Amigos Grill and Cantina

Yes, I too was once naïve enough to think that “Amigos” was simply Spanish for “friends.” Just off the elbow of Highway 12, I learned that the word is a local idiom for “mass quantities of amazing Mexican food awaiting your leisurely consumption – eat now!”

Family-owned and operated Amigos Grill and Cantina has been a Sonoma favorite since opening nearly nine years ago. It’s seemingly endless menu is the result of dozens of traditional recipes hailing from the Sonoran region of Mexico, which have been refined through generations of family cooking until arriving, happily, in the capable hands of Chef Rudy Guiterrez.

The flavorful, emerald-colored guacamole proved a fitting start to the evening as did the battered and fried jalapenos, black bean taquitos, chalupas, jalitos (jalapeño peppers breaded and stuffed with cream cheese and lightly fried) and cheese quesadillas. Please note, this is only a brisk survey of Amigos copious menu – listing every dish would drain the newspaper’s supply of ink.

My companion particularly enjoyed the ceviche which came brimming with fresh cod, bay shrimp, calamari and pico de gallo, marinated in lime juice and served atop a crisp tortilla made for a hearty starter. If variety is the spice of life, Amigos’ firey, spicy arbol sauce is attempting to be immortal. Served with the ceviche, the sauce is named for the chili that is its base and completed with a variety of spices from the secret family recipe book, though it’s safe to say there are notes of onion and cilantro stoking the sauce’s inferno (an inquiry made to the chef was met with no small order of circumspection).

The chili relleno, one of the many house specialties, is a revelation of grande proportions. Contrary to popular treatments of the traditional dish wherein the chili is battered and fried, Amigos’ instead grills the battered and roasted pasilla chili and then drenches it in a creamy sauce.
Likewise the tri-tip steak fajitas, one of several variations on the theme that could include anything from prawns, chicken, pork and a vegetarian option, are served sizzling bedecked by both whole pinto and black beans, a raft of other Mexican accouterments (from jalapenos to pico de gallo) and one’s choice of warm corn or flour tortillas. Low-carb tortillas are also available for those mindful of such things, though I think the thought should be repressed – indulgence should be the rule while at Amigos.

Meanwhile, the chicken mole is a study in subtlety. The signature sauce had a smooth, velvety quality that was simultaneously piquant and understated. I’ve been doing reconnaissance on mole sauces for the past several months and have found many to be too aggressive, rather like, as a friend recently put it “a stiletto heel to the tongue.” Amigos’ mole sauce, however, is quite like being kissed by a former lover – it’s familiar, spices things up and you immediately want to tell your best friend about it.

That said, if you’re inclined to gossip, I highly recommend doing it over one of Amigos’ lauded margaritas. The Cadillac Margarita, a decadent mix of Cuervo 1800 tequila, Cointreau, Grand Mariner and sweet and sour mix, will give you an instant air of south of the border-style sophistication, though upon finishing it, you may not be able to say the word. I certainly couldn’t, but then an evening at Amigos isn’t about talking so much as eating and thanks to their generous servings you will be doing a lot of that.

The waitstaff and servers, leave one wanting for nothing. They are quick, attentive and extremely friendly. On the occasion of our visit, there was an impromptu birthday party occurring a few tables away. Tipped off, the staff assembled into a chorus and sang “Happy Birthday” which met the flash of a Polaroid camera at the crescendo. A lot of restaurants will sing “Happy Birthday” to you, but taking your picture? Now, that’s just cool.

The dessert menu teems with delectable notions, in fact, too many to be comprehended in a single thought. Rather than tax my enfeeble mind, which was still cruising from the Cadillac Margarita, I went the traditional route and enjoyed a light and airy flan splashed with Grand Mariner. It had a wonderfully smooth consistency was the perfect finish to a night of gustatory debauchery.

Amigos Grill and Cantina
19315 Hyw 12, Sonoma, CA
707/939-0743

Sangiacomo Vineyards Owner Honored

Local grape-growing maven Angelo Sangiacomo will be inducted into the Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s “Hall of Fame” at its 88th annual dinner and awards program this Friday (October 28).

