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Sebastopol’s Fern Bar features ultra-cool cocktails in trendy space

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I had stopped to admire a woman’s Border Collie at the entrance of Fern Bar, and after agreeing that he was one of the most handsome dogs in the universe, she asked me if I’d ever eaten at the Sebastopol restaurant, bar and lounge.

I said I hadn’t — though I’d been meaning to venture into the chic hangout in the Barlow for small plates and cocktails since its winter opening. She mused that she’d thought of giving it a shot, but didn’t “speak the menu language.”

I was surprised — where was her adventurous spirit? Try it all, is my motto, and figure out what it is later.

But now, I get it. For the non-chef obsessed, it can be challenging to decipher ingredients like allium butter or nutritional yeast. It can be even more confusing to figure out how they’re put into such offbeat dishes like cauliflower with beluga lentil, purple barley, allium butter, coriander crème fraiche and herb vinaigrette ($18), or an Umami Bomb of mushrooms, broccoli, sticky rice, balsamic, nutritional yeast and shiitake cream that’s not really cream since there’s no dairy in the vegan recipe ($17).

You may ask yourself, do I really want to eat this stuff? Plus, it’s expensive, for what truly are small portions such as a dainty halibut fillet dressed with herbed breadcrumbs, peas and a splash of bone broth at $27.

To be honest, I would visit Fern Bar more for its crazy cocktails and groovy, retro bar mood with yes, you guessed it, lots of ferns thriving in wall and hanging planters. Drinks are nearly edible, after all, like bartender Matt Katzin’s sensational Wimbledon Pimm’s Cup (more on that later). Though if you’re up for exploring, the food is quite good, too, universally singing with the riveting flavors of top quality, ultra-fresh ingredients.

This place is on trend too, to appeal to a picky, contemporary clientele. As much as a place for fashionable folks to eat and drink, Fern Bar is answer to folks who won’t eat and drink. As in, those diners who can’t tolerate (or don’t want) gluten, meat, dairy, alcohol and other such indulgences. Appropriate dishes are labeled by what they lack (V, G, D), and mocktails are as thoughtfully prepared as the beautiful cocktails.

Fern Bar is the project of Lowell Sheldon and Natalie Goble, a dynamic duo who also own the excellent Handline and Lowell’s restaurants nearby. They partnered with Lowell’s former head chef Joe Zobel and three- Michelin-star Restaurant at Meadowood’s former bar manager Sam Levy to create the eclectic food and drink menus. And they draw produce from their nearby Two Belly Acre farm.

That pedigree alone should be enough, to saunter in and join the pretty people crowd. If you’re still unsure, perhaps wade in slowly, with familiar nibbles like crispy chicharrón spiked with espelette pepper ($5), or a few bites of karaage-style fried chicken that’s rather soft but gets welcome flavor from dipping in hot sauce crema ($15). Then move on to Butcher’s Nuggets, a weekly changing meat and dip selection that on one visit brought juicy pork and chicken bonbons on a pond of robust brassica salsa verde ($13).

Step things up, next, with something more unusual. I like the fry bread, even though this version is healthier than the decadent, traditional lard and flour bomb I grew up with in Scottsdale. Properly puffy-crisp, it sits atop crema, gets a lavish ladling of mildly spicy New Mexico chile sauce, and is crowned in aged beef, cotija and lettuce ($20).

There are lovely seasonings in the trout, as well, the crispy skin fish resting on a pond of spicy green curry dotted with big, meaty hen of the woods mushrooms and cilantro leaves ($22).

The chicken liver mousse is another simpler starter, the creamy rich dollop stabbed with crispy sweet-salt beet crackers and sprinkled in chopped pistachio ($12). I love its silky texture and opulence, I just wish there were more of it in my dish.

You can’t have a retro bar without pickled eggs, meanwhile, and this version brings the noshes beautifully into the modern age. The quail eggs are stained a brilliant fuschia from their vinegary bath, cut in half to expose velvety soft yolk, sprinkled with just the right amount of crunchy salt, and arranged atop peppery greens ($7). Another round for my table, please.

And that brings us back to the marble-topped bar. I’m thrilled with these drinks. That Wimbledon ($13) I mentioned earlier, for example, is a twist on the classic recipe of mint, fruit, cucumber, ginger ale or lemon-lime soda and Pimm’s spice- and citrus-infused gin. Here, the crazy kids make their own gin infusion, throwing together gin, vermouth, Cointreau, sliced cucumber, raspberries and strawberries, rosemary sprigs, mint leaves, pineapple sage leaves, and sliced orange, mingling their goodness for 24 hours.

Then the barkeep mixes the concoction with lemon juice, homemade ginger gum syrup, cucumber chunks, raspberries and Angostura Bitters, all poured over ice and garnished with mint and more cucumbers and berries. I could drink dozens of these, basking in the stylish fantasy of this space with fern-print wallpaper, tufted leather banquettes, fur throws on lounge chairs, macramé art, and nightly live music.

On the mocktail side, I never thought I’d waste calories on a teetotaler quaff. But I’d happily sip the Spirited Away ($13) anytime, content with the refreshing but earthy mix of makrut lime, matcha, lemongrass-galangal syrup, and Seedlip, a non-alcoholic spirit that tastes similar to gin.

One warning: if in doubt about an ingredient here, ask your server, who is trained in the trendy obscure. One evening, I brought a colleague to the bar, and she shared she is violently allergic to chickpeas. As in, hospital. She was steering toward that Spirited Away, until I warned her that the drink includes aquafaba, the liquid left over from cooked chickpeas. Really; it’s used as a binder in drinks, as an egg white substitute, and I’m seeing it in more cocktails these days. The Fern menu does list it in the drink description, but who could fault her for not knowing what the heck it is?

So maybe, in some cases, it’s better to study that menu language. But then, dive right in to the fun, funky Fern Bar.

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.

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