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Travel Tip: Sonoma Dining

Rising quality draws on the local bounty

Tim Fish
Posted: September 17, 2012

Note: This article has been adapted from "Where To Eat," a guide to Sonoma dining that appeared in the June 15, 2012 issue of Wine Spectator.

The restaurant scene in Sonoma County has changed dramatically. Ten to 15 years ago, visitors had limited choices, and there were only a handful of places serious about fine dining. Today, a group of new restaurants outfitted with talented chefs, skilled service staffs and savvy wine lists is making its presence felt. Their cellars are stocked with Sonoma wines, while the same Northern California climate that nurtures the region's grapes fills their larders with a bounty of artisanally grown foods. You'll find everything from duck and lamb to fresh greens and fruit. In addition, the Pacific Ocean provides fresh salmon, Dungeness crab and oysters.

13555 Highway 116, Guerneville
Telephone: (707) 869-9093
Website: www.dineatapplewood.com
Open: Dinner, Wednesday to Sunday
Cost: Entrées $32–$38; tasting menu $75
Corkage: $20
Credit cards: All major

Fronting the Russian River in a redwood forest, this secluded restaurant is worth seeking out. The kitchen deftly blends France and California and relies on many ingredients from its own garden. Tender cocoa nib–crusted rack of lamb is served with Sherry-braised chorizo, and shredded duck confit is winningly paired cold with frisée and sliced fingerlings. The dining room dominates the second floor of what resembles a country barn. Long and narrow, with cathedral ceilings and stone fireplaces on either end, it's a comforting space. There's also a sunroom overlooking the inn's courtyard. The staff is adept and well-versed in food-and-wine pairing, and there are good wines to drink, if at a premium, including Vérité Sonoma County La Joie 2000 for $167.

140 E. Napa St., Sonoma
Telephone: (707) 935-5994
Website: www.cafelahaye.com
Open: Dinner, Tuesday to Saturday
Cost: Entrées $19–$29
Corkage: $20
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard

Located just off Sonoma Plaza, Cafe La Haye offers an appealingly unfussy sophistication. The split-level dining room holds just a dozen or so tables, but its open kitchen, raftered ceiling and walls adorned with modern art create a vibrant energy that's contagious. Chef Jeffrey Lloyd, former executive chef of restaurant Michael Mina, offers a seasonal menu that's discreet in its complexity, featuring the sort of dishes that seem to get better with each bite. Wolfe Ranch quail is paired with a sauce of black olive and white wine, while petrale sole comes with a delicate porcini cream sauce. Convivial owner Saul Gropman's wine list comprises a modest 100 bottles, but it's a smart, well-focused selection that ranges from value choices such as Bedrock Zinfandel Sonoma Valley Old Vine 2010 ($47) to splurges such as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tâche 2005 ($3,500).

29 North St., Healdsburg
Telephone: (707) 433-3311
Website: www.cyrusrestaurant.com
Open: Dinner, Thursday to Monday
Cost: Prix-fixe menu $108; tasting menu $135
Corkage: $50
Credit cards: All major

This is Sonoma County's consummate dining experience. Partners Nick Peyton and Douglas Keane have created an extravagant food-and-wine program without any stuffiness. The dining room, with its textured yellow walls, arched pillars and vaulted ceiling, is at once dramatic and inviting. Before opening Cyrus seven years ago, Peyton tended the dining rooms of top San Francisco restaurants such as Masa's and Restaurant Gary Danko, and it shows. The service is adept and intuitive. Guests are greeted with Cyrus' trademark Champagne and caviar cart, a touch of showmanship that's worth indulging in. The pricey wine list has good depth, its more than 1,000 selections ranging from Sette Ponti Crognolo 2002 ($75) to Armand Rousseau Chambertin 1990 ($2,450). There's an impressive offering of half-bottles and expertly selected wine pairings by the course. Chef Keane's dishes are luxurious and intensely flavored yet graceful in their integration, even when he adds elements of Asian cuisine and American comfort food. The pork belly with kimchi is inspired, while the roasted lobster with cauliflower cream is an indulgence. If you want a taste of Cyrus' creations without investing in a full menu, each course is available à la carte at the bar.

317 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg
Telephone: (707) 431-0330
Website: www.charliepalmer.com
Open: Lunch, Friday to Sunday; dinner, daily
Cost: Entrées $25–$38
Corkage: $20
Credit cards: All major
Best of Award of Excellence

Nationally acclaimed chef Charlie Palmer has championed Sonoma's homegrown bounty of wine, artisanal cheeses, meats and produce at this restaurant since it opened in 2001. Located right on Healdsburg Plaza and attached to Hotel Healdsburg, it's situated at the heart of three wine regions: Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River valleys. That proximity is reflected in the wine list's almost exclusive devotion to local wines. There are about 600 selections in the collection, with most of the key players and varietals well-represented, from good buys like Roth Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley 2009 ($56) to Williams Selyem Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Summa Vineyard 1995 ($750). Highlights of the seasonal menu include decadent and flaky-crusted diver scallops en croute and slow-cooked beef short rib. Palmer splits his time among his many restaurants, and he can sometimes be spotted behind the lightly frosted glass window that separates the dining room from the kitchen. The interior of the dining room is handsomely contemporary, graced with columns and done in rich, subtle tones.

