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Sebastopol restaurant La Bodega rolls out impressive all-vegetarian menu

La Bodega — Sonoma Wine Shop

Where: 2295 Highway 116 S., Sebastopol

When: 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday to Sunday

Contact: 707-827-1832, sonomawineshop.com

Cuisine: Mediterranean, vegetarian, vegan

Price: Moderate, entrees $14-$29

Summary: The tiny but impressive Mediterranean restaurant-wine shop has gone entirely vegetarian-vegan, and the results are ravishing.

Entrepreneurs Meekk Shelef and Bryan Cooper have an interesting approach to running their La Bodega restaurant in Sebastopol.

They have only six tables outside on the garden patio, and they are open only for dinner Thursdays through Sundays. Customers not only need reservations to dine but are asked to call in their meal choices in advance.

That’s because Shelef and Cooper prioritize keeping their staff happy, and themselves having fun.

“Reservations mean it’s calmer for cooks. We don’t want them under pressure, because you can taste stress in food,” Shelef said. “And preordering means less food waste.”

This past month, Shelef and Cooper made a bold change, morphing their Mediterranean-Middle Eastern menu to a completely vegetarian and vegan concept. They did so despite the fact that most of their regular customers aren’t vegetarian, the Israeli-born Shelef said.

Their aim is to help protect the Earth, and to show people how terrific plant-based food can be when it’s prepared with the premium ingredients and lots of herbs and spices that La Bodega has been known for since opening in 2008.

“We don’t make money on the food, anyway,” Shelef said, as if this makes obvious financial sense. “We just try to break even, and make money on the wine.”

Somehow, the cheerful approach has succeeded. Credit the accomplishment to their first business, Sonoma Wine Shop on the Sonoma Plaza, which Cooper bought in 2001 as a tasting room, a hangout for his wine club members and an eventual home for his Harvest View Wine brand. La Bodega includes a second Sonoma Wine Shop, and many of the restaurant customers are loyal wine club members who also come for nondenominational holiday celebrations such as Passover and Easter.

But there’s more to the madness, enough to drive an accountant crazy. Entrees are already a bargain, ranging between $14 and $29, while the 600-plus choices of boutique California wines are sold at retail. And if you sign up as a wine club member (at no cost and with no purchase commitment), you get food discounts and nearly wholesale wine pricing. At current count, there are some 4,500 members across the U.S., Europe and Japan.

I’m not going to strain my brain trying to figure out how it all works. Because then there’s the chef, too — Rick Vargas, who has been with the team since 2004, back when he and his then-wife, Shelef, were running the place as the French-fusion Bistro V.

“He uses only the most expensive ingredients from local, organic farmers; dairies; cheesemakers; mushroom foragers; and beekeepers,” Shelef said, as if this also makes sense for the bottom line.

That turns out to be lots and lots of ingredients, in complicated dishes. Vargas dominates the kitchen as if he were still working at his previous jobs at the Michelin three-star Au Crocodile in France and the former Masa’s and Aqua in San Francisco. His weekly menu usually features a dozen appetizers, four elaborate salads, more than a dozen entrees and nearly two dozen desserts and pastries crafted by a staff baker.

I counted the ingredients in the green lentil soup ($12). It came out to 10 items for the base vegetable stock and eight for the double stock (another stock added to intensify and deepen the flavor of the first stock). For the soup body, tally 15 more ingredients, another three for a finishing drizzle and three more for garnish.

At the heart of the sumptuous soup are elegant French puy lentils, San Marzano tomatoes, porcinis, dozens of roasted vegetables, Champagne vinegar, dry white wine and dozens of hand-toasted spices bringing the intoxicating fragrance of cardamom, allspice, coriander, cumin, Szechuan peppercorns, star anise, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, fenugreek, turmeric and ginger.

