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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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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Taco Temple Veggie Burrito

Taco Temple

I first heard about Taco Temple when I was filming The Winemakers in Paso Robles in 2007. Since then, I’ve made many pilgrimages to the Temple with offerings of an empty stomach and have always been rewarded with a satisfied soul. The place is legendary in the area but with its location in a nondescript parking lot East of Highway 1 on the Northern end of Morro Bay, it’s location is not. Neither is it’s shack-like appearance.

It also doesn’t look like much from the inside but has some fun decorations; brightly painted surfboards hanging from the ceiling that look like they belonged to a Maori surf club and eclectic Mexican tchotchkes and paintings decorating the walls and alcoves. It’s old school California beach culture but looks aren’t the reason to trek to the Temple.

The food is. And so is the wine and beer. Taco Temple offers affordable local wine and beer from Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo including popular Firestone Walker Brewing Company. So, with all the local offerings what did I opt for? A $4 pint of Scrimshaw Pilsner on draught from North Coast Brewing in Fort Bragg – 400 miles away. I love draught beer and it sounded like the right beer for my lunch. It was.

Scrimshaw Pilsner tastes like the perfect beer to drink when you come in from the harvest or perhaps a tough day of whaling. It’s color is proof blonds have more fun. It has a medium body, a crispness highlighted by a touch of caramel sweetness and a sprightly finish with the lingering taste of grains; plus it was served American cold. I don’t share many American’s love affair with overly air conditioned indoor spaces and water glasses overflowing with ice cubes. But when it comes to beer, God Bless America. Nobody does it colder. Makes me feel sad for the rest.

It also makes me feel sad when Mexican restaurants charge for chips and salsa. Taco Temple does not. Their chips and salsa bar include freshly made chips with a few different salsas: A red piquante with a roasted flavor. Your typical pureed Mexican red sauce; tongue burning and sweat inducing. A pico de gallo which had a boring canned taste. It needed more cilantro, some onion and garlic, fresher tomatoes and some fresh jalapeños. Fortunately, they also offer fresh jalapeños by themselves which provided me with some ammo to perk up the pico. I give the Temple high marks for having fresh jalapeños at the bar and not using those disgusting pickled jalapeños from the can.

Taco Temple is renown for their fresh and local fish BUT as they say when haggling South of the border “es muy caro”; It is very expensive e.g. one fish taco for $16. I’ve had them before and they’re excellent but pricey so instead I opted for The Kind Veggie Burrito. A monstrous affair too big for one sane person; served in a sun-dried tomato tortilla slightly charred and served with dollops of guacamole and sour cream.

Under the hood, you’ll find a delicious salad of spring mix, tomatoes, rice, cheese, black beans, radishes and carrots. If you look around you’ll see many other plates with a similar accompaniment. They like using the spring mix. And I appreciate that it’s healthier than a lot of Mexican food with its characteristic gobs of cheese overflowing every nook.
However my burrito, like the salsas, was tasty but not mind blowing. The ingredients aren’t seasonal and you can taste they lack a freshness. Still, if you’re hungry and in the mood for good Mexican food in a casual kick-back atmosphere accompanied by a nice selection of beer and wine, Taco Temple is worth a trip.

Taco Temple
2680 Main Street  Morro Bay, CA 93442
(805) 772-4965

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