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03.17.10

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Phaedra

Food & Drink

Writers Picks


Best Attitude Adjustment

Entering Pizzavino 707, the Sebastopol restaurant that once housed Stephen Singer's West County Grill, hungry patrons can feel the heat. True, the brick, wood-fired pizza oven is blazing away at 800 degrees. But this warmth starts at the door, with the smiles of the bartender and the maitre d'. It is a pleasant welcome for the hungry to sit and enjoy a meal as if they, too, are part of the family.

This attitude is in stark contrast to the cold atmosphere of the West County Grill, with its long waits, unpredictable service and high prices. That restaurant closed after only a year, a victim of inconsistency and the economy. Singer and former West County Grill co-owner Jonathan Waxman both boast high-pedigree food and wine backgrounds, but evidently lacked the local knowledge of a small, food-savvy community in the heart of wine country.

"Our level of quality and the attitude of the hospitality didn't meet the mark," Singer now says ruefully. "We didn't accomplish the degree of hospitality you need in a small community and declining economy. There was no margin of error. I failed to deliver, and I learned from it."

After months of trying to sell the business, Singer decided to reopen with new partners and ideas. Pizzavino 707 has simplified the food service to items it can reliably make well. The new collaborators in the kitchen, Gayle Pirit and John Clark, are also the chef-owners of San Francisco's Foreign Cinema.

"I've known them for a long time and highly regard their expertise. They have a history of helping restaurants all over the world reboot or attain the next level," Singer says. Mentored by Pirit and Clark, Andrew Dovel is the attending chef, and Pizzavino's crew is brand-new. "We needed to purge and rebirth ourselves in as fresh and energetic a way as possible," Singer says. "I'm extremely happy with the staff now. They bring a sense of hospitality to everyone who comes in. We want Pizzavino to be an inviting place that's a common denominator for people."

Trying to find harmonious uses for the facility, Singer has started the Sonoma County Wine Collective. Small-production wineries in the area without hospitality resources of their own use it as a communal tasting room. The restaurant also sponsors a Little League team and a new West County cycling club.

"In a small community, you have to give people a reason to leave their homes and contribute to the sustainability," Singer says. "You need good food and service. We're no longer hearing the horrifying stories we did when we were the West County Grill. Places without high standards or ones that don't do anything with distinction get what they deserve. Those which are trying to serve their customers well need the strong consideration of the community, or they won't be here. The numbers confirm that people see Pizzavino as a gathering spot, and appreciate what we offer." 6948 Sebastopol Ave., on the Plaza, Sebastopol. 829.9500.—S.D.


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Best Reinvention from French (and Spanish) to Italian

For Sondra Bernstein, nothing is sweeter than turning old restaurants into new restaurants. "Opening a restaurant is addicting, and one restaurant has never been enough," she says midway through a feast that includes pig snout, pizza, pasta and a grand bottle of Sangiovese at her new Estate restaurant in Sonoma. Born in Philadelphia, Bernstein grew up on lox, bagels and wontons. A foodie even as a teen, she attended restaurant school, worked for TGI Fridays, and in the 1990s reinvented herself as an innovative restaurateur with a passion for France's Rhone-style cooking at Sonoma Valley's the Girl and the Fig restaurant, and the Fig Cafe.

Estate (from "e'state," meaning "summer" in Italian) is her third restaurant—not counting the short-lived Spanish experiment the Girl & the Gaucho—and not her last, if she has anything to say about it. After decades in the biz, opening restaurants is a way of life for her. Staying open is harder now than ever before, she says, because customers are better informed about food and expect to pay less for bigger portions. So she's lowered prices, and serves more meals than ever—some 200,000 last year.

Estate occupies the "magical property," in Bernstein's words, where Preston Dishman, once a dirt-poor Southern boy, ran the nationally acclaimed restaurant the General's Daughter. When he moved out, she moved in, though she didn't have a clue about the menu. Once she chose to go Italian, she put her passion for French-inspired food on a back burner, and shelved her famous fetish for figs. She turned the old restaurant upside down: ripped up carpets, added a wood-fired pizza oven and gave the place a Mediterranean makeover. To get into the spirit of Italian cooking, she went to Italy to eat. Back home, she watched, again and again, Fellini's classic La Dolce Vita.

