Best of 2013: Food & Drink

Writers Picks

  • Sara Sanger

On the grounds of the Buena Vista Winery, the historic stone structures and Tokaj-style cellars founded by the tirelessly entrepreneurial Hungarian immigrant and so-called Count Agoston Haraszthy in 1857, thus laying claim to the title "first commercial winery in California" (generally exclusive of the weak spirit squeezed from pig skins by brothers of the Franciscan order, merely as a sacramental sup, firstly, and surely a thirst-slaker for the "savages" whose sunny paradise they were busily engaged in remaking to their preference), there exists a curious installation that one might at first glance call a fountain, constructed at the behest of the property's current owner and dedicated restorer, Jean-Charles Boisset, a Frenchman of no less international renown and entrepreneurial vigor (though perhaps a mite more sensitivity to the unseen flow of energies) than his unfortunate predecessor, the count, who disappeared into swirling waters teaming with crocodiles in Nicaragua in 1869 after having his stake in the winery he founded wrested from him after only a short run, in the grand scheme of things; to wit, upon standing in this particular spot, at the end of a promenade now handsomely paved in Belgian stone, the Boisset—a proponent of that agricultural system informed by cosmic forces, biodynamics—reported feeling a "knot" in the flow of energy there, a restoration problem that no extra joist, no stonework, nothing would help to fix but a custom-built vortex, a "two-way rhythmical movement of water," having quite the opposite action of a sabered Champagne bottle's exuberant outward flow, rather more like that of wine poured down the bunghole of a barrel that is never—can never be—filled, and which, although we know the suggestion of one of the several character actors hired to impersonate the count that these swiftly devoured dark waters exit somewhere in Arizona to be merely off-the-cuff, just might, for some, have a deeper resonance than what may seem, to most, like a funny little fountain at a boozy little tourist attraction, because if it isn't bad feng shui—beware the money corner—then it's a reminder of the unseen gyre that surrounds and pulls all of our lives into destination unknown, a punctuating chasm at the tail end of a history that ends where it begins, like the insatiable demand of a hungry ghost. 18000 Old Winery Road, Sonoma.—J.K.

Best Vanishing Act

See the Pinot? Make sure you all get a good look at it. Touch it. Swirl it. Smell it. It's genuine, bona fide Russian River Valley Pinot Noir—the very best French clones—no expense spared, made with the time-honored methods of tradition itself and, need I even say it, a passion for wine! Ladies and gentlemen! This Pinot has an alcohol concentration by volume of 16 percent! Young lady, would you not prefer drinking a wine of more delicate composition, as in the civilized nations of Europe? Young man, do you blame the high alcohol levels of our modern age on climate change? No matter! Watch as the offending margin of alcohol in this finished wine vanishes before your eyes when it's put inside this hat (Winesecrets in Sebastopol, a widely used wine services firm that forces wine through a membrane at high pressure, then treats its alcoholic permeate with evaporative perstraction and distillation, recombining the water and wine concentrate at the final stage). Drum roll, please. Abracadabra! A moderate-alcohol Pinot Noir with gobs and gobs of late-harvest flavor! (Applause, oohs and aahs.) 1446 Industrial Ave., Sebastopol.—J.K.

Best Way to Give Him the Ooh-La-La

At Chloe's French Cafe, the pâtisseries are out of this world, and not unhealthful, either, provided you don't inhale two or three all at once. "C'est si bon," co-owner Marc Pisan boasts—though he also says, "Yes, it's good" for English speakers. (At no extra charge, he'll even throw in an "Ooh-la-la.") Saving the time and the money it takes to fly to Paris, the butter croissants ($1.25), éclairs ($3.50) and Napoleons ($3.50) speak eloquently for themselves, though Chloe's also professes a philosophy of food. Hey, it's a French cafe—and you expect Monsieur Pisan to say, "I eat patisseries, therefore I am." What he does say in plain English is that he never "masks the extraordinary quality of Sonoma County ingredients." What more could one expect from a transplanted Frenchman? 3883 Airway Drive, Ste. 145, Santa Rosa.—J.R.

