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Two Sebastopol restaurants share fun fall meal ideas

The western edge of Sonoma County is at the forefront of farm-to-table eating, thanks to a cornucopia of organic farms and vineyards, mushroom and poultry growers, cheesemakers and fishermen who thrive along the fog-swept coast.

This fertile melting pot has helped nurture the food-and-beverage businesses at the bustling Barlow in Sebastopol. Despite the recent challenges of a pandemic, fires and floods, the industrial-chic complex has survived as a thriving community of food, wine, beer and spirit producers alongside an organic grocery store, juice bar, ice cream shop and restaurants, both casual and high-end.

From Kosho Sushi and Barrio Fresca Mexicana to Acre Pizza and The Farmer’s Wife, you can find global flavors mingling with local products, whether you want to whet your appetite with a few small bites or fill your belly with a feast.

But why just limit yourself to one eatery? In the spirit of the west county, we suggest making it a progressive dinner. Grab a cocktail and appetizer at the Fern Bar, then enjoy an entree and sweet finale at Blue Ridge Kitchen, which serves up “California cuisine with a Southern drawl.”

That’s how chef/co-owner Matt d’Ambrosi describes his restaurant, which opened this summer in the former Zazu Kitchen + Farm space. The chef always has enjoyed the farm-to-table food of the South, but he didn’t want to limit his creativity to one style of cooking, so he folded fresh California favorites like Hamachi Crudo and Tuna Tartare into the menu.

“I grew up in the Bay Area,“ d’Ambrosi said. “I fished here for salmon and crab. ... To me, that’s local and fresh and the way to go.”

Fern Bar started out as a curated urban destination with high-end cocktails and shareable small plates when it opened almost two years ago. But since the pandemic hit, the eatery has evolved along with its customers. Now diners can enjoy a heartier meal they don’t have to share.

“We started to do more to-go dishes and lunches and brunches instead of late-night food,” said Sam Levy, co-owner, general manager and bar director. “We’ve hit a new stride where we’re doing things like a burger and a fried chicken sandwich. It makes a little bit more sense.”

Both restaurants offer outdoor parklets/patios that allow for socially distanced dining and have plans in the works to winterize these al fresco spaces for comfort and protection during the crisp, and often wet, NorCal winter.

But in case you’d rather host a safer safari supper in your own neighborhood or family bubble, we asked the chefs to share a menu of seasonal recipes that reflects what they are creating in their kitchens now.

From Fern Bar, Levy offered up a Harvest Moon cocktail made with gin produced by his distillery neighbor, Spirit Works Distillery.

“I was a fan of their products before we moved next door,” Levy said. “It’s a great, all-around gin that can be used in martinis and cocktails without overwhelming with too much botanicals.”

The cocktail is similar to a gin and tonic, only with a smooth, dry and creamy twist provided by some unfiltered Nigori Sake and a deep-red splash of pomegranate juice.

“Just because it’s fall and winter doesn’t mean people want to drink hot toddies,” Levy said. “People still enjoy creative cocktails, so we keep that fun dream alive.”

As a starter, Joe Zobel of Fern Bar shared one of his favorite fall dishes currently on the menu: the Umami Bomb, made with bits of crispy rice dotted with exotic and wild mushrooms. The dish gets added umami from a shiitake cream base and a sauce that blends mushroom broth with a balsamic reduction.

“We finish it with a little nutritional yeast,” said Zobel, a New Mexico native who cooked at the former Lowell’s restaurant in Sebastopol for nearly five years.

Over at Blue Ridge Kitchen, chef/fisherman d’Ambrosi shared one of his favorite dishes on the menu: Dungeness Crab Cioppino, which can be made with a wide range of seafood, from salmon and calamari to clams and mussels.

“That dish made me want to be a chef when I was younger, and I always loved it,” he said. “The seafood varies depending on the season.”

His version of the classic San Francisco fisherman’s stew is lightened up with clam juice and white wine as well as San Marzano tomatoes, creating a broth that is rich but not too heavy.

“It’s in between a stew and a soup, so I like it a little thinner, with that clam-juicy, tomatoey broth,” he said. “It warms you up when it’s cold, and you can eat it with crispy garlic bread.”

As a sweet finale, d’Ambrosi suggested a simple, crowd-pleasing combo he serves at the restaurant: a giant Toffee Cookie topped with banana ice cream from Screamin’ Mimi’s.

Like the co-owners of the Fern Bar, d’Ambrosi said he enjoys the camaraderie of The Barlow and the foot traffic generated by all the different businesses.

“It was hard seeing this restaurant vacant for two years,” he said of Blue Ridge Kitchen’s location. “It’s nice to see it happening again.”

This creative cocktail, from Sam Levy at the Fern Bar, is a playful twist on the classic gin & tonic.

Harvest Moon Cocktail

Makes 1 serving

1½ ounces Spirit Works Gin

1½ ounces pomegranate juice

1 ounce Nigori Sake (unfiltered)

1 ounce simple syrup

1 ounce lemon juice

3 ounces Fever Tree Tonic

For garnish: pomegranate seeds, lemon wheel and/or pineapple sage

Add all cocktail ingredients together in a Collins glass and add ice three-quarters of the way to the top. Finish with 3 ounces of Fever Tree Tonic.

Garnish with pomegranate seeds, a lemon wheel and some pineapple sage if it’s in your garden.

“This is a crowd-pleasing dish from our restaurant, Fern Bar, that just happens to be vegan and gluten-free,” Chef Joe Zobel said. “It makes a warming side dish to any meal or it’s great as the main star of dinner.”

