La Salette

Apparently one piece of local news went entirely unreported in ye olde IT: the Chunnel, that subterranean thoroughfare that links Paris to London beneath the English Channel, now has a stop in Sonoma. Well sort of. If you want a bit of Parisian sidewalk fare take a step into La Salette, nestled just a brisk walk off the square on East First Street. No, you won’t be teleported to Paris (to strain my metaphor) but you can certainly have some crepes worthy of a fistful of francs.

Nearly every culture that boasts any sort of culinary awareness has devised a means of containing foodstuffs inside of an edible wrap. Burritos, of course, spring immediately to mind, as do shwarma, both of which have evolved into convenience foods due to their easy handling. Likewise, in Paris, crepe vendors dot the sidewalks, creating savory items on demand for passersby who carry them off in paper cones. Stateside, crepes have yet to be emancipated from the plate, but their burgeoning presence in cafés suggests that American crepes will also soon be handheld.

Now you may ask yourself how a restaurant that purports to specialize in contemporary Portuguese cuisine with an emphasis on seafood could muster the talent necessary to make a quality crepe. Admittedly, I did the same, but Chef Manuel Azevedo convinces and throws in a few creations that recall his commendable seafood menu as well. Consider, for example, the house smoked salmon and cream cheese with dill sauce crepe or the Dungeness crab and corn with shrimp sauce crepe.

On a recent mid-morning visit, I personally enjoyed a handful of different crepes recommended by proprietress Kimberly Azevedo. Among them was a traditional Crepes Suzette, a kitchen flambéed citrus crepe executed with aplomb. The crepe is allegedly named after French actress Suzanne Reichenberg, who reigned the Gallic stage until her death in the 1920s. Her ghost must lurk in LaSalette’s kitchen, overseeing the quotidian recreation of her delectable namesake.

In an entirely different direction is the bacon and egg crepe with a mild Piri Piri sauce. The traditional condiment is made from minced a volatile African pepper of the same name, mixed with oil and vinegar and is a prerequisite on Portuguese table settings. Moreover, it makes for an effective spin on the old Americana standby of bacon and eggs. Wrap it all in a crepe and your morning has a multicultural kick.

The Nutella and banana crepe topped with whipped crème is a crowd pleaser at LaSalette (when it was brought to my table, it came accompanied by oohs and awes from surrounding diners). Nutella, the popular Italian chocolate and hazelnut spread has grown in popularity since first being imported to the states 20 years ago and is a wonderfully sweet way to breakfast. Nutella crepes have been a favorite in Paris since World War II, but Chef Manuel’s inclusion of the bananas bolsters the confection making for a heartier experience.

In Paris, of course, crepe stands are as ubiquitous as telephone booths prior to the advent of the cellular phone. I mention this only to dovetail into an oft-quoted Parisian aphorism: “The telephone killed Montparnasse,” the district in Paris where artists once congregated, in large part, to retrieve their messages. The telephone may have made the cafés irrelevant, but at LaSalette, however, conversation was abuzz and thriving – people were actually talking to each other without some order of technological intermediary. This increasingly rare phenomenon must be applauded and LaSalette’s ability to foster such bon homme among its patrons is one of its best assets. On one weekday morning, twenty-something hipsters sipped coffee, a pair of middle-aged women gabbed about their love lives, a cadre of young men poured over a motorcycle magazine and a family of tourists planned their week’s itinerary. One could be sure it included a revisiting of LaSalette.

Plaza Bistro

I try to avoid having breakfast alone as often as possible. Not only does it determine the kind of day I’ll have, but reminds of the lonely night that preceded it. When my usual dining companion, The Contessa, awoke in Napa too hungover to join me (the traitor), I had only my work for consolation. Fortunately, on this particular weekend morning, my work entailed tasting the numerous brunch offerings at the quaint Plaza Bistro.

I began with a bit of the hair of the dog. Owner Martine has observed two trends amongst his A.M. imbibers: on Saturdays they drink Bloody Marys and on Sundays they drink mimosas. Somehow, the latter drink seems more pious – a consideration when dining in the shadow of the historic Sonoma Mission. I went with the mimosa, which was snappy and whet my palate well.

