Just got back from a trip through Western Sonoma. That place is Eden, Eden, Eden. Especially this time of year when the hills are still green and everything is in bloom. We focused on the western part of the region, hitting towns like Healdsburg and Sebastopol, following the Russian River, and taking in the landscape, which ranges from ocean to primeval forest to big sky rolling hills within just a few miles. Everywhere you turn, there's an apple orchard or a vineyard or a sheep farm, and the markets are bursting with local cheeses, breads, wines, organic strawberries and cherries. Foodie heaven. Plus, Sebastapol is a funky little leftie place with a "Nuclear Free Zone" sign at the town line and a mayor who won on the Green Party ticket.
We had some memorable meals. In Sebastopol, Bistro Bella Vita (8050 Bodega) just opened a few months ago, and though they don't yet have a Web site, they're worth seeking out. Great Cal-Ital food cooked by Manuel Mena, a chef who grew up in the Yucutan. He works some of these flavors into the menu, so if you see any dishes with salsas or moles, try them. Madrona Manor in Healdsburg is housed in a gorgeous Victorian mansion (Bless those 1880s lumber barons). This is a place where I'd love to take my mom for lunch, which, for us, was served on a patio that looks out over the gardens (like many California restaurants, the folks at Madrona grow their own flowers, herbs, and vegetables). Californians are really into composed salads right now and we had a deconstructed Nicoise in which every element was allowed to shine: wild salmon, sweet green beans, creamy fingerlings. Oh, and candied walnuts thanks to our kind and generous sponsors. Finally, we had a terrific dinner at Underwood Bar and Bistro in Graton, which is a one-horse town, Sonoma-style. No traffic lights, but a gourmet shop and a bistro. And Underwood is all about the bistro experience, with a Spanish accent, which means you'll have the perfectly roasted chicken, but with olives and preserved lemon rubbed under the skin, not herbs and butter.
Our tour guide for this chowfest was a wonderful guy named Clark Wolf, who has a home near the Russian River Valley. Clark is a restaurant consultant, pretty much the restaurant consultant in the country right now, and he divides his time between New York and Las Vegas, so he was doing double shots of espresso at every stop. But he's all heart, very generous, and he loves Sonoma. Back in the 70s, he stumbled across a job at one of the first-ever gourmet cheese shops in San Francisco, which means he landed right at the birth of the American food renaissance. And he met all the players, from James Beard to M.F.K. Fisher to Ruth Reichl. More recently, he helped found the Russian River Food and Wine Fest. The first festival took place last September, and this year's fest takes place on September 25. The New York Times has called the Russian River Valley "the new Normandy," and if the festival captures even a slice of the spirit that I saw on this trip, it'll be well worth the traffic on 101 to get there.