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Cookin' It Up

[whitespace] Sally Spittles
Michael Amsler

Country comfort: Sally Spittles, owner of Willow Wood Market Cafe in Graton, has created a cozy country-store feeling at her west county eatery.

Five local restaurateurs who've broken the mold

By Paula Harris and Marina Wolf

OUR TASK SEEMED simple enough: Spotlight five restaurateurs who'd emerged on the burgeoning Sonoma County dining scene and made a distinct impression. Piece of cake, right? Well, it wasn't so easy.

We enthused about some recent restaurant openings, and we lamented the loss of old favorites. Who can forget the perfect pasta at the deliciously homey Mama Angelina, the eclectic Samba Java with its jazzy islands decor, the inexpensive, exotic, and totally authentic Himalayan Sherpa Cuisine, and, of course, the county's costly gastronomic crown jewel Babette's?

So, we pondered the current possibilities, jotted down lists, blackened our fingertips scouring the Indy archives, and grilled local residents on the topic.

The conclusion was surprising. Sure, plenty of excellent new eateries have fired up their ovens in recent years and made wonderful use of the local bounty of produce, but how many have made an impact because of their sheer uniqueness?

In this grape-sated county, it seems that the pricey, upscale wine country cuisine, pioneered more than a decade ago by John Ash and Lisa Hemenway, is becoming more ubiquitous by the moment. You could eat out at a dozen such fine local restaurants and be forgiven for confusing one meal with another.

When a couple of the trendiest new restaurants even named themselves after grape varietals, we couldn't help but wonder if our eateries are overly catering to the zin-swillin,' tourist contingent who hunger for the total Wine Country Experience.

We wondered about other mysteries, too. Why haven't restaurateurs whet our appetites with more new and unusual ethnic eateries of late? And, seeing as we're so close to the coast--with a bounty of fresh fish, crab, and farmed oysters--why hasn't someone opened a decent seafood place?

It's something to think about. . . .

Meanwhile, toques off to the following creative cooks who have made their unique mark on the local food scene in the past five years. May you continue to provoke our palates!

Sally Spittles & Matthew Greenbaum, Willow Wood Market Cafe

Willow Wood Market Cafe has word of mouth that many fancier restaurants would kill for. With lines that go out the door for its killer polenta, lovely seafood, and great dinner plates, the cafe has become a sleeper hit over the past four years as a destination for satisfying California bistro fare.

But owner Sally Spittles says she never intended for the Graton eatery to be as much of a restaurant as it has become. "If we had tried to serve filet mignon at the beginning, we would have been laughed out of town!" she says.

Instead, Spittles and her partner, chef Matthew Greenbaum, focused on good basic food--sandwiches and chalkboard specials--and on keeping the space welcoming to residents.

In that, too, the little country-store cafe has succeeded wildly.

Local art on the walls and Sunday night poetry readings (to be resumed later this fall) make it a magnet for west county culture seekers. Cartons of milk and loaves of bread, plus all the little fiddly British groceries you could put out for tea, support the "market" designation. And good coffee and a comfortable view of Graton's main street make it a great place to just sit.

So in spite of the weekend crowds, the Willow Wood Market Cafe remains a hangout.

"Out-of-towners don't understand the ambiance," says Spittles. "They don't really appreciate the core idea that it's set up around community."--M.W.

Willow Wood Market Cafe, 9020 Graton Road, Graton. 823-0233.

Manuel Azevedo, LaSalette

NOT EVERYTHING on the other side of the pond is French, just as not every restaurant in Sonoma serves wine country cuisine. Until you've been to LaSalette, you may not believe it, but once you've washed down a few spoonfuls of the briny cataplana (a Portuguese tomato-based seafood stew) with a mouthful of healthy young Portuguese red, you'll know it's true. When chef Manuel Azevedo opened LaSalette a year and a half ago, he was unsure how the area would take to his Portuguese-inspired cuisine: he was afraid that some people might find it a little rustic. But the response has been favorable enough to shift the menu to almost entirely Portuguese offerings.

In a few weeks, Azevedo will be adding theme nights as an excuse to serve up not just tapas, but Brazilian and other Portuguese colonial dishes.

Azevedo, with his Portuguese-speaking wait staff and a full menu of hearty Portuguese fare (not to mention a grand selection of port), is filling a huge gap in the county's ethnic dining options--and that's drawn attention from critics and food fans throughout the Bay Area. We've got some great longtime family restaurants, but very little new has emerged over the past five years that doesn't have California cuisine written all over it. And even if he doesn't start a trend in Portuguese cuisines, Azevedo is attracting the right folks to his place.