The Farm Bureau is a non-government affiliated association of farm and ranch families that, according to its website, is “united for the purpose of analyzing their problems and formulating action to achieve educational improvement, economic opportunity, and social advancement and, thereby, to promote the national well-being.”

The keynote speaker this year is Martina Newell-McGloughlin, director of the University of California’s biotechnology research and education program.

“Angelo Sangiacomo has just been a real pioneer in the wine industry in Sonoma County,” says Lex McCorvey, Farm Bureau’s executive director. “Angelo has been at the forefront of the evolution of the local grape-growing industry. We’re recognizing him for his lifetime achievement to agriculture in the community.”

At the ceremony, Sangiacomo will be presented with a gift in recognition of his achievements amidst testimonials from members of the area’s agricultural community recognizing his contributions.

“Well, it’s an honor. I feel honored and proud of the award,” says Sangiacomo, a crinkly-eyed septuagenarian possessed of an affable demeanor and gentlemanly modesty. To wit, Sangiacomo is pleased with the honor but demurely suggests with a chuckle “That’s what happens when you get older and you still stay with it.”

Sangiacomo turned 75 this past August and delights in pointing out that he is a native Sonoman, “born at Burndale Hospital on Burndale Road.”

Likewise, Sangiacomo takes satisfaction in the fact that his vineyards have remained a family-owned business since his parents founded their first fruit orchard in 1927. Sangiacomo, his two brothers and sister grew up in the family business. These days, his two sons are also active in the company (his daughter currently works for an ale company, but he says “We look forward to having her back someday.”).

“We had a large fruit orchard for years. We really had a lot of pears, apples, prunes, even cherries years back. Now it’s all grapes. When you’re in Rome do what the Romans do,” Sangiacomo says with a sage smile. Sangiacomo Vineyards now produces Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Merlot and Pinot Grigio grapes.

Sangiacomo credits his success and enduring popularity with winemakers, and by extension wine drinkers, to a strong family work ethic.

“I think that we’ve worked hard at it. We’ve grown up in it. There are other equally good suppliers out there. We don’t think ours is any better. We have neighbors and people in Sonoma County who have that have just as good of grapes and all, but I think that it’s the long term relationships with the wineries that we’ve had – evidentially we’re doing what they want us to do.”

Christopher Sawyer, a wine writer and sommelier, who recently hosted a dinner in honor of Sangiacomo’s contributions to local winemaking at Carneros Bistro and Wine Bar at the Lodge in Sonoma, points to the consistent quality of Sangiacomo’s fruit as the reason the name “Sangiacomo Vineyards” is the vineyard designate on so many wine labels.

“Sangiacomo Vineyards have a long line of people who want fruit from them. These guys are some of the best winemakers in our area as well as the Napa Valley who want a piece of the Sangiacomo fruit property,” says Sawyer. “He’s one of the finest farmers in Northern California, hands down. His family has the tradition of being a farming family. They have over a thousand acres of grapes, that have charm and consistently well-groomed grape vines.”

Sawyer is impressed with Sangiacomo’s prescience when it comes to selecting areas to plant his vineyards, which have expanded from the Carneros and Sonoma Valley regions to the burgeoning Sonoma Coast appellation.

“These are three of the most prominent wine growing regions in Northern California and they’ve spotlighted all of them and are doing a great job in each one,” says Sawyer. “You have to honor people who have such a vast array of great grapes – wine producers want their fruit to come from this vineyard because they’re so special.”

McCorvey concurs, adding that Sangiacomo’s years of experience are evident in the fruits of his labors.

“His years of experience, not only developing his vineyard, the soils that he has, and the land that he has acquired to grow grapes are very unique,” says McCorvey. “I think his wisdom from years of being in agriculture has played to his advantage and I think the quality of his fruit is indicative of that.”

R&H Educational Films

Educational films by R&H (Rapp and Howell), produced for Universal Studios and aired on Showtime: Is It Time to Swap? Let’s Meet Those People, What to do with Your Dead Hooker and Johnny-Come-Early.

Saffron Restaurant

“I’m just mad about Saffron, Saffron’s mad about me,” crooned Irish rocker Donovan in his signature 1966 hit, Mellow Yellow. Though bananas, electrical or otherwise, are not represented on his menu, chef and restaurateur Christopher Dever elected to make the fragrant spice the namesake of his intimate Glen Ellen bistro. The restaurant opened its doors on Arnold Drive nearly six years ago and remains a darling of both locals and visitors alike.

