Home » World Eats: Sonoma County, California

World Eats: Sonoma County, California

by Rich Rubin
Rivers End | Sonoma County, California Restaurants

From one end of this huge county to the other you’ll find winning restaurants, both casual and fine dining

Famous for great wine, Sonoma County California is also home to amazing culinary scene thanks to local chefs opening great new restaurants.

Take a California destination famous for great wine, add amazing weather and its resulting bounty of fresh produce, and toss in the devotion of local chefs to making the most of this abundance. The result? Sonoma County’s enviable dining scene. From one end of this huge county to the other (it can take you two hours to drive across it), you’ll find winning restaurants, both casual and fine dining (in Sonoma County there’s not a lot of difference between the two). From the Sonoma Valley in the east to the Pacific coast, you’ll find great places in just about every little town in the county, so whether you’re lying on the beach, exploring over 400 wineries, or walk- ing along the Russian River, you’ll find some- where nearby for lunch or dinner. The casual atmosphere throughout the area enables you to just sit back, relax, and enjoy the great food, along with a glass (or two) of Sonoma County wine, of course!

Located in a stunning spot overlooking the place where the Russian River flows into the Pacific, River’s End remains, as it has been for twenty years, the gold standard in Sonoma County. This restaurant really does have it all: amazing views, great food, and a super-nice staff. Try to snag a window seat and check the sunset time on the day you visit for the best natural light show. Settle in with a glass of local wine or a creative cock- tail (even the non-alcoholic offerings are terrific). Then begin your culinary journey. I’m not exaggerating when I say I love absolutely everything on the menu, but if I had to choose favorites, among appetizers I’d prob- ably go with the Technicolor Beet Salad, a stunning little tower of multi-colored beets, roasted macadamias, and goat cheese, or perhaps the Duck Confit Rolls, wonton wrappers filled with a delicious mix of duck confit, Napa cabbage, Asian noodles, and more. Among the mains, the Southwest Salmon and Applewood-smoked Filet Mignon are both amazing, as is the Vegetable Napoleon, fresh seasonal vegetables layered with basil, feta, and tofu and served over black rice with a citrus beurre blanc. Then again, the Pasta with Prawns is also a winner. It’s really hard to decide, so bring a group and try it all! 11048 Highway 1, Jenner. Tel: 707-865-2484. www.ilovesunsets.com

Willi's Wine Bar | Sonoma County, California Restaurants

Tunisian Roasted Carrots at Willi’s Wine Bar

Always one of my favorites, Willi’s Wine bar (relocated post-Tubbs fire to an odd little shopping strip in Santa Rosa), is my go-to place when company comes to town. The menu is so broad, and every dish on it so appealing, that it’s guaranteed everyone will find something they love. With a laid-back atmosphere, whether in the roomy interior or on the porch or patio, the restaurant offers a great selection of wines and a series of shareable plates. You can be as adventurous as you like, though I find myself always returning to a few favorites, like the Tunisian Roasted Carrots, perfectly spiced and roast- ed, or the Pulled Duck BBQ, with a wonderful smoked cheddar polenta. I also love the Curried Crab Tacos, which combine a chilled crab salad with a touch of apple, cucumber, and mint for a mellow and rich flavor. Filet Mignon Sliders are a perpetual winner, as are the chef’s famous Moroccan Style Lamb Chops, served with preserved lemon couscous. Bruschette change seasonally (when I visit, there’s a peach/burrata bruschetta whose goodness I cannot even begin to describe), as do many of the dishes, so whether you want to check out a new offering or return to your old faves or a combination of the two, which is what I usually do, you really can’t go wrong here. 1415 Town and Country Dr., Santa Rosa. Tel: 707-526- 3096. www.starkrestaurants.com/stark-restaurant/willis-wine-bar