Caesar, a classy gent and natty dresser, whose culinary philosophy includes the maxim, “leave satisfied, not full,” toured me through the brunch menu. Ironically, without the aid of the Contessa, I would ultimately devour three entrees myself. I am, after all, a professional.

Following Caesar’s lead, I began with the crepe. The menu offers three all of which are of the “savory variety” (wild mushrooms, ham and cheddar, to asparagus and smoked salmon with saffron crème among them). I was recommended the spinach, tomato and melted brie crepe and was happy to find the dish a rousing start, both light and fresh, and beautifully presented.

My appetite and ambition stoked, I proceeded to the eggs Benedict. In the 111 years since chef Oscar Tschirky was inspired to top toasted halves of an English muffin with ham, poached eggs, and hollandaise sauce for New York City’s Waldorf Astoria, much harm has been done to the creation. As you can presume I’ve had a wide range of bennies (as we say in the trade) and have noted that, when inexpertly deployed, they can tend toward under- or over-poached eggs swimming for dear life in a tsunami of hollandaise sauce. Mercifully, this was not the case at La Salette, whose eggs Benedict arrived with firm eggs and a just enough hollandaise to contribute to the other flavors on the plate but not overpower them (the English muffin did prove difficult to slice at one point, but that most likely reflects my inability to proper wield a knife). The dish comes with diced potatoes mixed with whispers of tomato and parsley. Note that Caesar will bring you ketchup for those potatoes only if you ask. As he explained, the sweet notes of the condiment will obscure the nuance of the side. So don’t ask. My relationship with ketchup has only ever been a mild flirtation not a romance so I completely agreed with Caesar’s approach.

Moreover, if you need sweet on your plate, order the French toast. It’s a work of culinary art. The cinnamon-hued battered bread comes strewn with white raisins and green apple slices and is sweet, sweet, sweet. Caesar says that some patrons will order a single serving for their table to share as a sort of “after breakfast dessert.” Indeed, it was the perfect end to wonderful way to begin one’s day.

I left, as Caesar would prefer, “satisfied.”

Hutchinson Reads Sedaris

‘Tis the season to be irreverent – at least for actor Joshua Hutchinson who, tomorrow, begins a four-day stint performing “Holidays on Ice: A staged reading of two short stories by David Sedaris” at the Sonoma Community Center. The reading benefits center’s arts programs for children.

“I have a great time at Christmas, but I know so many friends that are miserable,” says the 34 year-old native Sonoman. “Sometimes you want to look at the dark side of Christmas.”

Such is the métier of bestselling author Sedaris. The celebrated essayist was named “Humorist of the Year” in 2001 by Time magazine and has also received the Thurber prize for American Humor. His latest book, Dress your Family in Corduroy and Denim topped last year’s New York Times bestseller list. More to the point, Sedaris is known for penning darkly humorous stories that lampoon our cultural assumptions as refracted through the prism of his own, often jaundiced, experience.

Consider “Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol,” which finds a truculent theater critic giving scathing reviews to elementary school Christmas pageants, “Christmas Means Giving,” a tale of outrageous competition between neighboring families who battle to the death for the title of “most charitable.”

“He’s unapologetic, which is what I love. He offends people and I think it’s great – it’s life,” says Hutchinson of Sedaris’ work.

Hutchinson was inspired to do a fundraiser while watching a Napa pal’s band perform in New York, where he has spent the past several months working the circuit as a journeyman actor.

“For whatever reason I thought ‘I’m going to do a fundraiser’ when I go home for the holidays,” says the affable Hutchinson. “When I called the Community Center I said ‘Look, I’ve broken enough windows in this place, I should be raising money for a lifetime.’ My brother and I grew up there – the Boys Club was at the community center was there when I was a kid,” he says, then adds proudly, “I was raised, my entire life, on 2nd Street East.”

Hutchinson’s Hollywood good looks and a chameleon-like talent have landed him parts on television’s Charmed, Angel and Roswell (clips from some of Hutchinson’s gigs can be seen at his website www.joshuahutchinson.com). He recently wrapped Mr. Gibb, a comedy shot in New York produced by actor Kevin Spacey’s Trigger Street Productions. In the film, Hutchinson plays a cop and shares the bill with Tim Daly (of TV’s “Wings” fame) and popular character actor William Saddler.