  • Elise Guillot

Best Way to Discover That Good Health Isn't Just Pulp Fiction

Like another pulp-loving Tarantino, Juice Alley owner Justin Tarantino likes to keep some pulp in his juice. The strapping, 29-year-old, fifth-generation fisherman has eyes as green as the dino kale he presses. "People get angry if we run out of their greens," he says. Juice Alley, located in the back of Paradise Wine and Spirits in Corte Madera, runs out of produce daily. It's that fresh.

A family operation, Justin employs both his mom and sister, and with business partner, Gota Imashiro, they've been cold-pressing juice for six months in their backroom location. A culinary school graduate, Tarantino has grown his own hydroponic leafy greens for eight years, and, remarkably, he doesn't advertise or use Facebook. "I want my business to be original. It's not about marketing; it's about fresh food and knowing that food."

Juice Alley plans to open a second location in downtown Larkspur by the end of March. Juices include green boosters, a dino-kale-based lemonade, beet-based sweet juices and the ever-popular ginger shooter that kicks an antidepressant's ass any day. Juice Alley juices are cold-pressed to extract the juice with the least amount of oxidation; they're also made in individual batches for each palate that comes to the door. "I want people to be more intimate with what they are eating and how it's grown," Tarantino explains. "Raw food and juices are a science." 5641 Paradise Drive, Corte Madera.—E.G.

Best Fodder for Your Crumb Catcher

Breaking a diet or spending an extra hour at the gym doesn't seem like too much of a problem after tasting the sweet treats on offer at Moustache Baked Goods, your vote as Honorable Mention for Best Cupcake. With unique names like the Butcher, the Milkman and the Out-of-Towner, these suckers blow the average cupcake away. Owners Christian Sullberg and Osvaldo Jimenez, both in their 20s, were both born and raised in Sonoma County, and their love of the craft is evident after just one bite. They aim to "bring the farm to the cake" by only using what's available in the area, and keeping ingredients natural, fresh and simple. 381 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg.—E.M.G.

Best Way to Get Naked to the Waist with a Fierce Black Hound

The old, dilapidated, rough-wood roadhouse alongside Gravenstein Highway that once housed the popular dive bar Red's Recovery Room still stands shuttered, empty and forlorn. After 33 years, the funky watering hole served its final last call in July 2009, when the lease wasn't renewed. But Red's itself has rebounded, sort of, in a small, oddly utilitarian room on Santa Rosa Avenue. Tucked away behind the motel lobby and bus depot/convenience store at the former Days Inn, the new Red's may be short on ambiance compared to the old spot, but the quartet of pool tables are well maintained and remain one of the place's main attractions. Since quietly reopening just before Thanksgiving 2011, the bar has been gradually building a customer base in its new neighborhood. "Not too many" of their old regulars still come around, says co-owner Linda Skomro, but the pool tournaments and major sports events still draw a decent crowd. For Red's, it seems, recovery is an ongoing process. 3345 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa.—B.R.


Best Secret VIP Back Room in Napa Valley

In case you haven't gotten the memo, the middle class is evaporating. Nowhere on the planet is this more apparent than Napa Valley, home of the 1% and those who get to pretend they're the 1% for the weekend. At Sogni di Dolci in St. Helena, one can find shockingly excellent food for extremely reasonable, I-don't-want-to-pay-$100-for-dinner prices. Not only does Dolci, as it's called by locals, offer a damn good panini, but it now represents the 1% with an ironic twist. Yeah, Napa Valley is VIP. So what have they done? Built themselves a small, intimate, Euro-style bistro complete with a back room for a more private dining experience, consisting of four booths, seating up to 16 total, for those VIP moments.

Chef Namon File, a Napa Valley native with more than two decades of culinary expertise, along with sous chef Logan Ehrenclou, who joins the team from the Farm at Carneros Inn, whip up Italian-Californian cuisine with gelato, panini and a full espresso bar for all to enjoy. Dolci also serves eight connoisseur and 16 boutique wines, as well as hand-picked Italian wines by the bottle and an impressive selection of bottled beer.

Dolci reopens March 25; expect smaller plate portions and reasonable prices. Nighttime dining is under candlelight, but not one that calls for a Benjamin. Live acoustic goodness, jazz and other audio ambiance complete the scene. 1142 Main St., St Helena.—E.G.

