These small towns deliver culinary pleasures that make you want to leave the metropolis and see what gourmet pleasures exist in slightly more off the beaten track kinds of places.
In my travels, I’ve often ended up in smaller towns. Luckily, many of these spots now have burgeoning dining scenes, or at least one primo restaurant that make a visit worthwhile. In the following towns, all under 50,000 in population and some much smaller, you’ll find culinary pleasures that make you want to leave the metropolis and see what gourmet pleasures exist in slightly more off the beaten track kinds of places. I’ve arranged them in order of the towns’ sizes, starting just under fifty thousand population and heading all the way down to a population measured in the hundreds. I’m sure you’ll have your own to add to the list, proving that not all amazing dinners happen in big cities.
Prescott, Arizona (population 46,000) A restaurant as great as Farm Provisions might be a surprise in a conservative town like Prescott, but the minute I looked through the windows and saw this casually elegant spot, I knew it was a winner, and sure enough, a meal there proves the point. If ever there was a place I have no hesitation recommending, this is it. You’ll find a new spin on time-honored dishes (what they call “simple food elevated”), such as the panko coated deviled eggs with caramelized onion and bacon jam! Then there’s the cauliflower, the charry little florets resting on a bed of red pepper hummus and surrounded by slices of pickled jalapeño. Now, can we talk about that burrata? Already one of my favorite things in the world, here it’s given a presentation that’s as beautiful as it is delicious, surrounded by slow-roasted tomatoes and wild arugula, zigzags of balsamic reduction, and a little “pipette” of basil oil stuck into the top of the burrata for you to squeeze and release the oil into the middle of the cheese. Main courses? The boneless beef ribs are braised in Arizona red wine and served with yummy parsnip puree, while the FARM Fettuccini (house made, naturally) with pancetta, sun-dried tomatoes, and wild mushrooms is another winner. So are the pork tenderloin, served with herbed polenta and roasted baby carrots, and the salmon with quinoa, local squash, grilled asparagus, and a wonderful roasted fennel slaw. The palette of flavors, colors, and textures you’ll find at Farm Provisions is a testament to the art of cuisine, as thrilling as it is surprising. 148 N. Montezuma St., Prescott Arizona. Tel: 928-776-3001. farmprovisionsaz.com
Montclair, New Jersey (population 38,000) When I visited New Jersey for my birthday, my friend Elizabeth was tasked with the job of finding a great restaurant for three people (her, our friend Lucy, and me) with the most diverse culinary tastes any trio of friends has ever had. She came up with Laboratorio Kitchen in Montclair, a town not far from New York City. She hit upon a winner, starting with the sleek modern design of the place, with its long rows of tables, contemporary art, and walls of brick and deep blue. Then there’s their enticing cuisine. Amazingly, all of us were able to find something wonderful despite our varying preferences! I think that’s the nicest thing about Laboratorio: it really does have something for everyone. To start, check out the spicy shrimp arrabiata, or go sweet/rich with the fig and gorgonzola crostini. With mains ranging from chorizo/crab risotto with local mushrooms to scallops with cauliflower puree to deceptively simple organic chicken with potato puree and baby carrots, you can see there really is something for all tastes. The same is true of their pasta, whether it’s done with veal and beef meatballs, seafood, or broccoli rabe and Italian sausage. Streamlined, welcoming, and delicious: what more could you want? 615 Bloomfield Ave., Montclair NJ. Tel: 973-746-6100. thelaboratoriokitchen.com
Golden, Colorado (population 19,000) I stumbled into Abejas when I was in the Golden area for my friend Mindy’s wedding, and I immediately fell in love with this spot just off Golden’s main drag: low-key, friendly, and serving a glorious cuisine that’s somehow simple and complex all at once. You might start with the raised leek ravioli, a perfect concoction for one of my very favorite vegetables, or perhaps the vichyssoise, with chive oil and pickled basil seed. I love the pan-roasted duck breast, served with an intriguing green pistachio mole, duck confit, and a cross-cultural “Latin kimchi.” Noncarnivores will love the porcini risotto (okay, carnivores will love it too), and how can you go wrong with seared scallops with sunchoke puree? Pair your dishes with such creative cocktails as the Snowbird (rum, Campari, charred pineapple) or Old Ursuline (rye, absinthe, apple cider, and cinnamon syrup). For dessert, I splurged on this wonderful chocolate/olive oil cake, topped with caramel and little bits of popcorn, a perfect combination of tastes and textures. The room, casual in feel, with lots of wood and greenery, is beautifully appointed, welcoming, and lovely, while the service is absolute perfection. Also of note: their ultra-popular Sunday brunch. Many credit Abejas with ushering in a new culinary scene in Golden, and I can see why they say that, as you really can’t go wrong here. 807 13th St, Golden, Colorado. Tel: 303-952-9745. abejasgolden.com
THE GOOD EARTH
