After a bit of a lull in restaurant openings over the last several years, 2014 was a banner year for restaurateurs, both old and new. New to the table were several chef-owned restaurants, signaling an uptick in the economy, as well as flashier restaurants housed inside the Graton Casino and Resort. Cuisine focused on local products has become almost de rigeur, with local meats becoming even more of a player. Ethnic flavors are becoming increasingly mainstream as the world gets smaller and palates expand. Also this year: A number of pop-ups and food trucks have found brick-and-mortar spots to compliment, rather than eliminate, their mobile kitchens.
What we’ve seen less of? Traditional European menus have gone the way of the dinosaur. Instead, we’re seeing more “fusion” menus that include traditional sauces and preparations with newer flavors. Southeast Asian restaurants are eschewing their Americanized versions of dishes and lesser-known cuisines like Korean, authentic Japanese (ramen, donburri) and Vietnamese taking the forefront.
We’re also excited to see unexpected types of meat on many menus, including lots of locally-raised rabbit and goat along with serious offal (not just the gross-out stuff we saw several years ago) including tongue, heart, myriad sausages, kidney, liver and tripe on many menus, along with plenty of bone marrow and natural gelatins.
The good news in all of this is that local palates are broadening, and restaurant patrons are embracing the creativity of chefs. And though prices have risen considerably, we’re also beginning to get used to the idea that locally-produced, sustainable food comes at a price. But oh, what flavor.
Here are a few of our favorite restaurant openings of 2014.
One of my favorite openings of the year has to be this Railroad Square charmer. It’s hard to nail down why I’ve been so smitten, but the combination of comfort and luxury just work. Chef Darren McRonald has perfected the roast chicken with crispy skin and juicy, tender meat (both light and dark), serving up the bird with a light pan sauce and two dreamy spinach Parmesan pancakes. It’s everything a roast chicken should be, which is comforting and hearty, homey and succulent. Housed in the former Syrah Bistro. The interior is familiar, with an open kitchen and cozy dining room, but the space now has better seating and a more open feel. The interior courtyard, always a bit exposed, noisy, and uncomfortable, has been sectioned off, giving it a more unified feeling. The rest of the menu is brief and fairly consistent (though seasonal ingredients come and go) with plenty of rib-sticking entrées including fish tacos, cheeseburgers, skirt steak, lamb, and Manila clams with chorizo. What’s we’ve been inspired by, however, are the daily specials, such as a crab cake po’boy and fried green tomatoes. And don’t miss the bacon-wrapped dates with paprika, honey, and lemon. Dessert is just as inspired and just as comforting. Rich carrot cake with cream cheese frosting (notice the golden raisins, a nice touch), warm rhubarb and strawberry crumbles with whipped cream, or so-worth-it house made ice cream. What seemed a stumbling block, adding a 17 percent tip to the bill, has been eliminated. Though the idea is noble (and will hopefully catch on), Sonoma County just wasn’t ready. Open Mon-Fri lunch, nightly dinner, and Sat-Sun brunch. 205 5th St. at Wilson St., Santa Rosa, 707-545-4300.
MY Noodle Bar, Tony’s of North Beach
There was plenty of gastro-hubbub when the Graton Resort and Casino opened last winter. The lineup included five sit-down restaurants and an impressive food court of which former Cyrus chef Douglas Keane was a part. Within a few months, Keane was out and the restaurants started looking a bit, well, quiet. It’s too bad, because I’m a huge fan of Chef Martin Yan’s MY Noodle Bar and Chef Tony Gemignani’s signature restaurant. MY China transformed recently to MY Noodle Bar, with an abbreviated, but easier to follow menu. Dim sum is always solid, and its one of the few places in the North Bay for really authentic Chinese dishes. I’m also a huge fan of Tony’s of North Beach, which on my most recent visit was nearly empty. I had one of the best burgers of my life, and the restaurant is offering a number of family-friendly, budget-friendly options to bring people in. After several informal surveys of local foodies, the number one reason for not going: The cigarette smoke from the casino. Personally, I haven’t found it that offensive (there are state-of-the-art air filters and Tony’s has an exterior entrance), but it’s definitely keeping many non-gamblers away.