To finish, the masterpiece is dolloped with thick Mexican crema blended with fiery-spicy zhug, a Yemenite mix that Petaluma and Napa’s Whole Spice makes with chiles, garlic, coriander, cilantro, sea salt, cumin, green cardamom and cloves. And yes, the soup tastes absolutely magical.

For another starter, the chef arranges a mezze platter with milk and honey pita, hummus, Israeli red pepper matbucha, housemade goat milk labne, olives and caramelized eggplant spread with pomegranate molasses. Every item is housemade, and flavors sparkle.

Handmade pastas are a signature, also available as gluten- or grain-free. Feather-light and lacy, ravioli arrive with wild morel mushrooms and caramelized artichoke hearts bathed in rich mushroom cream ($29); or with chard, spinach, basil, caramelized onion, ricotta, Fiscalini cheddar and Napoletana sauce sweet with Clover Sonoma butter and zipped with preserved lemon ($24). Not only is meat unnecessary in these dishes, but it would get in the way of their delicate beauty.

Some “meat” is fine, for heartier comfort food. A steaming-hot stoneware dish holds golden-baked lasagna, for example, layered with Beyond Meat spicy Italian sausage, Impossible Beef crumbles, porcini and cremini mushroom ragu, sofrito, a flurry of herbs from the La Bodega garden, organic Straus milk, ground fennel, tomato, ricotta, cheddar, a generous shake of salt and a hint of nutmeg ($24).

The result tastes nearly as indulgent as the original lasagna served here, when it included California lamb and Tomales’ Stemple Creek Ranch beef between the whole egg pasta slathered with Mornay sauce and lamb and beef demi.

Still, I really crave the wonderfully delicate Red, White and Green lasagna that has long been on the La Bodega menu and still is. There are so many bright, beautiful flavors here: Green String Farm green chard and spigarello kale, organic cauliflower, nutty basil pesto, béchamel, cheddar, Lionza Swiss Alpine-style cheese, marinara, caramelized onion, ricotta, a splash of vegetable stock, nutmeg and kicky lemon zest ($24).

It’s true that some of the “meat” dishes won’t fool you. Garlicky kebabs made with San Francisco’s Black Sheep lamb (pea protein, sunflower and coconut oil, etc.) and Impossible Beef (soy protein, soy heme iron molecules, etc.) taste good but have a too-soft, damp texture atop a bed of basmati rice and Israeli majadra lentils ($25).

Instead, I prefer plates where the “meat” is cloaked by rainbow spices and veggies such as the vegan pomegranate stuffed cabbage, plump with caramelized eggplant, cremini and shiitake mushrooms, basmati rice, seasoned tomato broth, Beyond Beef (pea protein), cremini and shiitake mushrooms, earthy ras el hanout Arabic spices and a baharat blend of black pepper, cardamom, cloves, cumin, nutmeg, coriander and paprika ($22).

Dessert lovers will find a treasure trove here, in seasonal fruit tarts, pot de crèmes, cakes and cookies. A vegan turnover trio brings apple-walnut chocolate, orange-coconut chocolate and blueberry ($12), or there is an organic, gluten-free cherry clafoutis custard that takes 25 minutes to prepare but is so very silky ($8).

In another month or so, La Bodega’s dining room and indoor wine tasting bar should reopen, after being shuttered during COVID-19. That will allow a handful of additional customers to come in to order brilliant, delicious food with fine wines.

And I’m going to give up trying to do the math. As Shelef said with a shrug, “Many other jobs would give me way more income and way less headaches. But we all love it here and figure the money will come on its own.”

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

La Bodega — Sonoma Wine Shop

Where: 2295 Highway 116 S., Sebastopol

When: 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday to Sunday

Contact: 707-827-1832, sonomawineshop.com

Cuisine: Mediterranean, vegetarian, vegan

Price: Moderate, entrees $14-$29

Summary: The tiny but impressive Mediterranean restaurant-wine shop has gone entirely vegetarian-vegan, and the results are ravishing.

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