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Dining at the Harvest Moon Caf?in Sonoma is a journey of discovery. And the discoveries are delightful rather than profound, which makes this unpretentious little mom-and-pop eatery irresistible.

It seems almost unfair to enumerate the discoveries since it would be so much better if you went there cold and encountered them yourself. But no one finds all the eggs at the Easter egg hunt, so you will undoubtedly uncover features of your own here.

Let?s start outside the restaurant. It?s in an old adobe building facing Sonoma?s historic town square where a bunch of steel-spined ranchers declared California?s independence from Mexico in 1846. Across the square is the Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma ? the northernmost and last of the Franciscan missions, on a site selected in 1828. Gen. Mariano Vallejo?s barracks and the mid-19th century Toscano Hotel are nearby. The whole area is haunted by history.

When you enter the restaurant, the tables meander back toward the open kitchen and the wine and service bar. Intimate two-person tables are interspersed among the larger tables in this tight little room. If you want counter seating, you can have your choice of seats at the counter facing the kitchen, where you can watch chef Nick Demarest at work, or the wine and service counter, where you can bother the wait staff as they open bottles and in other ways try to keep up with the guests? needs and demands.

When the weather cooperates, you will find a lovely patio out back for al fresco dining. The feeling is very much like a rustic French country bistro, run by Nick and his wife, Jen, who?s the pastry chef. Nick?s an interesting guy ? a former cook at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and a man of eclectic musical tastes, evident as the contents of his iPod play on the restaurant?s sound system. You might hear Johnny Cash singing ?Ghost Riders in the Sky,? boogie-woogie piano, early 1930s blues, 1940s torch songs, some of this and some of that.

You can tell a lot about someone from the contents of their iPod. What you discover about Demarest is that the music is all authentic, just like his cooking. Both are delivered from the heart, with soul. This food is real, honest ? not gussied up for the sake of being fancy. Take, for instance, his Fried Monterey Squid ($12 ***?). Most often deep-fried squid is called calamari and fried to a light champagne-gold color, then presented all pretty with lemon wedges. But Demarest gives you, as the menu says, squid ? rough, mottled and a little chewy, but flavorful. You can imagine a hopper full of this stuff hauled out of the bay, running with drain water and wriggling with life. He tells you where it comes from in the name of the dish. And he gives you a spicy aioli and sprinkles the squid with gremolata. It?s the difference between an iced mocha frappucino light venti with whipped cream and a really good cuppa joe.

Another discovery will be yours alone on the night you go, because he changes his menu daily. This not only keeps the chef interested, as he gets to cook whatever appeals to him at the markets ? and all the produce, meat, poultry and fish come from sustainable operations ? but it keeps repeat customers interested, too. There?s always something new, and variety is not only the spice of life, it?s a necessity if the cooking is going to be artful.

A Shrimp and Crab Bisque ($8 ***) extracts the flavor of the sea from the shells of shrimp and crab and softens it with tomato and cream, then pairs it with a roasted red bell pepper and herb salsa. Marinated Beet Salad ($10 ***) shows several levels of feel-good flavor. It?s hearty from lightly pickled red and yellow beets, slightly bitter from red radicchio, laced with walnuts and anise-flavored tarragon, and intensified with Pt. Reyes blue cheese.

Look at all you discover in his Shaved Fennel and Sunchoke Salad ($9 **?): the light anise flavor of the Florence fennel, the tasteless but crunchy slices of sunchokes (also known as Jerusalem artichoke, they are neither from Jerusalem nor are they artichokes; they are the roots of a type of sunflower), segments of navel orange, crunchy almonds, soft and fresh goat cheese, and ? surprise discovery! ? mint.

You?ll also find several levels of flavor in an entr? like his Hand-Made Pumpkin and Ricotta Ravioli ($13 ***?). The ravioli are tender, filled with sweet winter squash and luscious ricotta. Accompanying saut?d greens, pancetta and bright Pecorino Romano sheep?s milk cheese add notes of cold-weather autumn, and Demarest sprinkles salty pistachios over the ravioli to add texture and flavor.

Imagine the tenderest Grilled Pork Chop (21 ***?) covered with a sauce made of reconstituted dried cherries. Pair it with broccoli saut?d with garlic, and instead of potatoes, go Italian with a soft buckwheat polenta. That?s what Demarest has created, but the discovery is the buckwheat polenta ? corn meal and ground buckwheat make a polenta that?s rich and tasty beyond the ordinary. As long as you?re imagining the pork chop, imagine sitting on a rock in front of a small house on a dusty Italian hillside overlooking the Mediterranean, eating a bowl of this soft polenta for a nourishing lunch. When food starts conjuring up imaginary scenes like that, you know it?s for real.

Roast Leg of Lamb ($23 ***?) usually conjures up thoughts of France, but Demarest Italicizes it with sides of intensely flavored Umbrian chickpeas dotted with bits of tomato, and saut?d green chard. Green olive tapenade tops the four slices of tender, medium-rare lamb. The tapenade veers close to overwhelming the meaty flavor of the lamb, but manages just to enhance it. Nice trick.

Could the chef cook a ?-inch thick Niman Ranch Rib-Eye Steak ($25 ***?) medium rare, as ordered? Yes he could, and did, setting it in a pool of red wine sauce. He partnered it with lacinato (dinosaur) kale in a creamy sauce with garlic and onions. Nicely done scalloped potatoes completed the plate.

It was time for one of Jen Demarest?s desserts: Pumpkin Bread Pudding ($8 ***). The pudding was sweet, soft and warm, cooled down by a scoop of cinnamon ice cream with a butterscotch sauce. It was a delightful mash-up of a lot of favorite flavors.

Service at Harvest Moon is very professional, friendly and puts you at your ease.

The wine list is small but just about everything on it is a discovery. Here?s a 2007 Filus Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina, for $32; a 2007 Regis Bouvier Marsannay for $36, and a gorgeous 2007 Muscardini Syrah from Sonoma Valley for $40, to name a few. Corkage is $18, waived bottle for bottle if you buy from the list.

To sum up: Really good, honest, soulful food served in a bistrolike setting must have the tourists writing home with excitement. Once again, we locals are lucky.

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