Many in Sonoma may recognize Hutchinson’s face but not the name the may see in lights. Known locally by his birth name “Joshua Farrell,” Hutchinson had to take his father’s middle name as his stage name when he discovered, to his chagrin, another “Joshua Farrell” registered with the Screen Actors Guild.

Though Hutchinson has yet to do a solo live performance of the ilk he’s staging tomorrow night, he’s clocked hundreds of hours of stage time performing plays by the likes of Shakespeare and David Mamet and is confident he will likewise do justice to Sedaris’ work. That said, Sedaris himself is known for reading his work almost as much as the writing itself. He is a frequent contributor to National Public Radio’s This American Life and often sells out his appearances as fans clamor to hear his Truman Capote-esque renditions of his stories.

This, of course, does not daunt the actor.

“I haven’t heard him read – I’ve just read his stuff. I was like ‘Should I hear it?’ Then I’m like ‘I’m going to do my take on it.’ It’s going to be a dry delivery because the words speak for themselves,” says Hutchinson, warding off the specter of doing a David Sedaris impersonation.

But what happens when the audience is so floored by Hutchinson’s interpretation of Sedaris’ oeuvre that they storm the stage, books in hand and confusedly plea “Will you autograph this please, Mr. Sedaris?” this reporter is cheekily compelled to ask.

“Then I’ll just have David come out – because he’s going to come see it,” Hutchinson drolly jokes. “Really.”

“I’m going to make it pretty clear that its David Sedaris’ writing [not reading]. I think he’s a great writer. I’m kind of hoping people pick up the Holidays on Ice and go home and read it with their family around,” Hutchinson says, adding dryly that he anticipates a spike in Sedaris’ Sonoma sales.

“I just wanted to gather a bunch of people and read something – if they laugh, they laugh. Christmas can be so stressful sometimes it’s good to have an outlet.”

The Sonoma Community Center presents Holidays on Ice: A staged reading of two short stories by David Sedaris, starring Joshua Hutchinson. on December 17, 22 and 23 at 7:30 p.m. and December 18 at 3:00 p.m. $5 suggested donation. The center is located at 276 East Napa Street. For more information about Holidays on Ice, contact Shelly Willis at 707-938-4626 ext. 4.

Vitamins and Vinyl

Photo by Michael AmslerPetaluma vitamin store owner Phil Lieb is invigorating his retail supplement business at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute.

“I figured if I don’t, somebody else is going to have all the fun,” says Lieb, proprietor of Vitamin Planet, a vitamin store that recently spawned Vinyl Planet, a store-within-a-store selling used vinyl records.

“I wanted to be involved with music and have something in the store that had a fun factor,” he explains. As is appropriate in a vitamin shop, the “fun factor” comes in megadoses.

“It’s huge. People come in and talk about the vitamins–it’s a very serious thing, people dealing with their health–but when they see the records, they get a smile on their faces.”

Lieb found his groove last April, a year and a half after the town’s flagship vinyl purveyor, Red Devil Records, had left the block for presumably healthier climes in San Rafael. When Discovery Books, which also sold vinyl, shuttered its location last spring, Lieb decided to give his passion a spin.

“The day after they closed their doors, I put my first records on the shelf. Nobody [in Petaluma] is doing it except the thrift stores and some of the antique stores,” says Lieb. “If I don’t count all the hours that I put into it and my friends who help me, I think there’s a small profit there. I’m not relying on it as my sole source of income, but it helps with the cash flow so I can keep the vitamin shelves better stocked.”

Lieb is quick to point out that the cross-marketing of vitamins and vinyl did not begin with him. Corporate lore in the vitamin business has it that a major record chain was birthed in the aisles of a health enterprise.

“This is kind of pretentious for me to say, because I’m nothing, I’m like an antique-store section here,” says Lieb, “but a couple of sources have told me that the first Tower Records started out in the back of a small independent pharmacy in downtown Sacramento. That may have been 30 years ago or something–but there is precedent.”

In a “the turntables have turned” moment, colleagues in the trade told Lieb that Tower’s brass evidently once considered implementing vitamin kiosks in their stores. The idea apparently fizzled like a flat glass of Emergen-C, leaving Vitamin Planet, for the time being, as perhaps the only vitamin and record store in the world, or at least the North Bay. Moreover, it’s likely none but Lieb would sell such an ailing analog media as vinyl records. This accounts for Lieb’s own spin on the analog-vs.-digital debate: He doesn’t sell online. “I don’t save all the good stuff for some person I don’t know,” he says firmly.