The culinary transformation has paid off financially and culturally. The town of Sonoma was recently chosen by the Italian Cittaslow International organization to be the first "Slow City" in the United States. Bernstein created the menu that brought the Italian visitors and their hosts together for a family-style lunch at Benzinger Winery: local rabbit, baby fennel, wild mushrooms, delicata squash and local cheeses.

"Over the years, I've reinvented menus and myself," Bernstein says. "Sonoma County has reinvented itself too. We've evolved together organically." Estate, 400 W. Spain St., Sonoma. 707.933.3663.—J.R.


Best-Loved Flagon of Wine

You know you're of a fine old vintage if you remember when "that little old winemaker" pushed wine to a national television audience, or better yet, bellied up to the bar at the Italian Swiss Colony tasting room. But not as old as the winery's earlier mascot—call him the little old wine imbiber. Back in the day when there wasn't a winery around every bend in the road, the Italian Swiss Colony was the biggest tourist destination in the North Bay. Shuttered for decades, the historic landmark has reopened as Cellar No. 8 (and Chateau Souverain). One of the joys of visiting, besides the juice, is that the tasting room is a living museum of that earlier time. Consider a barrel head on the wall that bears the inscription, "Wines mellowed in redwood." There, over in the far corner, behold a 19th-century sculpture carved by an Italian artisan. Titled His Last Love, the marble bust depicts a gent in his dotage and his stocking cap, with a sleepy, creepy grin, jealously cradling a straw basket-covered flask of wine like some Gollum. Oh, precious! Brought to life through advertising vignettes of the early 20th century, the old dotager surely has no contemporary in wine branding today—but wait, he has a twin! Look for him as the logo of Lago di Merlo Vineyards and, reportedly, on the tail of Merlo's private jet. 26150 Asti Post Office Road, Cloverdale. 866.557.4970.—J.K.


Best High-Falutin' Farmer

The first time we saw Tucker Taylor hanging around the French Laundry, we checked our pockets for loose change. To be honest, he looked like he wouldn't turn down a handout, with his knit braided tassel hat, his Grizzly Adams beard and his dirt-stained jeans. Then he showed us some asparagus, and it all made sense. Taylor is the private farmer for the Thomas Keller empire in Yountville, and his workplace is a two-acre organic garden directly across the restaurant from the famed Laundry. That's him you'll see digging in the soil nearly every day, his hat and beard keeping him warm through the chilly rains of spring. There's no fence around the property, which may seem odd, given the treasures contained within the 48 plots planted with tomatoes, peppers, boutique lettuces, beets, onions and more than 60 fragile blossoms, from broccoli to fava beans. A 3,000-square-foot solar greenhouse blooms with tiny seedlings and a rainbow of herbs, each destined to become something exquisite on the menus of the French Laundry, Ad Hoc, Bouchon or Bouchon Bakery. Taylor says he likes to be accessible, forging relationships with neighborhood growers and explaining to passers-by why he gets excited about oca, an obscure tuber from the Andes, and crones, tiny roots that grow somewhat like potatoes but "look like the arm of the Michelin man" and are as crunchy as a water chestnut. For all his growing celebrity status, it's still the dirt that Tucker digs. With a university degree in horticulture, he's entirely down to earth. When he's not cultivating precious ingredients for the Laundry's $250 dinners, he's pruning bushes and pulling weeds. "I also take care of the landscaping for all of the Keller properties," he admits. 6640 Washington St., Yountville. 707.944.2380.—C.S.


Best Traveling Pun

Healdsburg's Wine-a-Bay-Go, the relaxing, leather-seated coolness of which has allowed many a winetaster to avoid DUIs in comfort, is maybe the best alternative to a taxi or limousine currently rolling through the hills of wine country. Affordably priced at $100 per hour, a fraction of what you'd pay for alternative services, the Wine-a-Bay-Go can seat up to 10 people. Jonathan Garner, the astoundingly friendly owner-operator-driver, always provides cold bottled water to keep guests hydrated, and delectable snacks to keep them from keeling. He will happily take a picture at each winery (and email you the shots after you've sobered up), and has even been known to assist with making reservations at one of the area's many fine restaurants. Full service! www.healdsburgtours.com.—D.T.


