When Chef Michael Siegel set out to make the menu for Sonoma’s Mint and Liberty Modern Diner, his question was, “If I was at a diner in Louisiana, what would be on the menu?”
His answer: Shrimp gumbo with fried okra and Andouille sausage for one. He then moved on to traditional comfort food served in homey diners around Sonoma County — Chicago, New York, California or his home stomping grounds of Arizona. Each answer was a little bit different, resulting in an ambitious menu that spans the gamut from sprouted lentil salad to enchiladas, homemade challah, matzah ball soup and pierogis.
“What does a modern diner mean? It’s a melting pot of cuisine,” said Siegel, who recently relocated to the town of Sonoma after his San Francisco deli, Shorty Goldstein’s closed.
The good news is that some of his Jewish deli favorites (inspired by his great-grandmother, Shorty) make it onto the Mint and Liberty menu. As does my favorite thing on the menu — “Christmas Style” enchiladas. With both green and red chile sauces (hence the Christmas name), they’re a stunning looker with a fried egg on top and richly spiced chicken enchiladas done as only a Southwesterner can. It was literally an “I’ll have what she’s having” moment as I saw the enchiladas arrive at the table next to mine.
Siegel was hired by the diner’s new owners James Hahn and Mila Chaname, who also own Sunflower Caffe, Honey & The Moon Bakery and Chename wines in Sonoma. The couple purchased the former Breakaway Cafe, did a quick remodel to brighten and update the space and reopened within weeks. Just a few days after opening, the place is packed to the gills, everyone waving to everyone and the town’s grand dames holding court at corner tables.
“We had crossed paths during the fires, and we were coordinating things not really knowing each other. It was funny that we hadn’t met before, but we’re very like-minded,” said Siegel of the owners. That includes a passion for making (almost) everything in house.
Schmaltz in the matzoh balls? Check. They make it with rendered chicken fat. Pie? They make them two at a time. Enchilada sauce? They roast the green chiles each year. Lebnah? Yup, the Israeli cream cheese is made there. Zatar spices? That too.
“I know my limits. It’s ambitious and broad,” says Siegel. Unlike most places, he says, “I’m the brakes and the owners are the gas” when it comes to a diverse menu that includes more than 30 dishes. One of the few things he doesn’t make — bagels. They’re complicated and need a lot of oven capacity. “We have big plans, but if I can buy better, I do,” he said.
Not everything has worked, and Siegel said he’s listening to feedback. Family-style meals like a New England Clam Bake, cioppino and whole chickens weren’t a huge win at launch, but already he’s pivoting to some other choices (expect steak soon) — though the cioppino now appears on the all-day menu.
The breakfast menu is also worth a look, with special items like Buttermilk Persimmon Pancakes ($14) and a Sweet Dutch Baby ($11) — a cross between a crepe and a pancake that comes with lemon marmalade and clotted cream.
Are you getting that the menu is kind of endless? Like any good diner, it has to be longer than really necessary. We aren’t complaining.
Sprouted Lentil Salad, $9: I’m a world of contradictions at the table. I’m just as thrilled to eat a delicious lentil, beet and sunflower salad as I am a plate full of fries. Especially when its paired with warm za’at spices, homemade lebnah and a light vinaigrette. At the very least it offsets the fries, right?
Chopped Chicken Liver, $13: Not for the faint of heart, but a classic if you grew up on the stuff. With fresh challah, mustard, pickles and caramelized onion jam, it’s a twist on a New York deli favorite. Also, don’t think too much about how much chicken fat and butter makes it taste so magical.
Rachel Sandwich, $17.50: If there’s a signature dish, this is it. The little sister to the Rueben, Rachel skips the kraut and is made with tender Wagyu beef pastrami, coleslaw, Swiss and Russian dressing on rye. It’s a better sandwich than anything Carnegie ever made — something I don’t say lightly.
Matzoh Ball Soup, $10: Happy Hannukah, we found a schmaltzy matzoh soup that’s Bubbe-approved and sure to cure what ails you. Shredded chicken, big chunks of vegetables and beautiful rich broth.
Do I like mine better? Yes. Is this a solid second? Yes. Maybe a titch salty, but who doesn’t have an opinion?
Mac N Chz, $8: Oh, hello Gruyere, fontina and white cheddar all melty and delicious as you cling to perfectly cooked pasta. With a cape of buttery breadcrumbs, I had to wrestle this one out of my friend Fran’s hands. She’s tiny, but strong. Fran won the day.
New Mexican Enchiladas, $16: My favorite dish on the menu. But I already told you that.
Pork Belly Steamed Buns, $9: Chewy bao buns stuffed with crispy pork belly, tart pickled carrots and housemade hoisin (plum) sauce. Pure happiness in each bite. A small plate to share, but required.
Boozy breakfasts: Judge all you want, but a little morning buzz ain’t the worst way to start the day. If you agree, pick from Irish Coffee, blood orange mimosas, a pitcher of Bloody Marys or a port-spiked milkshake. Our little secret.
Loaded Baked Potato Pierogi, $10: I can’t give this a thumbs up because pierogi should be boiled, not fried. Sorry, but I know my pierogi. Raviolis can be fried, but pierogis are best slippery and soft according to this midwesterner.
Liberty Burger, “New York,” $20: A straight up Wagyu beef burger will cost you a steep $16, but it’s a really, really good burger. If you’re going to go all out, the New York is topped with pastrami, coleslaw, Swiss and Russian dressing. It’s a lot of a lot. I’m not sure I think that a great burger needs all that much dressing up, especially when its freaking Wagyu. But I applaud the enthusiasm. If you want a whole lot of goodies on your burger, this is the way to go.
But wait, there’s more
The menu just keeps going, and there are some seriously delicious dishes we never even got to including Braised Rancho Gordo baked beans with smoked mushrooms, BBQ baby back pork ribs done in Carolina and Texas style, glazed carrots with black garlic and honey, smoked salmon with creamed cheese and capers on toasted rye, turkey pot pie and mini Chicago dogs with pickled green tomato. Best to go with a few friends, because you’ll want more than you can possibly eat at one sitting.
Overall: An ambitious menu that pulls from diner classics from around the country. What’s so surprising is how well it all works — especially the southwest and Jewish deli favorites that Chef Siegel pulls from his own family recipes. Every meal is a new adventure, and every meal just as delicious as the last.
Mint and Liberty Modern Diner: 19101 Highway 12, Sonoma. Open daily from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. mintandliberty.com