Sunday, January 31, 2010

Rocker Oysterfeller's, Valley Ford, CA

It took only a slight twisting of the arm to get my girlfriends to drive out to Rocker Oysterfeller's Kitchen + Saloon in Valley Ford on my last Friday night off (for a while at least). It had been raining for days, and even though I looked forward to some southern fare in the “country”, I understood their trepidation after commuting at 20 mph in huge downpours earlier that day. This week between jobs has been no vacation, as moving on Wednesday was done in the midst of torrential downpours, my brother and I muscling my inflexible couch up the narrow stairwell of my new Victorian flat on B Street. The Temperapedic mattress posed another unwieldy challenge. Not to mention I basically have too much shit.

So back to Valley Ford and why the hell I picked a restaurant in the middle of nowhere on a rainy-ish Friday night?  Situated about 20 miles west of Petaluma, on Hwy One, Valley Ford forms the eastern apex of a triangle between Bodega Bay to the north, and Tomales Bay to the south. I passed through there last September on my quest for oysters (Oysters in Marshall post, September…). And a few weeks ago in my search for a place to call home, I met a guy who happened to be one of the chefs there. While we stood in his kitchen and chatted about the fact that there was no way I could live all the way out in Bloomfield (yes, there is a town named Bloomfield about 15 miles west of Petaluma), I sipped on his incredible homemade Kombucha and made plans to go check out the restaurant, as I’m always up for a road trip if food is promised.

Having looked at their website with good reviews of hearty southern fare, I coerced my friends to go check it out with me. My sister was only committed to pre-dinner drinks at my new flat, but after a little wine she gave in and decided to join us.   As we pulled up, I felt like we were way out west, as it is truly in the boondocks (did I already mention that)?  Nothing but big sky, cows and sheep roaming the pastures.  Rocker Oysterfellers is housed in the base of the Valley Ford Hotel,  an old clapboard style building with the saloon up front and dining room in the back.  We thought of sitting in the bar to eat, as it was pretty lively, but there wasn't a table to fit the four of us, so we continued on to the dining room.

Sparsely populated with a few local families finishing up their suppers, the room's wooden tables were adorned with paper placemats, nice wine glasses, and cloth napkins, giving  the place a rustic elegance. A local artist's Sonoma County landscape paintings randomly accented the walls. It was only 7:30 but I got the impression that folks around here eat early. Got to get up and milk the cows and all that, you know. Us girls  were in great moods and had to be reminded to “simmer down” as we were shooshed by the elderly group at the table next to us, digging into a giant piece of chocolate cake. "Did they just shoosh us?", I leaned in to ask my sister.  Yup, they did.  It is folks like that who have no idea how most places keep afloat. Scaring off people like us, new customers out to spend a little money and have a good time, could put their local “sanctuary” out of business. You know what I’m saying?

Anyhoo, Kimberly is from the south, and I saw her face light up at Rocker Oysterfellers’ down home menu boasting quite a big southern influence with cheddar grits, jalapeno corn biscuits, fried chicken, two different types of gumbo, fried okra and Tomales Bay oysters prepared every which way. While I pondered which oysters to order: fried over a Caesar salad, barbequed with either traditional style bbq sauce, Louisiana Hot, or their house signature “Rocker Oysterfeller” with bacon, arugula and cream cheese, a combination plate magically appeared on the table, compliments of the chef. Yay, gotta love that! After finding out that both Lisa and Kimberly aren’t big oyster fans, I could barely stop myself from slurping all 6 within seconds. But I had to share (with sister), my favorite being the one with Louisiana Hot sauce, but really, I wouldn’t kick the other two out of my, oh, I mean, off my plate.

After much discussion about what to order off a menu that included Crab and Artichoke cakes, numerous fresh salads boasting the pedigree of local farms, grilled local halibut and a huge sounding New York steak, we decided on a bunch of southern style comfort foods to share.  Lisa and I chose Little Farms Romaine salad with Creole caesar dressing and fried oysters (yes, more oysters), the Gleason Ranch Fried Chicken and a side of Mac n' 3 cheeses.  My sister and Kimberly chose cups of gumbo with andouille sausage and seafood, fried okra (not exactly listed as a side but we managed to fanagle that) and cheese grits.  A side of Jalapeno Corn Biscuits automatically comes with dinner, and we wished we had more as the texture of the corn played off perfectly with a hint of heat and cheddar cheese.  More please...

