Despite her two extremely popular Sonoma restaurants, catering and gourmet food company, food truck and two cookbooks, Sondra Bernstein is not a chef. She’s a businesswoman, she happily points out to anyone who asks. It’s because, as she once told me, cooking the same thing, over and over, day after day, can be “boring.”
Yet it’s exactly this repetition and reliable consistency that have made her operations such a triumph. Indeed, as her very first restaurant, The Girl & the Fig, celebrates its 20th anniversary this August, several of her opening day menu items remain on the menu. And she still works with her opening day chef — now her managing partner and executive chef — John Toulze.
As they say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Which is why a recent evening found me savoring fig arugula salad, steamed mussels, steak-frites and duck confit, all dishes that have been Bernstein/ Toulze signatures since 1997. I was at Fig Café & Winebar in Glen Ellen, the space that originally was The Girl & the Fig until that eatery relocated to larger digs in the historic Sonoma Hotel in downtown Sonoma 17 years ago.
There’s a certain nostalgia to The Fig Café, as the birthplace of the Bernstein success story. It offers a quite similar though smaller menu than The Girl & the Fig, and a more casual mood with no reservations accepted even as lines crowd the door. And it’s proof that such good, honest, food will never go out of style.
Two years ago, Bernstein renovated the 42-seat cottage tucked in Glen Ellen’s tiny downtown, upgrading floor-to-ceiling with cheerful lime green paint, handcrafted woodwork, geometric metal and mineral designs, and refined ceramic, glass and granite accents, all primarily made by local artists. The details are thoughtful, from the exterior window planters brimming with succulents, to the weekly plat du jour three-course prix-fixe menu ($29) that’s handwritten on sheets rolled from an antique butcher paper dispenser by the front door.
The fig arugula salad is as pretty as ever, in a toss of greens shiny with sweet fig-port vinaigrette, bright white chevre nubbins, toasted pecans and chewy pancetta ($12). Steamed mussels ($14) get a flavor boost from smoked paprika, fennel and leeks in the white wine broth that my companions and I sop up with grilled country loaf bread, while the steak-frites ($24) are smothered in plenty of blue cheese butter that seeps into the braised greens and crisp, skinny fries alongside.
Is there anything more perfect than crisp, blissfully fresh grilled asparagus ($12)? Yes, when it’s jazzed with salty feta, mint and lemon, as is the seasonal offering here. I also appreciate the bold take on a mushroom pizza ($14), the puffy golden cracker crust draped in smoked goat cheese, chile oil, radicchio and roasted garlic for a pleasantly bitter bite.
On another visit, my server noted that the chicken thighs were a house favorite, and they were fine, the grilled skin crisp with lemon tarragon and the plate brightened with creamy English pea risotto and mascarpone ($22). The excellent Mt. Lassen trout ($25) also gets that great crisp skin, the pink meat dolloped in lemon chive sour cream and paired with garlic-herb potatoes and asparagus that are perfectly al dente.
I can never resist the pot roast ($22), either. Several fist-size chunks of beef yield to the fork and offer nice chew, smothered in rich gravy over tender cipollini onions, braised greens and potatoes whipped smooth and spiked with jolts of fiery horseradish. My server recommended a red wine flight to go with – and certainly Bernstein’s own Rhône varietal wines appeal, like her Girl & The Fig 2014 Serres Ranch Sonoma Valley Syrah ($58). Yet as locals know and love, the restaurant has a no corkage policy, should you want to bring your own bottle.
For The Fig’s famous duck, you’ll either have to go to the mother ship Girl & the Fig, or luck out, as I did, with the plat du jour. First up was a chilled salad of roasted beets, arugula, smoked goat cheese, toasted pine nuts in herb vinaigrette; last up was a warm peach crisp topped in vanilla ice cream. In between was the classic duck confit, the leg succulent and smoothed with sweet pepper jam atop beluga lentils and pickled red onions.
To celebrate The Fig’s two-decade mark, I also ordered the signature salted fig caramel and brownie sundae ($7). It’s a bomb, requiring two or more people to finish it, but worth the effort, mounded with vanilla ice cream, brandied cherries and clouds of whipped cream.
Looking back at The Fig’s remarkable journey to what’s now a nationally known destination, it’s impossible to conjure up the word “boring.” For diners, eating here is still a thrill.
Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at email@example.com.