Dining in Sonoma: The Girl and the Fig

We decided to take an afternoon off and ride over to the town of Sonoma only 20 minutes away.  While there we afforded ourselves the opportunity to dine at The Girl and the Fig restaurant as we had heard so many great things.  We were escorted through the brasserie-like dining room and led to the back patio where we were able to enjoy the sunshine and outdoor air while dining.  When the menu arrived I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was French.   By their definition, country food with French passion.  I chose the charcuterie platter while Jamie ordered the mussels and matchsticks frites.  They selected one cow’s milk cheese, one goat’s milk cheese, and one sheep’s milk cheese for my platter, with a trio of salamis.  Accompanying this was country French mustard, caperberries (which I love with a charcuterie plate), assorted nuts and some huckleberry chutney.  Jamie’s mussels were perfectly cooked and seasoned and with the french fries made for a perfect lunch.  Other items on the menu that we ignored (but will look at the next time- yes, there will be a next time as we loved the experience) were smoked trout, steak tartare, grilled fig and arugula salad, duck confit, quiche lorraine, croques monsieur, and even a hamburger; and that’s not even counting the main entrees of bouillabaisse, pan-seared Snapper, roasted chicken, or a grilled steak.  The waitstaff was friendly and knowledgeable and I would highly recommend this place for lunch, especially with the outdoor seating in the back patio.  For those coming to Napa Valley for a few days and want to spend part of their time visiting Sonoma, this is a great stop to enjoy some great food for lunch.  Also, because it is on the Sonoma Square, there are lots of other artisan shops, cheese stores, and wine tasting rooms that can be visited as well.  The Girl and the Fig is definitely worth a visit.

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Awarded Select Registry membership.

We were awarded membership this week into a group of Inns called “Select Registry”.  The unique entry into this association is that you subject your Inn to an outsider review by a “secret shopper” as it were who stays at your Inn.  When they are checking out they will announce who they are and tell you how you fared.  The application fee is hefty and the membership fee is high, but we wanted to have an “outsider’s opinion” who would thoroughly evaluate what we do from top to bottom in comparison to other Inns.  Our guests have generously given us feedback and praise which we have appreciated.  Some ideas we’ve implemented and others are still on the table for negotiation and discussion.  The praise is always great and we want to trust it, but we didn’t know how we compared to 400 of the finest country inns, B&Bs, and unique small hotels from California to Nova Scotia.   Select Registry’s difference is that they carry out inspection of all 400 inns on a regular basis to ensure that we are meeting the standards of hospitality, cleanliness, and service that they require.  Our rating wasn’t perfect (yes, we still have room for growth and improvement), but we passed with “flying colors” as the inspector told us.  We would like to thank each and every guest who has helped us reach this goal by your feedback and your praise over the last 18 months.  As only 1 of 2 Inns in Napa Valley, and the only one in the City of Napa, to be awarded this membership, we were really pleased to pass inspection.  We are glad to be noted in this organization as a “shining light of hospitality” and our commitment is to continue to build on our success to better serve our guests in the years to come.

Elements: European tapas with a California touch.

We were so excited when a new restaurant opened in Napa and that it was so close to the Inn.  The ambience is very modern, the dining room contemporary casual, and the wine selection was wide.  As a tapas-style restaurant, we feared it would be too similar to another favorite restaurant of ours, Zuzu’s.  Once there, though, we realized how wonderfully different it was from Zuzu’s and that it would provide a different style of tapas for our guests.  Where Zuzu’s is more Spanish-style in food, Elements is more California-French in influence.  Once again we enjoyed the Calamari and Chorizo sausage (those two items go so well together) and the Lobster Ceviche (a personal favorite as it has a little kick).  The Halibut Crudo was superb, as was the grilled Bavette steak and the Roasted Squashes.  As there were four people, we were able to enjoy so many other flavors on the menu: the Sweetbreads that were sauteed perfectly with a honey-mustard sauce, the homemade pasta with brown butter and sage, as well as the Black Cod with truffles.  My dessert was a selection of cheeses (there are many on the menu) and the others chose the chocolate cake.  The cheese came with honeycomb-honey and a quince paste on the side and made it the perfect ending to my meal.  We love tapas because it is such a wide variety of small dishes to choose from; although the large dishes here are pretty substantial and could be singly ordered as your meal.  We made sure to let them choose our wine this time as they have a wonderful selection of California and French wines that they love to pair with each course and across courses.  Even if you know wine, use their expertise in pairing the wines with your meal.  It is a nice service that they offer and they do it well.

