As a travel writer my tactic for finding the best local flavor has always included accosting residents and prodding them for information – in a friendly way, of course. Living in Napa for six years and writing about wine country for the past decade, I no longer need to ask the staff in Sonoma’s tasting rooms or regulars lingering around Sonoma or Healdsburg’s squares for their favorite dining experiences. But sometimes I inquire anyway, especially since it can be hard to move on to new palate pastures when I know there’s a spectacular meal to be had at downtowns Sonoma’s Harvest Moon Café and El Dorado Kitchen, and Healdsburg’s special-occasion favorite Cyrus. With this in mind I recently asked the chefs of these revered restaurants—and the living food and wine legend John Ash—where they like to eat when they step out of their kitchens. The following answers may inspire you to detour from the regular dining haunts—or at least tack on a few more destinations to your Wine Country itinerary.
Nick Demarest of Harvest Moon Café heads to Santa Rosa’s Osake for what he considers the best sushi in the area. “Gary Chu is super creative and all the food is unique and very yummy, he divulges. Sticking with the Asian theme and northern locale, he also adores the classic noodle dishes at Simply Vietnam (966 N Dutton Ave., Santa Rosa, 707-566-8910). “It’s the best place for the money in the area to eat.” When he’s closer to home he heads to Juanita Juanita (19114 Arnold Dr., Sonoma, 707-935-3981). A funky-fun Mexican shack on the side of Sonoma’s north-south thoroughfare, it’s his favorite place for a quick sandwich.
Mexican food also has a fan in El Dorado Kitchen’s Chef Ryan Fancher. With a penchant for the pure and satisfying flavors from south of the border, he heads to Sonoma’s Taqueria La Hacienda (17960 Sonoma Hwy., Sonoma, 707-939-8226). “They have really authentic, flavorful Mexican food. It’s really artisanal and they have a lot of integrity in their ingredients. I always get pollo deshebrado. It’s a shredded chicken burrito. They have the best tomatilla salsa, too,” he promises.
Not surprisingly, Douglas Keane of impeccable and tres chic Cyrus in Healdsburg has no qualms with putting some effort into satisfying his off-work cravings. His regular stop is Napa’s Angèle (540 Main St., Napa, 707-252-8115, www.angelerestaurant.com).
My dear friend and a brilliant food and wine talent John Ash stays closer to home. When he wants a casual fun meal and is not off teaching culinary classes around the world or accepting awards for his new Sauvignon Republic wines, he heads to Santa Rosa’s Café Saint Rose (463 Sebastopol Ave., Santa Rosa, 707-546-2459). Run by Mark Malicki who was the chef at Iron Horse Vineyards for years, it is very tiny with a handful of in- and sidewalk seats. But most importantly, “It’s always good and takes advantage of Mark’s world travels,” says John.