The caesar arrived, with chopped romaine and cornmeal fried oysters dotting the edges.  I was happy with more oysters to indulge in, although they could have used a remoulade or some more dressing, as the lettuce was very sparsely adorned.  In the meantime Kimberly and sis were contending with bowls of dark brown gumbo, unsuccessfully fishing around for seafood, shrimp or even a piece of andouille sausage.  The soup lacked salt and unfortunately, flavor in general. Lisa and I occupied ourselves in between courses with small carafes of Unti Dry Creek Valley Grenache, from a well priced tidy, yet well represented list of both local and european producers..  The also have a full bar and good array of specialty drinks.

Next came the Gleason Ranch fried chicken with Lagunitas Ale-caraway gravy and crushed potatoes.  We quickly forgot about the gumbo and caesar hiccup, as this comfort food dish still has me craving it a week later.  A large thigh and breast were perfectly encased in a crunchy crust:  moist and flavorful. The Gleason family has been farming sustainably out in Bodega for over 100 years and it shows, as the intensely flavored chicken was the most "chicken-ey" in recent (and not so recent) memory.   The delicious gravy, rich but not overwhelming, and "crushed" potatoes were so good, we had to guard them, as our dining companions kept reaching over to steal  That's okay though, as their Estero Gold cheese grits, made with an asiago type sharp cheese from the Valley Ford Cheese Company, kept finding its way over to my side of the table.  The mac and 3 cheeses was out of this world.  I didn't get a chance to try the fried okra, which my companions said was just "so so".  I really can't imagine what were were thinking on this carbo load mission.  However, it was a rainy Friday, and one couldn't deny this was perfect "stick to yer ribs" kind of fare.
 
You may or may not believe that we actually decided to try one dessert, the eponymous chocolate cake our "shushy" neighbors were having. The four of us couldn't even finish one piece, generously filled with a layer of house-brandied cherries.  They added a serious touch of the incredible, as even though we were stuffed to the gills, we couldn't stop picking at them. 

Rocker Oysterfellers definitely has its share of items to return for, as well as much to look forward to:  They are open for weekend brunch, a perfect stop on a Sunday drive in the country and lucky for me, just a few miles out of town.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Fred's Place - Sausalito



 My Sunday morning ritual not broken by moving boxes and packing tape, I headed to Fred's Place on Bridgeway for a pre-moving feast and another chance to say goodbye to this funny little town.  Okay, I know, I'm not moving to Washington or anything. My nostalgic nature has been seriously kicking in though, so it was quite fitting for me to spend my last Sunday at this quintessentially Sausalito breakfast joint, perched precariously at the counter on a barstool practically on top of the cash register, the perfect birds-eye view down the line:  plates flying, pancakes griddling, rows of bacon and piles of hash browns sizzling away on the flattop.  It also gave me a chance to chat with Tien, who is always there, running the floor, the register and the counter, spinning like a top with his eye on everyone and everything.  Knowing most of the customers by name, Tien has worked the counter at Fred's for 6 years, which is a drop in the bucket to the old timers there:  Toto has been expertly working the flattop for the last 26 years, and his sidekick, Sergio, for the last 16, scrambling eggs, and making omelettes on the smallest 2 burner stove you've ever seen.   Wait a second, what's the deal with all the sixes??? 

On any given day Fred's is rifled with locals of every shape, size and economic status, sharing communal-style tables with tourists since way back before communal tables were chic and in.  Let me just set things straight right now (in case you had any reason to think otherwise), Fred's is about as local and lowbrow as one can get, and I say that in the fondest way possible.  In fact, most breakfast places are pretty lowbrow when you think of it.  Eggs, cheese, bacon and fried potatoes aren't exactly haute cuisine. No, they aren't organic or serving nitrate-free meats with producers prominently displayed on the menu.   A place that turns tables every 30-45 minutes (I was seriously in there for less than 30), is no place for a food snob or someone wanting Riedel crystal for their Mimosa.  And they do have Mimosas by the way, great fresh O.J., decent coffee and even better lattes and cappucinos. 



As I waited for my bratwurst and poached eggs, dry rye and hash browns (yes, a walking contradication), I watched Toto carefully whipping eggs and pancake batter in a Hamilton Beach shake blender, you know, the old-school kind with 4 heads and fast spinning parts that look like a bitch to clean (been there, done that!).  What a great idea to keep the pancake batter the right consistency and the eggs fluffy.  See, Fred's has its own way of doing things and that's what keeps this place hopping 364 days of the year (they are only closed on Christmas, Tien tells me, as the cooks are "Catholic and that is their holiday").   They don't have website, so it was  hard to find out just when the original "Fred" passed-on and exactly when the Korean family that efficiently runs the place took over.  As far as I can see though, they are doing a grand job with Fred's creation.


