As excited as I was for the next leg of our road trip, I was a little saddened at the same time. We were on the home run and it was all coming to an end. A bit of a relief for you guys as somehow I’ve managed to drag a month-long holiday for almost a year.
Not all that far north of San Fran is wine country, as many of you are well aware of. The well-known Napa Valley tends to have the hoards gravitating towards it more than other areas like Lake County and Sonoma and as much as I desired to slosh about all the wine regions for a week, we just didn’t have that kind of time.
The town of Healdsburg is nestled among the rolling hills of Sonoma County, a mere hour from San Francisco. It’s a picture-perfect kind of town, solidly geared for wino’s and folk with an appetite for farm-to-table dining. Martha Stewart wannabe’s can even splurge on gorgeous dust ruffles, exorbitantly-priced candles and that perfect satin tassel for the curtains.
An early arrival into Healdsburg meant our room at h2hotel wasn’t quite ready. Check this place out. Eco-friendly (the undulating roof is a living carpet of green alongside solar panels), simply and beautifully styled and a little hip. I was eager to get upstairs and see what the room was like but thanks to our early timing, we had to sit tight and adopt a little patience.
All we could do was check in, dump our bags and kill a couple of hours by dropping into the antique shop next door (potential props for my recipe posts), take a short wander about town and lunch at Bistro Ralph around the corner.
The space in which Bistro Ralph sits is a narrow sliver of white-painted brick walls, wooden wine bar, your typical French-style woven seating and farmhouse oddments dotted about. A bit country-meets-white-linen-chic.
A couple of local Sonoma vino’s settle us into the laid back rural vibe of Healdsburg before our starters mosey to the table. The fried szechuan pepper calamari (14) is nice enough, teamed with a soy ginger dipping sauce. Sadly the szechuan pepper can barely be tasted, let alone seen on the blonde and crunchy squid. A very simple salad of baby frisée (11) comes topped with a duck fat-basted egg and ‘black pig’ lardons. It may have come from a black pig but I’m amazed the chef even put the lardons on the plate in the burnt state they were in. I think they were more akin to carbon croutons than a once living, content and potentially very tasty animal. What a way to go.
The bistro fare continues with some fantastic triangles of fried polenta (think very crunchy crust with creamy and buttery innards) plus wilted scallion and black olive tapenade (9.5). It was nice to see a wedge of the same polenta appear on my plate of chicken livers (13), sautéed with caramelised onion, balsamic and pancetta. Loved the rich sweetness of the sauce, and in fact, the entire dish.
Now, the room should be ready so let’s go check it out.
I do love a good boutique hotel. Simple decorating, stylish and functional furniture, quality bathroom products and a damn comfy bed. No time to lounge about the room as we had the surrounding countryside to explore.
At first we jumped into the car and drove up Dry Creek Road through the abundant vineyards all the way up to Warm Springs Dam. Neither of us was in the mood for wine tasting (or was that me?) so we back-tracked to Healdsburg and took Westside Road out of town in the other direction, through many more vineyards and much nicer terrain. The scenery is actually stunning as the drive runs parallel to Russian River through pockets of lush redwood forest and the small settlements of Guernewood and Monte Rio.
Where were we headed? I wasn’t entirely sure as all I did was look at the map and see that the coast wasn’t that far from Healdsburg. As we neared the coastline and Russian River inlet I was amazed with the eerie blanket of sea mist that was slowly engulfing the landscape. The township of Jenner sits right on the inlet and is nothing more than a cluster of hill-side houses, some accommodation and a few places to eat.
Cafe Aquatica looked like just the place to stop and stretch the legs, and in my case, sample the local food. Yes, I know we had lunch earlier but I couldn’t let a local specialty pass by, especially when it’s at a rustic joint clad in weathered wooden shingles. Of course I went for the organic homemade clam chowder (7.5) served up with a couple of tiny packets of oyster crackers. The chowder wasn’t as thick as I was expecting, which was ok with me as I savoured every creamy bisque-like drop in the clam-filled bowl. This was one of the trips simple highlights. Sitting out on the wooden deck, overlooking the Russian River as a blanket of sea mist slowly made its way towards us.
