the girl & the fig exterior

The Girl and The Fig

When I’m in a new town, I like to combine my pre-visit recon with recommendations from locals in the know to get the scoop on what to see and where to eat. And who would know better on where to eat than servers and chefs at excellent eateries. So it was with this approach on our trip to Sonoma, that Gail and I discovered the girl & the fig – a lower case name with UPPER CASE FLAVOR.
As with any popular restaurant, reservations are a good idea but so is bellying up to the bar if your table isn’t ready when you arrive. The girl & the fig has a beautiful long wooden one that beckons to be belly uped to as soon as you enter.

Once in drinking position comes the hard part, choosing an aperitif from their extensive  drink menu. Despite the temptations of fig inspired concoctions, Champagne, and still wines, we opted for my favorite pre-dinner drink: beeeeer.

While enjoying our pints of Lagunitas IPA, we spun around to check out the comfy-looking lounge. It’s a more formal place to eat than the bar, but more casual than the dining room, sort of like eating on the couch in front of the TV.  Cozy.

We opted for eating in the quaint bistro-like dining room, which had the same earthy wooden floors as the lounge/bar area, candles on every table (rather than those LCD faux-candles in so many restaurants these day), and earthy tones from the vanilla-wafer-colored table cloths and yellow walls.

The walls were adorned with pastels by Julie Higgins, who looks like she learned to paint from Diego Rivera and Paul Gauguin with Mayan subjects set in Polynesia during an orgy. Something for everyone.

Our attention turned from the art on the wall to the art on our table when a little bowl arrived filled with delicious black olives and what looked like picholines on roids but were actually the best caper berry’s I’ve ever had – meaty, oily, fresh, melt in your mouth affairs.

The bread & butter, however was a surprising misstep and could have easily been helped by warming the bread and serving it with a compound butter or just providing better bread.

The girl and the fig has an interesting Rhone-varietal-inspired wine list from CA wineries, at various price points. We knew we would be drinking well with whatever we ordered.
It’s always tempting to order a bottle you know won’t disappoint, but in a good restaurant I like leaning on the wait staff to get a recommendation of a bottle that over delivers but is under priced.

I’ve had lots of Syrahs and Grenaches, even Viogniers and Dry Roses but I’ve never had a wine that was 100% Cinsault…until now. The Frick 2008 Dry Creek Valley Cinsaut was all Cinsaut and frickin’ good.

It had an earthy/musty smell with a strong dark berry quality, a similar plate that tasted like a chocolate covered plumb with black liquorice, a bit of smoke, plus a strong but yielding tannin, and a loooong finish.

The girl and the fig describe themselves as “country food with a French passion.” So, when in a place with a French passion, order like you’re in France, which partly inspired us to order the Bistro Plat Du Jour (3 courses for $34) and something for my meat loving companion who brings out the omni in my vore.
We started with a butter lettuce salad with pickled kumquats, goat cheese, sliced almonds & a kumquat vinaigrette.

It was presented in a natural state, as if one day the lettuce was just hanging out in a local field, along came “the girl,” snatched it from its home, and presented it as is. It tasted that fresh too, with a creamy goat cheese that had the fat to cut through the delicious citrus bomb that was the kumquat dressing. For relatively few ingredients, it tasted better than the sum of its parts.

Our first entrée was pan-seared arctic char which was a circle of potato purée, surrounded by a circle of port reduction with a bulls eye of baby fennel, pears, asparagus and fish served skin up.
The baby fennel was al dente, juicy with a fresh just-picked taste, a bit fibrous but not unpleasant. The pears were nicely sweet and soooo fresh. The fish was a combo of delicate Meyer lemon citrus flavors with an earthiness and meatiness that was substantial and satisfying.

Our other entrée was grilled lamb rounds with white bean purée, braised artichokes and garden radishes with a lavender lamb juice.

When I encounter a meat that’s less common to me, such as lamb, and when I’m with a carnivore, I like to give it a try. The lamb was light and chewy with a dark richness, complimented by a strong raw radish flavor and a meaty-umami taste. The wine paired very well with it and much better than with the fish.

