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The Best of the North Bay 2004

Food & Drink
Writer's Choice

Best Sushi When You Can't Go Get Sushi
You know you've reached bottom when you're standing in front of the supermarket deli case at 10am, giving serious consideration to the lone, dried-out California roll wedged between the jello salad and the clam dip. Fortunately, there is hope for the early morning sushi-addicted, and Pacific Market is the name. After an exhaustive taste test, the honorable sushi masters at the upscale market make the freshest, biggest and most creative rolls we've found, at great prices ($4.50-$9.95)--and production starts early in the morning, just when we need it. A recent favorite is the Hawaiian, a salmon roll topped with kicky wasabi sauce, sliced avocados, sparkling roe and almonds ($7.50). Pinch me, I'm dreaming. 1465 Town and Country Drive, Santa Rosa. 707.546.3663.--H.I.

Best Nonreligious Venue for Catholic Paraphernalia
Mother Mary and a gaggle of martyred saints are proudly displayed in all of their creepy ultra-Catholic 3-D glory along the walls of Joe's Taco Lounge and Salsaria, perhaps the most easygoing eatery in Mill Valley. An extensive selection of hot sauces lines the shelves under the saints, so you get spicy, burning hellfire damnation and holy rapturous ecstasy all in one handy spot! The burritos ain't bad, either, but the Virgin Guadalupe encourages you to try a shrimp quesadilla or the spicy firecracker fries with a refreshing Negra Modelo. 38 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. 415.388.8868.--S.B.

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Best Place to Escape Wine Country
We have nothing against the wine country lifestyle. Sometimes, those little grape novelty items and rosy landscape paintings are even slightly tempting. It must be the alcohol. But then we recall that there is another way, the Roshambo way. Roshambo redefines wine country by turning the stodgy old wine country paradigm on its head. Architect Jaques Ullman's sweeping buildings sit lightly on the land, providing a stunning space for the real landscape--not a watercolor facsimile--to speak for itself. The art in the gallery space is equally stunning, though sometimes grotesque, but it never fails to engage. Of course there are the fine wines, poured by an ultrahip crew. All in all, it gives us a nice, warm feeling about wine country. But maybe that's the alcohol. 3000 Westside Road, Healdsburg. 707.431.2051.--D.B.

Best Greasy Spoon
If you like your linguica as long as your arm, your burger slathered with chili and cheese, and your Diet Pepsi served in a plastic glass on a Formica table, then it's pretty hard to beat the Cook House, right down A Street from Juilliard Park in Santa Rosa. A modest white cottage with blue trim, the Cook House is a throwback to more innocent days, before eating required a Ph.D. in biophysics. For the past 10 years or so, Steven Sanders (no relation to the Colonel of KFC fame, he assures us) has been slinging hash here, and judging by the respectable crowd lining up daily for breakfast and lunch, it's wonderful hash indeed. 327 S. A St., Santa Rosa. 707.526.2689.--R.V.S.

Best Grasp of the Infinite Impossibility
The perfect caesar salad, like the perfect taco or the perfect martini, does not exist. Like infinity, it is a concept we can approach but never reach. The impossibility of ultimate success, however, does not detract from the pleasure of the attempt. Nor does it render all failures equal. We've all encountered caesar salads unworthy of the name, hellish swamps of wilted lettuce, gelid ranch dressing, stale croutons and powdered parmesan. Several light years away is the cosmic achievement of Ristorante Capri in Railroad Square, which to date has no equal in Sonoma County. The romaine is crisp and light green, the dressing is exquisitely balanced between lemon and cream, the parmesan is freshly grated, and the total effect is bliss. 115 Fourth St., Santa Rosa. 707.525.0815.--Y.B.

Best Place to Savor the Splendor of a Boti Kabob
The North Bay has its share of East Indian restaurants. Lotus Restaurant in San Rafael, unpretentious and unhurried, is one of the best. The spiced tandoori dishes, a selection of infused meats and seafood (even trout) cooked in a clay-pit oven and served sizzling on a cast-iron platter, are a specialty of the house. Those mouth-watering dishes include an out-of-this-world boti kabob of roasted cubes of lamb with a spiced yogurt marinade. There are also more than 30 curry dishes, including seafood, lamb, chicken and vegetarian meals. The saag, a mildly spiced spinach that is a standard dish in Indian eateries, is particularly well-prepared here. For an appetizer, try the lotus naan, delicately flavored bread stuffed with spiced chicken, cashews, raisins and nuts. 704 Fourth St., San Rafael. 415.456.5808.--G.C.