Blue Ridge Kitchen | Sonoma County California, Restaurants

Trout Salad at Blue Ridge Kitchen
Photo: Martha Cromar

When I see the level of sophistication and creativity at Sebastopol’s Blue Ridge Kitchen, it’s hard to believe this marvelous spot just opened in July 2020. Chef Matthew D’Ambrosi is really dishing up some wonders here, whether you enjoy them inside the industrial/cozy spot or on the roomy patio. Chef D’Ambrosi takes familiar dishes and kicks them up with that extra little bit of creativity. Ahi Tuna Tartare, for instance, would be wonderful enough on its bed of chopped avocado, surrounded by Asian pear coulis and hot sauce aioli, but crispy quinoa adds another layer of texture and flavor. Similarly, Fried Brussels Sprouts, done to crispy perfection, get an extra boost from a rosemary aioli with a hint of lemon. Their Drunken Fried Chicken (plenty of vodka and wine in the batter) has already become legendary, while vegans and non-veg- ans alike will love the Roasted Cauliflower Steak, coated in breadcrumbs and served atop a pool of romesco sauce. Here again, the addition of crispy kale, a few golden raisins, and a sprinkling of orange zest add even more intriguing layers. For dessert, try the “Mississippi Mudpie” a deconstructed version of this Southern classic that presents a cocoa pavlova topped by chocolate pudding, whipped cream, and a chocolate tuille resting insouciantly on top. “I look for the details to move it from great to amazing,” says chef Matt, “color, flavor, and texture.” From start to finish, the beautifully inventive dishes show exactly what he means. 6770 McKinley St. #150, Sebastopol. Tel: 707-222- 5040. www.brkitchen.com

RELATED:  Recipes from Sonoma County To Try At Home

Tortilla Real | Sonoma County Restaurants

Mole at Tortilla Real

Tortilla Real is, to put it simply, the best Mexican restaurant in Sonoma County. This casually attractive spot is tastefully decorated with Mexican ceramics and huge a woodcarving. What’s more, it offers some of the freshest cuisine you’ll find, beginning, of course, with their eponymous tortillas, made to order with your meal for prime freshness, and continuing through their range of sauces, made fresh daily and perfectly paired with the dishes. Run by brothers Luis and Jorge Flores, the restaurant offers a traditional menu with some fascinating twists, with many recipes originating with their mother and reflecting their upbringing in Guadalajara. You might start with some amazing Gorditas (little masa dumplings with black beans, sour cream, and queso fresco), or perhaps a taco consisting of a perfectly cooked tortilla topped with anything from beef tongue to a gorgeous beer-battered cod. There’s also a vegan version with corn, carrots, black beans, squash, and tomatoes (just about any dish they offer can be made vegetarian/vegan). Their chicken with mole is perfection, while one fascinating dish, Huichola de Tinga, is basically a chicken quesadilla with a Oaxaca cheese crust, the crispy cheese replacing the tortilla on the outside. Desserts, too, are fabulous (they’re Jorge’s specialty), from a sumptuous Tres Leches Cake to Jericalla, a dessert from Guadalajara, which is like a cross between flan and crème brûlée. “It’s so great to be doing something you’re passionate about,” says Luis, who still recalls watching his mother create these dishes. That passion shows. 5 Petaluma Blvd. S., Petaluma. Tel: 707-658- 1415. www.tortillareal.com

The Girl and The Fig | Sonoma County Restaurants

Steak Frites at The Girl and The Fig

Located just off Sonoma’s central plaza, the girl & the fig (which celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2022) is a longtime favorite for French-influenced country cuisine in a casually gracious setting, with a menu that’s both seasonal and eternal. I do love the Fig and Arugula Salad (how could I not get something with the restaurant’s eponymous fruit in it?), livened with pecans and crumbles of goat cheese and as perfect as it is unfussy. Heirloom Tomato and Watermelon Salad is a refreshing starter when it’s tomato season. Wild Flounder Meunière is a great choice for a main, as is the duck confit, while the steak frites are a perpetual go-to. My favorite, though, is a Tomato Risotto that’s even won over many meat-eaters with its richness and depth of flavor. Dessert? Let’s go back to the fig theme with a Salted Fig and Caramel Trifle, served in a glass as a many-layered parfait dotted with candied cocoa nibs, with meringue on top, then salted caramel/fig, and finally chocolate budino. My server suggests I dip my spoon down into the whole thing to get all layers in each bite, and the combination of everything is even better than each individual layer! With its cozy atmosphere, great service, and wonderful food, It’s easy to see why this spot has become a place people return to again and again. 110 W. Spain St., Sonoma. Tel: 707- 938-3634. www.thegirlandthefig.com