Best Innovations in 17th-Century Cinema

In a world where movies are streamed through palm-sized devices, it may be hard to imagine the entertainment that a few hand-painted slides projected by the light of an oil lamp once provided for countless wonderstruck audiences. It's easier, perhaps, to imagine the gripes: "What's with kids these days, they'd rather look at these newfangled pictures of dancing bears than a real, honest-to-God dancing bear!" Often portable, sometimes ornate, magic lanterns resemble rude little potbellied stoves, but they were state-of-the-art cinema for more than 200 years, mainly in Europe. One of the world's finest private collections of magic lanterns is now on display at Inglenook Vineyards, thanks to Francis Ford Coppola's long association with Danish director Henning Carlsen, who amassed the collection. The few slides included here only hint at the magic that a projectionist would work, such as fading one into the other to create an illusion of movement. Exotic locales and wild animals were favorite topics—here, see a piper playing for dancing dogs; there, see a fellow travel to a land of turbaned, bearded men, and shoot one. Marvel at how cinema has changed over the centuries! 1991 St. Helena Hwy., Rutherford.—J.K.

Best Nipple of Venus

Gandolf's magic is in the chocolate. The wizard crafts each piece in a stone dungeon, illuminated only by the light of candles made from enchanted bees. Incantations are uttered to lock the spell inside each piece, a spell that captivates and overwhelms each unsuspecting subject. Upon first taste, one instantly falls in love—with the chocolate. The twist, the secret that nobody must know, is that Gandolf does not make the chocolate. Gandolf is merely the feline puppet master of human chocolatier Guy Daniels, of Gandolf's Fine Chocolate. This must be one powerful cat, for the confections created by his minion are divinations of an extraordinary sort, indeed. As legend has it, an unlikely fellowship once set out to return the "Nipple of Venus" truffle to its rightful place inside the melted chocolate volcano of Mount Delicious. But their journey ended abruptly when the chocolate worn around the neck of the more pure of heart, the skinniest of them all, went missing. A smear of brown, sugary substance on his lips signaled the quest had failed, the evil overlords had won, and that's how the Tea Party was born. Found at farmers markets in Santa Rosa and San Rafael, and at—N.G.

Best Shhh-Don't-Tell Wine Moment

Spied at Greystone: Whisked from the darkness of nearby parking lots by luxury coach, swarming up the steps of St. Helena's venerable Culinary Institute of America and spilling through its gleaming kitchens, attendees at Appellation Trail, the grand tasting event of Flavor! Napa Valley, were eager to get their luxury drink on. One fellow took a final swig from his glass while sauntering up to one quiet table, and diligently, carefully, even, poured out the remainder of the wine and held his glass out to the table's smiling host, expecting a taste of their no doubt very expensive and very respected Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. When the poor devil realized he'd just backwashed into the decanter of very expensive and very respected Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, he turned apoplectic, recoiling from the table as if to rewind the moment. "Don't tell anyone," he pleaded to nobody in particular. The winery's representative just smiled. Nobody in particular took notes. 2555 Main Street, St. Helena.—J.K.

  • Victoria Webb

Best Place to Drink Beer with the Clowns

Ariel dancers swinging from the big top, towering stilt walkers, some guy in a panda suit—everything at the Lagunitas Beer Circus has one thing in common: it goes great with a third IPA.

Not that anyone really needs it. Watching contortionists pull themselves through brittle-looking hoops on one knee is amazing enough. Seeing a real, honest-to-Thor trapeze swinger flying through the air is also eye-popping. Wandering through a mysterious showroom full of gelatinous blobs in giant pickle jars, strange jaw-bones and tiny stuffed pigs will certainly conjure the wonder and fear of a childhood trip to the carnival on its own—the beer is as secondary to the experience as beer can ever be.

Still, with the large roster of breweries participating, beer certainly is part of the draw at this annual event, which this year is slated for May 19. Sonoma County locals are always well-represented—Third Street Aleworks, Russian River, Dempsy's, Ace Cider—as well as ambassadors from the farther reaches of the NorCal brewing scene, like 21st Amendment from the city to the south, and North Coast from the great green county to the north. It's not that the face paint and paraders in penguin suits and guys in leopard print aren't a sensory feast on their own. It's just that with all those bubbles and hops and malty finishes and overtones of caramel, the magic of a day at the big top gets just a cool, smooth adult finish. 1280 N. McDowell Blvd., Petaluma.—R.D.

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