Best Place to Ride the Gastronomy Express
There are few things that are better in this world than K&L Bistro in Sebastopol. Therefore, there could be few better business plans than one that extends the K&L franchise. Hyperbole, perhaps. But Sebastopol is certainly better off for its newest (and only) K&L spinoff, Appellations, formally (and awkwardly) known as Appellations: A Wine Bar. Appellations resides within a rehabbed train car in the Gravenstein Station complex, richly appointed with an animal-print carpet and sexy booths within which one may peruse the extensive wine menu. Food plays second fiddle to the libations but remains true to the bar set ever so high by K&L Bistro. It's not a cheap-date kind of place--a few glasses of wine and a couple plates of food manage to tally up rather quickly. But for glamour and luxury, it can't be beat. 6761 Sebastopol Ave. (Gravenstein Station), Sebastopol. 707.829.7791.--D.B.

Best Place to Eat a Happy Cow
Forget all about that mad-cow scare. For 30 years, the Marin-based Niman Ranch has raised happy cows, pigs and lambs (although vegans will certainly have a different opinion about that), and provided high-quality, locally produced gourmet meats that taste incredibly good. All animals enjoy humane treatment, natural feeds and are allowed to mature naturally. Niman works with a network of independent ranchers to maintain a high standard of quality control, and the results are hard to beat. How fine are Niman Ranch products? Esquire magazine, that bastion of good taste, recently praised the company for having "the fanciest lard money can buy." Of course, the article was illustrated with a scary photo of Anna Nicole Smith. Still, we're talking about a food product that yields flakier pastry crusts, has less saturated fats than butter and none of the transfatty acids found in vegetable shortening. A list of North Bay groceries selling Niman Ranch products is available at www.nimanranch.com.--G.C.

Best Topless Winetasting
January's annual Winter Wineland tasting event finds some 80 wineries throwing open their doors to thirsty travelers who amble up the drive rather uncertainly, holding with grim measure on to faintly silty oversized Reidel wine glasses that they are determined to fill again. At the recent event, the handsome Davis Bynum Winery threw a Mardi Gras party, replete with beads, red beans, rice and live music. Outside, people bopped around digging into paper bowls filled with food while inside the rustic tasting room, they stood four deep to the bar. Nothing unusual here on a lovely winetasting afternoon in January--until one woman could contain herself no longer and simply doffed her top. Greeted by a hush and then a roar, she was the instant hero of the day, a mild January afternoon in wine country. Davis Bynum Winery, 8075 Westside Road, Healdsburg. 707.433.2611.--G.G.

Best Place to Explore Your Appetite
If you're going to go to paradise, you may as well be introduced to it by Adam and Eve. And so on my husband's birthday, our friends Adam and Eve gave me a gift as well when they took us out to Howard's Station Cafe for a breakfast celebration. Since then it's been a favorite place for us to get away, get happy and get fed. Nestled in the aging birch trees of Occidental, Howard's Restaurant is the perfect place for my family to eat. They serve delectable, inimitable cooking, including multiple fresh juices for my daughter's palate, ample choices of vegan and vegetarian choices that delight my husband, and I can still have my bacon and eat it too. But Howard's isn't just another hippie shack serving animal-free meals. A quaint and eclectic atmosphere surrounds you, whether you're in the homey house that Howard renovated to hold his eatery or on the wooden porch with the sun beaming on your shoulders, the birds rustling above you and happy chatter standing in for background music. You can have fresh-squeezed orange juice, but why order something typical when Howard's offers luscious flavors like homemade honeydew, cantaloupe and grapefruit juices? The atmosphere makes you feel like a guest in an old friend's home, and the intelligent staff will tell you honestly what's delicious and what's merely nutritious. All aspects of Howard's come together to create a paradise that can't go wrong. Open for breakfast and lunch daily. 3611 Bohemian Hwy., Occidental. 707.874.2838.--L.G.

