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Scenic Sonoma County spots to enjoy takeout

It seems surreal to look back at this past year and realize I haven’t traveled since mid-March, when I relished a four-day tour of new hotels and restaurants in San Luis Obispo. As a food, wine and travel writer for several decades now, I usually spend so much time on the road that staying home these past 10 months has been downright bizarre.

Fortunately, we in Wine Country live in paradise. While we dutifully follow the Sonoma County stay-at-home/California shelter-in-place orders, we’re still allowed to enjoy some outdoor activities. Parks, beaches and limited, socially distanced walking around our bucolic towns are allowed, to help us get exercise and not lose our minds.

Many local shops remain open for business, operating at 20-35% of their maximum occupancy, meaning we can pop in and browse here and there.

So while the ban on restaurant patio dining is likely to continue for now (sigh), takeout is encouraged. Should you choose to savor your to-go meal as a picnic in a special spot, you can treat it as a mini travel adventure.

Just remember, as always, gather only with your household or pod, keep those masks on and stay safe.

Ayawaska Restobar

While touring Chile several times over the past years, I’ve always wanted to hop-skip north to Peru, but it’s never worked out. The South American country has remarkable food derived from the Incan empire and infused with Spanish, Asian, European and African influences.

With travel currently constrained, in the meantime I savored the fragrant fare at our own Ayawaska Restobar, a new restaurant nestled alongside the Petaluma River. Just opened last spring, the colorful place has held on through the trying year with its vibrant cuisine sparkling with authentic ingredients like leche de tigre (spicy fish juice), floral-fiery aji limo chile pepper and chicha de jora, a corn beer used here as a pork marinade.

For your own adventure, order online, then swoop in for your packages. There are well-spaced tables set up along the riverfront; though the tables aren’t officially open and there is no table service, the restaurant does allow people to picnic there. But do bundle up in these winter days — usually there are heaters, but things change daily.

Because we visited on a cold day, we dove into our hot dishes first and were greedy with the croqueta de cangrejo crispy crab and salmon croquettes served with parsley and tongue-tingling rocoto pepper aioli ($14). We devoured steaming forkfuls of adobo de cerdo, the pork slow-braised with fruity red aji panca pepper, chicha de jora and red onions, alongside rice ($20).

Aji de gallina is best eaten hot, but even as it cools in its takeout box, the shredded chicken is delicious, bathed in a creamy yellow pepper Peruvian sauce dotted with pecans and Parmesan over rice ($18).

Then, we got into our cold appetizer, the trio de ceviches featuring the catch of the day, mixed seafood and tuna ($28). Each fish is presented with different accents, such as classic leche de tigre, red onion, aji limo hot pepper, Peruvian corn, sweet potato, avocado or herbs.

For dessert, we went with classic alfajor, super-sweet Peruvian shortbread cookies lined with sticky stripes of dulce de leche ($8). And finally, we wandered the riverfront and window-shopped along Petaluma Boulevard, happy to be out of the house for awhile.

If the weather is good, you also could pack your picnic to Steamer Landing Park at Copeland and D streets, just a half-mile from Ayawaska. The 9.7-acre open space gem offers river and vista views, a handful of picnic tables, bird-watching and dog-friendly trails.

Details: 101 Second St., Petaluma, 707-559-3519, ayawaskasf.com

FolkTable

New at Cornerstone Sonoma, this farm-to-table Cal-Mediterranean cafe features the work of Chef Casey Thompson. She’s got a nice resume, including working under celebrity Chef Dean Fearing at Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek in Texas, being a finalist on the third season of Bravo’s “Top Chef” and opening two restaurants in San Francisco.

On a fine winter afternoon, my friend and I placed our order online, tucked up our takeout and settled in at a metal picnic table in the wine tasting room courtyard.

Chef Thompson whips up fancy al fresco fare. A trio of chicken hand pies makes an excellent appetizer — piping hot, flaky, butter-burnished and stuffed with tender meat kissed with black truffle ($15). We nibbled a harvest salad alongside, the crisp kale tumbled with crunchy apple, persimmon, creamy ricotta salata and pecans in sweet-tart pomegranate vinaigrette ($14).

On a chilly day, a bowl of hot lentil stew is soul-satisfying, slow-braised with peppery greens, soft poached egg, parsley salsa verde and a sprinkle of crispy shallots ($15). I like to add crispy pancetta, for extra richness and chew ($2).

