure's candy shop that is Atelier Fine Foods. Opened by Boisset Collection in 2016, Atelier eschews the downmarket descriptor "deli"—they prefer the epithet "épicerie"—though you can, in fact, find here all the fixings for the most exquisitely curated ham and Swiss in this valley or the next. Start with that jamón Ibérico, from a heritage breed of pigs that gorge themselves on Andalusian acorns to produce a prosciutto-like cured meat that is nutty and more intensely flavored, for $211 per pound. "It's an affordable luxury if you buy it by the slice," says catering manager Betsy Musick. Six slices costs above 11 bucks, according to Musick, who suggests that splurging for a taste can be a salve for all the cravings that food and travel shows create for hungry viewers. "It allows you to experience this thing that you've heard so much about in the culinary world." L'Etivaz cheese is made by Swiss villagers who lead their cows to the highest alpine pastures in spring to munch on the first delicate flowers that follow the melting snow, and it's available by the pound for $38, along with over a hundred other cheeses from the North Bay and Europe. Slap it all between two slices of Poilâne rye bread at $17 per round, which is flown in weekly from the renowned bakery in Paris—maybe with a few pumps of the house mustard, sold in bulk and imported directly from the last real mustard maker anywhere near Dijon, France. On a budget? Just pick up a Jambon de Paris—French ham and Comté cheese on a baguette, pre-made in the morning and available for $12 until they run out. And amid the half dozen brands of caviar, the terrines, foie gras and charcuterie, a surprise hit has been the huge selection of conservas, canned fish from Spain and Portugal. All selections, like the home-grown biodynamic salads, rotate according to season, because, as Musick says, "Sometimes the 'best of today' is not the best two months ago—no pun intended." 6505 Washington St., Yountville. 707.934.8237. jcbcollection.com.—J.K.
Lala's Creamery in Petaluma offers a classic diner vibe, with a dessert bar, a checkered floor and vintage décor. But the ice cream and baked goods are far from old-fashioned. Look for flavors like Earl Grey, honey and horchata, as well as classic strawberry, chocolate and vanilla. Food allergies and dietary preferences are no issue here. Lala's is constantly creating delicious dairy and gluten-free desserts, in addition to low-sugar flavors. No corn syrup, artificial food colorings or hard-to-pronounce additives are used in any of the sweets. The red in the house-made maraschino cherries? Plant-based. 134 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. 707.763.5252. lalascreamery.com.—S.S.
And so there I was, hunkered down in the Bohemian's smoky office on the afternoon of Oct. 9, shocked at the damage and struggling to crank out some copy about the fires. The phones didn't work and the internet was down, and you could practically feel the panic still coming off the scorched nearby streets. Suddenly, as if in a dream, a figure emerged from the smoke and threw a meaty, dense and delicious burrito in my direction. "Eat this," he said. I complied. The beef was char-grilled in all the right ways, and the sustenance was as timely as it was necessary. Chasing fires on a Monday morning and turning out copy in time for a Tuesday deadline sure does help work up an appetite. Even on the best of days I can't string two coherent sentences together without a full belly of nourishing go-go eats. This was not most days, and I won't soon forget that burrito from Taco Chido. Long live Taco Chido! The place is closed now, alas, as the Montgomery Drive restaurant was already looking to relocate at the time of the fires. Come back!—T.G.
A mushroom walks into a bar—stop me if you've heard this one before, but the version told by Healdsburg's Alley 6 Craft Distillery has a much different, and much sweeter, punch line. Seems that distillery co-founder Jason Jorgensen, a 14-year vet of the bartending scene, came up with a whimsically titled cocktail, the Fungi, made with the essence of Lactarius rubidus, an aromatic "candy cap" mushroom valued for its sweet aroma akin to maple syrup, while mixing drinks at Santa Rosa's Stark's Steak & Seafood restaurant. When Jorgensen and his wife and distillery co-founder, Krystle, began distilling spirits, they returned to the candy caps to make a cocktail mixer that's also spiced with cinnamon, star anise and orange peel. It tricks the palate into thinking "sweet," while it's actually, well, "bitters." The couple forage the mushrooms on the Sonoma Coast, and also rely on friends who are professional mushroom foragers, to obtain the pancake-friendly fungi. Each four-ounce bottle sells for $20, but only a few drops are said to elevate an Old Fashioned to new heights. 1401 Grove Street, Unit D, Healdsburg. 707.484.3593. alley6.com.—J.K.
Spirit Works Distillery is among the hundreds of small-batch, artisan microdistilleries making small waves in the big pond of the spirits sector. They're also interested in waves of a different kind—soundwaves. After Timo and Ashby Marshall founded the distillery in Sebastopol in 2013, it wasn't long before their unique style of gin and vodka, distilled from certified organic, California-grown winter wheat, could be enjoyed.
But the whiskey, once made, isn't whiskey until after a long, long wait. It's not much fun for another two years, at least—the time it takes to earn the label "straight wheat whiskey." So to kick things up a notch, Timo and Marshall devised a little experiment: some barrels are set aside to age straddled by headphones attached to iPods playing diverse playlists that have been on repeat for two years or longer. Of course, there's a control batch of whiskey that's simply mellowing out in near total silence.
The quirky gambit gets the attention of visitors touring the distillery, to be sure. But the whiskeys, once bottled, have also played out favorably in blind tastings. In the contest of "bluegrass barrel" vs. "Nutcracker barrel," according to Spirit Works cofounder Ashby Marshall, "the Nutcracker was by far the blind-tasting favorite, with a notably smoother, longer finish." Next on the list is a barrel subjected to hit singer Santigold, sometime later this year. Although we cannot confirm whether there's a Depeche Mode barrel of Spirits Works wheat whiskey, we're sure that, if there were, we could just not get enough. 6870 McKinley Ave., Sebastopol. 707.634.4793. spiritworksdistillery.com.—J.K.