The last part of our plat was a dessert of bread pudding topped with whipped crème fraîche and paired with a vin doux naturel.

The bread pudding was like the love child of an apple pie and a dutch apple pancake; it was creamy inside with a fresh apple harvest taste. Unfortunately the outside didn’t live up to the inside. The crust tasted stale and too much like batter. Still, we ate it all, possibly due to….how well it paired with the vin doux naturel from Domaine  Fontanel, which was one of the most unusual and best dessert wines I’ve ever had.
The Rivesaltes Ambré is made from 100% Grenache Blanc, aged 7 years in oak casks on small lees in accordance with the soleras system. It smelled like a young oxidized sherry, but was loaded with aromas of caramel, vanilla, sultana, and stewed apricot. The same flavors were on the palate and reminded me of a fruity pancake syrup for adults with a brandy-like quality. Despite its 16% alcohol, it didn’t taste anywhere near that high and thankfully lacked that unpleasant boozy burn in the back of the throat.

The girl & the fig is an excellent wine country restaurant but still maintains a low key country feel. With its bistro ambiance, French passion, and focus on local wines of French style, it will have you eating and drinking like a bon vivant before you can say…..            Vive la figue!

The Girl & the Fig
110 West Spain Street  Sonoma, CA 95476
(707) 938-3634

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Fava Beans and beet greens salad

Peter Lowell’s

On a recent trip to Napa/Sonoma, Gail, my partner in wine, and I were on a hunt for the perfect pinot in the Russian River Valley. While we were excited to find beaucoup of Burgundy’s famous red grape in this fog shrouded area of Sonoma, we were equally happy to discover, with a search for “organic restaurants Sonoma” on the iPhone, organic Nirvana at Peter Lowell’s in the town of Sebastapol.

We had the option to wait for a table on the quaint and popular outside patio in the back of the restaurant surrounded by trees, a fountain, and unfortunately cars in the adjacent parking lot.

But since there were pinots waiting and our hunger wouldn’t, we opted for an available table inside which, with tan wooden chairs and tables, a red cement floor, and hanging industrial lighting and exposed ducts, sports a look of country chic meets urban industrial.

It also feels a bit like a European bistro, especially from the chalkboard over the kitchen which communicates the restaurants organic and seasonal convictions including what they are currently harvesting from their own farm.

Many years ago, on a Bay Area Backroads television shoot in Sebastapol, a local jokingly told me that the town was named as a mispronunciation of Zeebestapple because of the area’s storied history as an apple growing region. While many of those apple trees have been replaced by more lucrative vineyards and tract houses, the area still churns out some great organic eats as evidenced by the deli case overflowing with fixin’s for the perfect wine country picnic.

We started our lunch, as every good one should, with a delicious beer such as Gail’s Scrimshaw Pilsner from North Coast Brewing Co. and my hoppy muse: an IPA from Moonlight Brewery Co. in Sonoma. Both were $6 on draft.
The IPA had a great caramel color, a hoppy-rich-full-bodied mouth feel, a sparkling/effervescence, and a lingering earthy bitterness with a looooong finish. To sum up: It was delicious.

Peter Lowell’s menu states they have a “…slightly off-kilter attitude towards business – one where people, animals and the environment come before profits, where organic is a way of life, and where the highest quality cuisine is a top priority…” To paraphrase the Beach Boys, “I wish they all could be California Peter Lowell’s”

A great mantra was just the start of a menu chalked full of tempting dishes but the beans and greens salad sounded especially appetizing: braised beet greens, bread crumbs, garlic, chili flakes, Parmigiano Reggiano and fava beans.

The dish was an explosion of soul-satisfying-melt-in-your-mouth flavors with a nice ratio of creamy and chalky fava beans to crunchy, earthy, and bitter beet greens, with a pleasing background heat, nice garlic flavor and subtle saltiness. I almost wish it wasn’t so perfectly seasoned so I would have had an excuse to use the Himalayan sea salt and peppercorn dispensers on on our table.

