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.