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COX: Olive & Vine a treasure of fresh, organic eating a la Chez Panisse

Olive & Vine, a small restaurant in a big room at Jack London Village in Glen Ellen, burst on the scene last fall when Open Table's website ranked it among the top 10 of all restaurants for California cuisine, ahead of Meadowood and Chez Panisse.

What? For goodness sakes, Meadowood earned three Michelin stars, same as The French Laundry. And Chez Panisse, while it doesn't get any Michelin stars, fairly invented California cuisine back in the day. Could Olive & Vine really be in their league?

It's not in Meadowood's league — but then what is, other than The French Laundry? Yet its deluxe take on fresh, organic, and wholesome California cuisine is definitely on a par with Chez Panisse. In fact, chef and owner Catherine Venturini bills her menu as "Sonoma Style Dining," which sets out to do exactly what Alice Waters wants her venerable Berkeley restaurant to do: make refreshing dishes with local, organic produce using kitchen techniques that exalt the inherent flavors and textures of the food. For the most part, she succeeds.

The place is a treasure, with a super high, bare-wood ceiling; pretty, wood paneled walls; five crystal chandeliers; 12 tables, including a big family-sized table, and a six-stool wine bar; white tablecloths; Italian silverware; and fresh flowers on each table. The kitchen is open and you can watch chef Venturini and chef de cuisine Julie Warner, both of whom deserve great credit, at work in front of a wall of green tiles. Sommelier and partner John Burdick glides through the room, his cool demeanor, echoed by cool jazz on the sound system, a contrast with Venturini's busy energy.

The food has been honed through Venturini's years in the restaurant business. She was a sous chef at the Grille at the Sonoma Mission Inn, the house chef at Arrowood winery, ran a popular restaurant in St. Croix and, for the past eight years, was a caterer here in northern California. Now she gets to show off what's made her successful in a notoriously chancy business.

Let's start at the very beginning. When the bread arrives, it's accompanied by a small dish of hand-churned organic butter, which quickly disappeared when our party tasted it. Then came a nosh — three luscious Black Cod and Bok Choy Dumplings ($12 ****) swam in a miso-based broth flavored with lemongrass and kaffir lime. Tiny jewels of citrine-colored chili-infused oil floated on the surface of the broth. Fresh pea shoots finished the bowl.

For salad lovers, she wows with Alma Tierra Baby Lettuces ($12 ****). Alma Tierra Farms is on Cooper Road in Sebastopol, and they must have just unloaded the lettuces two minutes before we got there, because these greens were perfect — sweet and tender and dotted with lumps of Laura Chenel's cabecou, an aged and nutty, smooth and creamy goat cheese marinated in herbs and olive oil. Red beets are roasted to concentrate their flavors and slightly caramelize the beets' natural sugar; then they're cut into little bricks. Something crunchy is needed, so lightly toasted, coarsely cracked marcona almonds are tossed with the lettuces. But now something cold and tartly sweet would be tasty, so she adds tender and juicy segments of cara cara oranges sliced out of their whitish integuments. For a finishing touch, the salad is drizzled with just a touch of citrus vinaigrette. If this sounds good, it tastes better.

Venturini takes advantage of the season with Grilled Spring Asparagus ($11 ***). Seven spears have been cut so only the tender grilled and slightly smoky tips are on the plate with a dollop of mild romesco sauce, a Spanish sauce made of tomatoes, red peppers, onions, garlic, almonds, and olive oil that could have had a little more snap to its flavor. Speaking of spring, it's time for ramps, a wild onion relative with a strong garlic-onion flavor that's highly prized by knowledgeable cooks like Venturini. She makes an astoundingly good mess of grits flavored with ramps and parmesan cheese and pairs it with "roasted giant shrimp" that are just ordinary-sized shrimp, at least on one recent night, and tops it all with a chiffonade of crispy fried leeks.

Mary's Organic Meyer Lemon and Sage Roasted Chicken ($24 ***) has been brined for six to seven hours, rendering it incredibly juicy. Meanwhile, the skin takes on an even, brown crispiness and the result is a flavor right hook with a juicy uppercut — in other words, a knockout. We also tried the Wagyu Coulotte Steak ($32 ***), another name for tri-tip, and it was perfectly tender.

Meyer Lemon Pudding with Blueberries ($10 ****) is the kind of dessert you start day-dreaming about at breakfast the next day.


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