You see them every night just before 5:30, grouped around the front door of The Fig Caf?& Wine Bar in Glen Ellen, waiting for the doors to open, clutching their bottles of wine.
They're taking advantage of the restaurant's no-corkage policy and ensuring themselves a seat at a table, because this popular spot doesn't take reservations. On most nights, the tables are full, or nearly so, by 6 or 6:30.
If you don't bring your own bottle of wine, there is a wine list featuring Rhone varietals from California, France and Australia. In this list you can find the hand of owner Sondra Bernstein, who also stocks the bar at The Girl and the Fig, one of her two restaurants over in Sonoma, exclusively with Rhone varietals. In fact, the building that now houses The Fig Caf?was the original home of the very successful and famous The Girl and the Fig, so homage must be paid.
The chef and general manager at The Fig Caf?is Bryan Jones, who's in his eighth year there. His menu is pretty much tried-and-true crowd pleasers, like a big bowl of <CF103>Steamed Mussels</CF> ($11.50 <UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197>), served hot in a white wine broth with garlic, leeks and tarragon accompanied by two slices of grilled bread. Although the waitress assured me they were from Prince Edward Island, 3,725 miles east of Glen Ellen, they were so fresh and plump I would have sworn they were right out of Tomales Bay or at least were Penn Cove mussels from up in Washington state. (And if they weren't, locavores, why weren't they?)
Since there's not much income from wine, as so many patrons bring their own bottles, the burden of making a profit falls on the kitchen. Perhaps that's why the <CF103>Fig and Arugula Salad</CF> ($8.25 <UStags><SC12,197>?) was coarse and oily. Small spring leaves of arugula were heavily penetrated by the oil of the vinaigrette, and the little bits of goat cheese, pecans and pancetta were so sparse they really didn't help. I can understand figs in late summer, but do they belong in an early April salad?
Still, crowd pleasers are here to be enjoyed with your wine. Bring a good zinfandel, order the <CF103>Margherita Thin Crust Pizza</CF> ($11.95 <UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197>) and relish the crunchy thin crust, the savory mozzarella cheese, the fresh basil leaves sunk into the cheese by the heat of the oven, and the luscious sweet tomato sauce undergirding it all. It comes with shredded Vella Dry Jack cheese and crushed red pepper on the side. Bite of pizza, sip of zin; enjoy; repeat.
<CF103>Saffron Risotto</CF> ($16.95 <UStags><SC12,197>?) was a workmanlike plate of carnaroli rice. On the plus side, mushrooms, asparagus tips, garlic and green onions are embedded in the risotto. On the negative side, saffron was barely evident and the radicchio's bitterness detracted. In the right place, bitter can be good, but this savory rice dish was not the place; the bitterness tended to cancel out the delicacy of the other ingredients.
Speaking of crowd pleasers, <CF103>Caf?Pot Roast</CF> ($17.95 <UStags><SC12,197>?) has been on this menu for years because, as our waitress said, "people complain if we try to take it off." The waitress and her cohorts bringing water and busing the tables were quick, friendly and helpful. They get high marks for fine service. The cut of beef for the pot roast comes apart in tender shreds as you dive into it, and it sits up on an island of horseradish mashed potatoes in a moat of rich gravy. The mashed potatoes dissolve into the gravy as you consume the pot roast, a fate not good for the gravy or the potatoes. But also on the plate: good braised collard greens and those small, flattened, bite-sized cippolini onions. Besides the pot roast, entrees include a pork chop, steak, a bigger bowl of those delicious mussels and a daily fish.
As you may be aware, the humble grilled cheese sandwich, like cupcakes a couple of years ago, is in vogue right now. Maybe in hard economic times, people return to the comfort foods of their childhood. The Fig Caf?serves a tasty <CF103>Grilled Cheese Sandwich </CF>($10.95 <UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197>?) made with slices of French bread holding some of cheesemaker Joe Matos's St. George cheese from right here in Santa Rosa, grilled onions and whole grain mustard, flipped on a griddle until toasted, and served with really good (but overly salty) French fries and sweet, Pennsylvania-style pickles. If you're in a sandwich-y mood, you can also choose the top sirloin burger.
Saving the best for last, the <CF103>Meyer Lemon Cheesecake</CF> ($7 <UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197>?) was dreamily tart-sweet and served with huckleberry compote. It's one of the better desserts I've found in my travels through our region's culinary landscape. That combination of bright, smooth lemon and dark, syrupy huckleberry is irresistible.