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A Tale of Two Counties

For wine and food lovers, California's Napa Valley and Sonoma County offer distinctive experiences
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Sopranos, Mar/Apr 2007

(continued from page 10)

Down the street is America's most prestigious restaurant, but certainly not its stuffiest. Despite its acclaim, The French Laundry never seems reverential or self-congratulatory. The biggest surprise is that employees are unabashedly nice. And as mainstream America has grown to accept tasting menus, unexpected juxtapositions of flavors and textures, and chef/owner Thomas Keller's philosophy that the first bite of each dish is the best, the restaurant now seems far less revolutionary than comfortably excellent. Wine service is impeccable, and certain dishes, such as sea urchin atop apple granita, remain as startlingly good as cooking gets

Keller's approach has impacted restaurants nationwide, so it's no surprise to see poached egg atop hamachi sashimi at Auberge de Soleil, where the view over the valley is unparalleled. But the most innovative food in Napa may be at Terra, which has been open 18 years but still feels fresh. Lissa Doumani and Hiro Sone met as line cooks at Spago, and what they do in the old stone building on St. Helena's Railroad Avenue is as daring in its way as Wolfgang Puck was in the 1980s.

Terra features Asian flavors, so it's not always red-wine friendly. Accordingly, the restaurant doesn't get the big-spending weekenders in to "do" wine country with trophy bottles and slabs of meat. Peruse the handwritten menu and rhapsodize about hamachi carpaccio with daikon sprouts and hijiki; capellini with trout and tobiko caviar; or spaghettini with tripe and butter beans.

These days, the best lunch in Napa Valley is down the block. If you've eaten at Cindy Pawlcyn's Mustard's, you know the quality and range of her cooking. But with Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen, she shows a different side of her virtuosity. The food, best enjoyed al fresco beneath a century-old fig tree or rubbing elbows with local winemakers at the bar, is earthy and down-home, European-influenced but Mexican-inspired, and painstakingly executed. That means rabbit tostadas, stuffed piquillo peppers, mushroom tamales, duck burgers and perhaps the finest rendition of the Cobb salad available anywhere. A wide selection of interesting wines are served by the glass. Prices are modest. As one winery owner, a frequent customer, quipped, "It almost feels like Sonoma."

Sonoma can't compete with Napa's star power. But with Cyrus, inside the fancy Les Mars Hôtel, it finally has a restaurant that wouldn't be out of place in San Francisco. Billed as Sonoma's French Laundry, Cyrus serves Japanese sea bream with pickled watermelon rind, and caramel soup with kettle-corn sorbet. Ice cubes are even customized for different Bourbons. Yet polo shirts work fine at dinner, and service seems effortless, as casual as a stroll in the square.

Cyrus anchors one side of Healdsburg's town square. Down the street is Dry Creek Kitchen, which is owned and operated by Aureole's Charlie Palmer, who has a home in Healdsburg. The food is very Palmer-esque (English pea soup, pan-seared foie gras, caramelized-shallot mashed potatoes), the wine list Sonoman, the feel casual but urbane. Around the corner, Bovolo is tucked into a gourmet food store. The wine glasses don't have stems—wine is treated as a European-style condiment—and service is informal. Food includes bacon from "naturally raised heirloom pigs" starring in pasta carbonara; fennel-sausage sandwich with caramelized onions; innovative pizzas; and cornmeal waffles at breakfast.

Though the epicenter of the county's dining scene has gravitated northward, the town of Sonoma offers a different charm. The Girl & The Fig, formerly of Glen Ellen, has moved its American bistro fare (roasted chicken with sunchokes; rabbit pappardelle; wild-mushroom soup) to a corner of Sonoma's square. Across the street, the Southern California—style feel of the new, 226-seat El Dorado Kitchen position it as the kind of friendly, occasionally raucous, place you'd visit in a group. But the unpretentious food, created and executed by former French Laundry sous chef Ryan Fancher, is so much better than at other restaurants of the type, you wonder if the casual atmosphere doesn't actually hold Fancher back. What he does with frisée and bacon or squab and peaches makes you yearn to see him spread his wings with unabashed fine dining.

Part of Sonoma's appeal is its vastness. That stumbled-upon, out-of-the-way restaurant can provide the best meal of your trip. But don't leave Mirepoix to chance. Tucked away on River Road in Windsor, it's cozy, warm and witty. It's open from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., giving the taster a chance to fill up on well-executed renditions of bistro food, such as braised lamb tongue, frogs' legs Provençale and pan-roasted halibut in a pastis broth. It's just the kind of understated approach Sonoma does so well.

Cigar Aficionado's editors would like to direct you to two additional dining standouts. Tra Vigne is a Napa institution that features authentic Italian cuisine such as bucatini with poached tuna and tuna tartar, and smoked and braised short ribs with polenta.

The Wine Spectator Greystone restaurant at the Culinary Institute of America features an ever-changing menu of fresh seafood such as a basil and prosciutto-wrapped salmon accompanied by local produce. It's worth the trip.

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