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Sonoma's Girl and the Fig: A touch of France

  • Salad of the Season at The Girl and the Fig restaurant in Sonoma, Calif., on February 11, 2013. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

France has many discrete wine-growing areas, each with a cuisine that co-evolved with the wines made there: veal chop Dijonnaise with a chardonnay from Beaune is a typical example.

California, too, has several discrete wine-growing areas, and the "Wine Country cuisine" of the North Bay counties is the most advanced example in the state of a style that's developed hand-in-glove with the modern era of its exquisite wines. But while the French have been at it for centuries, we've had just a few decades. Our chefs and winemakers have done remarkably well, considering.

One of the most innovative wrinkles in this business of creating a local food and wine culture happens at The Girl & The Fig in Sonoma. There, proprietor Sondra Bernstein has decreed that all wine will be made from classic Rhone varieties, whether farmed and bottled in France, Spain, or California. Just as in painting a limited palette focuses the artwork, so the limited palate of fruit-forward Rhone varieties calls for a robust and flavorful style of cooking. That style has been delivered brilliantly by Managing Partner and Executive Chef John Toulze, a northern California native and entirely self-taught chef who's been with Bernstein for 15 years, and by chef de cuisine Jeremy Zimmerman.

During that time, The Girl & The Fig has grown into a major player in America's food scene, with two successful cookbooks and numerous awards, a catering business, food excursions to places around the world, a line of packaged foods, three acres of organic gardens, plus outposts like Italian-themed Estate Restaurant in Sonoma and The Fig Caf?in Glen Ellen.

At the Girl & The Fig on Sonoma's historic square, there's a daily plat du jour for $34 a person that offers an appetizer, entr? and either dessert or cheese plate. It changes weekly.

The cheese plate, by the way, will be an assortment of three of the restaurant's 10 world-class cheeses from cow's, goat's, and sheep's milk, from France, Spain, and right around here.

The wine list includes the Rhone whites: Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier; the reds: Grenache, Cinsault, Carignane, Mourvedre and Syrah; plus blends of these varieties. Prices range from $25 a bottle to rare wines in three figures. The treasure on the list is surely the 2007 Kamen Syrah at $125 - one of the few California Syrahs that has that meaty, spicy, salumi flavor that Syrah exhibits in the Rhone region. Corkage is $15, or just $10 if your wine is a Rhone varietal.

Besides the indoor dining area with Julie Higgins' symbolism-laden pastels hanging on the walls, there's a pleasant patio garden outside that's the choice spot when the weather is nice.

The Charcuterie Plate ($16 ?) is house made and includes chewy salami and fennel sausage, rustic country pate, duck rillettes, and spicy, sweet and tangy house-made pickles. The Salad of the Season ($9 ?) shows off all Sonoma can offer, even in February: arugula, red lettuces, mixed chicories, pickled baby Tokyo Cross turnips and thinly sliced cauliflower, all dressed in golden-beet vinaigrette.

The outstanding appetizer was Pastis-Scented Steamed Mussels ($15 ). Pastis is an anise-flavored French liqueur, whose light licorice scent is echoed by the shaved fennel set atop a bowl full of plump and meaty mussels swimming in a wonderful lemony, buttery ocean of shellfish broth. For contrast, a separate plate of shoestring fries adds salty crunch.


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