Best '80s-style Pre-Happy Hour

As skaters used to say back in the '80s, "The next best thing to free beer is cheap beer, and next to that is Schaefer." Fortunately, now that you're all grown up and have traded your deck for a worthless 401k, you need not imbibe malted swill for a buzz. Nor need you pay $4 a pint, that is if you don't mind enjoying a brew prior to 5pm, and in this economy, who doesn't? Sonoma's El Dorado Kitchenette, aka "EDK," nicked its design from Dean & Deluca and its beer prices from the '80s. For a $1.75, one can enjoy a pre–happy hour bottle of Lagunitas IPA, Anchor Steam or even the nut-brown excellence of Newcastle. Why so cheap? Don't ask. Big spenders with cash to flash can still go to the adjacent El Dorado Hotel bar and spend $4 for the same brew, so best to let drinking dogs lie. 405 First St. W., Sonoma. 707.996.3220.—D.H.


Best Place to Sip Chai While Waiting Out the Undead

According to Max Brooks' Zombie Survival Guide, the best defense in a zombie apocalypse is a remote location at the top of a hill or mountain, from which you can see everything clearly from every direction. There is no place better in all the North Bay than the West Point Inn, way off the beaten track on Mt. Tamalpais. Best known as a hikers' paradise (there is no way to drive there; you have to either hike, bike or shuffle the two miles of trail to arrive), this remote membership resort now has a fantastic snack bar and rents out its no-frills rooms for next to nothing. If the zombie outbreak ever does happen, that's where we want to be, sipping a hot chai, enjoying the view, while watching the woods for any sign of the ravenous undead. 1000 Panoramic Hwy., Mill Valley. 415.388.9955.—D.T.


Best Free Breakfast for $800

One of the best breakfast spots in Sonoma County is tucked in an unlikely place: the Kenwood Inn & Spa. You know, that tiny Mediterranean-style property you race past on Highway 12 and always wonder what it is? And marvel of marvels, their breakfast is free! The place is cozy, set in a posh resort resto that seats just 35, yet chef Andrea Di Loreto's daily changing menu is inventive. A few favorites might include Cajun-spiced jambalaya with sausage and bacon topped with chive-mascarpone scrambled eggs; a "Green Eggs & Ham" scramble of pesto marinated cheese tortellini and prosciutto over grilled country bread and diced Roma tomatoes; or creamy soft polenta topped with poached eggs, applewood smoked bacon and red pepper coulis. Of course, there's a hitch—the meal is complimentary only to guests of the 29-room property, and a Tuscany-style suite goes for $800 per night. In fact, the only folks who can eat breakfast (or lunch or dinner) here at all are resort guests. But may we mention that the chilaquiles are really, really delicious? 10400 Sonoma Hwy. (Highway 12), Kenwood. 707.833.1293.—C.S.


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Best Scissors Beat Paper ,Turn Rock into Earth

It was a shocking closer in a long and curious story, like the finale of a popular television series. Winery owner Naomi Brilliant had thrown in the towel on Roshambo Winery and her quixotic journey to "have fun in a winey world." Roshambo got noticed when it launched in 2002, and immediately gained a rep as the hipster winery with a following among a new generation unswayed by musty, traditional appeals to status and exclusion. The winery, housed in an ambitious concrete and glass building with a killer view, hosted a contemporary art gallery, cult movie dates, pajama parties and, famously, an annual rock-paper-scissors competition.

Facing financial pressures, Roshambo shed the shack and took its "party army" on the road in its "Roshambus," pouring wine at a quirky space in arty Cornerstone Gardens, with a plan to build again pending. Yet as soon as 2010 dawned, the party stopped. No winery, no army, no wine—though some lingers on store shelves. And in its place, Roshambo Farms.