So what do you do when Open Table gives your “restaurant” (in reality, a winery tasting experience) the best in the world? You quit and open your own restaurant. Located on the Sonoma Square, Bush’s rustic-modern space is both walk-in lounge/bar and evolved reservation-only tasting experience. At the bar, you can get nibbles like pickled shrimp with paenut slaw, charred tuna with gai lan (a sort of Chinese brocooli) or beef tartar with quail egg (all under $20). The tasting menu changes with the day, but is always fresh from the garden and pasture. All from a guy who’s most often found in a camouflage trucker and humble whites of a line cook. 9 East Napa St., Sonoma
Native Kitchen and Kombucha Bar
On the other end of the spectrum is one of the most healthful dining experiences I’ve had in recent memory (and enjoyed). I’ve never been much of a fan of plant-based menus, but this Petaluma restaurant proved the exception. “I like to think of it as nutritious by accident,” says Chef Jasmine Dravis. Focused on food prepared with a “healing intent”—with gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian options as the core of her menu—Dravis doesn’t trade flavor for philosophy, or eschew meat on the menu. Instead, her offerings are a simple mix of seasonal fruits, veggies, grains and meats in a variety of guises. Favorites included jalapeño cornbread, the Sonoma Cheese Board, and sweet corn cakes. Don’t miss the kombucha cocktails that make drinking healthy fun. 110 Petaluma Blvd North, Petaluma, 599-3750, open 10a.m. to 10p.m. daily.
Pop-ups can sometimes be a bit, well, ephemeral. This one, however, has found a home in Sebastopol, and we couldn’t be happier. Focused on authentic Japanese ingredients and preparations, Chefs Moishe Hahn-Schuman and Matthew Williams quietly started a every-other-week slurp-n-burp shindig featuring incredible bowls of handmade ramen with pork belly, bonito flakes, mushrooms, and lightly poached eggs. To boot, the curated menu also includes karaage (Japanese fried chicken) or donburi, an Asian-inspired salad and sorbet with yuzu curd. The Monday night feast sold out again, and again. This January, they’re popping up several days a week for lunch and dinner at the former Forchetta, and will expand their menu to include even more surprises. 6948 Sebastopol Ave., Sebastopol.
There are only a handful of meals that I can describe as life-changing—so perfectly executed at exactly the right moment in time that they forever stand out in memory as best-in-class. Fatty tuna belly nigiri at Hana Japanese, chocolate pot de creme at Francis Ford Coppola Winery’s Rustic, chilled pea soup with Dungeness crab at Chalkboard, beef bourguignon at Chloe’s, foie gras at Cyrus.This week, I’ve added another: Fire-roasted heirloom carrots with eggplant and buffalo mozzarella ($10) at the recently-opened Vignette. A stack of perfectly yielding, caramelized baby carrots stacked atop bits of roasted eggplant and green onion with two spoonfuls of Ramini buffalo mozzarella (not easy to find), made even more decadent with olive oil and black pepper—just one of a frequently changing line-up of daily roasted vegetables from Chef Mark Hopper (former executive chef for the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group). The rest of the menu orbits around Hopper’s painstakingly-researched Neapolitan pizzas. Having traveled to some of the best pizzerias in the country, he honed both the dough and the wood-fired cooking method (very hot, very fast) that results in a chewy crust with crispy bubbles throughout. 6750 McKinley St., Sebastopol (at the Barlow).
Small can be so big when you cook with love. With just a handful of tables, this breakfast/bruch/lunch spot is a keeper. At the east end of the bustling SOFA arts district in Santa Rosa,it’s a great spot to meet up for cheddar, chive and ham savory bread pudding ($12) a super-collider smash-up of flavors worthy of a Nobel prize ($12). We’re also huge fans of the green onion biscuit with honey, poached eggs, perfectly cooked bacon and tartly-dressed salad ($13).
