First look at West County Grill

I arrived at 5pm. The doors opened at 5:30. To say the tension was palpable would be an understatement.

The waiters huddled around an impromptu staff meal awaiting instructions. Cooks fiddled with their mis en place, checking and double checking the ingredients. Busboys threw on white jackets and checked their hair in whatever reflective surface was available.

And then, at the stroke of 5:30, everything suddenly clicked into high gear–fryers, grills, waitstaff–and that was that. West County Grill, open for business.

It’s not everyday that Sebastopol, or Sonoma County, witnesses an opening of this magnitude. Months in the making, restaurant heavy-hitters and former Chez Panisse alums Jonathan Waxman and Stephen Singer, along with Mike Hale (formerly of Manzanita) and Darren McRonald envisioned a Cal-Mediterranean restaurant that was a spot where Wine Country could come ‘hang out.’

As you might expect with so many of Alice’s former cohorts involved, the focus is on fresh, local, organic and sustainable ingredients. And as you might expect, celebish chef Jonathan Waxman’s famous grilled chicken in on the menu (which you really shouldn’t miss, though we’re hoping that the fries have improved after the first night jitters). The wood-fired oven is still there, but has expanded to double the size, so pizzas have top-billing on the menu. And the kitchen bar is really THE place to sit, so you can dish with the cooks and watch your food being prepped (along with getting that nice charcoalish smell in your clothes).

So what’s the SoCo angle? Aside from using lots of local produce, Singer, who lives in Sebastopol and has a vineyard in the area, plans to put a heavy emphasis local and regional wines. At opening, the list runs about 6 pages, with some great choices, but he says that’s just the start (there are plenty of non-California wines on the list as well). Most wines are under $60 per bottle (though there are some ego-wines as well), and Singer also plans to open a wine shop upstairs, with an even larger selection of local wines.

The menu is slated to change up frequently, features a approachable lineup: A raw bar with local oysters, wood-fired pizzas, a lovely selection of artisan salumi, roasted chicken and quail, lamb shanks, hangar steak and pastas (the spaghetti colo granchio with crab, mint and chili looked fabulous).

And despite a few opening night snafus (very few) what struck BiteClub most was the warm, friendly feeling of sitting at the kitchen bar, chatting with a chef or two (you never know who’ll show up on opening night) and nibbling plate after plate of food.

Is West County Grill a radically different idea? No. SoCo’s been doing ‘fresh, local, organic’ forever. It’s what we do best. Is the wine list outstanding? Not yet, but it has potential under Singer. What makes West County Grill worth the trip is the easy expertise that Waxman and crew bring to the table. It’s elevating simple flavors with ease, and creating a space that feels like it’s been around forever.

Think of it as your new favorite neighborhood bistro. That just happens to have a celeb chef.

Best Bets: Dandelion greens wth anchovy dressing and fried egg ($9); pizza bianco ($12, with prosciutto, wilted greens and fontina), jw’s chicken and fries ($18) and the 50/50 for desert–a parfait of whipped cream and citrus granita that dazzles.

Keep in mind: Though the restaurant has been open just a few days, and there will doubtless be some kinks, the folks in charge have opened countless restaurants, so service and food should settle in very quickly.

West County Grill, 6948 Sebastopol Plaza (in the former Lucy’s space), Sebastopol, 707.829.9500.