7871 River Road, Forestville
Telephone: (800) 464-6642
Website: www.farmhouseinn.com
Open: Dinner, Thursday to Monday
Cost: Prix-fixe menus $69–$84
Corkage: $35
Credit cards: All major

This 140-year-old farmhouse located in the heart of Russian River Valley delivers a first-rate food-and-wine experience, which is especially convenient for guests staying in one of its inviting cottages or rooms. The dining room's warm hues are accented by stone and wood and a tranquil harvest–scene mural. The service is gracious yet professional in its attention to detail. Wine director Geoff Kruth keeps about 400 wines on his list, which is particularly strong in German Riesling and red Burgundy, as well as domestic Pinot Noir. In the kitchen, chef Steve Litke blends a modern French sensibility with vibrant, contemporary California flavors, relying on local, seasonal ingredients. His trademark dish, "Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit," is rabbit done three ways: confit, bacon-wrapped loin, and roasted rack served with whole-grain mustard sauce. Litke was equally deft with a duo of beef featuring delicate slices of Kobe paired with oxtail- and beef-cheek ravioli.

1001 Westside Road, Healdsburg
Telephone: (800) 258-4003
Website: www.madronamanor.com
Open: Dinner, Wednesday to Sunday
Cost: Prix-fixe menus $73–$91; tasting menus $91–$110
Corkage: $20
Credit cards: All major
Award of Excellence

You can't help but be impressed when approaching this regal 1881 Victorian, which rises three stories to a steep mansard roof and is set on a hill amid tall trees and lush gardens. The restaurant inside has become quietly upscale in recent years, to excellent effect. The dining parlors have retained all of their antique-rich charm but are now more luxuriously appointed. The service is polished and intuitive. Chef Jesse Mallgren has been with the restaurant for many years and only continues to up his game. His cuisine is innovative and relies extensively on the manor's large garden for fresh ingredients. Guests select from a four-, five- or six-course prix-fixe menu, with more than 15 offerings ranging from delicate starters to cheese and dessert. A foie gras terrine with guava, ginger and pistachios is masterful, while butter-poached lobster with shiitakes and sorrels unveils a series of rich flavors and textures. The wine list is a solid offering of about 350 selections, almost exclusively Californian. The markup is appealingly moderate, from Ramey Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2008 for $54 and Benovia Zinfandel Sonoma County 2006 for $70, to Château Mouton-Rothschild 1982 at the relative steal of $1,500.

100 Boyes Blvd., Sonoma
Telephone: (707) 938-9000
Website: www.fairmont.com/sonoma
Open: Dinner, daily
Cost: Entrées $30–$55; prix-fixe menus $75–$90; tasting menu $125
Corkage: $25
Credit cards: All major

The Mission Inn is Sonoma’s most prestigious hotel, drawing an exclusive clientele that includes Tom Cruise and Oprah Winfrey, and its restaurant, Santé, sets a high standard. The dining room is located in the historic main building, and the interior is done in warm shades of gold and brown, with large-paned windows that are opened onto a quiet courtyard mineral pool on warm evenings. Santé has had its ups and downs over the years, but today chef Andrew Cain sets the bar high. His seasonal menu achieves a subtle blend of French and California cuisines and is strong on richness and luxury. The macaroni and cheese, for example, is laced with lobster, black truffles and fontina. Less decadent but equally flavorful is a delicate pan-seared Atlantic skate wing. Service is sharp and attentive, particularly from sommelier Renée Bourassa, a Sonoma Valley native. The wine list has about 350 selections and is particularly strong in California Cabernet, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. While patrons do pay a premium, there are many fine offerings, including Chasseur Pinot Sonoma Coast 2007 ($90) and Shafer Hillside Select 2004 ($350).

109A Plaza St., Healdsburg
Telephone: (707) 433-5282
Website: www.scopahealdsburg.com
Open: Dinner, daily
Cost: Entrées $15–$19
Corkage: $20
Credit cards: All major

This gem of a restaurant has become a local favorite since it opened four years ago, and for good reason. Located on Healdsburg Plaza, it's a narrow space that seats 38 snugly, and reservations are snapped up quickly. Fortunately, there isn't an ounce of exclusivity about the place. Resident wine pro Graham Anderson is also a server—that's how down-to-earth the experience here is. The menu is small and focused, offering refined Italian comfort food that relies on seasonal ingredients from producers around the region. Pastas such as the deliciously rich pappardelle with a creamy mushroom sauce emphasize the quality of the ingredients. "Nonna's" tomato-braised chicken is eye-rollingly good; chef-owner Ari Rosen credits his grandmother for the recipe. The wine list comes in at just fewer than 100 selections, and few bottles cost more than $60. As you might expect, it's mostly Italian wines, with the many interesting and good-value choices taking in Giacomo Borgogno & Figli Barbera d'Alba Superiore 2009 ($38). The remarkable Ettore Germano Barolo Lazzarito Riserva 2003 is offered at its original retail price of $100.

3535 Guerneville Road, Santa Rosa
Telephone: (707) 523-4814
Website: www.zazurestaurant.com
Open: Brunch, Sunday; dinner, Wednesday to Sunday
Cost: Entrées $20–$29
Corkage: $20
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard
Award of Excellence

Food doesn't get more fresh from the farm than at this little red roadhouse set amid the vines. Chef-owners John Stewart and Duskie Estes have their own nearby farm that supplies many of the restaurant’s ingredients. On a recent menu, the pork chops came from a Red Wattle pig that Stewart had butchered himself just three days prior. The menu can only be described as upscale comfort food, with oysters and crab from nearby Tomales and Bodega bays, house-made salumi, California halibut fish-and-chips, and a bacon burger with 25 percent bacon blended into the patty. The Brussels sprouts salad served with black pig bacon, tart apples and hazelnuts is a revelation of textures and flavors. The dining room is a long and narrow space and the tables are close-set, but that only adds to the energy. Service is friendly and skilled. There are about 100 wines on offer, mostly Californian, including the Kosta Browne Pinot Noir Keefer Ranch 2009 ($179). Prices are mostly moderate, with values such as Stephan Ehlen Riesling Kabinett Mosel 2010 ($33).

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