Umami Bomb

Serves 4 to 6

For mushroom broth:

2 pounds button or crimini mushrooms

Stems from the shiitake mushrooms (from the shiitake “cream” ingredients, below)

Splash olive oil

1 yellow onion, rough chop

1 head garlic, chopped

1 head celery, rough chop

Handful dried porcini mushrooms (optional)

For mushroom balsamic:

4 cups mushroom broth

¼ cup aged balsamic vinegar

¼ cup evaporated cane sugar

Salt to taste

For the shiitake “cream”:

1 pound shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and thinly sliced

1 yellow onion, thinly sliced

Juice of 1 lemon

4 tablespoons tamari or high-quality soy sauce

¼ cup neutral oil such as soybean or canola

To finish:

2 pounds mixed mushrooms such as oyster, maitake and chanterelle

1 large shallot, peeled and thinly sliced

2 cups steamed sushi or Calrose rice, cooled, preferably overnight

½ pound broccoli di ciccio or broccoli florets

1 tablespoon nutritional yeast

For mushroom broth: Roast the button or crimini mushrooms as well as the stems from the shiitake mushrooms with a liberal coating of olive oil. Cover roasted mushrooms with water in a stock pot large enough to hold everything. Add the yellow onion, garlic and celery. If you want a deeper flavor and color, add a handful of dried porcini mushrooms.

Bring to a simmer and cook for one hour. Let sit off the heat another half hour and strain.

For mushroom balsamic: With half the strained mushroom stock, add the sugar and reduce until you have roughly 1 cup of liquid left. Add the balsamic vinegar and season with salt to taste. Reserve the remaining mushroom stock and use in place of water or any other stock in a variety of applications.

For the shiitake cream: Toss the sliced shiitake mushrooms and onion with olive oil and salt and place in a pan in an oven preheated to 300 degrees. Cook for 45 minutes or until the onion is translucent and the mushrooms are tender. Purée in a blender with the neutral oil, lemon juice and tamari, adding water as needed to adjust the consistency. The end product should be thick, smooth and creamy. Season with salt to taste.

To finish: Crisp the cooked and cooled rice in a heavy-bottomed skillet or griddle with olive oil. Add the mushrooms and cook until soft and fragrant. Add the sliced shallot and cook until translucent. Season with salt.

Fry, pan fry or roast the broccoli and season with salt and pepper.

Plate the rice and mushrooms on top of the shiitake cream, then add the mushroom balsamic and the broccoli. Top with the nutritional yeast. Serve immediately.

“At this time of year, a lot of tourists come to California and have cioppino for the first time,” said Matt d’Ambrosi of Blue Ridge Kitchen. “It was created from the scraps left over from the fishing boats.”

Although North Coast Dungeness Crab will not be available until Dec. 1 (or later), you can find Dungeness crab from Washington state now. For the King salmon, you can substitute steelhead or the Ora King farmed salmon from New Zealand. The chef also suggests hamachi or swordfish.

Dungeness Crab Cioppino

Serves 6 to 8

For cioppino base:

5 28-ounce cans (4 quarts) San Marzano canned tomatoes

2 cups clam juice

1 carrot, small dice

2 celery stalks, small dice

½ white onion, small dice

1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped

1 tablespoon fresh oregano, chopped

1 cup white wine

3 tablespoons garlic, chopped

½ bunch basil, chopped

⅛ cup olives, chopped fine

⅛ cup capers, chopped fine

¼ cup canned piquillo peppers (or red bell peppers), small dice

¼ cup olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

For seafood:

12 clams

12 mussels

½ pound calamari rings and tentacles

1½ pound Dungeness crab meat

½ pound King salmon, small dice

12 jumbo prawns

¼ cup butter

2 cups vegetable stock

¼ cup parsley, chopped

For cioppino base: In a large pot on high heat, pour in the olive oil until shimmering. Add carrots, celery, onion, thyme and oregano. Cook for 5 minutes or until the onions are translucent. Add the white wine and cook for 5 more minutes.

Add the remaining ingredients for the base. Bring to a boil then turn down the heat and simmer for 1 hour. (Do not add any of the seafood yet or any of the ingredients listed under seafood.)

Once the cioppino base has finished cooking, add vegetable stock, clams, mussels, salmon and prawns. Simmer until the mussels and clams start to open, then add butter, crab meat and calamari. Make sure all seafood is cooked through, then pour into a large serving bowl or individual bowls and sprinkle parsley on top. Serve immediately.

Serving suggestion: Garlic bread, grilled lemon and/or a drizzle of some nice olive oil

“Here is the secret recipe to the best cookie ever,” said d’Ambrosi, who serves this sweet treat at the restaurant with a scoop of banana ice cream from Screamin’ Mimi’s. You can cut this recipe in half if you want fewer cookies.

Salted Toffee Cookies

Makes 48 large cookies

12 cups all-purpose flour

4 teaspoons baking soda

4 teaspoons salt

6 vanilla beans, scraped

8 cups toffee bits

4 cups (908 grams) butter, room temperature

5 cups (988 grams) brown sugar

2 cups sugar

8 eggs

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Put all the ingredients into the bowl of a stand mixer and mix for 5 minutes on medium speed until everything comes together.

Using a 4-ounce ice cream scoop, portion the cookies on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.

Bake for 15 minutes, then check to see if they are done. Let cool on a cookie rack. Serve with ice cream of your choice.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56

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