Artisanal whisky caramel waffles ($11) are fluffy and moist with a boozy punch ($11). Lunch sandwiches are takes on lunchbox favorites like meatloaf ($13)and egg salad ($11), but with gourmet twists like Raymond bakery ciabatta, pastured eggs and homemade pickles and ketchup. Open 8a.m. to 3p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, 435 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa.
You know a restaurant’s under-the-radar when you can’t find it, even with Google Maps. But four miles west of Petaluma, where goats scamper in fields and signs for “lost family pig” aren’t at all unusual, is The Secret Kitchen. Tucked behind an unassuming convenience store, Brenda Anderson, Janice Clement and their tiny staff of friends and neighbors are running a walk-up, take-out kitchen with dishes like Korean BBQ chicken rice bowls with kim chee, “Hog in a Blanket” (pork brat with Lagunitas IPA mustard, cheddar cheese sauce and caramelized onions), caramel rum cake and fresh peach strawberry galettes. “These are just dishes I’ve pickup up from around the world. Everything is just something I love,” says Anderson, whose Asian/Latin/American dishes harken from cooking gigs in Thailand, teaching at the Culinary Institute of America and running a restaurant at Google. Best bets include the bahn mi with slow roasted pork, pickled carrots and daikon, peanuts and secret sauce ($9); Korean BBQ tacos ($3), Koren BBQ chicken rice bowls with kimchee and pickled onions ($9), The American Hog in a Blanket ($9), Khao Soi (a Thai curried noodle bowl, $9.50) and desserts of the day. Open 11a.m. to 7:30p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 4701 Bodega Ave., Petaluma (707) 787-8243.
Earth’s Bounty Kitchen
Longtime caterer Christopher Ludwick (Grapevine) has created a comforting lineup of his best dishes you’ve probably never had. We fell to pieces over nearly everything on the compact and well-curated menu. A charcuterie board ($13) with a changing lineup of salamis, fight-over-the-last-bite pate, pickled veggies and Cabernet mustard (ours also featured duck rillettes and head cheese); a tiny iron skillet with pork cheeks, charred tomatoes and Vella Dry Jack ($10) cooked the wood oven; the Earth’s Bounty Burger with violet mustard, Cabernet onion jam and Vella cheddar on a Village Bakery English muffin ($13); “Mac and Cheese” ($12) which is less like Kraft and more like a creamy, dreamy dish of orecchiette, mushrooms, shallots, melty cheese and buttered crumbs; chicken and waffles ($18) with rosemary-bacon waffles, country gravy and collard greens (we could eat the collard greens for weeks); and most especially the ever-changing desserts, which include a homemade “Ding Dong” (Devil’s food cake, ganache, marshmallow cream and other wickedness) or a warm fruit crumble with mascarpone. They’re also doing terrific take-out sandwiches for lunch. Earth’s Bounty Kitchen, open for dinner from 5 to 9p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, Sunday 11a.m. to 4p.m. 5755 Mountain Hawk Way, Santa Rosa, 827-9700
Sea Thai Noodle Bar
The third restaurant for Chef Tony Ounpamornchai, and my favorite. Focused on “Southeast Asian Comfort Food,” the menu is built around large bowls of noodle soups, curries, rice bowls, small bites and salads. A master of fusing Southeast Asian flavors with Wine Country ingredients, has created a more casual menu and interior, where simple wood tables make a convenient platform for sipping, slurping and sharing. Best bets (confirmed by a well-known chef and a local stylist we saw there) were the Drunken Man Noodles (flat noodles with chicken, herbs and Johnnie Walker scotch); a sumptuous lamb curry with thin slices of meat, warm spices and creamy coconut milk; a duck rice bowl with pickled ginger and perfectly cooked duck breast; handmade pot stickers with jicama and pork belly, and crab puffs with bacon aioli. There’s lots to love on the extensive wine list and dessert menu, with seasonal fruit creations like creme caramel with sweet cherries. 286 Coddingtown Center (at Coddingtown Mall), Santa Rosa.