Fred's menu is huge, with every kind of sausage imaginable:  Polish, Linguica, Chicken Apple, Breakfast Links, the aforementioned Bratwurst...  Their lunch menu has the usual suspects:  club sandwiches, BLT's, burgers and the like.  They also have Korean-style short ribs, deliciously teriyaki-ed medium rare, grilled right along side the toast.  Yes, you heard right, Fred's doesn't have a toaster, but instead has a guy dedicated to grilling each and every piece of toast they put out.  Their pancakes are the thin, swedish style, perfect to soak up the huge slather of butter (although it looks yellowish, like margarine from where I'm stationed) and they do have real maple syrup, but you have to ask for it.  I'm pretty sure the hash browns came from a freezer bag, and that hollandaise sauce I saw Toto whisking with a dinner fork, it probably came from a packaged mix.  However, somehow the ambiance, the bustling activity and the locals make it all not matter.  If you're worried about saturated fats, and knowing which farm your pork came from, then Fred's is probably not for you.  If you want a great old fashioned, down to earth breakfast, with interesting conversation, a snapshot of locals mixed with tourists and other Marinites from neighboring towns, then Fred's Place is just the ticket.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Skinny Words

HA! You thought it had something to do with weight, right?  The "skinny words" title, conjuring images of recipes touting lowfat ingredients, or perhaps some advice on how to slim down after all of that holiday indulging, or some sort of New Year's resolution to speak only of healthful eating.  Well, I guess the last one is true.  Not the resolution part, but the part about writing about healthful eating.  In my small corner of the planet, all eating is healthful as long as it doesn't include anything "partially hydrogenated", with "sugar substitute", or some sort of "left handed" fat (when our bodies can only digest the "right handed" variety).

But no, that's still not what I'm talking about.  I'm speaking of my blog, and how sparsely I've written in the last few weeks.  Please bear with me as I scrounge boxes from behind the local grocery and stash my worldly possessions in some sort of organized fashion so that unpacking isn't as much of a nightmare.

Who would have thunk that I had so much damn kitchen shit packed into my impossibly small kitchen?  Mandolins (the cutting kind), stick blenders, two food processors (although one is going to goodwill), a huge noodle pot with four different strainers in case I decide to cook 4 kinds of noodles at once (this one doesn't get a box), numerous pots and pans, pitchers, a rice cooker, bento boxes, tupperware, a crockpot, OH MY!  That doesn't sound like much, but the smell of old cardboard permeating my house, and the maze I have constructed to get through to the door is starting to drive me batty.  Not to mention the bleach I  repeatedly spray on those fricken bathroom tiles making me nauseous in my sleep, bathroom door closed, window open and two rooms away... I can't believe I will have to scrub my shower while wearing contacts (cuz' it really looked fine enough to me while showering yesterday, sans glasses, of course).

All for the better though.  I signed my lease a few days ago and strolled about  my new neighborhood.  Located just a few blocks off downtown, my new pad is located in a gorgeous turn of the century (the last century) victorian, complete with wainscoting, curved ceilings, crown mouldings, and a tub. A TUB, which I haven't had the luxury of for the last 6 years.  Hurray!

The neighborhood is awesome, with cute homes every step along the way, front yards filled with lavender, herb gardens, rambling roses and jasmine just waiting for spring to burst forth their fragrant goodness.  As I sat outside The Tea Room Cafe, sipping Assam tea, and nibbling on a goat cheese and balsamic chicken salad, I remarked to my friend that even the young punk rock wanna-bes at the next table were friendly.  They said goodbye and smiled to us as they slid away on their skateboards.  That would NEVER happen in Marin or San Francisco.  Sad but true.

So please excuse my lull, as I will be back full tilt in a week or two (with a few shorties in between). I'm now off to pack my closet.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

A farm I can't wait to visit

I stopped by my new restaurant (well, not my restaurant, but you know what I mean) to learn a few things from the manager, Misja, who I'm replacing.  Come to find out, I used to work with her father, Peter Nuyttens, during my time with The Lark Creek Restaurant Group.  Small world, small world, small world (well, its not like I'm hundreds of miles away).  After she visits her Restaurateur-turned-Yogi father in France, Misja  is moving to Green Strings Farm for a 3 month internship.  How exciting!

