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A Tale of Two Counties

For wine and food lovers, California's Napa Valley and Sonoma County offer distinctive experiences

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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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