Backtracking along River Road we just couldn’t help but stop at this little historic settlement. It was the huge pumpkins that caught my eye as I was driving, actually. Duncans Mills began as a saw-mill, hacking trees in the area to be processed and sent down to San Francisco for construction. I guess it didn’t take long for a saloon, hotels, general store and other services to pop up around it, creating a small community. Today the restored settlement feels more like an open-air museum with shops geared for tourists rather than the locals. I kind of wished I had more stomach space as the Californian/Southern food at Cape Fear Cafe sounded pretty good.
Back in Healdsburg we decided to kick back at the hotel bar, sipping bevvies and just enjoying the moment. I couldn’t help but have multiple basil gimlets (Blade gin, basil, lime juice & agave nectar); such a drinkable cocktail and a steal at 8.50. Buy the same drink in Sydney and you’ll be forking out $15-$20. Drinks and people watching at spoonbar turned into snacks and main courses before we knew it. We were just too settled in and the menu looked pretty good. Fresh Kumamoto oysters (16) sourced from Humboldt Bay about 350 km away and some imported buffalo milk burrata (13). Both the oysters and the creamy cheese were heavenly. Off to the side of the burrata is an eggplant caponata napoleon; a delicious stack layered with crisp pastry.
Juicy ras el hanout spiced rack of lamb (26) – came with panisse fritters (zucchini), roasted tomato and aleppo pepper. Great flavours and perfectly cooked. As was the pan-seared salmon (23) with manila clams, sweet corn and erbette chard. Chef Louis Maldonado really does a fine job at contemporary American fare.
For sweets it was all about the almond cake (8) with poached pears (just two slices), orange blossom cream and vanilla-caramel sauce. It was just like a friand, really. The chocolate truffle tart (9) came just as expected, filled with decadent ganache with whipped crème fraîche and salted caramel sauce. Beautiful.
For such a small town, Healdsburg doesn’t have a huge coffee scene. There’s a Starbucks for those that are that way inclined plus a few other places if you’re not. Flying Goat Coffee has two locations in town and it was just one of them that we tried. Man, what a pleasant surprise. These guys import and roast their own beans and by the coffees we received, the cafe staff have had some rigorous training. My macchiato was perfection. The cafe at 419 Center Street has a bit of an old world feel about it; spacious and quiet with some interesting local art and photography up on the walls.
Breezing in and out of Healdsburg was a little too fast for my liking. I really wanted to stay longer and in retrospect I almost wished we skipped Vegas and spent that time around Sonoma Country. Oh well, California will always be there when we return someday. The car was packed, two bags and all, and it was back onto the crazy freeways heading south along Route 580, 880 and on to Monterey Bay.
Back in New York when we had dinner at Pylos we met a lovely couple from California that suggested we stop at Pebble Beach if we could. They actually emailed me a list of places to visit but seeing we had time constraints on the last two days of our trip, it was just one place on that list that we stopped for a quick lunch. Sticks, at Pebble Beach. There’s some serious money in this neck of the west coast woods. Massive mansions, golf courses and gated communities. A bit of a Stepford wives playground. Sticks is found at The Inn at Spanish Bay smack next to the seaside golf course where enthusiasts and retirees don pastel coloured outfits and shoot holes (not even sure if shooting holes is kosher golfing terminology).
The Sticks menu has nothing ground-breaking about it. It’s the type of selection you’d find at any club, middle-of-the-road cafe or low key American restaurant. Burgers, rotisserie chicken, sandwiches, salads, wings and tater tots. Not just regular tater tots, “World Famous tater tots”. “Don’t be a tater hater” was even a slogan on the menu. As the nearby pastel-coloured iced tea-sipping ladies lunched on “oh-my-gaaaad-it’s-huge” salads, it was sandwiches all ’round at our table with a rotisserie chicken cob (13.5) with crisp bacon, avocado, tomato and “green goddess dressing”. The dressing was some kind of mayo and the sandwich was just like a club sandwich you get pool-side at many hotels.
Of course I tried the corned beef Reuben (15.5), served in NY rye with the expected suspects of sauerkraut, Russian dressing, Swiss cheese and a side of those World Famous tater tots. I was not a tater hater that day, folks. I love a good potato gem, as we call them in Oz. Just not sure how something can be that famous if it’s deep-fried straight from a frozen packet. As for the Reuben, it was a winner. Toasted bread that didn’t shred the roof of my mouth, generous fillings, juicy, sour, freakin’ delish.
“Cheque please?” Yup, it was time to hit the road again. We had one more night in the US and a hotel wasn’t even booked yet …