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.