Sonoma spot all about eclectic wines, sophisticated soul food
It was unfortunate when Valley Bar + Bottle opened in June last year in downtown Sonoma and couldn’t seat any guests at its namesake bar. The sleek, black shiplap-trimmed structure looked so inviting, capped by contemporary spaceship-style pendant lamps and offering views of the tiny pink-walled kitchen.
Ah, but COVID-19 had kicked us all out to eat and drink on the patio, which luckily is very welcoming, too. The spacious courtyard is a popular promenade for diners and their dogs (a canine catwalk?), trimmed with stylish corrugated metal and tall fencing for a secret garden feel despite being next to a busy sidewalk facing Sonoma Plaza.
But we wanted to be at that bar — especially after it was named one of the 27 Best Bars in America in 2021 this May by Esquire magazine, which lauded its “emphasis on organic, small-production, low-intervention biodynamic wines from around the world.”
Now, we can finally enjoy the bar, plus the handful of tables inside the historic adobe restaurant/retail wine store space that used to be Harvest Moon Cafe. Add the casual, flavorful Cal-Mediterranean fare, and the destination is just as appealing as we would expect from founders who previously worked together at the chic Scribe Winery in Sonoma.
Chef Emma Lipp (formerly Scribe’s culinary director) keeps her dinner and weekend brunch menus streamlined, with a scattered array of small plates and several entrees. Yet there’s a lot of thought in the recipes and precision with the ingredients. Indeed, she has jokingly called the restaurant “the neediest b**** I know,” as it demands lots of her love for seasonal bites, often-changing culinary whims and playful global accents like a velvety, slow-boiled egg crowned with its custardy yolk and dollops of briny, housemade Hong Kong XO sauce ($4).
Menus don’t include much description of dishes. That’s fine, because this is a place to explore many different flavors, mixing and matching simply because an item sounds good to you. So fill your table with many plates and meander from rich, bold Don Bocarte anchovies from Spain on a swath of oil ($10) to fatty and delicious curls of mortadella ($10) you eat with your fingers to tears of pillowy bread and sea-salted butter ($6).
Then, to complement those anchovies, add an order of tortilla española ($12), the generous slab layered with egg and potato and paired with aioli and shishito peppers.
It’s the same with the wines — there are no tasting notes here, so just sip and sample and ask for recommendations, because the young staff knows its stuff. They can turn you on to interesting “minimal intervention” natural wines (sometimes funky and an acquired taste), rare bottlings from more obscure areas like Slovenia and some small-production local gems like a Fres.co 2020 Sonoma Valley Primitivo ($10 glass).
I didn’t know what to expect from a “pink shrimp roll” ($8), and it turned out to be like a lobster roll, the split country bread fluffy and almost like buttery French toast and the chopped, creamy seafood dusted in paprika. Delicious. On one visit, large chunks of fried artichokes ($13) looked nearly burnt, but once I dug into the hearts and slathered on the lemon aioli, they tasted fine.
Is it OK to make an entree of potatoes gratin? I wholeheartedly believe it is, when they’re this classically comforting. A black skillet arrives mounded with a large wedge of baked, cheesy bliss and a soup spoon ($13). My group also ordered crispy rice ($13), another casserole resembling a grainy hash brown cake and sprinkled in scallion-ginger sauce with plenty of the crisp green onions. Sophisticated soul food.
At that point, my server came over bearing a complimentary salad, teasing that we needed some healthy greens, given our carb loading. It was a great recommendation. The toss of pristine lettuces and radicchio comes with one of my favorite dressings, Green Goddess, and crunchy mixed seeds ($15).
There are usually three entrees, in variations of chicken, trout or pork. If the fried chicken is on offer, get it — the bird is nicely dressed up with cucumber and a bright coconut peanut curry ($30). I also like the juicy braised pork jazzed up with Romano beans and sweet gypsy peppers ($28). Both put me in the mood of a cozy home-cooked meal made in modern style.
Don’t overlook sides, either. Zucchini can be a boring vegetable, but not here, where it’s dressed with tangy whipped feta and fresh plucked mint ($13).
Chef Lipp has gotten famous in the neighborhood for her olive oil cake and says she may someday share the recipe in a cookbook. It’s just as well to have her make it for us, since the dense yet light confection is so satisfying, especially dipped in fruit preserves and sour cream ($10).
Returning solo for brunch, I did eat at the bar and soaked up the friendly neighborhood hangout mood over a glass of dry pétillant naturel Château de Minière Bulles de Minière rouge sparkling Cabernet Franc from Loire Valley, France ($14). There’s no sugar or yeast added, and it fits the Valley’s offbeat theme well.
This food menu has some different twists, too, that surprisingly succeed. Check out the poached eggs with cold noodles; dusty-toned matcha salsa and veggies ($18); or the colorful platter of soft-boiled egg, feta, sweet-tart pickled beets, yogurt, olives and herbs ($16).
I’m not going to weigh in on whether Valley is one of the best bars in all of America, since it doesn’t offer hard alcohol. But as an entire operation, with its eclectic wines, creative food and energetic vibe, it’s definitely a treasure we can be proud to call Sonoma-grown.
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.