It’s a three-peat for Sonoma’s award-winning Rosso pizzeria crew. Co-owners Kevin Cronin and chef John Franchetti have created an Italian-style Rosticceria that’s part restaurant, part hang-out space. Featuring house baked pastries (from the talented Dominique of Dominique’s Sweets), breads, Roman pizzas, sliced meats, oysters, porchetta, espresso and a variety of sandwiches and appetizers. “It’s slow food fast,” said Cronin, who was inspired by the famous Peck deli in Milan and childhood memories of San Francisco’s Liguria Bakery. 1229 Dutton Ave, Santa Rosa, Monday through Friday from 9a.m. to 6p.m.
Noble Folk Ice Cream and Pie Bar
If the restaurant scene in Healdsburg has hit critical mass, it seems the dessert scene is just ramping up. The owners of the insanely relish Moustache Baked Goods opened another sweet tooth destination on the Healdsburg square featuring exotically-flavored ice creams like black sesame and coconut, cardamom, blackberry rosemary, Japanese purple yam and juniper honey. Pies change with the season, but a few faves include strawberry ginger, blueberry plum thyme, walnut maple and apple caramel pies. Noble Folk puts a twist on the traditional by using some unusual ingredients like farro, bolero and buckwheat flour (from nearby Front Porch Farm) and a “single origin pie” that is crafted entirely from Front Porch’s leaf lard, fruit and locally milled flours. 116 Matheson St., Healdsburg, (707) 529-2162. Open daily from 12pm to 9pm.
With a focus on Southern comfort food, we were ready to praise the lard and pass the biscuits. Breakfast is a well-curated mix of sweet and savory that includes beignets with jam ($5), buttermilk biscuit sandwiches with pimento cheese, buttermilk berry pancakes ($6) and healthier fare of organic quinoa with seasonal veggies ($7.50). Lunch includes their journey-worthy buttermilk fried chicken in both sandwich ($11) and chicken ‘n waffles, along with shrimp and grits ($14) and a grassfed burger ($12.50). Watch for daily specials of gumbo and brisket. Two can’t miss items: Lucy’s chicken-fried deviled eggs (yup, deviled eggs smashed back together, dipped in batter and fried, $9.50) and streusel topped caramel apple pie (drenched in salted caramel ($6) that fed two with a hearty chunk left over for a midnight snack. 131 Kentucky St., Petaluma, (773-4743).
This Brazilian churrascaria features a mind-wobbling lineup of meat, meat and more meat, strong caipirinhas and pao de Queijo—a dreamy cheese bread. For the uninitiated, churrascaria roughly translated from Portuguese describes meat, fish or produce cooked on a skewer over a hot grill. Think steakhouse meets a hot spit. What you’re there for is the never-ending meat parade, or rodizio. For $40 (per person), you’ll get a salad, vegetable, rice, cheese bread, beans, fried plantains and yucca, and all the steak, pork loin, bacon-wrapped chicken you can eat. Leave room for one of the best desserts ever dreamed up: Chocolate and Brazilian caramel covered strawberries ($8). It’s like the best bon-bon you’ve ever eaten and worth every penny. Brasa Churrascaria and Brew pub, open Tuesday through Sunday, 5:30p.m. to 10:30p.m. for dinner (later for cocktails and lounge). 505 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa.
La Perla: It seems Santa Rosa is on a roll with Peruvian restaurants. La Perla Peruvian Cuisine has opened in the former California Thai on Seventh St. in Santa Rosa. The menu includes classics like Lomo Saltado (beef with soy sauce) is a staple, along with ceviches, steamed mussels with salsa, beef heart skewers and “Leche Asada”, a Peruvian-style creme brulee. Open daily for lunch and dinner, 522 Seventh St., Santa Rosa.
Seaside Metal: This Bar Crudo spinoff is a popular hangout for locals, and word is, their oysters are stellar. 16222 Main St., Guerneville.
Flipside Steak: We haven’t been back since a chef and menu changeup, but the crab cakes and prime rib were solid on our first visit. 138 Calistoga Road, Santa Rosa.
Palooza Gastropub & Wine Bar: Another spot that’s had a chef changeup, but grabs a crowd with a lengthy list of craft brews, local wines, burgers and hot dogs. 8910 Sonoma Highway, Kenwood.