Best Place for Gluttony to Go
We're not ones to praise a lot of out-of-town chains setting up in quaint little Sonoma County, but considering that Rohnert Park's new Black Bear Diner took over the location once held by a Lyons Restaurant, we think that, originality-wise, it's a big improvement. Yes, there's been a Black Bear in the town of Sonoma for a couple of years, but even if it is part of a 20-diner chain, it's a pretty homey little chain (the first one was in Shasta City). Best thing, of course, is the Black Bear's obsession with the concept of giving patrons way too much food--huge plates, heaped to the edges with thick, comforting fare that tastes as good as it is impossible to eat, or at least impossible to eat all of. This is one place where doggie bags are pretty much mandatory. 6255 Commerce Blvd., Rohnert Park. 707.584.8552.--D.T.

Best Place to Taste the Juiciest Sonoma County Original
The Crane melon is one of the few remaining continuous links to Santa Rosa's illustrious past as an agricultural (not just wine) center. In the 1920s, when the land was filled with everything from plums to apples to pears to hops, local farmer Oliver Crane created the melon when he crossed a Japanese melon with a cantaloupe. The resulting fruit tastes like an extremely juicy cantaloupe. The Crane Melon Barn on Petaluma Hill Road has always been the best place to get the melon, though only in the summer when it's in season and the barn doors are open. 4947 Petaluma Hill Road, Santa Rosa. 707.795.6987.--J.L.

Best Place to Eat Grilled Corn on the Cob and Oysters
Picture a warm summer day out at Pt. Reyes, the salty wind whipping about as seagulls make rowdy madigral screeches in the air. Perfect situations require perfect snacks, and no snack is better than grilled oysters and barbecued corn toasted in its husk, with the stem still attached for easy holding, corndog-style. Such is the traditional summer practice at the Drake's Beach Cafe, where in season one can stand around the fire as affable chefs toss on as many oysters and corn husks as you desire, chatting about the weather and the beach and beauty of Pt. Reyes as your simple but perfect meal sizzles to completion before your eyes. Damn, it makes us hungry just thinking about it! Summer can't come along soon enough, can it? Drakes Beach Road, Inverness. 415.669.1297. --D.T.

Best Buns Around
No, we're not talking about the toned and tanned bicyclists sharing a bench with you as you inhale a warm baguette, or that adorable couple feeding each other a garlic, porcini mushroom and gouda fougasse, still steaming from the oven. Hot, but not crossed, Wild Flour Bread has the best buns this side of Jude Law. This tiny organic bakery fires the ovens early to make their sinful sticky buns along with hearty loaves of fruited, herbed and grained breads. 140 Bohemian Hwy., Freestone. 707.874.2938.-H.I

Best Place to Lunch With Our Friends at the 'P.D.'
Walking into the cavernous din of the Chinese buffet Fu Zhou, one is immediately struck of course by the exotic sight of cheesecake neighboring sesame rolls, of barbecued chicken skewers trembling next to chocolate cakes, which themselves placidly wait near the macaroni and cheese just down the aisle from the mu shu pork and one steam table over from the egg drop soup, green jello and whole salmon. Fu Zhou is a cacophony of food, boasting some 100 dishes at each packed seating. But once one grows accustomed to the blare of dishes and the size of the room, badges begin to appear to one's consciousness, little photo-identifying badges that hang by clips or are worn as careless necklaces. And as the first taste of fried rice nudged too closely to spicy green beans unhappily co-existing with lemon chicken begins to flower in the mouth, it becomes apparent that as a citizen of the public world, one has stumbled into a very private world: the ad hoc lunch room of the Press Democrat. While editors presumably dine daily at John Ash and Co., beat reporters and copy editors and receptionists and classified reps and all the many denizens it takes to make a daily gather across the street from the office. Sadly, random eavesdropping done while gumming chow mein overlaid with orange slices reveals little in the way of breaking news scoops or gossip. As with people everywhere, patrons of such crazy bounty as is to be found at Fu Zhou tend to talk about . . . food. 450 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. 707.523.7000.--G.G

Best Place to Enjoy a French Burrito
I have nothing against Mexican food in general, but there sure is a lot of it around here. A person can get a little tired of it after a while. So for a change, you might give Crepe Escape a try. This hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Rohnert Park offers scrumptious crepes that are light, slightly crunchy and neatly folded. And while they come in your standard fruit-and-cream variety (and are topped with whipped or ice cream), they can also be filled with eggs, ham, chicken, salmon, avocados, salami, pesto, capers, tomatoes . . . you get the picture. Sure beats a chimichanga. 959 Golf Course Drive, Rohnert Park. 707.226.5642.--J.L.