Boon | Best Restaurants Sonoma County

Arugula Salad at Boon
Photo: Kelly Puleio

At the heart of Guerneville (itself the heart of LGBTQ tourism to Sonoma County) is this irresistible little place founded by chef Crista Luedtke (who is almost single-handedly responsible for a revival of Guerneville’s Main Street). There’s a real local pride here: they serve only Russian River wines, and the menu, while it has some longtime favorites, is inspired by what’s fresh on any given day. You can always count on a familiar dish being spun in new ways. Mac-n-cheese, for instance, features mycopia mushrooms and truffle breadcrumbs, while Polenta Lasagna (one of my favorites) uses layers of this corn- meal grain instead of the traditional pasta. I love the Moroccan Chicken, served with spiced couscous, preserved lemons, and yogurt, and the Chili-braised Pork Shoulder, with a jalapeño slaw, is a spicy (but not overwhelmingly so) delight. Round off your meal with a Boon Brownie, with caramel sauce, sea salt, and vanilla whipped cream, or a brioche bread pudding that’s pure paradise. Note: they don’t take reservations due to their small size, so get there early and rest assured your patience will be rewarded. 16248 Main St., Guerneville CA. Tel: 707- 869-0780. www.eatatboon.com

Valette | Best Restaurants Sonoma County

Charcuterie at Valette
Photo: Chris Hardy

I’ve loved Valette since it opened. I was there just a few weeks after the debut of this exquisite- site spot, which is both beautiful and unassuming-, creative and unfussy. With so many great menu options, I suggest the “trust me” feature, where the chef chooses your five (or more) courses. Soon the wonders start arriving: ahi poke with kombu emulsion and crispy nori. Scallops en croute, the puff pastry painted with squid ink for an alluring look, the scallop redo- lent with leeks, fennel, and Pernod, with champagne beurre blanc with caviar drizzled over it at the table. Halibut with a bell pepper crust. Duck breast coated in Szechuan peppercorns, with seasonal fruit (when I visit, it’s a grilled peach stuffed with duck confit). “Bread, butter, and jam” for dessert consists of a brioche dipped in condensed milk and fried, atop a little pool of jam, with a dish of brown butter ice cream; a heavenly combination if ever there was one. In a great new development, Valette is opening a second place just a few minutes’ walk away, called The Matheson. A multi-level spot that includes alluring Roof 106, it should be open by the time you read this. The Matheson is devoted to local farming and wine- making (including a “wine wall” for self-selected vintages), while on the roof you can enjoy not only the view and sunshine but a nice variety of edibles and creative cocktails. The personable and ultra-talented Valette has really put his own stamp on Healdsburg, and I’m thrilled to see it. Valette, 344 Center St., Healdsburg. Tel: 707- 473-0946. www.valettehealdsburg.com. The Matheson, 106 Matheson St., Healdsburg. Tel: 707-723-1106. www.thematheson.com

Khom Loi | Sonoma County Restaurants

Khai Jeow (Thai-style Omelet) at Khom Loi

If Sonoma County were in Thailand, the cuisine would probably be much like Khom Loi, which combines the local bounty with Thai-inspired tastes. For starters, I love the Gai Tod (lemon- grass fried chicken), with makrut (kaffir lime) leaves and long strands of fried lemongrass adorning the dish and transforming it from the usual fried chicken bites to something original and satisfying. The Khai Jeow (Thai-style omelet) is like no omelet you’ve ever tasted, super-spicy, sprinkled with bright orange trout roe, and topped with a mountain of herb salad. The Pad Thai is always a great choice, but what I really love is the Pad Kee Mao (drunken noodles), broad noodles tossed with mushrooms, baby bok choy, and pork shoulder (which they can leave off if you aren’t a pork-lover). The first bite brings forth the dusky fish sauce and mushrooms. The second brings in the holy basil. Then come the chiles. So many layers to this seemingly simple dish. That’s kind of like Khom Loi as a whole: it’s deceptively simple but, from the lovely patio with rock-enclosed pool and abundant greenery to the varied and fascinating menu, clearly a lot of thought and creativity has gone into this place. 7385 Healdsburg Ave., Sebastopol. Tel: 707-329-6917. www.khomloisonoma.com

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