After our salad, we ordered the pizza panna off the lunch specials menu: Roasted Spring Onions, Melted Leeks, Green Garlic, Cream, Calabrian Chiles, Fava Leaf Pesto and Parmigianno Reggianno for $16.

Typically I’m not a huge fan of cream sauces on my pizza however it was the perfect base for each Spring-garden-flavor-packed bite of: sweet and succulent leek, green onion, piquant Calabrian pepper oil and earthy green pesto.

Unlike some pizzas that suffer from cheese and dough overload, this pizza had just a highlight of cheese and a thin, charred, biscuity crust which was a great base for each flavorful bite.

I only have two complaints about Peter Lowell’s. The first is that we didn’t return for dinner to sample more of their menu and try their wines.

The second is that more restaurants don’t share Peter Lowell’s philosophy “…where people, animals and the environment come before profits, where organic is a way of life, and where the highest quality cuisine is a top priority…” It would be a tastier world if they did.

Peter Lowell’s
7385 Healdsburg Avenue
Sebastopol, CA
(707) 829-1077

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Organic baby spinach salad

Seasons 52

I don’t like chain restaurants. They’re too often cavernous monuments to suburban disregard for land; havens for soulless corporate drinks rhyming with Smoka Smola and Crudweiser; and feature “themey” food that looks and sounds better than it can ever hope to taste. So it was with the theme of skepticism that I checked out a Seasons 52, perched in a giant mall parking lot in a suburban part of “suburbany” Orlando, Florida.

Normally the Seasons 52 sign would be beckoning to hungry Florida folk but I neglected to snap this photo until the sign had already been put to bed. From the outside, it’s an upscale and attractive building but about as unique looking as a PF Changs if the horse statues had galloped off. (Click the link to see what I mean). Despite this déjà Chu, I thought it was an inviting edifice outside and even though inside the dining room is cavernous, the appealing decor and soft warm lighting make it inviting too.
If a restaurant must have a theme, I can’t think of a better one than a seasonal menu, especially a seasonal vegetarian AND vegan menu.

But a menu is only as good as your servers ability to bring it to life and guide you to a better meal. And that’s exactly what I got in my server, Julian. Based on his recommendation, I started with an organic baby spinach salad for $6.90. The nice price.  The salad was fresh and filled with many layers of flavor: crisp red-skin pears, a nice bitterness from radicchio, creaminess from baby spinach, and a delicious sourness from Gorgonzola. And it was tossed with a baby bear portion of dressing: Not too little, not too much but juuuuust right. My only complaint is the cold and soggy pine nuts which had been sitting around too long in cold storage. If they had been toasted fresh to order instead, it would have added a nice crunch and temperature contrast to the cool salad.

The bread served with my salad was a wheaty masterpiece, hearty with a soft center contrasting with a grain coated crispy crust. As the conversation with Julian turned to wine, he turned to his General Manager, Reece, who happily discussed options and helped me navigate Seasons 52’s interesting wine menu with selections such as: Verdejo, Chenin Blanc and Moscato from interesting places such as: Veneto, South Africa and a Merlot from Slovenia.

I’d return to Seasons 52 fifty two times just to drink my way through their wine list but let’s be honest, the way I drink it would only take 3 or 4 visits. I began with a glass of Raats Family original Chenin Blanc Coastal ’10 $7.50/glass with a pour like I was friends with the bartender.

Usually $7.50 glasses of wine taste like an unoffensive yet only marginally interesting Trader Joe’s wine. Not this one. It had a nice complexity with lemon, grapefruit, pear, white flowers, wet grass and stones with a little earthy/dirtiness. The wine wasn’t the best pairing with the salad but the autumnal flavors of the salad did go decently with the earthy/dirty quality in the wine.

