For the last 18 months, Down to Earth Cafe has been a cheerful neighborhood cafe with a fairly straightforward menu of sandwiches, salads and entrees. It doesn’t scream for attention by fussing over how their house-cured pastrami takes 16 days to make or how their butterscotch pudding is made with cream and butter and not butterscotch chips. There’s no indication that chef/owner Chris Ball has worked in some of the best restaurants in Europe, and has worked for years to perfect his shatteringly good fish and chips. Which is exactly why it’s escaped the radar for this long.
When the dazzle of six-figure restaurant makeovers, precious farm-to-table menus and a never-ending lineup of pedigreed Wine Country chefs is a constant, simpler neighborhood cafes can be lost in the shuffle. Also, they’re also usually not run by a Lark Creek Inn and Fish (Sausalito) alum, so there’s that.
“I just want to feed people,” says Ball, as we chat for nearly two hours on a Saturday afternoon between services. He’s been freshly featured on Guy’s Grocery Games on the Food Network, a local chef honor not uncommon since it is filmed in Santa Rosa, but Ball also worked for nearly a year with Fieri on a seasonal menu for Tex Wasabi’s when it was shelved during ownership changes.
“He is stunningly knowledgeable about food,” says Ball of the Food Network chef.
Down to Earth is housed in the former Nicolino’s in downtown Cotati (and briefly Stax), revamped from kitschy Italian to a cozy walk-up cafe where service and the menu are casual, but the technique behind the food is anything but.
Take the fish and chips — something I rarely order after years of flabby, greasy, anvil-heavy disappointments.
“Most of them are like sad pancakes on bad fish,” he says sensing my trepidation. Here, fresh North Coast rock cod is dipped in a light beer batter (and plenty of cornstarch) giving it a lacy, fizzled crispness that’s crackles in your mouth rather than laying there like a sodden blanket.
The fish is clean and whisper light rather than a rubbery mess smelling of low tide. It’s a bit of a revelation served with hand-cut fries (pretty much no one goes to the trouble of making fries anymore), spicy remoulade, a wedge of grilled lemon and coleslaw.
And Ball knows his fish. “We used to bring in fish two times a day,” says Ball of his time at Scotland’s most famous restaurant, the Witchery. During his stint at Sausalito’s Fish Restaurant, he would be awakened before dawn with day boat captains ready to drop their entire catch within a few hours.
The Grand Rapids, Michigan native, however, doesn’t feel the need to overcomplicate things at the 49-seat restaurant.
“It’s like turning a carrot into a carrot,” he says of his time in fine dining, where a simple carrot would be manipulated 20 times to become, well, a carrot, albeit with foams and gels and pumpernickel “dirt”.
“This is Cotati, I’m trying to feed people here. I want to make really good food. I want everything to be what it is, with just a few components that go together, and you have to put love into food,” says Ball.
Strawberry Balsamic Salad ($9.50/$11.50): This is a popular seller for a good reason. Sweet ripe strawberries are the star of this simple salad that plays ping pong on your palate with sweet candied pecans, pickled onion, creamy herbed goat cheese, peppery arugula, bitter frisee and a sweet, sour balsamic reduction.
Pastrami Reuben ($14): Ball’s house-cured pastrami is thinly sliced and slightly crisped, stacked with sauerkraut, Swiss and spicy remoulade on marbled rye. Each element of this sandwich plays nicely with its neighbor, rather than anyone trying to steal the show.
Slow-Braised Short Rib Poutine ($13/$19): This is the show-stopper. Throw out everything you know about Canadian gravy fries, because this is possibly the most elevated dish on the menu. Handcut Kennebec fries, Cabernet gravy that I have contemplated writing an ode to, blue cheese cracklings and a chunk of slowly braised short ribs so sweet and tender you’ll want to send it a Hallmark card. Speaking of which, if you’re more of an entree kind of person, you can get a giant plate of short ribs, mashed potatoes and grilled veggies for $19.50.
Shells and Cheese with House-Cured Bacon ($13): Check out the Yelp reviews. You’ll see a particularly loving review or two of this blockbuster for good reason. Let’s just say Ball knows his way around a Béchamel sauce. A throwback with the addition of a grilled hot dog for us 70s kids.
Butterscotch Pudding ($7): Like we said, no melted butterscotch chips, which tend to give short-cut puddings a gritty texture. Smoother than Michael Buble doing a Sam Smith cover in silk pajamas.
Fried Chicken Sandwich ($13): It’s not that I didn’t like this lovely little torpedo roll with crisp fried chicken, but both times I tried it, the use of chicken tenders, rather than the whole breast made the whole thing unwieldy. Java BBQ with Pt. Reyes Blue Cheese also got a little heavy handed.
We’ll Be Back For
Sunday brunch is simple, but Pastrami Hash ($13.50) with crispy potatoes, piquillo pepper and eggs has our name all over it, especially with a side of Meyer Lemon Hollandaise.
Overall: Chris Ball is a top-notch chef who uses his classic training to create comfort classics with a light touch and an earnest heart. A Cotati sleeper that’s snoozing no more.
Open daily. Monday through Thursday, 11a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday to 9 p.m., Sunday 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Catering available. 8204 Old Redwood Highway, Cotati, 707-753-4925, dtecafe.com.