An 800-degree wood-fired oven isn’t for the faint of heart. Burning embers, live fire and blistering surfaces can be a logistical challenge, especially in a busy restaurant where pizzas, braised octopus and short ribs commingle inside not one, but two searingly hot wood-fueled ovens.
But they’re also the muscle of Jim and Michele Wimborough’s new Occidental restaurant, Hazel. Left by the previous owners of long-time French restaurant, Bistro des Copains, the ovens are being pressed into service for everything from house made sourdough loaves to whole braised branzino, perfectly-cooked pizzas, and every so often, pastry chef Michele’s chocolate chip cookies.
Far from the buzz of San Francisco, Berkeley and east Oakland, where the chef-couple worked at high turnover urban restaurants like Zut! Tavern, SF’s Boulevard, upscale Greek restaurant, Kokkari, and Zuni Kitchen, the Wimboroughs are settling into the country life in West County. With their hearts set on raising their fourth-grade son in the quieter reaches of Sonoma County, the couple fell in love with Occidental on a birthday trip for Jim. When the owners of the beloved Occidental eatery Bistro des Copains announced their retirement, the couple pounced on the spot.
“We just feel grateful that we get to live here, get to be part of this community,” said Michele.
After several months of renovation, Hazel restaurant opened in July to plenty of local fanfare — one of only a handful of eateries between Sebastopol and the North Coast. Already, local reviewers on Yelp are calling it “a new West County classic.”
The Food: A creative mix of rustic Mediterranean and California cuisines, Tzatziki and grilled eggplant spread with pita olives and feta ($11) are menu-fellows to citrus-cured scallops with grapes, radish, lime and Calabrian chili ($9). And it works perfectly, tied together by hyperlocal ingredients and bold Mediterranean flavors.
“We want to keep it really simple,” said Jim. “Something everyone can understand and enjoy,” he added, saying that dishes like the sweet and savory eggplant dip that’s a simpler cousin to baba ganoush with smoky eggplant and the addition (in this version) of raisins are inspired by his time at Kokkari. For the tzatziki, a creamy cucumber dip, Jim uses Kefir cheese from Greece, giving it an almost sour cream-like bump.
You’ll find that many of the dishes featured on the menu are best-sellers from their past restaurants while, as Jim said, they feel out the locals to see what resonates. “People eat a lot more meat here than in Berkeley,” he said. “I thought I would be making a lot more vegetarian dishes, but everyone and their mom orders the ribeye ($29),” said Jim. Surprisingly, he added, whole Branzino (head, bones and all, $26) is also popular. “It’s a really cool dish that shows off what we can do with our oven,” he said.
More must-try dishes:
– Polenta with anything: After a family field trip to their neighbors at Valley Ford Cheese, the Wimborough fell in love with their Fontina-style Highway One, especially when a batch was a bit “funkier” that the usual aged cheese. “It adds to much flavor,” he said. We say: Cornmeal is almost an afterthought to this cheese and butter-laden side that will make you swoon. Piled with braised short ribs ($25), its almost too good to be legal, with plenty to share with your dining partner, I mean, if you’re generous like that.
– Roasted Octopus ($11): Braised in red wine and rosemary, then seared, its tender and flavorful with white beans, grapefruit, orange, fennel and olives.
– Mushroom Pizza ($14): A newcomer to the menu, roasted crimini mushrooms are blended into a sauce, with maitakes, Brie and truffle oil. Thicker than Neopolitan-style pizza, the fermented dough has plenty of crisp without the burnt taste. Valley Ford Gorgonzola with caramelized onions, walnuts and fig balsamic ($13) could benefit from some prosciutto, but maybe that’s just us.
– Pork Schnitzel ($24): A forearm-sized schnitzel, of pounded pork that’s breaded, fried and served atop smashed potatoes with creme fraiche and bacon braised cabbage. Grab n Anderson Valley Boont Amber ($5) and you’ll wonder where the oompa band is hiding.
– Roasted Bronzino ($26): The couple get this white-fleshed fish prized from the Mediterranean daily. A simple roast, with potatoes, leeks, tomatoes and white wine keep this dish really effortless.
– Sourdough Bread Pudding ($8): Desserts, breads and pastries are also made in house by Jim’s wife, Michele. If it’s Friday, it’s Pie Day, so grab whatever she’s cooked up. We loved the sourdough bread budding with Bourbon caramel, chocolate, bananas and whipped cream, made with leftover sourdough she’s baked in the back oven. Most popular? The Hazel Sundae with salted caramel, hot fudge, whipped cream, candied almonds and Amarena cherries, ($8)
If you go: Free corkage on Thursday nights if you bring a local bottle. The restaurant will begin serving brunch within a few weeks (call first), with Jim’s Great Grandma Hazel’s cinnamon rolls (she’s the restaurant’s inspiration and namesake). Located within stumbling distance of the popular bike route along Occidental Road, it will no doubt become a favorite morning ride refueling spot.
Oh, and remain calm if you hear the air raid siren wailing across the street. It’s just the local fire alert system, which locals are used to (but no doubt will have you looking like a deer in headlights). You know, unless it’s coming from the kitchen. Thing is, after eating at Hazel, we’re pretty confident the Wimboroughs have their live fires well under control.
Hazel Restaurant: Open daily from 5p.m. to 10p.m.; 3782 Bohemian Hwy, Occidental, (707) 874-6003, restauranthazel.com. Reservations recommended.