Too often restaurants serve their wines in thick rimmed cheap glasses with all the quality of a stemmed Dixie cup. My wine, however, came in an excellent thin rimmed wine glass from a European company called Stölzle Lausitz which enhanced the aromas, flavors and my enjoyment of the wine.

For my entree, I ordered the Farmers Market Vegetable Plate off the vegan menu which came with:

seasonal vegetables, grilled ponzu-glazed tofu and toasted cranberry-almond tabbouleh for $12.95. Another great price. Reece also encouraged me to try the harvest squash trio of grilled delicata, butternut and acorn squashes.
The Farmers Market Plate was big with more diversity than a Benetton ad: mushrooms, beets, carrots, red onion, asparagus, tofu and brussels (Bet you didn’t know the brussel is spelled with an s on the end) sprouts. The veggies were nicely prepared, slightly al dente, with a little firmness to them, except the yellow beets. They were a bit watery and the only miss on this dish. The squashes were also delicious.

It was a little like working with a whole fish when trying to separate flesh from the skin but each bite was a moist morsel of roasted sweetness. The almond tabbouleh had a nice crunch and grainy flavor with a firm texture and slight sweetness from the cranberries. The tofu was nicely firm and grilled with the tastes of sweet, salty and umami but
it would have been better with a crunchy cornmeal or breadcrumb coating outside to contrast with the soft chewy inside. Also, the ponzu glaze was pedestrian.

Two of the best items on the plate were the mushrooms which tasted meaty with a savory umami character and the carrots which were earthy with a hint of sweetness in the background.
Both the shrooms and carrots matched well with the reds Reece recommended I pit head to head. In this corner weighing in at $13.50, a 2009 Schug Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir and the challenger for from the Rioja region of Spain, a $9.50 Sierra Cantabria Crianza.

The Schug started light and fruity with high acidity, yielding to a beef jerky/salted meat animal character and a cigar box woodiness with a long finish that had a hint of liquorice. The Crianza smelled like a fresh barrel sample in an Indian restaurant and had a rich mouth feel with high alcohol. It wasn’t as well balanced as the Schug and would have been better paired with a meat dish than my plate of veggies.

If I have room, I always order dessert. If I don’t have room, I sometimes order dessert. Seasons 52 makes it easy to not only order one dessert but many, by serving what their aptly named “mini indulgences” for $2.50 each.

I present Chocolate Peanut butter mousse on the left and a seasonal offering of pumpkin pie with ginger snap crust on the right. And the winner is…

Chocolate peanut butter mouse which tasted like a moist peanut butter cake. The pumpkin pie was a nice seasonal attempt but a little too creamy and would have benefited from a higher cake to cream ratio.

I’m still not a fan of chain restaurants BUT Seasons 52 gets it right in so many ways that with their service, their wines, the quality of their food and their prices, they’ve made me a believer. And with a theme of seasonality you know each time you go, there’s going to be something new and fresh waiting for you to sink your teeth into and that’s a theme I can return to again and again.

Seasons 52
463 East Altamonte Drive
Altamonte Springs, FL
(407) 767-1252

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Chardonnay and Miami Skyline

Area 31

When traveling for work, I’m in a new city every day of the week. Think George Clooney in Up in the Air without the sexual encounters. And after an exhausting day of planes, cabs and rent-a-car’s I appreciate it when the hotel restaurant is good enough to keep me on the property. Area 31 at the Epic Hotel in Miami Beach is one of those.
Located on the 16th floor of the Epic, you have the choice to dine indoors or alfresco; surrounded by Miami skyscrapers

and canals.

When the background music and conversation adds to a restaurant’s ambiance it enhances your dining experience. When it doesn’t, it’s as pleasant as listening to Steven Tyler sing the national anthem. Unfortunately, next to the dining space, Area 31 has a raucous outdoor bar where club music, loud conversations of Spanglish and smoking is de rigueur. Why does the smoke always drift toward the non-smokers?

