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02.16.11

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Phaedra
The Girl and the Fig

The Girl and the Fig

Variety the spice of this European-Californian hotspot

By Leilani Clark


From the outside, the Girl and the Fig looks like a sweet little French bistro. Wide windows let in the Sonoma sun, streaming over blooming flower boxes. A hand-written chalkboard sign advertises daily specials, all made with local, seasonal ingredients.

But once inside, European-style relaxed coolness meets breezy California wine country, overlaid with an element of playfulness. Paintings of voluptuous, brown women embracing figs (and men) hang on the warm yellow walls. Ken and Barbie dolls mark the bathroom doors. An antique bar spans the lounge, its drinks written in pink ink on the mirror above the assortment of liquors, right next to some wooden satyrs with fake figs hanging from their mouths.

Dave, the bartender, pours wines from a list that contains only Rhone varietals (you won't find a drop of Chardonnay) and mixes up drinks like "Bourbon + Bacon" and old-fashioned cocktails like the Sazerac. And figs? Well, you'll find them on the walls, on the line products sold in the lounge, in the aperitifs, in the paintings—basically, everywhere.

Be forewarned: this place is packed. Even on a Tuesday afternoon. Manager Chewy Lebnick says that reservations are a must for one of the 65 seats in the dining area. First opened in Glen Allen by proprietor Sondra Bernstein in 1997, the Girl and the Fig (now located on the plaza in downtown Sonoma) has steadily grown in reputation and influence. But for Bernstein, as well as executive chef and managing partner John Toulze, the goal has always remained the same: to create simple, flavorful country food with a French inspiration.

"I liked the philosophy," Bernstein says. "It's very easy and it's community—you know, more a bistro kind of atmosphere instead of tablecloths, Michelin-star kind of thing."

"My father's family is French, so it was natural thing for me," Toulze adds. A self-taught chef—Bernstein calls him "intuitive," a label at which he shrugs and smiles—he left Viansa Winery at Bernstein's request to work with her at the restaurant. Raised in Sonoma, Toulze grew up in a more European-style household, with lots of cheeses and wine on the table. His family lived on a six-acre property with a huge garden, from which vegetables were culled for dinner, and this inclination toward fresh food influences his cooking and his recipes to this day.

Both Bernstein and Toulze sing the praises of Sonoma and of the winemakers, gardens and farms that make up the area's bounty. Ninety-five percent of their ingredients are sourced locally. In the past decade, the restaurant has gone from sourcing tomatoes from a tiny kitchen garden in Glen Ellen to a two-acre farm, which produced over 4,000 pounds of produce last September alone. Meat comes from local businesses like Devil's Gulch Farm, and the bacon and sausage is made in-house.

"We are in this incredible pocket. It's pretty magical," says Bernstein, "A croque monsieur is just a ham and cheese sandwich, but here it's made with ham that we make and cure, it's cheese from Joe Matos Cheese Factory in Santa Rosa, it's bread from Basque Boulangerie across the way."

While Toulze and Bernstein make trips back to France to cook and study (executive chef Chris Jones could not be reached for comment, because he is actually studying in Paris), they view Sonoma as more varied. "It's a way more dynamic food culture, not necessarily more sophisticated, but there are changes going on here. It's more of a renaissance," says Toulze. "In France, the food is very consistent. It's no different from the wine. It's very structured. There's not as much room for creativity."

For Sonoma County Restaurant Week, executive chef Chris Jones has come up with a $29 menu that represents the season: a crab salad dressed with kumquat vinaigrette; a main course of local petrale sole (fished from West Coast waters) with potato pure, baby carrots, red pearl onions, Brussels sprout leaves and a tarragon beurre blanc; and a dessert of strawberry-vanilla panna cotta and chocolate-dipped shortbread.

The Girl and the Fig is a place where people can go either on a special occasion or just for a drink and a bite of cheese. Mainly, Berstein says, she wants people to feel comfortable—and, of course, to enjoy tasty, country-fresh food.

"I want the flavors to really be the flavors. I want a radish to taste like a radish. Simple, rustic, authentic. And for sure, we use a lot of butter and a good amount of salt," says Bernstein, with a laugh. "We're not taking shortcuts."

The Girl and the Fig, 110 W. Spain St., Sonoma. 707.938.3634.


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