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Mouth Wandering

Our giddy guide to getting out

By Heather Irwin

You love to eat and drink. In fact, you probably do it at least three or four times a day. More, if you're lucky. And by some stroke of fate, you've ended up doing it here in the North Bay--home to many of the world's best chefs, restaurants, farms and wineries. So why are you in the drive-through line again? We love a $6 burger as much as anyone else, but life's too short for another sesame seed bun.

Here are more than 50 reasons to sharpen that fork and hit the road hungry.

Meet the Makers

Choosing a favorite chef in the North Bay is like, well, picking a favorite child. They're all so special in their own way, the darlin's. But what's impressed me most since arriving here just nine short months ago are the amazing women at the helm of so many restaurants. Duske Estes of Zazu (3535 Guerneville Rd., Santa Rosa; 707.523.4814) has straight-up indie sensibilities, youthful joie de vivre and a passion that she tempers with solid skills. Sondra Bernstein of The Girl and the Fig (110 W. Spain St., Sonoma; 707.938.3634) sticks to a formula that works and makes it solid every single time. Mary Dumont of Sonoma Saveur (487 First St., Sonoma; 707.996.7007) has weathered a storm of controversy over the restaurant and its owners' production of foie gras, and consistently turns out some of the most interesting new dishes in the county--including a tasty new duck burger.

In St. Helena, Cindy Pawlcyn of Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen (1327 Railroad Ave., St. Helena; 707.963.1200) continues to impress rarified Napa Valley diners who still fondly remember her Mustard's days. And the buzz-garnering Pilar Sanchez of Pilar (807 Main St., Napa; 707.252.4474) finds a new way to do it every single day.

But just because we're shouting out to the ladies, don't think we haven't noticed the amazing talents of (relative) newcomers Randy Lewis of Popina (1612 Terrace Way, Santa Rosa; 707.523.0317) and David Sypnicki of One-Fifty-Four (154 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma; 707.763.0628).

Live Nude Food

We're not exactly talking about 9 1/2 Weeks, but lately we've been noticing a glut of food porn out there. You know, the gratuitously soft-focused and beautifully lit shots of food in, well, compromising positions on the covers of cookbooks everywhere. Locally, Thomas Keller was one of the first to do it in his French Laundry Cookbook. You'll never look at raw salmon the same. Recently, John Ash's Cooking One on One fell prey, as well, to the salacious lure of tantalizing minced carrot close-ups and views of cilantro that, frankly, shouldn't be shown to children. Paula Wolfert's Slow Mediterranean Kitchen seems to have escaped the need for censors, though fall's upcoming release of Keller's Bouchon and Bruce Aidell's Complete Book of Pork, both due out in November, may need to be hidden behind The Joy of Cooking from young ones.

Meanwhile, the whole food-wank orgy continues on with the cult of Slow Food quietly invading nearly every professional kitchen and food pedigrees being trotted out on menus from Petaluma to Mill Valley. And if you just want to watch, head out bright and early to Krispy Kreme (2688 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa; 707.541.3700) to see the fresh, yeasty doughnuts take a ride through a milky frosting bath. Just cover your eyes when they start forcefully inserting the jelly center--unless you're into that kind of thing.

DIY Füd

Where there's food porn, there's a whole category of amateurs doing it for themselves. The recently opened Sur la Table (2323 Magowan Dr., Santa Rosa; 707.566.9820) offers a number of weekly cooking classes in the shop, but those with a little kitchen know-how who volunteer for prep-work and clean-up can attend the classes free and get credit toward free cookware. Ramekins (450 W. Spain St., Sonoma; 707.933.0450) brings in local celebrity chefs like Joanne Weir and the charming Paula Wolfert, but one of the best courses is a tour of the new San Francisco Ferry Building that includes lunch at the impossible-to-book Slanted Door with Sally Bernstein.

And with the grilling season smokily upon us, we found the perfect mate for your sad little kettle barbecue. A charcoal chimney, available at Barbeques Galore (2510 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa; 707.578.5248), filled with wood briquettes rather than that nasty old black charcoal, makes for a less lighter-fluid-tasting burger. Your secret is safe with us.

Noontime Noshing

Desk-eaters and brown-baggers, take heart! Though your cubicle may be remote and your lunch hour painfully less than 43 minutes, there are better options than a Whopper, even with time, multitasking and budgetary considerations often outweighing lunchtime gastronomy. So while you're picking up your dry cleaning or buying shampoo, take a second glance around the mini-mall.

