A gourmet guide to Sonoma County: three restaurants that champion local California produce
- Three restaurants – Edge, Backyard and SingleThread – all use locally grown produce, in some cases their own, and serve Sonoma wines
- Their menus are heavily influenced by the seasons and change regularly
Just 45 minutes’ drive north of San Francisco, Sonoma County in California is a paradise for gourmet travellers, especially those in search of clean air, fresh produce and world-class wines.
Sonoma also flies under the radar compared with its better-known, smaller and brasher neighbour, Napa. A three-night culinary exploration of the county showed how and why locals and in-the-know visitors prefer to keep it that way.
Off the elegant central square in the town of Sonoma, with buildings dating back to 1823 when Mexico still owned much of what became the western United States, you could walk past Edge and not give the restaurant a second glance. Behind a neatly trimmed green hedge, it looks like a modest single-storey home.
Only a discreet sign marked “Private” suggests there is something more to discover – and what a discovery it is.
Edge is the private club of Stone Edge Farm winery, but happily, the public can dine alongside members during scheduled weekly lunches and dinners.
Three courses, all-inclusive and paired with estate wines, will cost you US$125.
The food, by culinary director John McReynolds and chef de cuisine Fiorella Burton, is nothing short of spectacular.
Much of the produce comes from the estate’s own organic farm, one that has won California’s highest environmental honour, the Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award.
A sensational confit tomato with Andante goat cheese, tomato gelée and coriander flower sounds simple enough on paper, but it’s a multilayered thing of beauty.
As Burton, who has Peruvian, Palestinian, Genovese and Spanish roots explains: “Tomatoes at this time of year [the last days of summer] tend to have a thicker skin, so we skin and confit them in our own olive oil. Cucumber at the end of the summer season has lost its water content due to the peak of heat, so we compress it in verjus made with our sauvignon blanc, reduced with coriander seeds, bay leaf, thyme and shallots. Our gelée is made from our tomatoes using tomato water.”
Next came a scallop with a beurre rouge reduction made with wine from the estate, in this case the 2013 Surround vintage.
Then we were served River Dog chicken, a fabulous golden yellow thanks to being pasture-raised in the country, served with accompanying chanterelle mushrooms sourced “From Connie”.
The last savoury dish was red flint floriani heirloom polenta with seared pork and a vibrant salsa verde made with huacatay, otherwise known as Peruvian black mint.
The Sonoma County culinary journey continued at Backyard in the small town of Forestville, where chef Daniel Kedan has continued to win plaudits, not only for his excellent, honest and local cuisine, but for the way he runs the business.
There’s no greater indication of his approach than his response to the devastating wildfires which ravaged Sonoma County in 2017, killing 43 people and leaving a trail of destruction.
He closed Backyard for 10 days – at least to paying customers. But in that time, he and his team served a mind-blowing 18,000 meals to first responders and locals who had lost their homes, a Herculean effort that reflected the community and its generosity of spirit.
“Devastation brings people together and there was such an outpouring of passion that in the end we had to turn away people and their food donations,” he says.
Kedan worked at Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc restaurant in Napa Valley for three years, and at The General’s Daughter in Sonoma and Solage in Napa Valley.
His menu focuses on homely, delicious comfort food – casual plates you want to devour.
All the charcuterie, for example, is made in-house. A board (US$17) arrives featuring his chorizo, salami and sobrasada (sausage from Spain’s Balearic Islands), home-made kimchi, pickled tiny mushrooms, a gold smear of mustard, almonds and slivers of golden peppers.
He talks to customers as he makes a tray of 25 biscuits in about five minutes, totally from scratch. His hands work at dizzying speed as he kneads ferociously, slapping the dough and stretching it.
You could choose from mains including chicken pot pie, line-caught halibut or bavette steak from Five Dot Ranch, but it’s the buttermilk fried chicken (US$22) that calls loudest.
It has a sensational crunch, a coating of spices, and the perfect accompaniment – that swiftly made biscuit and a lightly dressed salad of crisp, delicious heirloom tomatoes, radish and lettuce.
A regular walks in, greets Kedan and reveals that the 150-year-old fig tree in his garden has just produced the first fruit of the season.
He offers one to each of us; the figs are honey-sweet and aromatic.
Seriously replete, I pass on desserts, which include budino with salted caramel, but can not miss a small scoop of candy cap mushroom ice cream. Kedan explains how he and his team forage for the fungi, which deliver an incredible and distinctive caramel-sweet flavour.
Finally, we come to Sonoma County’s most talked about and critically acclaimed restaurant, SingleThread, which earned a third Michelin star in November and was named One to Watch at this year’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards.
SingleThread comprises of an inn and restaurant in downtown Healdsburg and a farm 11km (seven miles) away that skirts the Russian River and delivers a breathtaking variety of produce, including more than 30 types of tomatoes, huge black aubergine, purple-sprouting broccoli, Jerusalem artichokes, micro greens and delicate negi, or Japanese spring onions.
The head farmer is Katina Connaughton, who honed her skills working on farms in Hokkaido during three years spent on the Japanese island, and also on a private Victorian estate in Berkshire in the UK.
She is one half of a hugely talented husband-and-wife team alongside chef Kyle Connaughton, who worked at restaurants including Heston Blumenthal’s legendary The Fat Duck in the UK and Michel Bras’ Toya in Hokkaido.
Their menu and approach reflect Japanese sensibilities, rooted in hospitality that leaves no detail to chance and anticipates a guest’s every need. The dining room is stunning – an elegant but warm marriage of textures and colours, with plants and flowers playing a starring role.
The kitchen could not be more open, and guests are encouraged to explore it, while the farm’s world-class produce from 72 micro-seasons dictates SingleThread’s 11-course menu, which changes every five days.
Katina Connaughton explains: “We can grow all year – which is wonderful – and plant crops with dishes in mind. Different crops pique our curiosity, so I’ll go to Kyle and say ‘Hey, there’s this variety, would you be interested?’ and either he’ll say, ‘Of course I would’ or ‘It doesn’t suit the narrative’.
“But sometimes we do it anyway and throw it at him – a bit of a wild card.”
At US$275 per person, without drinks, a meal at SingleThread is a serious investment, but well worth it.
The opener is an explosion of tiny kaiseki-style dishes, beautifully arranged amid flowers and tableware: shigoku oysters from Washington state, Spanish mackerel with a brown butter purée and marigold citrus gel, and a turnip panna cotta which is infinitely better than it sounds.
An unbelievably good smoked fingerling potato foam over kampachi fish, and “night and day tomatoes” – the sweetest and freshest you’ll ever eat – are two highlights of a lunch that seduces beautifully.
Kyle Connaughton then comes over to briefly introduce two more dishes.
“This is an egg from Katina’s farm where she raises 90 heritage breed chickens – it’s a sabayon custard with golden oscietra caviar. Then next to it we have some king crab coming from the Aleutian Islands, very simply steamed with a little bit of cured egg yolk and a sauce made from the heads of the crab.”
If that doesn’t make you book a trip to Sonoma County, nothing will.
The Edge by Stone Edge Farm Winery stoneedgefarm.com/pages/culinary
Information on Sonoma County: sonomacounty.com
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