Best Place to Really Escape Wine Country
Annapolis Winery is about as far out of the way as you can get in a county that has a lot of out-of-the-way places. Far up on one of the ridges between the coast and Anderson Valley (about seven miles inland from Sea Ranch), the family-run winery is so far off the wine-road path that the chances of having to jostle through a crowd to the tasting room are fairly nil. With a picnic among the apple trees in view of the surrounding redwoods on a sunny, hot autumn day, it might just seem that the world is yours. 26055 Soda Springs Road, Annapolis. 707.886.5460.--D.B.

Best Sugar Source
Recently named the best candy store on the West Coast by Sunset magazine, this spanking-new addition to Windsor's downtown row must be seen to be believed. Wander through jungles of licorice ropes; open the drawers of antique cabinets stocked with every kind of gourmet chocolate bar imaginable; shoot a chocolate billiard ball into the side pocket of a miniature pool table; catch a few minutes of Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka in the one-seat movie theater; and leave at last with a dripping gelato cone in one hand and the other clutching a bag filled with all the forgotten candies of your youth, renewed, rejuvenated and immeasurably wealthy. Powell's Sweet Shoppe, 720 McClelland Drive, Windsor. 707.836.0808.--Y.B.

Best Way to Understand Food and Wine Fusion for 10 Bucks
Whenever I take a guest winetasting in Sonoma County, I usually bring them by J Winery in Healdsburg. Not only is the wine good and the cost of tasting reasonable--$10 for two people--but they feed you, too. The winery's philosophy is that wine goes best with food, so they pair each tasting with hors d'oeuvres designed to complement the wine. The menu speaks for itself: Easter egg radishes with lemon crème frâiche and wasabi tobiko, Dungeness crab with blood orange and tarragon on endive, and truffled fava pureé on saffron-parmesan crackers. Wow! 3387 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg. 707.431.5500.--J.L.

Best Place to Drink It Up With Your Peta Pals
There are a myriad of reasons to enjoy the goodness that is Andresen's bar in Petaluma, beginning with the old-fashioned glass-brick walls of its facade that filter sunlight just well enough to illuminate the place but not so strongly as to induce a 3pm beer-guilt, to the high stools that ring the smooth wooden bar counter, sporting foot rests just right for hooking heels around to the pleasant, noncommital barkeeps and the sturdy friendliness of the regular crowd. But for our purposes here, it is the proud retrospective exhibition of last-century taxidermy that is Andresen's real draw. Not only is it somewhat stunning to sip a beer surrounded by the sawdust-filled carcasses and heads of some 50 former living beings, but it is also well-nigh educational. Some may scoff, but the wild cat mounted on a ceiling shelf near the jukebox exactly resembles one startled into a run at the Pt. Reyes National Seashore on a recent hike. Discussion had raged at the time that it was just an oversized house cat out voling; an after-hike beer at Andresen's settled all bets. I, of course, was right. 19 Western Ave., Petaluma. 707.762.6647.--G.G.

Best Cultural Oasis
Traveling west on Highway 128 from Calistoga, it's fairly easy to become mesmerized by the Alexander's Valley bucolic scenery. But just when you think you've left civilization forever, the road takes a 90-degree turn, and the Jimtown Store pops up out of nowhere. Jimtown's deli offers eclectic nouvelle cuisine; the bleu cheese, sliced apple and chopped fig salad and the homemade meatloaf wrapped with bacon are to die for. Equally eclectic and affordable is the merchandise offered in the Mercantile and Exchange area in the rear of the store: folk and naïve art, unique antiques and the strangest varieties of oil cloth you'll ever encounter. Rub your eyes as much as you want, the Jimtown Store is no mirage. It's here to stay, a little bit of culture, country-style. 6706 State Hwy. 128, Healdsburg. 707.433.1212.--R.V.S

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From the March 17-24, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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