At Coddingtown, the ultra-pink Sakura (300 Coddingtown Center, Santa Rosa; 707.523.1916) serves up super-fresh sushi rolls and lunch teriyaki specials amidst Sailor Moon-covered walls and flat screen TVs. Skip any fancy hoopla and head to Sunshine Foods (1115 Main St., St. Helena; 707.963.5940), where there's a great deli as well as some reasonable prepacked sushi.

Stay strong as you pass the nachos, but the 7-11 (2648 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa; 707.544.1591), incredibly enough, now has a tasty spinach salad and ramen noodles, plus spinach and cheese taquitos. Taqueria los Altos de Jalisco, (2700 Yulupa Ave., Santa Rosa; 707.575.1265) kicks out killer burritos, while the very nearby Yao Kiku (also 2700 Yulupa Ave., Santa Rosa; 707.578.8180) has a more upscale sushi vibe.

Around lunchtime, Whole Foods (1181 Yulupa Ave., Santa Rosa; 707.575.7915) seems to be conducive to scoring free samples, but be wary of the deli case. The food at this outlet rarely tastes as good as it looks. In Healdsburg, the Cousteaux Bakery (417 Healdsburg Ave.; 707.433.1913) makes a mean bowl of onion soup. And in Sonoma, The Breakaway Cafe (19101 Sonoma Hwy.; 707.556.5949) is a warm, ranch-ish respite from the cares of the day, hoss.

Eat Out More Often

There are no excuses for not trying something new in these climes. Newly opened digs include Monti's (714 Village Court, Santa Rosa; 707.568.4404), Pamposh(52 Mission Circle, Ste.10, Santa Rosa; 707.538.3367) and Stomp (1475 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga; 707.942.8272). Then again, sometimes everything old is new again. Restaurants like John Ash and Co.
(4330 Barnes Rd., Santa Rosa; 707.527.7687), Auberge du Soleil (180 Rutherford Hill Road, Rutherford; 707. 963.1211) hold continued appeal, along with the newly reopened French Laundry (6640 Washington St., Yountville; 707.944.2380--bonne chance getting reservations).

For those of us with real-world salaries, pairing a box of Panda Express (235 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa; 707.545.7228) orange chicken with a midnight movie at the Rialto Cinemas Lakeside is about as close to heaven as you can get for under $20.

Early and Often

Getting a good buzz on before 11am simply hasn't been the same since the Trophy Room closed in May. Though rumor has it the TR will rise from the ashes in August, we're not holding out much hope. In the meantime, the late-night spot in Yountville remains Bouchon (6534 Washington St., Yountville; 707.944.8037), where off-duty chefs and locals sip until nearly 1am. The Underwood Bar and Bistro (9113 Graton Rd., Graton; 707.823.7023) remains our favorite watering hole for entertaining slick out-of-towners, along with Napa's Bounty Hunter (975 First St., Napa; 800.943.WINE), where they can sit tall in the saddle.

Boathouse Sushi (6278 Redwood Dr., Rohnert Park; 707.588.9440) is Rohnert Park's happy-hour hotspot, while Healdsburg's new lounge rustico Barndiva (231 Center St., Healdsburg; 707.431.0100) will likely hold cosmopolitan visitors' interest with its nouveau-nouveau California cuisine and Manhattan prices. On weekends through October, Ravenswood Vineyard (18701 Gehricke Road, Sonoma, 707.933.2332) offers ribs and barbecue from 11:30am to 2:30pm; live music accompanies da beef on Sundays.

In Napa, COPIA (500 First St., Napa, 707.259.1600) is reinventing itself to appeal more to the masses who keep asking, "So where are all the free wine samples?" Programs like the Edible Gardens Festival ($25 for members, Aug. 21-22) include food, wine and such luminaries as Alice Waters. Too heady? Each Friday, they offer a prix fixe dinner at Julia's Kitchen, including a glass of wine and a movie ticket for under $30. Now that's a great local deal.

Seven-Second Secrets

Psst. Wanna know a secret? Guess what well-known Sonoma restaurant was recently handing out samples by a rep who assured all comers that the foodstuff had "No preservatives!" so therefore "Won't give you diarrhea!"? Whoops, we guess someone read the cue card wrong. . . . And a rivalry for best place to be seen (in Prada) is bubbling between two wine country farmers markets. We'll let you guess which ones. . . . A funky new Chinese restaurant is rumored to be in the works in Rohnert Park and an equally hip bargain-priced wine is, we hear, being released this summer by one of Sonoma's oldest wine families. Keep those corkscrews poised. . . .

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From the July 28-August 3, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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