"I was never someone who wanted to be a corporate job person," Brilliant says while watching her chickens cavort in the coop. "Signing interstate compliance is like a signature to the devil." The switch to Roshambo Farms is a welcome change, she says, and gives her time to be with the land and at peace. While Brilliant laments that "the business of wine is not about small family farms; it's all about marketing," she insists that the cult of Roshambo was no put-on. "It was based on real life, instead of marketing. I wanted people to just enjoy wine and not have to get a degree to feel comfortable about trying new things."

For all the hoopla that attended the winery, the idea was to have fun and not take it too seriously. Brilliant wanted selling a good bottle to be as simple as cooking dinner for friends: "Hey, here's something I did— enjoy it!"

While the Roshambus is idled, the paperwork never goes away. "I will probably be doing Roshambo Winery for the next year," Brilliant sighs. Meanwhile, she's taking out the lawns surrounding her house and planting more vegetables. Having planned this exit for a year, it's a big relief to finally get it out in the open.

For the "weird lettuces, Asian vegetables and herbs" that Brilliant grows on Roshambo Farms, there's currently just one customer, San Francisco restaurant Weird Fish. "I want to feel very connected to people who enjoy my end product," Brilliant explains, allowing that her current project is not comparable to the scale of its earlier incarnation. The 100-acre property's remunerative Russian River Valley vineyards, of course, will not be ripped up in favor of arugula and frisée. "If you want to catch me," she says, "see what I'm doing now." www.roshambofarms.com.—J.K.


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Best Winery for Keeping It Close to the Chest

First of all, let's be clear on one point: the property truly is cleaved by a creek. At a passing glance, the name Cleavage Creek might be mistaken for the sophomoric brainstorm of a sophomore of a certain age who's well past midpoint in his bottle. But look again. The colorful labels feature portraits of real women with plunging necklines, to be sure, but their smiles are the bright and confident ones of survivors.

When he happened upon the Cleavage Creek label, Budge Brown was floundering, angry and directionless after having lost his wife Arlene to breast cancer. Although the racy label's progenitor intended to make contributions to breast cancer research after profits, he hadn't the time and inclination to follow through. Brown made it his mission. He took control of the situation by using the wine brand to promote breast cancer awareness, promising to contribute fully 10 percent of the gross proceeds to fund research. To date, over $72,000 has been contributed to specific projects, including, most recently, $40,000 to establish the new Integrative Oncology Center for Breast Cancer at Bastyr University in Seattle.

Brown says that, sure, he could've just written a check, but he wanted to do something that got people's attention. His ownership of Cleavage Creek has seen three vintage releases, with each wine label featuring one of 20 breast cancer survivors whose individual stories of triumph are told on the winery's website. And every time the brand gets noted in the press, says winery publicist Laura Kirkham, someone tells them that they went in for a mammogram, and it made a difference. In fact, when the state of Tennessee just opened to direct wine shipment, the winery "got a lovely note by the lady in charge of it all, thanking us for what we're doing," Kirkham says. "You don't see that too often from a regulatory agency."

After the publicity attending its launch, the brand is still going strong. And the wines are not just bulk blends with a pretty label; the Napa Valley and Tracy Hills appellated wines have earned 32 medals in national and international competitions. A new tasting room and winery is currently under construction in Pope Valley, to be completed later this year. www.cleavagecreek.com.—J.K.


Best-Loved Flagon of Wine

You know you're of a fine old vintage if you remember when "that little old winemaker" pushed wine to a national television audience, or better yet, bellied up to the bar at the Italian Swiss Colony tasting room. But not as old as the winery's earlier mascot—call him the little old wine imbiber. Back in the day when there wasn't a winery around every bend in the road, the Italian Swiss Colony was the biggest tourist destination in the North Bay. Shuttered for decades, the historic landmark has reopened as Cellar No. 8 (and Chateau Souverain). One of the joys of visiting, besides the juice, is that the tasting room is a living museum of that earlier time. Consider a barrel head on the wall that bears the inscription, "Wines mellowed in redwood." There, over in the far corner, behold a 19th-century sculpture carved by an Italian artisan. Titled His Last Love, the marble bust depicts a gent in his dotage and his stocking cap, with a sleepy, creepy grin, jealously cradling a straw basket-covered flask of wine like some Gollum. Oh, precious! Brought to life through advertising vignettes of the early 20th century, the old dotager surely has no contemporary in wine branding today—but wait, he has a twin! Look for him as the logo of Lago di Merlo Vineyards and, reportedly, on the tail of Merlo's private jet. 26150 Asti Post Office Road, Cloverdale. 866.557.4970.—J.K.


