Cox: Santa Rosa is lucky to have Spinster Sisters

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There’s so much to like at the Spinster Sisters restaurant in Santa Rosa’s hip enclave of South A Street that the best way to order is to pin the menu to a wall and throw darts at it.

Wherever a dart lands is sure to surprise and please you. This restaurant is unique, even though it uses the typical local, organic produce. It serves breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner every day. It’s unique because of the artistry of executive chef Liza Hinman, who has a facility for taking ordinary foods and giving them a little spin to make them her own.

For instance, most tempura we encounter at local restaurants is battered and deep-fried vegetables like summer squash and carrots, with perhaps seafood like shrimp. But here we have Asparagus and Maitake Tempura ($10 ★★★★). Young spring asparagus spears and maitake mushrooms are coated in a batter that emerges from the hot oil as a perfect, champagne-colored, delicately crunchy crust. Maitake is a mushroom (Grifola frondosa) that grows at the base of oak trees with scruffily fluffy lobes that look like feathers. In Japan, where it’s particularly prized, it’s known as the dancing mushroom. Here it’s usually called hen-of-the-woods. A soy-ginger-daikon-sake dipping sauce is provided.

In 2014, Wine Enthusiast magazine named Spinster Sisters one of America’s 100 top restaurants for wine, and even a quick perusal of the wine list shows why. Where else are you going to find a sparkling Gruener Veltliner from Austria for $42 a bottle, or a blend of Montepulciano, Aglianico, and Oliveila from Campania, Italy, for $38? But if you’re in a mood to go big, there’s the “Blacklist” of vinous treasures, like the sparkling Chenin Blanc from Saumur on the Loire River for $50, or the magnum of Melon from Muscadet for $66, or a split of 2001 Amarone Classico for $48.

Service is professional and attentive.

Dinner started with Mixed Local Lettuces ($6 ★★★), a simple plate of loose, leafy, red and green lettuces dressed in olive oil and lemon juice. A salad doesn’t have to be — maybe shouldn’t be — complex to be delicious. Then came something classic: Country Pork Terrine ($12 ★★★½) just the way country restaurants serve it in France. The pork is coarsely ground, dotted with pistachios and tasted mildly of liver. It was accompanied by cornichons, mustard, black olives, baby carrots, and a pinch of salt crystals.

Crispy Kennebec Fries ($7 ★★★★) hit all the right notes. First, the fries are made from Kennebec potatoes, a high-quality variety named for the Kennebec River in Maine. They are cut smaller than regular fries but larger than matchsticks. The surface is crispy, the interior soft and chewy, and they are salted with welcome restraint. They’re served with a “SOFA sauce” (named for “South of A”) made with aioli, horseradish, honey, sriracha, and Dijon mustard. Finally, they’re sprinkled with toasted rosemary leaves.

The Spinster Sisters claims to be an American restaurant, but the world is its oyster. For instance, five Tunisian Lamb Meatballs ($14 ★★★½) nail the flavor of the Maghreb by mixing the meat with cumin, black pepper, cubeb (an Indian or Indonesian pepper), and other ingredients. There’s spicy fire in there, too. The meatballs are bathed in a tomato-saffron broth in which little round balls of couscous bob. Cilantro completes the dish.

Some kind of mix-up happened to the Braised Rabbit Sugo ($19 ★), which arrived without sugo (a ragu or Bolognese sauce). The rabbit was excellent, the pappardelle wide and tender, but where was the meaty sauce?

A dinner companion chose Pan-Seared Bluenose Bass ($27 ★★½) for her entrée. This fish, fairly new to American restaurants, is from strictly controlled harvests around New Zealand and is similar in taste and appearance to grouper, but with a slightly stronger flavor. This opaque filet was a little dry, served with shaved fennel and red grapefruit segments, and perfect green French lentils.

For dessert: hot fudge sundae and strawberry-rhubarb galette, among other treats.

To sum up: Santa Rosa is very lucky to have this restaurant.

Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review for the Sonoma Living section. He can be reached at jeffcox@sonic.net.

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