Saffron, a corm-producing plant of the crocus sativus variety, produces small flowers atop yellow-orange stigmas. It is these stigmas, when dried, that are used to create the aromatic spice – a seasoning in much evidence at the warm, snug eatery.

An eclectic mix of influences, Saffron’s menu is a survey of Old and New World haute cuisines infused with a well-hewn California gastronomical sensibility, which is to say it’s got something for everyone except those on a hunger strike.

Ostensibly a tapas joint, Dever’s philosophy when creating Saffron was to marry locally produced ingredients to multi-cultural influences culled from the world over. Moreover, Dever maintains a region-meets-season protocol that has the menu changing on a near daily basis, though traditional Spanish dishes (among them, of course, the ubiquitous paella) figure prominently. The result is a winning combination of savory surprises that suggest the aphorism “Think globally, eat locally.”

On our visit, we began with a fresh heirloom tomato salad bedecked with briney capers and sweet onions, a simple dish but fresh and excellently deployed ($7). Saffron seems to put a premium on presentation and you may find yourself apprehensive about mussing the contents of an attractively arranged plate (you wouldn’t stick your fork into a Picasso would you?). Mussels are also featured on the appetizer menu and come steamed, boasting saffron, shallots, garlic and “laced with sherry” ($12). Both starters are wonderfully delicate curtain openers to Saffron’s entrees, which dazzle with folksy simplicity.

Helming the red meat department is a superb fillet of Montana Ranch beef served over fried green tomatoes and drizzled with a sumptuous zinfandel reduction sauce ($27). Likewise, the pork tender loin served in an au jus and accompanied by seasonal greens ($19) commanded approbations from my companion who, between succulent bites, managed to report “It’s really tender, prepared perfectly. It’s an ideal Fall meal – hearty but not overwhelming. The simplicity really brings out all of the flavors.” I managed to negotiate a trade – a bite of my fillet for a bite of her tenderloin, to which she reluctantly agreed, passing the sample over as it were the last bit of pork on earth, if not her plate.

The affable, young staff is surprisingly knowledgeable given their tender years and aptly suggested Murphy-Goode’s “Liar’s Dice” zinfandel, which paired well with our meals, especially since it echoed the reduction sauce on the fillet. It should be noted, that the wine list at Saffron is rather impressive and, of course, boasts a surfeit of Spanish wines. Finishing with the Valhrona chocolate bread pudding provided the perfect endnote and is highly recommended ($7).

Saffron makes wonderful use of its intimate ambience (large burgundy curtains, fragrant flower displays), and suggests itself as a spot worthy of rekindling a romance. Upon our visit, the cozy dining area was populated entirely by couples, representing every shade of romantic development, from first love to last chance – though it seemed everyone left happily. As Donovan would say “Quite rightly.”

Saffron Restaurant
13648 Arnold Drive
Glen Ellen, CA 95422
tel: 707.938.4844

Author Cydney Chadwick Cuts and Runs

Penngrove, that tiny rural burg one would miss if happening to blink while driving through, is home to more than its famed Dutch Belt cows. It is, in fact, a literary haven of sorts, thanks to nearly two decades of work quietly conducted in the home office of writer and publisher Cydney Chadwick.

Books she’s written or published through her nonprofit press Avec Books have garnered international attention and critical approbation the world over.

“I just do my work,” Chadwick says demurely. Her first story was published in 1988 in a Midwest literary journal. Later that year, she founded Avec, a literary magazine, the first issue of which featured a “lost chapter” from Beat writer William Burroughs’ seminal text “Naked Lunch.”

The notion of being both a writer and a publisher might at first seem analogous to a producer casting herself in her own film. For the most part, Chadwick has resisted such a facile equation and has striven, instead, to differentiate herself as a writer autonomous from her press. Her efforts have paid off — nearly a dozen publications now bear her byline. She has also received two creative writing fellowships, a handful of awards (including the Gertrude Stein Award in Contemporary American Poetry), and the occasional all-expenses paid trips to Paris and Berlin to participate in literary events. She has also given multiple readings in New York and London.