Best High-Falutin' Farmer

The first time we saw Tucker Taylor hanging around the French Laundry, we checked our pockets for loose change. To be honest, he looked like he wouldn't turn down a handout, with his knit braided tassel hat, his Grizzly Adams beard and his dirt-stained jeans. Then he showed us some asparagus, and it all made sense. Taylor is the private farmer for the Thomas Keller empire in Yountville, and his workplace is a two-acre organic garden directly across the restaurant from the famed Laundry. That's him you'll see digging in the soil nearly every day, his hat and beard keeping him warm through the chilly rains of spring. There's no fence around the property, which may seem odd, given the treasures contained within the 48 plots planted with tomatoes, peppers, boutique lettuces, beets, onions and more than 60 fragile blossoms, from broccoli to fava beans. A 3,000-square-foot solar greenhouse blooms with tiny seedlings and a rainbow of herbs, each destined to become something exquisite on the menus of the French Laundry, Ad Hoc, Bouchon or Bouchon Bakery. Taylor says he likes to be accessible, forging relationships with neighborhood growers and explaining to passers-by why he gets excited about oca, an obscure tuber from the Andes, and crones, tiny roots that grow somewhat like potatoes but "look like the arm of the Michelin man" and are as crunchy as a water chestnut. For all his growing celebrity status, it's still the dirt that Tucker digs. With a university degree in horticulture, he's entirely down to earth. When he's not cultivating precious ingredients for the Laundry's $250 dinners, he's pruning bushes and pulling weeds. "I also take care of the landscaping for all of the Keller properties," he admits. 6640 Washington St., Yountville. 707.944.2380.—C.S.


Best Traveling Pun

Healdsburg's Wine-a-Bay-Go, the relaxing, leather-seated coolness of which has allowed many a winetaster to avoid DUIs in comfort, is maybe the best alternative to a taxi or limousine currently rolling through the hills of wine country. Affordably priced at $100 per hour, a fraction of what you'd pay for alternative services, the Wine-a-Bay-Go can seat up to 10 people. Jonathan Garner, the astoundingly friendly owner-operator-driver, always provides cold bottled water to keep guests hydrated, and delectable snacks to keep them from keeling. He will happily take a picture at each winery (and email you the shots after you've sobered up), and has even been known to assist with making reservations at one of the area's many fine restaurants. Full service! www.healdsburgtours.com.—D.T.


Best '80s-style Pre-Happy Hour

As skaters used to say back in the '80s, "The next best thing to free beer is cheap beer, and next to that is Schaefer." Fortunately, now that you're all grown up and have traded your deck for a worthless 401k, you need not imbibe malted swill for a buzz. Nor need you pay $4 a pint, that is if you don't mind enjoying a brew prior to 5pm, and in this economy, who doesn't? Sonoma's El Dorado Kitchenette, aka "EDK," nicked its design from Dean & Deluca and its beer prices from the '80s. For a $1.75, one can enjoy a pre–happy hour bottle of Lagunitas IPA, Anchor Steam or even the nut-brown excellence of Newcastle. Why so cheap? Don't ask. Big spenders with cash to flash can still go to the adjacent El Dorado Hotel bar and spend $4 for the same brew, so best to let drinking dogs lie. 405 First St. W., Sonoma. 707.996.3220.—D.H.


