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Rocker Oysterfeller?s serves up Southern-influenced fare


To fully appreciate the joke, you need a little back story.

Oysters Rockefeller was created in 1899 at Antoine?s in New Orleans by Antoine?s son, Jules Alciatore, who?d inherited the restaurant from his father.

Jules named the dish ? oysters given a splash of Tabasco sauce and gently baked under anise-flavored spinach, scallions, and parsley ? for John D. Rockefeller because both man and sauce were so rich. It was an immediate hit and is still served in restaurants around the country.

Fast forward to our time and place, where local oysters are plentiful and good old rock ?n? roll occupies at least one button on the car radio. In the old Valley Ford Hotel along Highway 1 in Valley Ford, owners Brandon Guenther, the chef, and Shona Campbell, who titles herself ?bar wench? on her business card, have named their restaurant and saloon Rocker Oysterfeller?s.

Prominent on the menu are six Rocker Oysterfellers ($14 *** ?)<MC>. They bear more resemblance to bacon-rich clams casino than oysters Rockefeller, what with their arugula, bacon, cream cheese, and cornmeal crust topping for six <NO1><NO>oysters on the half shell. Much could go wrong with this dish ? the cornmeal and cream cheese could easily burn. The oysters could be baked dry. But chef Guenther avoids these pitfalls and turns out a plate of perfectly cooked bivalves ? hot but not overdone ? that might win a one-on-one competition with the original recipe from Antoine?s.

The rocker part at Oysterfeller?s happens mostly in the saloon, a comfy bar in the front room, with pictures of good-looking horses on the walls and a painterly, impressionistic oil of an ocean cove by George Campbell, Shona?s father. That painting and others in the dining room show him to be an accomplished artist who has a real knack for capturing the wild spirit of the Sonoma Coast.

On a recent night, the bar was packed and the crack was fierce, as the Irish say when the fun reaches a crescendo. Music shifted around from raucus rock ?n? roll to jelly-jam blues to Bo Diddley and boogie-woogie, to Bessie Smith encouraging her man to ?Do Your Duty.? Wonderful stuff, and enough of the fun and music filters into the dining room to bring a cheerful atmosphere to the pretty space, with its 19th-century wainscoting, white trim, and mustard yellow walls.

The waitress kept things moving along smoothly and was pleasant and sharp when it came to making sure the proper utensils were in place for the various dishes.

The wine list is stocked with 28 whites and 33 reds. About the time you?re perusing the wine list, the waiter brings a delicious warm jalape? corn muffin to snack on, with butter to dress it up. Some wines of note: Roederer Estate NV Brut, $34; 2005 Londer ?Kent Ritchie Vineyard? Chardonnay, $62; 2007 Copain Viognier, $32, and that beautiful, meaty, blueberry-jammy Bella ?Lily Hill? Zinfandel (85 percent Zin, 15 percent Syrah) for $24 for a split. Corkage for Sonoma County wines is $10, and $15 for all others ? and Wednesdays there?s no corkage at all.

The bitterly damp cold of the coastal climate chills one?s bones, but they can be nicely warmed by a cup of <MC>Hamhock Soup ($6 *** )<MC>, a smoky, meaty soup with slender green beans, pasta, tomatoes, carrots, onions, and a touch of spicy heat. For a light meal, pair the soup with the <MC>Mixed Baby Greens Salad ($11 ***)<MC>. The greens seemed just-picked, they were that fresh, and among them you could find red and golden baked beet bits, candied pecans, generous lumps of tangy Pt. Reyes blue cheese, all of it given a sherried orange vinaigrette.

A rouille ? a mash-up of chile peppers, garlic, breadcrumbs, oil, and a dash of fish stock ? was spicy enough to overwhelm the delicate flavor of two thin <MC>Dungeness Crab Cakes ($13 **)<MC>, but on the plus side, the cakes were loaded with fresh crabmeat and nicely cooked to a golden brown. Toasted pine nuts added their flavor to the dish.

As darkness settled in, tea lights were lit all over the dining room and saloon, making the friendly, dancing glow that only live flame can give.

<MC>Petaluma Fried Chicken ($19 **?)<MC> was something different. Boned breast meat and, separately, leg and thigh meat are balled up and coated with breading. For the meat to cook through, the breading has to spend so much time cooking that it gets dark brown and slightly bitter, but the chicken is sweet and juicy. The best part of this entree is the mound of crushed potatoes ? skins and all ? and its accompanying Lagunitas Ale caraway gravy.

One of the nightly special entrees, of which there are several most nights, was the <MC>Baked Grits ($19 ***), like a soft, creamy polenta topped with a slice of tomato and cheese. It?s baked and served with chard, onions, and mushrooms in a sherry cream sauce. This plate provides a filling, delicious dinner without meat.

You could expect some pizzazz from two filets of breaded, pan-fried <MC>Petrale Sole ($22 ** )<MC>, but the dish somehow managed to be flat and uninteresting. The fried fish perched on a bed of braised kale and black-eyed peas in a lemon butter sauce. Good and nutritious, for sure, but with nothing happening to excite the taste buds.

On the other hand, the <MC>Molasses-Bourbon Braised Pork Shoulder ($19 *** )<MC> had plenty of zing. It was cooked long and slowly until the meat became easy to pull apart with a fork, and the molasses-bourbon braising liquor seeped its Deep South flavors into the meat. Little white Tokyo Cross turnips and baby carrots frolicked in the rich jus that surrounded the meat.

The best item of the night was the simplest. <MC>Kennebec Fries ($6 ****)<MC> are French fries cut from Kennebec potatoes ? the standard of quality for making the best fries. These are cooked to perfection in clean, hot oil and lightly salted. They have the exact right amount of crunch when you bite them. If you like fries, don?t miss them at Rocker Oysterfeller?s.

While not extensive, the dessert list included an excellent <MC>Scharffen Berger Chocolate Mousse ($7 *** )<MC> with a whipped cream topping. Nothing fancy, but the flavor of really rich chocolate comes booming through.

Sunday brunch is served from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., there?s live music and $1 oysters on Thursdays, and live music on Sundays plus Sunday supper for $20 a person.

<MC>To sum up:<MC> Hip and cool is where you find it, and you?ll find it in Valley Ford at Rocker Oysterfeller?s. There?s a saloon where the locals hang out and a restaurant with cooking that owes something to the Southeastern states, although the food is Sonoma-centric in provenance. In a word: fun.

(Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review column for the Sonoma Living section. You can reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net.)