Of the thousand-plus dishes I’ve eaten at Wine Country restaurants this year, a small handful are truly, wonderfully, memorable. You know the kind: The pasta dish that you dream of, the simple lentil salad you eat three times a week, the luxe risotto, or the breakfast sandwich worth driving an hour out of the way to find.
I’ve collected the 25 Best Dishes of the Year, ranging from humble to haute and spanning many different culinary traditions. Sadly, a few of my favorites were are restaurants that have since closed (Applewood’s Revival being at the top of the list), have been taken off the menu after a chef change (Persimmon) or were highly seasonal (Dry Creek Kitchen’s Tomato and Peach Heirloom Salad). Most, however, are still available, and I’d love to hear what you think.
Best Thing I Ate in 2016: The 25 Best Wine Country Dishes of the Year
Seared Polenta with Porcini, Franchetti’s Wood Fire Kitchen: Chef John Franchetti and his wife, Gesine, have been revamping their bistro menu with a lineup of small plates, salads and entrees that, frankly, are what we’ve always admired most about Franchetti’s cooking. If you go, try the k(chetti’s) fried chicken as well. Not only one of the best dishes of the year, but also one of the best all-around restaurants this year. 1229 N. Dutton, Santa Rosa, 526-1229, franchettis.com.
Pork Belly Burger, Hey Misstir: It’s not just the sheer size of this towering beefscraper, but the carnivorous radicalism of a poultry, pork and beef menage a trois under a single bun. Prepare for a fried egg, bacon, pork-belly stuffed hamburger, requisite vegetables, toasted Franco American bun. 52 Mission Circle, Suite 111, Santa Rosa, facebook.com/heymisstir.
Focaccia with pea shoots, The Pharmacy: Homemade bread, fresh pea shoots, ricotta. Simple, but so incredibly good. Pairs perfectly with a turmeric lassi to get your health on. 990 Sonoma Ave. #1, Santa Rosa, 978-2801, thepharmacysonomacounty.com.
Roasted Carrots with Prosciutto, Brown Butter, Egg Yolk and Toasted Walnut Vinaigrette, Spoonbar: Husband and wife chefs have once again transformed the menu at this popular H2Hotel restaurant and bar. Sweet carrots with salty prosciutto, nutty butter and a creamy yolk is one of the most perfectly executed dishes of the year. 219 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg, 433-7222, spoonbar.com
Elote, Pacheco’s Roasted Corn: A Wednesday Night Market fixture with a snaking line for their summer corn slathered with mayo, cojeta cheese and chili powder. This humble street food is suddenly popping up at the fanciest of restaurants, so keep an eye out. facebook.com/pachecoroastedcorn
Mujadara, Fourth Street Market & Deli: Folks are often curious what a food writer eats in their off time, and trust me, it’s mostly uninspired. After a night of heavy, rich, indulgent food, all I want is something simple, light and healthy. This Lebanese dish of brown lentils, rice, caramelized onions, tomatoes and olive oil is just the ticket, and delicious enough to make a habit of. 300 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa, 573-9832.
Pork Posole, La Rosa Tequileria: If nothing else, you’ll ward off vampires and anyone wanting to sneak a smooch with this garlicky soup made with tender pork shoulder, hominy and chiles. Served with lime, red onion, cilantro and jalapeño, you can make it as spicy or tame as your palate can tolerate. 500 Fourth St., Santa Rosa., 523-3663, larosasantarosa.com.
Smoked Trout Salad at Handline: It’s no fish story to say that Handline Restaurant in Sebastopol one of our favorite openings of the year, and our favorite salad: House smoked trout, pickled onion, apple and buttermilk dressing. 935 Gravenstein Ave., Sebastopol, 827-3744, handline.com.
Lobster Risotto, Sonoma Grille: Long-simmered arborio rice with Maine lobster and porcini mushrooms. The richness gets a bump with mascarpone cheese and lobster sauce for a dish you won’t want to share (but feel free, because it’s more than one human should eat). 165 W. Napa St., Sonoma, 938-7542, sonomagrilleandbar.com.
Tacos at Juanita Juanita: There’s no shortage of great taco trucks and taquerias around town but we can’t help but love the locals-only vibe at this offbeat cantina where you can grab a cold one and stuff you face al pastor and carne asada tacos. 19114 Arnold Drive, Sonoma, 935-3981.
Pumpkin Croquettes, Crocodile Restaurant: We were blown away by the great French comfort food at this Petaluma newcomer. Our favorite: Bite-sized balls of sweet pumpkin and breadcrumbs sitting in a pool of creme fraiche and chermoula (a pungent Moroccan herb sauce). 140 Second St., Suite 100, Petaluma, 981-8159, crocodilepetaluma.com.