Best Place to Sip Chai While Waiting Out the Undead

According to Max Brooks' Zombie Survival Guide, the best defense in a zombie apocalypse is a remote location at the top of a hill or mountain, from which you can see everything clearly from every direction. There is no place better in all the North Bay than the West Point Inn, way off the beaten track on Mt. Tamalpais. Best known as a hikers' paradise (there is no way to drive there; you have to either hike, bike or shuffle the two miles of trail to arrive), this remote membership resort now has a fantastic snack bar and rents out its no-frills rooms for next to nothing. If the zombie outbreak ever does happen, that's where we want to be, sipping a hot chai, enjoying the view, while watching the woods for any sign of the ravenous undead. 1000 Panoramic Hwy., Mill Valley. 415.388.9955.—D.T.


Best Free Breakfast for $800

One of the best breakfast spots in Sonoma County is tucked in an unlikely place: the Kenwood Inn & Spa. You know, that tiny Mediterranean-style property you race past on Highway 12 and always wonder what it is? And marvel of marvels, their breakfast is free! The place is cozy, set in a posh resort resto that seats just 35, yet chef Andrea Di Loreto's daily changing menu is inventive. A few favorites might include Cajun-spiced jambalaya with sausage and bacon topped with chive-mascarpone scrambled eggs; a "Green Eggs & Ham" scramble of pesto marinated cheese tortellini and prosciutto over grilled country bread and diced Roma tomatoes; or creamy soft polenta topped with poached eggs, applewood smoked bacon and red pepper coulis. Of course, there's a hitch—the meal is complimentary only to guests of the 29-room property, and a Tuscany-style suite goes for $800 per night. In fact, the only folks who can eat breakfast (or lunch or dinner) here at all are resort guests. But may we mention that the chilaquiles are really, really delicious? 10400 Sonoma Hwy. (Highway 12), Kenwood. 707.833.1293.—C.S.


Best Place to Meet the Girl of your Experimental, Bisexual, Trans-glory Dreams

If you find yourself sliding homo on the Kinsey scale—and I don't mean accidentally sucking face with a female roommate at a frat party à la Katy Perry cherry chapstick; I mean real, Shane McCutcheon wet dreams kinda sliding, 2010 could be your year to step out of the closet and into the light of gay. But if the rainbow's too bright, you might feel more at home in the dim glow of fluorescent bar signs, amid the dingy, bra-strewn glory that is the Black Cat Bar and Cafe. Located in the old Eagle Hotel, rumor has it the place is haunted, but even a rouge specter couldn't bring down the mood. The woman-powered dive bar in downtown Penngrove is so much more than a watering hole; it's become a community hub, and has been hosting some of the most beautiful, most butch and most transformed female and male musicians in the North Bay since 2002. Live music at the Black Cat is an up-close and personal experience, with the musicians so close you can see the pores on their faces while they sing out their Sapphic love songs. There's also DJ dancing, a pool table and open mic every Wednesday. Dress is casual and not necessarily gender conforming. As a friend pointed out, the men might be below average height, but what they're packin' in those Levi's could still surprise you. The Black Cat serves food from next-door neighbor Humble Pie, and Bloody Marys with "Brunch Under the Bras" on Sundays. 10056 Main St., Penngrove. 707.793.9480.—K.M.


Best Boggling Bevy of Bread for Your Sammy

The white-aproned folks behind the counter at the busy Genova Deli don't have time for dawdlers, and they'll let you know it. If you're not prepared to bark your order as soon as your number is called, you'll get a glare, a sigh or possibly even that most humiliating send-off of them all, an eye-roll. To be fair, it's tough to order a sandwich here, when decisions begin with just the bread. There are 14 starchy choices, including sliced sourdough, wheat, light rye and marble rye; rolls run the gamut of hard sour, soft sour, sweet, wheat, seeded, onion or Dutch crunch as well as specialties like European, focaccia or croissant. Next, you need to decide on meats, from a list of 30, including head cheese and beef tongue. There are a half-dozen salads, as well as meatballs and 10 cheeses. Then there are the toppings, from a list of 16, like cranberry sauce or muffuletta. It's intimidating, perhaps, but good impetus to get you out of your sandwich rut. Baked ham and Swiss on rye, sure. But better yet, why not try something new, like peppered ham, fresh-made mozzarella and zingy marinated mushrooms on focaccia? Now that's living! 1550 Trancas Street, Napa. 707.253.8686.—C.S.


