Pulling out of the parking lot of Hazel Restaurant in Occidental to go home, I felt an impulse to stop, go back into the restaurant and order another round of the Cured Scallops ($9 ★★★★). It didn’t happen, but the starter was that good.
In fact, there were a lot of good dishes flowing out of Jim and Michele Wimborough’s kitchen on a recent night at Hazel, named for Jim’s great grandmother whose cooking started his interest in food, an interest he’s now refined into artistry.
Take the cured scallops, for example. It’s a fairly straightforward dish, but its delectability has a lot to do with Jim knowing exactly what proportions of the ingredients to use to make it shine on the palate, and how the colors of these ingredients will tempt the eye.
He starts with three raw ocean scallops cured in lime juice and thinly sliced. These meaty white slabs, glistening with tart lime juice, are laid on a plate decorated with sliced green grapes and thin radish coins whose white interiors are encircled with bright red peel. A little chopped spring onion adds its dash of snap.
Here’s where Jim’s experience and knowledge come into play, because he heats things up not with the aji chilies typical of South American ceviche, but with Calabrian chilies from southern Italy. These tend to be a diverse variety of hot, red, stubby peppers—sweet, fragrant, and full of pep. He’s learned that spicy-hot is balanced by sweetness, and thus the presence of the table grapes. Finally, the plate is finished with a splash of Olivina olive oil from the Livermore Valley, which adds an olive-fruity note. It’s pretty simple, but so good I almost didn’t make it out of the parking lot.
While Jim handles the main menu, and usually adds and subtracts a dish or two on a daily basis, his wife Michele creates the desserts. Friday is Pie Day. Recently, the pie was Apple Crumb ($8 ★★★). Another dessert, the Hazel Sundae ($8 ★★) was a routine affair with vanilla ice cream given a salted caramel sauce, chocolate sauce (the menu says hot fudge, but the sauce was thin rather than congealed like hot fudge), candied nuts, and whipped cream. The exceptional part of this dessert was the small, dark, Amarena cherries from Italy that are the perfect topping for rich and chocolatey desserts.
The wine list is small: one sticky, two sparklers, three roses, 12 whites, and 14 reds. Try the 2012 La Pitchoune Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir for a small production, high quality pinot, or the 2012 Paul Matthew Cabernet Franc to pair with something meaty. Corkage is $15, except Thursdays when there is no corkage on Sonoma County wines.
Along with good food, fresh zinnias on each table, and two wood-fired ovens, you get some sound advice. A wall plaque reads, “Work Hard and Be Nice to People.”
Dinner started with a salad called Gorfey’s Arugula ($11 ★★½). It’s early fall, and the arugula leaves were mature and spicy — but who is Gorfey? My server explained that “he’s not the kind of person you’d think would be growing arugula.” What did that mean? After a few more failed attempts at describing Gorfey, she finally said, “He’s ineffable.” The salad also contained roasted beets, chevre from Pugs Leap in Petaluma, shaved fennel and marcona almonds.
Healthy Mediterranean-style cooking arrives with the Grilled Pita ($11 ★★★★) starter. Eight pieces of grilled pita shared the plate with an exquisite, minted, roasted eggplant spread speckled with golden raisins. Tzatziki, roasted red peppers, French feta and olives completed the plate.
Those wood-fired ovens turn out six different pizzas. Pepperoni Pizza ($13 ★★★½) featured red sauce, mozzarella, pepperoni and many green ringlets of sliced jalapeñ o to jazz up the flavor. The crust was puffy and perfect.
The Ribeye ($30 ★★★½) is pricey, but the steak must be a good 22 ounces of excellent, tender beef cooked exactly to order. It’s smothered in a salsa verde and comes with a side dish of Blue Lake snap beans and large pan-roasted steak fries.
To sum up: Hazel makes Occidental a destination town for lovers of fine food.