Where is the best bakery in Sonoma County? The best place to watch the sun set? The best place to drink beer with your dog?
When Lizzie Simon first visited Santa Rosa with her husband, the New Yorker was always looking for a guidebook that would point her toward some of these small, offbeat adventures. But that book was elusive as a warm day on the Sonoma Coast.
So Simon decided to write her own book, called “The Spinster Sisters’ Guide to Sonoma County” because she is married to Santa Rosa native Eric Anderson, a founding partner of The Spinster Sisters in Santa Rosa and Prune restaurant in New York.
“As an outsider . . . I only knew the area through what Eric and his friends love to do,” she said. “I’d look at Sonoma County travel stories, and Santa Rosa is never mentioned, even though there’s so much to do here.”
The guide is as quirky and creative as the A Street neighborhood where The Spinster Sisters restaurant is located. It’s a colorful block or two of art galleries and shops, bakeries and restaurants just south of the green expanse of Juilliard Park and the concrete edifice of the Downtown Mall.
If you like hipster Portland and the Republic of Berkeley, you probably feel at home in this artsy corner of Santa Rosa nicknamed SOFA.
Calling upon her background as a freelance writer who covers theater and dance for the Wall Street Journal, she used 50 of the restaurant’s staff, farmers, winemakers, neighbors and regular customers as sources.
The resulting guide includes suggestions for local farms and wineries to visit, plus interesting spots to dine, drink, shop, take the kids and explore the outdoors. An index in the back provides details about each suggestion, and there are photo portraits of each of the sources, who range from Moonlight Brewing Co. founder Brian Hunt to Flying Goat Coffee owner Phil Anacker.
“It’s a community that goes a lot deeper than the cooks and the servers,” said Liza Hinman, executive chef and co-founding partner of the restaurant. “A lot of them are characters from the neighborhood that people often run into at the bar.”
Taking the cliched farm-to-table concept and turning it on its head, Simon describes the book as a “table-to-farm” guide, suggesting that you try a cheese or a wine at the restaurant, then take a trip back to the source. You can order a hamburger, for example, then drop by the Sonoma County Meat Co. in Santa Rosa to buy your own grass-fed beef.
“Talking to 50 people leads you down so many different roads,” she said. “Sonoma County is about all these little roads and smaller, intimate experiences ... going to Joe Matos cheese, where the cows are grazing, and seeing Mark Malicki cooking at The Casino in Bodega.”
The book also includes some well-known artisan winemakers such as Duncan Arnot Meyers of Arnot-Roberts in Healdsburg, who provide insider information on the best wines to try and wineries to visit.
“That’s incredible, to get that kind of intel from someone who is so renowned,” Simon said. “Most of these wineries they suggest . . . are under the radar.”
While travel stories about Sonoma County tend to focus on luxury experiences, Simon’s guide offers ideas for more affordable pleasures, like beaches and back roads, art galleries and murals, farmers markets and coffee shops. She even asks about people’s favorite “Sonoma aromas,” which range from grape pomace after the crush to the earthy scent of cow manure.
Makes 10 to 12
2½ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
4½ ounces (½ cup plus 1 tablespoon) butter, chilled and cut into large cubes
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons buttermilk
½ cup heavy cream (see Note below), plus more for brushing the dough
Put the flour, baking soda, baking powder, sugar and salt into the work bowl of a food processor or a medium bowl. Add the butter and pulse several times, or use a pastry cutter, and work until it’s the consistency of coarse cornmeal. Refrigerate until well chilled; overnight is ideal.
To finish the biscuits, preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Put the flour mixture into a medium mixing bowl and make a well in the center.
Working quickly, combine the buttermilk and heavy cream and pour the mixture into the center of the flour mixture. Stir gently with a fork until the dough just comes together; do not overwork.
Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead it gently until it forms a smooth disk; do not overwork it. Pat the dough until it is about 1-inch thick and cut into 10 to 12 equal pieces. Brush with cream, transfer to a baking sheet, set on the middle rack of the oven and bake until the biscuits are golden brown, 12 to 20 minutes, depending on their thickness.
Note: You can use all buttermilk or substitute ½ cup sweet potato puree for the cream.