Bird in a Nest Warm Frise Salad, Persimmon: Bitter frise and a small forest of enoki mushrooms get a warm dousing of vinaigrette and lardons (basically thick little pieces of bacon) rendered in sake. A perfectly poached egg perches on top, slathering the whole shebang with creamy yolk. 355 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg, 395-0318, persimmonhealdsburg.com.
Breakfast Sandwich, Estero Cafe: If only more menus had an asterisk at the bottom stating that they deep fry in local pork lard. That alone is worth the cost of admission to the Estero Cafe, though the breakfast sandwich of two fried eggs, grilled Village Bakery sourdough bread, Estero Gold cheese, onion and mayo with bacon from the Sonoma Meat Co. will fill your belly for a long day of hiking along the coast. 14450 Highway 1, Valley Ford. 876-3333, facebook.com/EsteroCafe.
Lamb Ragu Strozzapreti, Osteria Stellina: Handmade pasta with slow cooked Baranaga Ranch lamb ragu was honestly one of the best bowls of pasta in recent memory, thanks to a recommendation from our server. 11285 CA-1, Point Reyes Station, 415-663-9988, osteriastellina.com.
Cauliflower, Brown Butter and Oxtail, County Bench: We’ve had some amazing dishes at this downtown sleeper, including this rich winter dish and a summery Farro and Ham Hock salad. Ongoing reports of uneven service is unfortunate, because we want this downtown spot to succeed. 535 Fourth St., Santa Rosa, 535-0700, thecountybench.com.
Duck Egg Custard, Two Birds/One Stone: If there’s a patron saint of Wine Country Cuisine, it’s Chef Douglas Keane. Though we’re bummed that he and Sang Yoon (LA’s Father’s Office, Lukshon) chose St. Helena for their California-style izakaya restaurant, we’ll just say it was one of the best openings of the year. With a high/low menu, you get dishes like the creamy duck egg custard with uni, lemon verbena and crab, or silken tofu with chilled shiitake broth, sea grapes and salmon pearls along with equally delicious creamed corn with miso, crispy wings with chili-yuzu glaze and matcha tea soft-serve. 3020 St. Helena Hwy. North, St. Helena, 302-3777, twobirdsonestonenapa.com.
Pineapple Whip, Trader Jim’s: This little retro camper does only one thing, a little aloha in a cup. It is non-dairy soft-serve that you can get with or without a float of fresh pineapple juice. facebook.com/traderjimsfloats.
Coconut Lime Ice Cream, Noble Folk Ice Cream and Pie Bar: You’ll find half of Healdsburg lined up during the summer months for ice cream and sorbets inspired by local produce and the seasons. This one, however, with freeze dried raspberries, is one of their most popular flavors. 116 Matheson St., Healdsburg, 529-2162, thenoblefolk.com.
Ceviche, Shuckery: The Oyster Girls have created an instant classic with their unique ceviche marinated in orange, lemon and lime, chili, cilantro with piquillo pepper coulis. 100 Washington St., Petaluma, 981-7891, theshuckeryca.com.
Fried Anchovies, Revival: One of the most incredible openings of the year, followed by one of the most shocking closings of the year at the Applewood Restaurant in Guerneville. What we’ll remember, however, were Chef Ben Spiegel’s fried anchovies, sweet and crunchy, eaten by the handful.
Dry Creek Peach and Heirloom Tomato Salad with Bellwether Ricotta, Pickled Red Onions and Rustic Toast, Dry Creek Kitchen: New executive chef Scott Romano is an old pal of owner Charlie Palmer, easily channeling Palmer’s new American cooking style. Using ingredients from nearby farms, this summer dish was perfectly of the moment. 317 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg, 431-0330, drycreekkitchen.com.
Clam Chowder, Gourmet Au Bay: One of the best chowders in the Bay, made from scratch, served with great local wines. 1412 Bay Flat Road, Bodega Bay, 875-9875, gourmetaubay.com.
Twice Baked Croissants, Bright Bear Bakery: Filled with lemon curd and strawberries these doubly delicious croissants are your new kryptonite. 2620 Lakeville Hwy., Suite 350, Petaluma, 291-10181, facebook.com/brightbearbakery.
Bigos, Zosia: One of my most recent finds, this Graton cafe mashes up Wine Country Cuisine and Eastern European comfort classics into something truly wonderful. We are fans of the Bigos, a winter stew made with sauerkraut, beef, and a mix of spices that a warm hug in a bowl. 9010 Graton Road, Graton, 861-9241, zosiacafe.com.
Poke, Ramen Gaijin: An expanded izakaya menu that includes crispy chicken skin yakitori and fresh poke got our attention this spring. Paired with Scott Beattie’s great cocktails, Gaijin is an ever-evolving restaurant worth repeated investigation. 6948 Sebastopol Ave., Sebastopol, 827-3609, ramengaijin.com.