Beamsville, Ontario, Canada (population 12,000) The Good Earth Food and Wine Company in the tiny Ontario town of Beamsville, is many things: cooking school, winery, restaurant. Whichever of these you choose (my preference: all three), you’ll encounter something winning. I love their patio seating, the vineyards in your view reminding you just where that lovely wine came from. While you sip a glass of their crisp, smooth Pinot Noir or their luscious unoaked Chardonnay, you’ll peruse the lovely menu offerings: a cured salmon/beet salad with a hint of chile and a cured egg yolk, perhaps a salad of maple-roasted carrots (this is Canada, after all) with quinoa and feta cheese. Mains range from pan-roasted salmon to a seared striploin to fish ‘n’ chips (complete with mushy peas, of course), while you will definitely want to savor the chocolate torte with sour cherries or almond cake with rosé-poached rhubarb (my favorite). Inspired? Splurge on a cooking class, generally occurring on weekends and exploring such topics as “Culinary Kitsch”, “Old School Classics”, “French Feast” and “Plant Powered.” A trip to The Good Earth is like visiting your friends at their country estate, and after interacting with the friend ly staff, you’ll realize that’s exactly what you’ve done. 4556 Lincoln Ave., Beamsville, Ontatio, Canada. Tel: 905-563-6333. goodearthfoodandwine.com
BLUE RIDGE KITCHEN
Sebastopol, California, population 11,000) In this Sonoma County town, you’d expect amazing California Cuisine. At Blue Ridge Kitchen, chef Matt D’Ambrosi remains true to his Golden State roots while at the same time layering in a hint of Southern cuisine for a menu that’s appealing and accessible, creative without being overly fussy. Every dish I’ve had here is a total winner. I literally never know which to choose, so I end up eating far more than I ever intended! With the starters, for instance: should I do the incredible ahi tartare? One time I saw a carrot melon gazpacho on the menu, and there’s no way I can resist that (“sweet and yummy,” proclaims chef Matt, and he’s right, with a hint of tartness thrown in). Then there’s the burrata, with buttery grilled bread and blueberry compote. Beginning to see what I mean? We haven’t even looked at the mains yet! Drunken fried chicken is a signature dish here, so you’ll never go wrong with that. You might, however, decide on the catch of the day: last time I visited, it was mahi mahi, the perfectly done fish on a bed of mashed potatoes with a Cajun/Creole-inspired sauce and two crawfish resting insouciantly on the plate. The cioppino, too, is a perennial favorite (“every time I think of taking it off the menu, I suddenly get a rush of orders for it,” laughs Matt). I top off my recent visit with incredible panna cotta, one of my favorite desserts anyway, but their version is something special, with fruit layered between strawberry and traditional panna cotta and a little touch of almond streusel finishing it off. I relax, have a coffee in the high-ceilinged spot with a bar in the center and murals of horses on the walls. Can you figure out why I love this spot? 6770 McKinley St., Sebastopol, California. Tel: 707-222-5040. brkitchen.com
Santa Ynez, California (population 4600) With their great service, Italian-tinged menu, and comfy feel, SY Kitchen lights up the tiny town of Santa Ynez with a pleasant buzz that’s the sound of happy diners. I love sitting at the counter overlooking the kitchen, but wherever you end up, you’re bound to have a great meal, lovingly prepared and served with care. For starters, I highly recommend their fresh pea salad, livened by dry ricotta and celery root, though I must admit the warm octopus salad is about the best rendition of octopus I’ve ever had. Take a chance and give it a try, I think you’ll agree! Their house made pastas really hit the spot, from kabocha squash agnolotti to wild mushroom pappardelle (a longtime favorite). A simple grilled chicken or pan-roasted sea bream serves as a great main. Meanwhile, if there’s anything heartier and more amazing than a sausage and burrata pizza, I have yet to find it. Dessert? Pistachio crème brûlée makes a wonderful (and very Sicilian) twist on this well-known dish, and you can’t go wrong with the combination of chocolate gelato and caramelized bananas! Great news for foodies visiting the Santa Ynez wine region: the team behind SY recently opened Nella, located at the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn in Los Olivos (itself a qualifier for this column, with a population just over 1000). I can’t wait to try it out! Meanwhile, I assure you that you will never go wrong at SY Kitchen. 1110 Faraday St., Santa Ynez, California. Tel: 805-691-9794. sykitchen.com
Zephyr Cove, Nevada (population 450) Zephyr Cove, our tiniest spot in this story, might be in Lake Tahoe’s tourist zone, but there’s a real little town here, and not all the dining is at the resorts. Case in point: Capisce?, a family-run Italian restaurant in a simple, A-frame building that dishes up hearty, homemade Italian food. With its horseshoe-shaped bar, fireplace, and collection of carnival masks, it’s a homey, cozy spot. While the family’s roots are in Northern Italy, the menu traverses the country with delicious options. You might start with a burrata/prosciutto appetizer, a traditional Caprese salad, or perhaps their handmade sausage ravioli. Move on to fresh pasta with homemade “gravy” (it’s fashioned from porcini mushrooms and tomatoes, and don’t call it “sauce,” please!). Artichoke chicken or Veal Parmigiana might hit the spot, but then again, how can you go wrong with a dish named “Penne Amore”? Try their “rice bowls”, a take on the traditional risotto, featuring such combinations as chicken/mushrooms/onions, assorted veggies, or a “simply saucy” bowl. Roman-style pizza comes with red sauce, Capisce “gravy,” or even a white sauce for extra richness. For dessert, you could try spumoni or tiramisu, but seriously, how can you resist a dish like chocolate lasagna? With a chocolate cookie crust and layers of cream cheese, chocolate mousse, and whipped cream, it’s unlike any “lasagna” you’ve ever had! No resort-y airs here, just meticulously sourced ingredients, a devotion to scratch preparations, and handmade excellence. Capisce? 178 U.S. 50, Zephyr Cove Nevada. Tel: 775-580-7500. capiscelaketahoe.com