“As a literary person, I’ve never known anything else but the wearing of those two hats — writer and publisher,” she says. “It has made me more of an iconoclast. There are many independent press communities throughout this country, and the members of these communities seem to write for each other. I’ve never joined one, nor have I tried to foster one. The writing I publish is quite varied — from translations of Russian and French poets to a book of post-postmodern feminist stories that was blurbed by Burroughs,” she says, then adds wryly, “and the Beats weren’t exactly known for embracing feminism.”

On Sunday, Chadwick will read from her works at Zebulon’s Lounge in Petaluma. She will be joined by Sonoma County’s newly appointed poet laureate, Geri Digiorno, and Jordan E. Rosenfeld, a novelist and host of “Word by Word: Conversations with Writers” on local NPR-affiliate, KRCB-FM, which broadcasts in Sonoma County on 91.1 FM and 90.9 FM.

Chadwick will read from “Enemy Clothing” and “Flesh and Bone,” a collection of stories that won the Independent Publisher Book award for the best short story collection of 2002. She will also read from “Cut and Run,” her latest book, that finds its enigmatic narrator conducting a platonic affair with a married art lover, while extricating herself from a lesbian tryst. It was released last summer.

Much of Chadwick’s work deals with the rich interior experience of women, but Chadwick attributes its nuance and verisimilitude to craft rather than the mining of her personal experience.

“I gave a reading in New York City and fooled an NYU professor of literature. Given the question he asked, he thought one of the pieces I read was autobiographical,” says Chadwick, who is quick to add: “The characters are never me. They either come from my imagination or (are) drawn from observation.”

Although Chadwick enjoys the challenges of publishing another author’s work, she says there are pitfalls unique to being a writer that she endeavors to avoid.

“Publishing someone else’s work, spending my energy on the production of another author’s book, is easier than writing new work of my own, and that’s a very insidious danger of being a publisher,” Chadwick says. “If I don’t set boundaries and have the discipline to set aside time for my writing, publishing could easily become a distraction and deterrent to creating new work of my own.

“When I’m ‘in the zone,’ it’s the gravitas, the roll I’m on with a particular piece of work that brings me back to the computer. A particular kind of focus sets in and I am able to do this. It gets easier to find this zone when I’m writing every day,” says Chadwick, who explains she is “obliged to write” given her dedication to her work.

“This is what I chose to do. I either wanted to be a writer or painter. When I was young, I wanted be a professional athlete. I was a competitive figure skater and played tournament tennis. As it is now, I’m a recreational cyclist. I work out a lot of story problems when I’m out riding.”

On more than one occasion, she says, she has used her cell phone to record story revisions on her home voice mail while bicycling.

Chadwick takes pains to differentiate herself from her press, which literary aspirants often conflate as simply an extension of her. She maintains separate voice mail and e-mail addresses, and keeps her personal phone number unlisted to ward off the innumerable calls she used to receive from authors in search of a publisher.

“I had to change my unlisted phone number because writers who had gotten access to it would call me, either while I was working on Avec Books, doing my own writing, or about to go to sleep and would tell me where they were being published,” she laments. “These calls were so intrusive and demanding that I was unable to deal with them and decided to put my time and energy into my own writing, and the work for Avec Books.”

Chadwick’s commitment to her press endures despite dwindling arts funding, which is the life’s blood of small presses.

“Keeping a nonprofit going in these times is extremely difficult. I was going to do a fundraiser around Halloween, but given the fact that so many of us have just given money to help Hurricane Katrina survivors, the timing is bad,” she says. (Avec Books is in need of an Apple computer, circa 2000 or later).

Despite the hardships, after publishing more than 30 titles, Chadwick is game to press on and bring new voices to the fore.

“I’ve published many authors’ first books. It was rewarding to take that risk,” she says. “I still enjoy bringing out other writers’ books.”

Cydney Chadwick reads at 5 p.m. Sunday at Zebulon’s Lounge, 21 Fourth St., Petaluma. Free. (707) 769-7948; www.zebulonslounge.com. Must be 21 years or older. For information about Avec Books, visit www.avecbooks.org.