Sunday, December 27, 2015

Healdsburg: Hidden and not so hidden gems

Pan Tomate 
While most of the SF Bay area funneled toward the Targets, Walmarts and Macy's in their towns to take advantage of post-Christmas sales, I had a hankering to drive away from all of that and out into the country.  It was a sunny day, albiet a sunny winter day, with temperatures south of 40 F in the shade, the sunny car and heat on high kept me company while I travelled up the 101 toward the cute hamlet of Healdsburg, CA.  Only a 45 minute drive from my town of Petaluma, and about an 1.5 hour drive from the Golden Gate Bridge, this sleepy town turned B & B haven is well worth a destination drive to get a break from busy SF and Napa Valley tourist spots.    Nestled at the entrance of Alexander Valley to the North, Dry Creek Valley to the west, the Russian River AVA to the southwest and Chalk Hill and Knight's Valley to the east, with Napa Valley only about 30 minutes further,  Healdsburg offers a nearly perfect crossroad of wineries, boutique shopping and lodging, a myriad of hand-crafted food and drink.  Of the dozens (yes dozens) of restaurants dotting the square,  a few of my favorites stick out:  Bistro Ralph, a neighborhood institution serving up California inspired French food since way before Healdsburg was a force to reckon with.  Scopa and it's sister space, Campo Fino - serving up the best Chicken Cacciatore you have ever tasted.  SpoonBar, in the H2 hotel, a craft cocktail oriented environment where the bartenders and patrons alike compete with scented flower and herbs which dot the bar and make their way into their extensive list of craft cocktails.  Barn Diva, a sassily appointed large space combining rustic barn with elegant art and flavors, with a cool shop next door to sip wine and shop (two of my favorite things to do all rolled into one).  This day, I snuck into Bravas,  1 1/2 blocks northeast of the square, and one of my all time favorite spanish style Tapas places, where a cozy old home feel inside gives way to patio libations (with heat lamps) that flow all year.  The large menu of cold and warm small plates can literally keep you nibbling for hours.   I dropped in for just a few minutes, as I had plans to meet a friend in an hour or two, and just wanted a quick cocktail and snack to make my round of the stores more pleasant (and my wallet more relaxed as is often the case).
 I particularly love the Croquetas: creamy chicken, jamon and gruyere dumplings, perfect food to pair with their signature sangria (white or red) made with house-scented brandy (see my version of Bravas inspired croquetas here:
Patatas Bravas

The patatas bravas, their signature version of perfectly fried potato chunks, are served nestled on a bed of spiced tomato sauce and smothered with an ample enough amount of aioli to keep two people quite happy and quiet for at least half an hour - and possibly even fill their bellies for half a day.  
It's always exciting to hear of a new, off-the-beaten-path destination, and so I was amped for my hour of shopping (and a miraculously tightly held wallet - this time) to conclude,  and the opportunity to meet a friend for another drink (hey it's the holidays) to toast the post-Christmas chill in the air.  We had been talking earlier and he suggest we meet at a place very simply named "Alexander Valley Bar." "Have you been there?" he asked.  Ummm, no.  Yes, I like to find new places, but you probably won't find me travelling country roads alone to unknown destinations in the middle of nowhere without a suggestion from a trusted source.   Well, my pending drink companion is definitely a trusted source, having worked selling boutique wines at a few of the most notable and exclusive locations in Napa and Alexander Valleys.  If he says it's cool, it's cool.  I headed north of town on Healdsburg Avenue, watching for the sign for Alexander Valley Road, just a couple of miles north of town and past the expansive and beautiful grounds of Simi Winery.  A few minutes later, the intersection was clear, with quintessential winery signs pointing me east to a bounty of tasting rooms with names like Soda Rock, Stonestreet and Medlock Ames.  Not a Mondavi in sight, but those of you who need some familiarity, Clos du Bois and Coppola are also nearby.  I wound through vineyards for just a few minutes,  and with the sun getting low, was happy to see I had reached my destination, a hidden speakeasy on the corner of 128 and Alexander Valley Road.
A gateway to some, but most probably an endpoint to a day of tasting to most, Alexander Valley Bar is tucked behind and adjacent to Medlock-Ames, just a few hundred yards short of the Jimtown store (a great stop for lunch with a great take out menu and snacks to keep you sustained along your journey)  Open promptly at 5:00 pm, exactly when the tasting room wraps things up, this dark and inviting speakeasy is just the hidden gem one would hope for.
A craft cocktail list with whimsical twists on the moscow mule, old fashioned and margarita, spirits from local SF Bay area distillers line their shelves.  A velvet tufted banquette lines one corner, reminiscent of aVictorian era, which is reflected in the dark woodwork and bar height stools and communal table dominating the other side of the room.  
Beautiful light fixtures and historic photos round out the decor which overlooks an outdoor patio that I hear is brimming with people and a working pizza oven in the summertime Alexander Valley heat. In the winter, a few local cheeses, olives and charcuterie make up the snack offering.   On this cold, cold winter evening, a thirsty post-wine tasting group was eager to change it up and crowded the bar ahead of us.  As the bartendress stirred a negroni, I was inspired and ordered this classic, one of my all time favorite mixes of bitter and juniper.  My mates let her choose a good sipping tequila, and one got the moscow mule, which had freshly grated ginger on top, giving it that perfect punch.  Drinks here don't come out with lightening speed, but that was okay with us, as we had a lot of holiday smut to chat up, and we weren't in any rush.  I heard the locals were worried about what the  new owners would do with this old store and dive bar that had been in existence for eons.  I could see the local ranchers not loving the new look, nor the new craft cocktail movement.  Thankfully, there are still quite a few dive bars dotting the outer reaches of Healdsburg and Geyserville to keep them happy (I hope!).  I spied an old photo booth in the corner, offering 4 shots for $.25!
Anxious to get a snapshot of our evening, I was disappointed to find it out of film, but not disappointed to learn it was actually $1.25 - a decent price in my opinion.  Hungry from their long work day,  my comrades and I headed into the dark, country parking lot, lit by the almost full moon but not a streetlight in sight on this deceivingly lonely country corner. They suggested we go to back into town, by that they meant Healdsburg, although Geyserville and a few other above average eateries is about the same distance.  I inquired where to meet,  they answered "How about Bravas?" - I agreed as I chuckled to myself, as withdrawal symptoms had already begun to kick in. Twice in one day, with a sexy, hidden bar experience in between, what more could one ask for on this post-holiday trek?

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