Chasing the newest, hottest restaurant openings in Sonoma County can be exciting for a writer, but it can come at a significant cost — overlooking the restaurants that succeed year after year, the chefs that perfect their dishes month after month and the dining rooms that become part of our lives day after day.
The more I think about the overall food landscape of our county, the more obvious it is that long-standing restaurants like Central Market in Petaluma (and many others) are so beloved and so iconic that it’s a serious lapse to not showcase what’s taken years to perfect. In Central Market’s case, that is 18 years of chef/owner Tony Najiola’s life.
Dressed in his chef’s coat, Najiola looms large over the dining room — watching every dish go out, visiting every table to ensure his patrons are happy — but he never imposes. The open kitchen, dining room and bar feel airy, with full views of the wood-fired oven and the line. But it’s the food, frequently sourced from Najiiola’s Muleheart Farm, that really does the talking here: Instead of foams and potions and powders, the food is just, well, food.
Fresh Burrata ($16) is so simple it’s ridiculous, with fresh and buttery cream-stuffed mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, capers and crostini. The flavor comes from gently dressed tomatoes and the authenticity of each ingredient. Batter-fried Alaskan Halibut ($18.50) are pieces of delicately fried whitefish nestled into butter lettuce cups with fresh herbs and gribiche (a vinegary sauce with hard-boiled eggs) and eaten in a couple dainty bites.
The same simplicity and deliciousness goes for every dish. Take the Slow Roasted Beet Salad ($14), which tastes like fresh beets (not pickled within an inch of their lives) with earthy baked goat cheese and spicy greens.
If you order the wood-fired pizza, which you should, the Fungi ($20) is a best bet with button mushrooms, nutty Fontina, salty Parmesan and creamy leek confit.
The signature entree is Najiola’s slow-cooked Angus Short Ribs ($32) that fall to pieces at a mere touch of the horseradish gremolata and leek potato gratin.
Leave room for dessert, because the Meyer Lemon Pudding Cake ($9.50) is a heavenly mix of tart lemon curd and sponge that’s as memorable as a first kiss.
The menu changes frequently, so you’ll likely see some alterations as the seasons pass. Just don’t wait 18 years to get there.
Central Market, 42 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma, 707-778-9900, centralmarketpetaluma.com