The club vibe aside, the food from Executive Chef E. Michael Reidt is described as showcasing pristine, sustainable seafood from the restaurant’s namesake, fishing Area 31. I’m a sucker for culinary lagniappes. The meal starts with the worlds largest croutons which are a chewy way to provide a taste of of both white and raisin bread without risking cries of FOUL from the carb counting crowd. This crouton klatch is served with a dip of soffrito consisting of tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, Provencal herbs and shallots.

I appreciate a chef who serves food which fits into the culinary culture of the restaurant, especially something I’ve never had like soffrito, but it suffered from too much tomato and not enough garlic, shallots and herbs.

At home I eat mostly vegetarian but when I’m on the road and especially in a place known for having great local and sustainable seafood, I have to try it. So I started with a small bite of wahoo crudo for $9. It is raw wahoo, garlic, olive oil, shallots and citrus powder – a mix of various citrus piths. The presentation was clean and fun with each glistening bite of wahoo skewered with a miniature bamboo harpoon.
The wahoo was meaty and substantial but did have a hint of fishiness. And like the tomato did to the soffrito, the citrus overwhelmed the wahoo adding an unwelcome bitterness. The same problem when you eat sushi doused in wasabi or siracha mayo and it’s all you can taste. This dish would be better if it were more ceviche-like topped with just citrus juice, no rind and a bit more shallot and garlic.

My next course was Florida corn soup for $11. Lump crab meat arrived in a bowl sprinkled with a dehydrated brown butter powder. Then Javier, my amiable server, poured a mixture of cream corn and rendered bacon over the top.

I don’t like bacon however I can’t call myself an OMNIVOROUS vegetarian if I’m not willing to try anything. And I’m glad I am because this is pork and seafood done right. Instead of an overwhelming salted pork flavor I’ve had in the past from dishes like prosciutto wrapped shrimp, in this dish it adds an extra dimension of richness and savoriness.

I chose a Flora Springs Napa Valley Chardonay ’09 to pair with my soup and entrée. It’s a mix of 50% French Oak aging and 50% stainless steel.

The creaminess of the corn matches well with wine’s roundness and buttery quality and the brininess of lump crab with the wines minerality. It’s a great pairing for this soup and a great setting to enjoy it.

For an entrée, I ordered yellow tail snapper with coconut rice, baby zucchini rounds, globe carrots, lump crab meat and a cilantro pesto for $27. Another great presentation, from the  bowl it was served in to table side pour of the cilantro pesto. But…

like the crudo, the snapper was a little fishy. As I experimented with different bites I discovered it was the skin that was adding the fishy funk and once removed it went away  but the fish was a still a little dry and chewy. This dish would be better with a richer and more substantial fish without the skin, replacing the lost crunch of the skin with some fried herbs, kicking up the flavor of the bland rice and adding rendered bacon. I’m kidding about the bacon…or am I?

For dessert I chose the Strawberry “Rock”. No. Not a wrestling doll combing the girlish innocence of the Strawberry Shortcake doll with Dwayne Johnson’s wrestling alter ego though that would be hilarious. If you smell what the Strawberry Rock is cooking? This strawberry rock is a dessert of macerated strawberries, tres leches cake and pistachio ice cream for $8

It was good but not great. The strawberry flavor comes nicely through but the strawberries could have been fresher. The dish has a nice variety of textures: hard, soft, crunchy, creamy but the strawberry rock tasted like cheap strawberry ice cream from Thriftys. The pistachio ice cream would be better with more creaminess such as in pistachio gelato. And pistachios roasted with sea salt would have added more interesting flavors than the candied pistachios. Overall, I’d give this dessert a pass.

I paired the dessert with a Kracher Auslese Burgenland Austria ’08 $15. It’s a viscous dessert wine with lots of orange flavor, orange rind, orange blossom and honey. It was a good wine and fantastic pairing with a dessert called Orange Rock. The strong orange flavor of the wine completely distracted from the strawberry flavor of the dessert. An orange liqueur like cointreau in the cake or an orange rind garnish might bring the dessert and wine better together but probably switching to a light berried dessert wine would be the best option.