The kitchen sends out a very good croque madame, as well. The sandwich is plump with French ham and buttery, nutty comté cheese; griddled to a crunchy edge; bathed in Béchamel and all crowned in a runny-yolk fried egg ($18).

Then we treated ourselves to banana créme pie, a classic delight made with roasted banana, whipped cream and chocolate shavings ($8).

And since it’s chilly now, we warmed up with a large Golden Bear Latte crafted with honey and cinnamon ($6) and a large, spicy London Fog of hot chai tea foamed with steamed milk ($4.75).

After we ate, we explored Cornerstone’s elaborate seasonal gardens and sculpture displays, inspired by the International Garden Festival at Chaumont-Sur-Loire in France. Wandering the beautiful, restful spaces, it felt like, pandemic, what pandemic?

Details: 23584 Arnold Drive, Sonoma, 707-356-3569, folktable.com

Rocker Oysterfeller’s

As my pandemic pal and I pulled into the tiny town of Valley Ford (population 148), the skies turned that soft gray patina that promises rain. We bundled ourselves and our dogs in cozy jackets, then strolled the burg’s half-mile downtown along Highway 1, stopping in at charming spots like Valley Ford Cheese & Creamery with its new cafe and artisanal marketplace and Valley Ford Market, a grocery-deli known for its locally made sausages, wines and desserts.

As we passed Rocker Oysterfeller’s, I had a sudden craving for their cocktail specialty, a Pimm’s Cup. Set in the historic six-room Valley Ford Hotel built in 1864, the roadhouse restaurant usually welcomes day drinkers in its saloon, set with Tiffany lamps, a polished mahogany bar, antique lanterns and chipped-paint chairs.

These days, guests order takeout from the host waiting on the front porch. And just as we collected our compostable clamshell containers and eco-friendly plastic cocktail cups, the rain came. Off we scampered, around the side of the restaurant to a patio off the parking lot, finding shelter at a picnic table under a small section of roof (there’s no table service, but the restaurant allows people to picnic here). From inside the dining room, the host flipped on an overhead heater and my pal, pups and I basked in comfort over our Southern-Cal farm-to-table lunches.

Rocker’s COVID-19 menu is shorter now, but still so satisfying. We started with four deviled eggs with creamy whipped yolks and a scattering of fresh herbs ($8.95) and briny fresh Tomales Bay oysters fried crisp in cornmeal and dunked in spicy rémoulade ($15.95).

Then we split an order of four beer-battered, local rock-cod tacos jazzed with spicy rémoulade, sweet apple-fennel slaw, radishes and jalapeños on housemade tortillas ($13.95). We tossed in an order of biscuits, just because — because these three beauties are wonderfully fluffy and rich when slathered with molasses butter ($4.95).

For main dishes, buttermilk fried chicken is a Rocker signature, the two pieces of free-range Petaluma bird dressed with bittersweet Lagunitas Ale-caraway gravy ($9.95). For more decadence, we added shareable sides of Anson Mills heirloom corn grits slow-cooked with milk, butter and black pepper ($6.99) and pinto beans slow-simmered with tomato, serrano chiles, sweet onion and chewy burned ends from Rocker’s smoked beef brisket ($5.95).

Here’s where you’ll find one of the best burgers in Sonoma County, fashioned from a hefty half-pound of mesquite-grilled Tomales’ Stemple Creek grass-fed beef, baconnaise, butter lettuce, tomato and red onion on a griddled bun ($15.95). I added white New York Cheddar (95 cents) and got a split order of Kennebec fries and onion rings alongside.

Those rings are exceptional. The thick-cut white onion is coated in a fluffy-crisp, golden batter that the host later confided was homemade beignet dough.

The only COVID-19 challenge: an agave margarita was spot on ($10), but my beloved Pimm’s Cup simply couldn’t survive the transition to takeout. Normally, it is served ice cold in a big Ball jar with Pimm's No. 1 liqueur, ginger beer and a salad of chunky chopped and sliced cucumber, apple and citrus. These days, it’s a simple mix of Pimm's No. 1, ginger beer and puréed cucumber and apple ($10).

In good weather, trek your takeout five minutes south to the historic 1853 Emma Herbert Memorial Park at Bloomfield Road and Broderick Street. It feels like a whole other world here, with picnic tables set on expansive grassy meadows and views of barns, rolling hills and the Twisted Horn Ranch of longhorn cattle.

Details: 14415 Highway 1, Valley Ford, 707-876-1983, rockeroysterfellers.com

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