Best Place to Get into the Cold

Any person who must ask, "Um, why can't the vodka be inside a regular freezer, while we stay in the warm bar on the outside?" is surely missing the point of Graziano's Vodika Lounge. Vodka inspires fascination with all things that are clear as crystal and cold as ice—the sparkling shards in James Bond's martini, coolly ordered in a room full of danger, or the rough frost on a bottle of Stoli pulled from the freezer at midnight. So-called ice bars, originating in Scandinavia's frozen north, have opened in just a few of the trendsetting capitals of the world: London, New York and now Petaluma. Guests at Graziano's are invited to don luxurious faux fur coats and hats, then enter a specially built walk-in freezer filled with the azure light of a sunless day. Above, the condenser unit keens like an authentic arctic wind—this is not the place to while away the evening sipping cosmos. Taste vodka samplers at their correct serving temperature—"bone chilling"—from potato and grain, Polish vodka infused with bison grass, and Kazakh vodka as creamy and smooth as the idea of snow. All that's missing from this frozen little fantasy are the Björk remixes. 170 Petaluma Blvd N., Petaluma. 707.762.5997.—J.K.


Best Gopher-Gut Wine Pairing

Rod Berglund had a pesky little problem at his Joseph Swan Vineyards, the historic Russian River Valley winery specializing in vineyard-designated Pinot Noir and old-vine Zinfandel: gophers, which were digging up his grapes. The creative guy decided to catch the marauding mammals, and, rather than waste them, he has naturally enough decided to eat them. Why not? Meat is meat. Thus, Berglund bags the offending diggers into ziplocks and freezes them. Meanwhile, he and his wife Karen are working on recipes so ambitious that he's actually planning on publishing a cookbook. That means such dishes as gaupher rôti farci aux figues Mission noir enveloppé dans prosciutto (roast gopher with black Mission figs wrapped in prosciutto), gopher in mole sauce or even gopher confit. The wine pairings will be easy, Berglund says, explaining that he's labeled each tasty animal as to which grape block it came from. As to when the book will debut or if there will be a preview dinner at his fun and funky tasting room sometime soon, Berglund isn't committing quite yet. In the meantime, let's all just lift a glass of delicious Pinot and sing along: "Great big gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts . . ." 2916 Laguna Road, Forestville. 707.573.3747.—C.S.


Best Tasting Room Tour Without the Drive

Visiting wine tasting rooms is fun. Driving to get to them often isn't. After just three stops, we're usually too pooped to partake anymore. So all hail Silenus Vintners. Nestled along Highway 29 on the edge of Yountville, Silenus is a cooperative that showcases nine small wineries. Rather than just a typical co-op tasting room, however, Silenus is a custom-crush winery, so what you're sampling was crafted right on the property by each of the vintners. Drawing from their small productions averaging about 400 cases, vintners offer a changing line-up of more than three dozen wines, many of which are available only in the tasting room. That'd be nifty enough. Except that these are truly artisan bottlings, including grapes you've likely never heard of but should, like the blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Ribolla Gialla, Semillon and Tocai Friulano from Matthiasson. There are also less locally planted varietals like Pinot Gris (Ideology Cellars), Viognier (Due Vigne di Famiglia), Grenache (Ramian Estate), Cabernet Franc (Gridley Family Cellars). If your tasting host seems particularly knowledgeable, by the way, he or she may be the winemaker. 5225 Solano Ave., Napa. 707.299.3930.—C.S.


Best Crazy Trippin' Interior Design

The casual Villa Corona strip mall eatery has been serving satisfying Sonoran fare since 1972, but it looks like the decorators started dropping acid back in the '60s and simply never stopped. A mad frenzy of art crowds nearly every inch of space: Parked on walls, shelves and countertops, in a range of neon-hued Day of the Dead tchotchkes, Frida Kahlo renditions and serene-severe Madonna and child portraits that hover while you tuck into your tacos. The Sonoran fare is excellent and cheap—burritos the size of footballs packed with meats, beans and rice, or camarones a la diabla that are spicy enough to shoot flames. So your stomach will be plenty happy. Just beware: your head may spin trying to take in all the wonders of the walls. 3614 Bel Aire Plaza, Napa. 707.257.8685.—C.S.


