Dozens of weekends in Sonoma over the years and each is a pleasure, a respite from incessant work, as I breathe in vine-soaked air, taking in new and old restaurants and wineries.
Recent weekends in Healdsburg and Santa Rosa have offered many joys. There have been but a few disappointments, like the bland Asian “fusion” of Chinois in Windsor and likewise the ambitious mashup of Asian cuisines, inconsistent at Sebastopol’s Forchetta/Bastoni, though I dig their Go’s Balls, fried curry rice balls dipped in sweet chili sauce.
Similarly, the new Café Lucia, tucked down a narrow walkway off of Healdsburg’s town square, lacked the familial focus that makes it parent restaurant in downtown Sonoma, La Salette, so special. At Lucia, Bacalhau no Forno ($23), one of my Portuguese favorites, a baked “casserole” of North Atlantic salt cod, potatoes, onions, olives, is one note (salty) and quite dry.
As ever in the ingredient rich region, highlights abound. Here are a few recent additions:
SPOONBAR, Healdsburg (219 Healdsburg Ave., 707-433-7222)
Thanks to the legacy of Scott Beattie who launched Spoonbar’s exceptional bar and to current manager Cappy Sorentino who has kept standards high, Spoonbar is easily Healdsburg’s top cocktail bar. Weekending a few blocks from the town square was reason enough for multiple visits, working through the latest menu ($8-10.50 per cocktail). I even sampled a few of the “Trashy Cocktails” served for $5-7 during their weekday happy hour (5-7pm) where bar staff try to make artificially flavored, lowbrow spirits tolerable, like mixing Stoli Peach with house jalapeno shrub.
Cocktail highlights are many, including their rotating carbonated cocktails, like a vibrant Carbonated Sidewinder’s Fang (Appleton Reserve Rum, El Dorado 8 year Demerara Rum, orange, lime, passion fruit) or an herbaceous, elegant Carbonated Corpse Reviver # 2 (St. George Dry Rye Gin, Cocchi Americano, Cointreau, lemon, St. George Absinthe).
Bartender Tara Heffernan crafts a Burning Shrub using Tapatio Tequila, Tara’s jalapeno shrub, lime, grapefruit and Fidencio Clasico Mezcal, a balanced mix of smoke, spice and tart citrus. Vodka works here, too, with spice and rosy, balanced sweetness in Jalapeno Business: Charbay Pomegranate Vodka, Clear Creek Loganberry liqueur, lemon, ginger, the texture just perfect topped with a layer of raspberry-jalapeno foam.
I love the texture of their clarified milk/whey punch, finely done here with Weller 7 year bourbon, but even more nuanced with Encanto pisco, the creamy whey enlivened by cinnamon and pineapple.
Classic Eastern European Slivovitz (plum brandy) doesn’t show up often on cocktail lists, but in The Mission Clear Creek Slivovitz subtly melds Encanto Quebranta pisco, the French apéritif Byrrah, elderflower and orange, into a nuanced, spirit-forward cocktail.
Beattie’s influence still shows in layered, garden fresh cocktails like Pear Pressure garnished Beattie-esque with a crisped pear. The drink blends Bartlett pear-infused Rittenhouse Rye with Clear Creak Pear Eau De Vie, Punt e Mes sweet vermouth and sherry, illuminated by clove and bitters.
Sage Canyon Flip was an immediate favorite earlier this year, simultaneously hoppy from Charbay R5 White Whiskey, lively with pear, sage and lemon, and textured with house orgeat.
Spoonbar remains the county’s “it” bar for artisanal cocktails, impeccable spirits collection strong on amari, whiskies, eaux de vie, etc… and knowledgeable bar staff.
THE SPINSTER SISTERS, Santa Rosa (401 South A St. at Sebastopol Ave., 707-528-7100)
Open since last August, The Spinster Sisters is helmed by Chef Liza Hinman from now defunct Santi in Santa Rosa, Eric Anderson (from Santa Rosa but in NYC as a founding partner of Prune Restaurant), and Giovanni Cerrone, a local in the California wine industry.
The sunny space welcomes me to its wrap-around, redwood bar in the center of the room. Dining at the bar for breakfast, I’d consider it possibly the best brunch I have had in the entire county over the past decade. I anticipate returning for dinner and lunch.
House pastries, Rancho Gordo bean tostadas, and Flying Goat Coffee flow as ‘50’s rock n’ roll sets a cheery backdrop. Thoughtful dishes are above and beyond the sameness one often finds on brunch menus.
A weekend special ($11) consisted of garbanzo beans, eggs, red bell pepper, caramelized leeks, chard, and mini-cauliflower sizzling in a cast iron pot, creamy with Greek yogurt and chili oil. Redolent of garlic, the dish proves why breakfast is no afterthought here.
The PARISH CAFE, Healdsburg (60A Mill St., 707-431-8474)
Parish Café was on my go-to list because they serve New Orleans cuisine in a charming, restored yellow house. The front porch is far more inviting than the rather bland interior, but one can sit at the counter inside and watch the kitchen staff churn out po boys and gumbo.
I must admit my expectations were not high. Nola cuisine, and certainly po boys, are often a poor shadow of what they are in the Big Easy. But Parish Café’s po boys are blessedly authentic and among the best in the West. The bread, made by family members at nearby Costeaux French Bakery, is appropriately crusty and soft. Fried oysters and shrimp are plump, delicately fried and sauces and toppings plentiful. Gumbo may not be the ultimate, but it’s solidly done with a dark, rich roux and Andouille sausage. Cornmeal fried oyster salad ($11) is freshly gratifying over heaping spinach leaves, bleu cheese crumbles, bacon and buttermilk vinaigrette. Parish is a welcome addition to downtown Healdsburg and one of the best lunch options in town.
CAMPO FINA, Healdsburg (330 Healdsburg Ave., 707-395-4640)
Alongside its parent restaurant, Scopa, Campo Fina is easily Healdsburg’s best Italian restaurant. Bocce ball in a glowing back bar and patio makes it all the more winning a place to spend an evening.
Where Scopa focuses on ubiquitous Neapolitan pizzas and antipasti, Campo Fina shines in shared small plates and cocktails, though their pizzas are also highlights (I’m partial to the sweet/savory speck and fichi, aka fig, pizza with preserved lemon, bufala mozzarella, aged balsamico and arugula contrasting the speck and figs. In true Venetian style, there’s cicchetti (little bites, $2.50-6) served all day, like tuna-stuffed sweet n’ spicy peppers ($3).
Baccala (salt cod) croquettes ($11.5), are appropriately salty, contrasted by fennel, cherry tomatoes and aleppo chili. Charred octopus ($13.50) is dotted with potato, rapini/broccoli rabé, chicory and black olives. There’s a vibrant Italian wine selection or Bar Manager Erica Frey‘s lovely cocktails ($8), which thus far have utilized beer and wine – they recently gained their hard liquor license so there will be a wider range of cocktails going forward. Cleverly playing off a shakerato (an iced, shaken espresso), Shakerato Superiori is a winning blend of Marsala wine, Allagash Black Stout beer, cherry pistachio syrup, Angostura bitters and espresso, which plays as a rich, savory, bright dessert.