One of the roughest hands a chef can be dealt when opening a restaurant is a royal flush of high expectations. Set by eager media, expectant foodies, bottom-line bean counters, “first to review” Yelpers and well-meaning bloggers, the bigger the opening, the more intense the expectations—and the bigger the potential disappointment.
So, after an interminable wait for the restaurant to be completed, ownership changes and a determined vision to create a community space rather than one just aimed at tourists, Trading Post Restaurant and Bakery in Cloverdale didn’t so much disappoint as get a bit lost in the shuffle.
And maybe that was a bit of good karma, since Chef/owner Erik Johnson and baker Aaron Arabian are now seriously ready for a closeup on their garden-to-table concept in the emerging culinary destination of Cloverdale. With summer’s bountiful months upon us, there’s no better time to go.
“I always was one to be involved in a project like this,” said Johnson, who was executive chef at J Winery when he was tapped to head the kitchen at Trading Post. “I wanted to start something from the ground up. I wanted something more community-based,” he said. At the time, Johnson was part of a team that included restaurateur Matt Semmelhack of San Francisco, who had been envisioning a 4,000 square foot culinary marketplace at a long-empty Chinese restaurant. A small bakery opened at the space in 2015, and was still without an opening chef in May 2016. Things weren’t looking so great for the future of the Trading Post.
Johnson, however, signed on last July, and the restaurant opened in late summer. By January, however, Semmelhack had left the project. After a brief reorganization, Johnson and his wife, Marissa Alden, reopened the restaurant with a vision that was entirely their own, and entirely Sonoma County.
“My experience is mostly in high end, high volume dining,” said Johnson. “I didn’t want to open a fine dining restaurant by any means, but for the town, we wanted to open something that was up a notch (from a market cafe). It’s a little more upscale, and I thought it was a good fit for the town. Cloverdale has been clamoring for a restaurant like we have, and that was my vision,” he said. “We ended up evolving.”
Ronnie’s Garden, the restaurant’s own little plot of culinary inspiration, along with other nearby farms, serve as the heart of that vision. Restaurant gardener, business partner and chef Ron Ferrato’s Instagram account (@ferratosgarden) features an almost daily rainbow of lettuces, daikon, peas and whatever’s popping at the moment. That translates into the daily “Ronnie’s garden” ($8) plate of the morning’s vegetables, “prepared on a whim.” Don’t miss it.
Our version included pea shoots, radish, chamomile soaked carrots, pickled strawberries and daikon with house made ricotta. A second spring salad of shredded carrots, pea shoots and black sesame was equally of the moment. The dishes embodied the joy of spring in a dish, perfectly balanced, like nearly everything we tried. (Johnson also relies on a number of nearby farms. Eggs and other produce from Ferrato are frequently available in the bakery.)
That includes the Trading Post bread basket ($6) with a daily selection of baker Aaron Arabian’s painstakingly made, always insanely delicious breads with house cultured butters. Not your usual sad basket of dried out baguettes, but Parmesan focaccia, wheat bread, sourdough and a hearty seeded wheat. You’ll want to leave with a loaf or two.
“My vision for the restaurant is just to be a community gathering place, a bit of a destination as well,” says Johnson “We’re serving food that’s locally sourced, from scratch and with integrity.”
“There’s a misconception that we’re a bit unapproachable or fine dining, but that was never the intention. We have a pretty restaurant; I’m not going to lie, but it’s got a really casual vibe. We want to just serve real food,” he said.
Real food that’s worth a 25-minute (or so) drive north to what’s been named one of “America’s Coolest Small Towns,” now just a little cooler with the addition of Trading Post.
Other can’t-miss dishes (note that as seasons change, so will some of these dishes):
– Mushroom Escabeche ($8): There’s no fish in this dish of pickled and roasted mushrooms. Every bite is a little different: sour punches of vinegar, roasty umami-packed mushrooms, tart orange zest, crunchy rye bread crumbs. Like so many of Johnson’s dishes that require some complexity of preparation, the resulting flavors are simple and balanced, revealing the essence of the ingredients—not the technique.
– Duck Fat Potato Tots ($9) : Shredded potatoes mixed with duck fat into a confit then cut, refried. Not simple, but the flavor is the lightest bite of crispy potato with a true aioli (not mayo mixed with garlic, puleease) that will leave you weeping with sadness the next time you actually have tater tots.
– Brisket Tartine ($19): A little wintry for warmer days, but this slow-cooked beef is marinated in smoked onions and topped with apple and horseradish creme fraiche. Enough for two, easily.
– Half Roast Chicken ($24): When’s the last time you cut into a piece of chicken and the juice nearly leapt off the table? Never, right? Johnson’s “ode to mom” is a roasted piece of garlic confit brined A4 Farm chicken simply served in a roasted cast iron skillet. Homey and simple and real.
– Dessert: Aaron makes something special each day. We tried an opera cake with chocolate ganache and butter cream, along with a delicate panna cotta, topped with strawberry gelee.
Also on the menu: Post Burger ($17) with house-ground local beef, pickled anchovies and Bernier Farms asparagus ($13); Flat Iron Steak ($27) with fingerling potatoes, brown butter. Lunch offerings Wednesday through Saturday include sandwiches (fried chicken on a waffle with cole slaw, banh mi or egg salad on a french baguette); savory tarts and soup.
A three-course midweek market menu is available for $30 per person on Wednesdays. A small take-out counter with breads, cookies and tarts is available for takeout.
Trading Post is at 102 S. Cloverdale Blvd., Cloverdale, 707-894-6483, thepostcloverdale. Open for dinner Wed-Sunday from 5-9p.m.. Bakery is open Wednesday through Saturday from11:30a.m. to 6p.m. and Sunday from 1-6p.m.