"Portuguese and Brazilian people will make day trips from out of town to have their food, and some locals are interested in the ethnic experience," says Azevedo of his unexpected response. "They each get what they want."--M.W.

LaSalette, 18625 Sonoma Hwy. (Hwy. 12), Sonoma. 938-1927.

Ray Tang, Mariposa

THE FIRST THING chef/owner Ray Tang did to shake up the local food scene last summer was open Mariposa, an upscale eatery in the county's youngest town. Windsor was hitherto regarded as a culinary wasteland--now it's definitely on the map. Then Tang created a menu filled with unfussy but sophisticated French country and wine country dishes, some with subtle Asian influences. While Tang does not want Mariposa to be known as an Asian restaurant (one reason, he says, is that Asian food doesn't pair well with most local wines), he does acknowledge that some of those culinary influences are present. "Yes, those flavors are there, but don't be afraid," he says with a laugh. "You're not going to find wasabi mashed potato on the menu."

Tang, who worked at Postrio and Boulevard in San Francisco, and Lespinasse in New York, says he wants to put "fun" items on the menu and establish Mariposa as a wine country restaurant. Still, it's his striking dishes, such as the sizzling black mussels with a sweet pepper curry and sautéed pea sprouts, and the delicately spicy lemongrass and cardamom crème brûlée with a flavor reminiscent of chai tea, that really stand out in a crowded field.--P.H.

Mariposa, 275 River Road, Windsor. 838-0162.

John Gillis & Gina Armanini of Cin Cin, formerly of the Girl and the Fig

IN 1997, opening chefs Gillis and Armanini worked with owner Sondra Bernstein to create the Girl and the Fig in Glen Ellen, a restaurant that was unusual in several ways. First, there was the Rhone-oriented wine list, which eschewed the ever-popular cabs and chards, and instead featured viogniers, marsannes, syrahs, and mourvedres--long before these became the trendy tipples they are today.

The restaurant, which seemed determined to be different, also offered flights of wines and ports, an artisan cheese menu and cheese-tasting bar, and a variety of dishes featuring Bernstein's passion: figs in all their fleshy, chewy guises. "Sondra threw out the basic ideas and we ran with them," recalls Gillis.

"We started with ingredients at the peak of their season and let their individual characteristics shine through. We didn't like to manipulate the food too much."

The creation of which Gillis is most proud is the restaurant's signature fig salad with arugula, goat cheese, and pancetta in a port-wine vinaigrette. "It's definitely a favorite among customers," he says.

This summer, Gillis and Armanini left their Sonoma County digs and opened Cin Cin, a new Italian-inspired bistro in neighboring downtown Calistoga. Meanwhile, the Girl and The Fig's new chef, John Toulze, is successfully continuing that restaurant's distinctive traditions.--P.H.

The Girl and the Fig, 13690 Arnold Drive, Glen Ellen. 938-3634.

Michael Hirschberg, Mistral

IN A SENSE, every restaurateur and winemaker in the county is an educator, showing winers and diners the limitless range of possibilities for gustatory greatness. But when veteran Michael Hirschberg assumed ownership of the restaurant now known as Mistral, he took the concept of edible education to a new level.

With his new chef, Scott Snyder, Hirschberg offers a solid and well-advertised program of theme nights and tasting dinners for both wine and food; the current Mistral calendar is an 11-by-17-inch sheet filled to the edges with notes on upcoming events, including a merlot seminar on Monday, Aug. 23, a Tour de France dinner on Sunday, Aug. 29, a chardonnay supper on Sept. 19, and a Select Sonoma County fundraising supper on Sept. 28.

These are not idle ploys to get rid of overstock, but carefully planned events designed to introduce diners to the specialties of our region. With his background with Select Sonoma County and other local agricultural ventures, Hirschberg knows, almost better than anybody, how to acquire and showcase those specialties.

Mistral's prices are reasonable, especially considering how much education you get, not to mention the great food, and the atmosphere can't be beat for keeping the intimidation factor low.

Extra feng shui points for creating a Mediterranean haven in the middle of a business park.--M.W.

Mistral, 1229 N. Dutton Ave., Santa Rosa. 578-4511.

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From the August 19-26, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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