Loving Calistoga’s charming bistro, Lovina

When I first heard that Calistoga Kitchen was closing last fall, I was sad. The restaurant, set in a white clapboard cottage in downtown Calistoga, had been one of my favorites –– a gem since it debuted in 2010.

But then, this January, the new owners transformed the space into Lovina, and I’m happy again. Celebrating Cal-Med cuisine, the charming bistro delivers delicious, creative sparkle in every thoughtful dish.

There’s a strong team behind this spot on the southeast corner of Lincoln Avenue and Cedar Street. Owner Jennifer Bennett operated Zazie Restaurant in San Francisco for nearly two decades, but as a Calistoga resident since 2008, wanted to put her stamp on something closer to home. So she partnered with chef Shaun McGrath, chef Jenna Hodges, and general manager Kaitlin Jones, all previously with Sam’s Social Club at the Indian Springs Resort just up the street.

First order of business: a gentle refresh for the already pleasant 40-seat eatery and its lovely 20-seat garden patio spilling over with lush trees and flowers behind a white picket fence. The previously gray and cream interior color scheme has been brightened a bit with blue-orange plaid cushions on the banquettes, sage green walls hung with beautiful, curving pieces of wood, and cute little flower vases on the tables. Sound absorbing pads on the ceiling and patio heaters outside are welcome new touches, too.

At Zazie, Bennett was known for her brunch, and here, she’s turned it into an all-day affair, served weekdays 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and weekends 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

I really like the flexibility of a morning meal of warm duck confit spinach salad tossed with red onion, hard-boiled egg, mushrooms and hazelnut vinaigrette ($16).

And I love the option of an afternoon meal of French toast, the thick slab-cut cinnamon raisin walnut bread skillet fried to a custardy interior then topped in berries, real maple syrup and whipped cream ($8/$14/$19 for one, two, or three pieces).

Add in a blood orange mimosa ($12), or one of the wines from the short, Northern California-only wine list, and you’re set.

In a friendly touch, all the wines are offered by the glass or bottle, such as The Grade Cellars Sea Fog Sauvignon Blanc ($14/$52) that comes from vineyards in the Calistoga sub-appellation on Lawley Old Toll Road.

Elaborate entrees

There’s dinner, too, offered Thursday through Monday from 4 to 9 p.m., featuring many of the brunch items plus more elaborate entrees.

The hefty Berkshire pork chop is a fine choice –– my server said it weighed in at 10 ounces –– and the dish sings with vibrant flavors of tangelo-carrot purée and a side of vadouvan-spiced cauliflower, celery root and lacinato kale ($36).

Precede it with an appetizer of tempura maitake mushroom and grilled asparagus salad ($15), and you’ve got an excellent repast. The veggies offer good meaty bites and crunch with a bitterish accent of frisee.

Dinner is also when you can get the sumptuous Baked Oysters Bucher appetizer that’s baked with diced kale, artichoke, leeks, cream, bacon and truffle butter, plated on rock salt. ($12).

Yes, it’s as decadent as it sounds.

Chicken tiki yum yum

A few dishes can be enjoyed anytime, like the delicious chicken tiki yum yum ($28). The deep red curry brims with subtle spice and plenty of shredded bird, lounging over jasmine rice for scooping with crispy lentil chips ($28).

I added a poached egg ($2) and the feast was even better, the silky yolk oozing into the creamy masala sauce.

Tiger prawn and Hodo Soy tofu curry is another all-day success, marrying the proteins with kohlrabi, potatoes, leek, cilantro, coconut milk and a jolt of Thai chile all ladled over jasmine rice ($26).

It’s clear that the kitchen has a particular winner, though, offered only at brunch.

On one visit, it was a chilly day, and lots of tables were laden with grilled cheese sandwiches ($15).

“We’re grilled cheese central today,” I heard the chef quip through the peek-a-boo kitchen window overlooking the six-seat bar.

And wow. This is a marvelous monster that goes in my sandwich hall of fame.

Layers of English muffin loaf

Inch-and-half thick planks of Model Bakery English muffin loaf are layered high with white cheddar, American cheese and fontina, a slick of tomato jam and lots of butter, then griddled until the molten cheese spills out the sides and the bread is crisp golden on its edges.

You bite in, and it’s like a television commercial for pizza, where the cheese pulls out in gooey strings to your mouth. Heaven.

Served with a glass of soup du jour, the only thing that could make the plate better would be a pickle.

As it is, the tomato bisque I got packed lots of pleasure, dolloped with charred garlic puree and zinging with pepper.

At dessert time, it’s worth noting chef Hodges worked in the pastry department at Meadowood in St. Helena for a time. But there’s nothing fussy on this sweets menu, which features homey treats like the Sundae Funday of vanilla gelato, cashew brittle, salted caramel, hot fudge and “yum yum balls” ($10).

I particularly enjoy the “Hot Mess” of brown butter brownie loaded with salted caramel, white chocolate, toasted coconut marshmallow, cherries and pistachio gelato ($10).

A worthy belly bomb, you bet.

As for the Lovina name, it’s a conversation starter. Bennett had learned that Calistoga was once home to Lovina Graves Cyrus and John Cyrus, pioneers who survived the Donner Pass horror of 1846.

I won’t go into the whole, long story, but according to local lore, the “Huge Bear” of Calistoga (said to be the last grizzly bear in California), also known as the Hog Killer, was treed by the Cyrus’ dogs in a walnut tree on Petrified Forest Road near Santa Rosa.

Lovina shot the creature.

I’ll withhold my opinion on celebrating cannibalism and bear killing (discuss amongst yourselves).

But this, I will solidly pronounce: Lovina, the restaurant, is a most welcome gift to Wine Country.

Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at

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