How many times have I eaten duck confit over my lifetime? I can’t even begin to count. Yet as I dig into the meat at the new Gravenstein Grill in Sebastopol, it feels like a brand new thrill. This is some of the best duck confit I’ve ever enjoyed, the bone-in leg meat tender, rich and just slightly, perfectly salty, with the skin bronzed crisp almost like a cap of crème brulee.
Duck is a specialty for chef Bob Simontacchi. He mounds confit on flatbread with fontina, caramelized onions, and a scattering of chile flakes and chives ($18). He makes it into rillettes for his charcuterie board, among other his housemade salumi including country pork pate and chicken liver mousse with celery root salad, pickled vegetables, whole grain Dijon and warm sourdough crostini ($18). And he renders the duck fat for savory jewels like his superb pork chile verde and duck fat tamale, made with Fairfield’s Walnut Keep Farms pork shoulder, fruity guajillo sauce, jalapeño cream corn, heirloom cherry tomatoes, a bit of fierce habanero aioli and cilantro ($12).
Simontacchi also twists recipes for the seasons. On a summer visit, I enjoyed seared duck breast with grilled bok choy, soba noodles, miso butter, star-anise-orange gastrique and a crackly duck confit wonton ($25); an autumn visit found the bird prepared as crispy duck leg, partnered with braised red cabbage mixed with organic heirloom apples, smoked bacon, herbed spaetzle and organic plum gastrique ($25). Both were divine.
Surely part of the reason all the duck dishes are so superb is because of the ingredient quality. The bird is Liberty brand, from Sonoma County Poultry. Apples, plums, and all other produce are local, too — indeed, the restaurant’s name salutes the signature Gravenstein apples of its surrounding Sebastopol neighborhood, while the adjacent Bartlett Bar honors that other famous local fruit.
But I digress with the duck. First, some background. Gravenstein Grill opened this March in the former Marty’s Top of Hill / French Garden space on Bodega Highway and Pleasant Hill road. It’s the work of general manager Brandon Parkhurst and bar manager Owen Barrett. Barrett and Simontacchi operated the Brick and Bottle restaurant in Corte Madera for six years, before deciding to head where their ingredients were — West Sonoma County.
The team completely transformed the formerly barren, cavernous space into a cosmopolitan design with wood, white, and a glassed-in wine room. The look is still a bit spare inside, though the patio is gorgeous, newly framed with a glass wall to dampen traffic noise, white tablecloth set bistro tables, and manicured gardens of flowers, trees and succulents. The lounge is terrific as well, cozy with a fireplace and high-backed wood chairs at the wood bar offering local wines, handcrafted cocktails and Sonoma County micro-brews.
Menus change between lunch, dinner, weekend brunch and the lounge, but the mixed baby lettuces salad ($11) is delicious anytime. A fancy toss of Sebastopol/Santa Rosa’s Blue Leg Farms organic mixed greens is amped up with, shaved organic heirloom apples from Hale’s Farm of Sebastopol, fennel, toasted almonds and sweet-tart Gravenstein apple vinaigrette.
My server suggested soup one sunny afternoon, telling me the dish is another Simontacchi specialty. Wonderfully tart heirloom tomato gazpacho boasts pleasing thick texture and a garnish of avocado, fennel pollen, olive oil and local organic sprouts ($9), while New England-style clam chowder is well-textured, too, stocked with mirepoix, potato, smoked bacon and a hint of dill ($10).
Where: 8050 Bodega Ave., Sebastopol
When: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
Contact: (707) 634-6142, gravensteingrill.com
Price: Expensive, entrées $18-$42
Stars: ** ½
Summary: The former French Garden gets a classy revamp with first-rate Sonoma County sourced cuisine.