Best Place to Tell Who You've Been Kissing

"He's not going to call. I thought things went so well," I wailed to my friends. Daisy, Monica and Lauren studied my crushed face across the table. Regular Sunday brunch at Fiorini Truly Italian Bakery & Cafe, to rehash the successes and failures of date night, had made them experts in patience, love life analysis and the heart-healing properties of Italian pastry. My dark mood didn't suit the late morning sunshine that was warming the sleek, spacious bakery or the big, fat roses that were blooming in planter boxes just outside the windows. "It just means he wasn't the right guy. He isn't The One," Daisy assured sagely, helping herself to a dainty slice of princess cake. At the mention of soul mates, Monica merely arched her eyebrow skeptically and tipped back the last of her carefully pulled espresso. I sank lower over my gold-leafed teacup and surveyed the spread of jam-filled treats, biscotti and paninis we had ordered. "Honey, you're fabulous. Here, have another cookie," Lauren pushed a chocolate-dipped confection towards me. "Forget him. This kind of sugar is emotional-baggage-free." 248 W.Napa St., Sonoma. 707.996.6119.—R.M.


Best Taco Tuesdays

Remember the days when we had high-paying jobs and thought nothing of dropping $100 bucks for a night on the town? For many of us, those days are gone, but at Tres Hombres in Petaluma, you can still eat, drink and be merry for a song—especially on Tuesday nights.

Every Tuesday, Tres Hombres offers house margaritas for $3 and tacos for $2.50—your choice of carnitas, chicken or Baja snapper. The carnitas are savory and flavorful; the fish tacos are made with a creamy slaw and perfectly complement a cool margarita. Sit at a table, at the bar, or if the weather is fine, on the outdoor patio.

No, you don't get Herradura or Patron for $3 bucks, but the tequila is 100 percent agave. A couple ordering two tacos each and two margaritas can get out the door for about $20.

If you can't make it on a Tuesday, come by any weekday between 3pm and 6pm for happy hour, when house margies are $4, beers are $3, a bucket of five Coronitas costs $6 and appetizers are $4.

Taco Tuesday was introduced in 2007 when the economy began to tank, but co-owner Dan McGarry says he plans to continue it indefinitely, calling it "the best deal in town." 151 Petaluma Blvd. S., Petaluma. 707.773.4500.—M. S.


Best Place to Nearly Singe Your Pancake-Filled Tummy

While sustainable-organic-no-GMO-gluten-free "foodie" food drives its dietary claws in earnest restaurants all over the prim-and-proper North Bay, a huge heaping pile of no-frills grub can thankfully still be found at a tiny little spot in downtown Novato. For the big-eyed eater to whose ears "Breakfast All Day" is music, Marvin's Restaurant is a little slice of heaven with a huge dollop of butter on top.

Eggs benedict, huevos rancheros, pancakes, waffles and the glorious "Marvin Special" are among the choices driving the always-teeming crowds at this breakfast and lunch counter. But even if the food were terrible, the cozy atmosphere at Marvin's would keep the poor hungover masses returning to breathe free. Certain counter seats offer a view directly at the hash slingers working the well-worn grill, and when that third coffee refill comes a-knockin' on your bladder, the real adventure begins.

To get to the bathroom at Marvin's, you sidle behind the counter, turn sideways into the kitchen, and shimmy gingerly between the rushing waitress, the busy stovetop, the fast-moving cooks, the greasy grill and walls upon walls of ingredients. Finally, after five feet which seem like 50, the bathrooms appear. I'd describe the bathrooms, but honestly, after the amazing journey there—and the burning question, "How do they make so many glorious menu items in such a tiny half-half-kitchen?"—I've got no recollection of what they're like. Go and find out for yourself, and make sure to suck in your gut when you're passing the stove. 1112 Grant Ave., Novato. 415.892.4482.—G. M.


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