Javier my server described Area 31 best when he said it’s, “food you can play with.” I appreciate that and even though some of the food you’d rather play with than eat, the knowledgeable and friendly service, the dedication to local and sustainable and it’s location are enough reasons to check out the Area.

Area 31
16th floor at EPIC Hotel
270 Biscayne Blvd. Way
Miami,FL 33131
305.424.5234

For more information about the author, please visit Brian von Dedenroth.

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Brian von Dedenroth with Food and Wine

Olio e Limone

I’m a fan of the band Pink Martini. At first glance, they appear to be an orchestra from a bygone era replete with classic instruments, suits and evening gowns. But when you look a closer, you’ll notice personal style such as: bleached blonde hair, sparkly sequins and tattoos. The band, like their music is an smorgasbord of sights and sounds that are uniquely their own. Uniqueness and personalized interpretation are the same qualities I want when I dine out. I had been told that Olio e Limone in Santa Barbara was such a place. So with tickets to Pink Martini at the Arlington theater on State Street in hand, my date for the evening (A.K.A. mom) and I headed over for some pre-show dinner.
Olio e Limone Exterior
The quaint space on West Victoria was surprisingly packed for 7PM on a Thursday. Either a reflection of the newlywed or nearly dead reputation of Santa Barbara or the crowd was heading to the 8PM show across the street like us.
Olio e Limone Interior
Olie e Limone is a Goldilocks sized place; quaint and intimate, nice lighting and a clean adobe hacienda-look. “Simple elegance” as mom described it. Friendly and welcoming with mirrors and windows making the room appear larger with a pleasing Feng Shui effect.
Olio e Limone Reflection in Mirror
A bottle of Alberello Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil is brought to every table with bread. It has a clean, mellow, light taste. An every man’s olive oil.
Alberello Organic Olive Oil
Spongy Italian bread accompanies the oil. My favorite foil for olive oil. Soft and spongy inside for Gulf Coast level oil absorption with a harder crust for a crunchy contrast.
Italian Bread
Our waiter like our olive oil was imported from Italy. It was fun to listen to his Italian accent as he corrected my mis-pronunciations of every dish I ordered. We started with an, unseasonal for October, Insalata Primaverile (spring salad). It sounded too good to pass up: Mixed baby lettuces, grilled eggplant, roasted bell peppers, goat cheese and Olio e Limone dressing for $12.
Insalata Primaverile
Great presentation and a nice flavor but the ingredients lacked a feral depth of freshness you get with seasonal and local produce. Also, if the zucchini had been warm, it would have provided a nice temperature contrast that would have been more interesting in the mouth. It was good just not amazing. Next we ordered Fiorellini di Mellanzane.
Fiorellini di Mellanzane
Housemade ravioli filled with roasted eggplant and goat cheese with fresh tomato sauce, basil and ricotta salata for $21. This dish was amazing and our favorite. The eggplant provided a heartiness, the raviolis tasted fresh, the goat cheese was simultaneously creamy and rustic with a tart after taste and the ricotta salata provided a nice saltiness. Soul satisfying Italian comfort food. Along with the ravioli, we ordered Spaghetti allo Scoglio.
Spaghetti allo Scoglio
Spaghetti with fresh dungeness crab meat in a spicy tomato sauce topped with a big prawn for $26. It was deliciously spicy and briney but a little fishy and the prawn lacked that little lobster flavor you find in the really good ones. Still, I dispatched it with alacrity.

Olio e Limone offers a nice selection of Italian Reds by the glass for $11-13. Mom went “The Godfather” with a Sicilian Nero d’Avola. I stayed local with a Z Cuvée from Zaca Mesa. Both paired well with the entrees. Olio e Limone doesn’t serve up Pink Martini level flavor, but it’s ambiance, location, food and wine does well enough to satisfy the newlywed, the nearly dead and those in between.

Olio e Limone

17 West Victoria Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93101
Phone: 805-899-2699

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