The French Laundry, part 2: “The Food”

I wasn’t sure what to expect, especially when the first course showed up and it was no bigger than my baby-finger fingernail.  A Gruyere cheese puff that popped with flavor.  Followed by a small bowl (smaller than the palm of my hand) filled with warm pearl tapioca custard, topped with two oysters and caviar.  Then there was the single slice of beef served with miniature oyster mushrooms and an incredible mushroom sauce.  There was a single slice of duck pate with pumpkin relish and spiced pumpkin seeds, a tiny filet of whitefish with orange pudding and black olive oil, a small slice of squid with avocado, tomatoes and crispy beans, as well as lobster tail with potatoes and red beet reduction sauce.  Everything was tiny, tiny, tiny, and everything was yummy, yummy, yummy.  I think that was about 1/3 of all the dishes we tried.  I lost track after plate 12, or was it 15?  After awhile, it didn’t matter.  I realized it WAS worth the money for me.

They were even kind enough to ask: “Is there anything you do not wish to see on your plate?”  That was easy: “Brussels Sprouts!” When Jamie received his one dish with the one vegetable I have spent 50 years trying to enjoy (and I have tried them every way you can imagine- please, no “I have a recipe you will love- please…I won’t!) and can finally admit that “I just don’t like them!” they were kind enough to put carrots on my plate.  Every dish was paired with wine, and at the end of the meal when we didn’t want the night to end, they poured us a glass of wine and invited us to sit in the garden.  Not without a small detour to the kitchen to see the center of the action, of course, and then with an offering of a platter of house-made chocolates for us to enjoy as we finished the evening.

For a food lover, this is comparable to going to Disneyland for the very first time as a child.  Everything is magical, bright, and engaging.  Every dish was like going on another ride, and the thrill of anticipation was half the fun.   I really didn’t want the night to end.  This was every bit as exciting as so many other highs I have experienced in life.  Everyone is there to ensure your dining experience is as perfect as possible.  Coming out of that experience I was on a TFL-high for about 5 days, went through a 2-day post-TFL depression, and then returned back from Cloud 9 to land firmly on the earth.

So, what is the magic of TFL?   I have been pondering that question. I want to be able to explain to “hesitant” guests why the money is worth the experience.  Many times one party in the relationship went to all the trouble of making the reservation and will appreciate the experience, and inevitably the other party can only see the dollar amounts in front of his or her eyes.  So, let me try to explain… I will take the “magic” of one dish as my sample: Lobster tail poached in butter, sitting on a beet juice reduction, with a thin circle of potatoes that have been baked crisp and are very salted.  I “deconstructed” the dish: ate a piece of the potato and found it too salty, followed by the lobster which was too buttery, and then took a small taste of the beet sauce and discovered it was almost too sweet.  Then I took all 3 pieces together, put them into my mouth at the same time, and it exploded with flavor.  It is as though the chef takes each individual element of food on the plate, takes it to the extreme, but then balances it out with at least two other elements and creates a symphony of flavor that is incredible.

It was like that with every dish.  I would deconstruct the individual elements, find their essence, and then allow them to dance together at once on my palate and enjoy the ride through its finish.  Sometimes the “presentation” was cute (the little covered bowl of tapioca), or sublime (the duck pate with just a few seeds and a small delicate dollop of pumpkin relish), or colorful (white lobster with red beet reduction with yellow potatoes).  It wasn’t over-the-top artistic with big loops of vegetable, or fancy designs of sauces on the plates; but rather was constructed with great attention to detail- every small miniature cube of turnip was perfectly square (I know how much work that can be!), a single line of pomegranate reduction to offset the oval seeds and the round cut of pate, or a light smudge of mustard to enjoy with the Iberian ham.  It is that attention to detail and the marriage of flavors, added with the superb service in a small 14-table restaurant, that makes it such a special place.  The time it takes to make these sauces, as well as all the small pieces (elements) that go onto a single plate, multiplied by a minimum of 12 courses, is what sets this restaurant apart from any other.

Is it for everyone?  I don’t think so. For the man or woman who wants a steak and potato and dessert for dinner, TFL is not the place to eat.  For those who see “food as fuel”, TFL is not the place to eat.  For someone like me who loves food, reads about food, and enjoys the flavors that can enhance and delight the palate, TFL is an absolute must. Four hours of dining on “little pieces of food” was perfect; not something I want to do every day, but—Jamie, are you reading this?—I sure wouldn’t mind doing this every year for my birthday!