An old farm saying has it that the best fertilizer is the farmer's footsteps. That philosophy is behind the rip-roaring success of Cafe La Haye in Sonoma, where the food just keeps getting better and better.
On most nights, owner Saul Gropman is not only there, he's drifting among the tables, sincerely interested in not only whether you're satisfied, but how you like individual dishes. He obviously enjoys his restaurant, the customers, the wait staff, and especially, chef Jeffrey Lloyd's kitchen.
Chef Lloyd has been at La Haye for about five years, having arrived after serving as executive chef at Michael Mina and Aqua in San Francisco and Nectar in Burlingame. La Haye's tiny, open kitchen hardly seems like a facility that can turn out perfect provender, but then the erstwhile Masa's — one of San Francisco's best restaurants for more than 30 years — had a kitchen not much larger than a broom closet.
Cafe La Haye
Obviously, a roomy, well-furnished kitchen is no substitute for talent. And chef Lloyd has talent. It's no wonder Saul Gropman is always smiling.
The room — on two levels — is bright and airy, with a two-story ceiling showing exposed beams. The walls are filled with minimalist artwork, all of it for sale, so, in effect, the place is a restaurant in an art gallery (or vice versa).
The wine list is wondrous. It's been put together by someone who really knows their wine, with a focus on Sonoma County wines like the 2012 Rochioli Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc for $48, 2010 Muscardini Monte Rosso Vineyard Zinfandel for $48, 2009 Surround Sonoma Valley Cabernet Sauvignon for $64 and, if you've won the lottery, 2005 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Echezeaux and La Tache at prices so scary they don't put them on the wine list. Corkage is $20.
Service slowed a bit when all 32 seats were filled, as happens most nights (so reservations are a must), but that wasn't the fault of the two waiters, who still delivered smart and unobtrusive service.
Chef Lloyd keeps the ingredients local and organic, the preparations simple, and the quality of the finished dishes superb. In far too many restaurants, attention is paid to the featured food — usually meat or fish — with the sides treated as an afterthought. Not at La Haye, where everything on the plate is respected. For instance, a perfect creamy, Parmesan-cheesy polenta is the foundation of an appetizer called Portobello and Polenta ($12, 4 stars), matched in quality with a large griddled mushroom cap. A tuft of arugula and frisee on the side is dressed with sweet and piquant aged balsamic vinegar.
A Dungeness Crab Cake ($16, 4 stars) hits every right note. The cake itself is primarily hand-picked crabmeat with a creamy sauce as binder, delicately cooked with a pale browned crust. It's made to pop on the palate with a spicy piquillo pepper aioli, yet cooled with a raita of thin cucumber rounds dressed in a welcome yogurt sauce, and everything is drizzled with lemon olive oil.
The Beet and Grapefruit Salad ($10, 3-1/2 stars) seems to be on just about every menu this year, but is seldom as excellent as this combination of roasted red beet chunks, ruby red grapefruit segments, icy-bitter red radicchio and Belgian endive chicories, topped with crumbles of feta cheese.