I've driven by Green Strings many times in the last few weeks on my traverses here and there looking for places to live.  Occupying 140 acres of emerald green rolling hills on the east side of Petaluma, (now you understand why I'm moving), Green Strings not only grows for some top restaurants in the Bay Area (and my new employer), they have a farm store that I can't wait to visit.  Boasting some of the happiest chickens in Petaluma (which, incidentally, has often been called "chicken-luma"), one can buy eggs straight from the coop, organic vegetables picked that day, beef that they raise a few hundred miles north, and even cheese made from the milk of those same cows. 

Misja learned about Green String's intern program through another farmer.  For three months, about a dozen or so interns learn all they can from farm owner and sustainable food veteran, Paul Cannard.  Many go on to get their graduate degrees in agriculture, some jump into the restaurant business from the backside, and others start their own farms outright. I told Misja I was coming out there as soon as possible to write about Green String in my blog.  I'm happy to report that once a month they do a farm tour.  I can't wait to tour, but also, watch out Whole Paycheck, I'll now have a new place to shop!

For more information on the farm, what they sell, when their tours are and how to get there:
http://www.greenstringfarm.com/
For a  nice snapshot from the interns (and I won't be mad if you join), check out their blog at http://www.greenstringfarm.blogspot.com/

Monday, January 4, 2010

Petaluma finds

Happy New Year to all. 

The first day of the year found me dragging my friend Marcelo around Petaluma, looking at houses for rent.  The drizzly Friday couldn't have been more sleepy.  Absolutely NO ONE was out and about, and many downtown eateries were closed.  Both of us starving, we headed over to Dempsey's, the dependable brew pub across the bridge at the end of Western (and a stone's throw from my new job at Central Market).  I hadn't been to Dempsey's in a long time, and just as expected, we had very dependable lunches:  His was a crispy Pork Sandwich stuffed into some homemade flatbread with melted provolone and arugula, served with a large mound of greens just a forks reach away (from me).  I chose the Calamari Salad, which was more calamari than salad:  Arugula tossed with fried calamari and crispy onions.  Thankfully I asked for the herb aioli on the side, but I'm not sure why, because between the calamari and the side of sweet potatoes, crispy from oven roasting then frying, we scarfed the whole ramekin down.  The calamari was fresh and lightly battered, just as one would expect, but  I don't know if I'd order it again, as it was screaming for more greens (which explains the forkfuls of salad I kept stealing from across the table). However, it certainly hit the slightly hung-over spot that needed filling.  Dempsey's also has a great array of home brewed beers as well as a pretty eclectic menu.  It seems the housemade sweet pickles are the thing to have, as evidenced by the large mounds I saw on numerous tables around us.  I suppose that's what separated us from the locals, who were clearly in "the know".

An hour or two later, with some spare time between appointments, we cruised up to the Tea Room Cafe for a coffee, a cute breakfast/lunch place on Western Avenue just East of Howard Street.  It's so exciting to find neighborhood gems around my new town, and the Tea Room Cafe is definitely one.  Unfortunately they were closing, so the nice gal out front sent us over to the Aqus Cafe', at 2nd and H Street.  Slightly away from downtown, 2nd and H is a block long corrugated metal building occupying the space of an old foundry.  New construction gives it an upscale industrial warehouse feel.  Aqus is front and center on the corner and the new Cowgirl Creamery Petaluma Annex just a few storefronts down.  I had hit mini-paydirt in the up and coming industrial section of town (mark my words!).  Just up the street at H & Petaluma Blvd South is SEA Thai Restaurant (a good spot I had heard of from my old friend Rik Barr). 
Replete with a knit cap, a Les Claypool band t-shirt and some counter culture looking friends, our coffee guy couldn't have been nicer and poured us up some beautiful lattes that even had leaf artistry in the mocha colored foam.  The menu looked good, with tasty sounding sandwiches and a nice selection of sweets.  Numerous local artists' works (some great and some not so much) dotted the walls, and flyers abounded with announcements of live music here Thurs - Sundays. 

The house hunting for the day ended shortly thereafter with a funny little cottage that had stuccoed walls reminiscent of cake icing, and a landlord that looked like a retired roadie from Journey.  I may not have found my perfect place to live, but I did find some perfect places to hang out.

http://www.dempseys.com/  50 East Washington Street, Petaluma
http://www.tearoomcafe.com/  316 Western Avenue, Petaluma
http://www.aquscafe.com/   189 H Street, Petaluma
http://www.cowgirlcreamery.com/  419 1st Street, Petaluma