Music has long been part of Lieb’s life. In the mid-’80s, he played guitar in the seminal punk band Trap-a-Poodle. He currently plays in rock outfit the Maltese Falcons, who sometimes rehearse in the storefront amidst the antioxidants and odd Beatles reissue.

“They’re never as organized as I want them to be–half the records don’t have prices on them,” Lieb admits. “Right now, I want to have as much diversity as possible to try to find out what people are really interested in buying as far as used records are concerned.

“It’s a win-win situation,” he continues. “The more I know about music, the more I’m able to get it to move. If I know hardly anything about what I’m selling, people think they can come in here and get a steal. Which they can! If they want to resell it on eBay and triple their money, I don’t care.”

In fact, regarding his used vinyl sideline, the only green Lieb concerns himself with is ecological in nature. “It’s kind of a green business–it’s all recycled.”

Vitamin Planet is currently located at 135 Kentucky St., Petaluma. On Jan. 2, 2006, it moves to 112 Washington St., Petaluma. 707.765.0975.

Depot Hotel

“You can stay for dinner but you can’t stay the night.” Yeah, I can’t tell you how many heard that during my dating days, but it’s a good rule of thumb when visiting the Depot Hotel. The name is a bit of a misnomer, seeing as the First Street West landmark is one of Sonoma’s favorite restaurants and not a hotel at all – at least anymore. I’m sure there’s a colorful history that explains the switch, but frankly, the only history diners need to know is that, come December 15, proprietors Michael and Gia Ghilarducci will have been purveying mouthwatering Northern Italian cuisine for the past 20 years.

When one enters the historic plumstone building, one of the first notions to come to mind is “home.” Prepare for a fine dining experience that is something akin to a dinner party hosted by friends that you haven’t met yet. But that won’t last long – the friendly Ghilarduccis frequently make the acquaintance of their guests – and there’s a reason:

“Our business is very personal to us. When we welcome a customer here, it’s not welcoming them into your commercial establishment, it really is like welcoming them into our home – because it is our home. We live here!” said Chef Ghilarducci, a jovial sort with a big laugh, as he gestured to the upstairs quarters.

If a man’s home is his castle, we can expect the live-in-chef to prepare meals fit for a king. And they are – the menu is a scrumptious survey of Northern Italy’s “cucina rustica.” My companion (whose nickname, “The Contessa,” seems apropos to mention in this context) dined on the scaloppine al Marsala, a cut of free-range veal sautéed with a mushroom, Marsala wine and veal demi-glace sauce. In a word, “Perfetto!” She proceeded the entrée with a fiori di salmone affumicato, rosettes of paper thin slice of chilled, smoked salmon served with sour cream, Tobikko caviar and sliced red onions, capers and lemon, which she found a refreshing and tantalizing start.

Likewise, I enjoyed the medaglione alla francese, center-cut medallions of filet mignon expertly sautéed with fresh mushrooms in a superbly savory red wine reduction sauce. The meat was excellently prepared, medium-rare, and managed to be both hearty and delicate at the same time. And the sauce! I should remind that I’ve been conducting a sort of informal survey of such sauces and my admission of this to Ghilarducci dovetailed into spirited conversation we had about the virtues of Italian wine for both the casual dinner-time imbiber as well as for cooking.

“I think when you use the California wines, they’re so fruity and so overboard many times that they don’t really work well,” opined Ghilarducci.

I agreed and interjected “When I want a reduction sauce I want a sauce not a wine on a plate.”
“All you do is taste the intense fruitiness of the wine, you don’t get that subtlety. Italian wines have that combination of earthy minerality and herbaceousness and not that forward-fruit, which is a big difference,” said Ghilarducci. “Californian wines are starting to come around now, but not as much as Italian wines. What can you say – they’ve been doing it longer,” he laughed.

Of course, this is coming from a man who spoke Italian before English when growing up in San Francisco’s North Beach – the famed old world neighborhood noted for its Italian eateries and where Ghilarducci spent the first part of his career. Needless to say, Italian wines are well-represented on the wine list, as are those that are locally produced (my companion and I split a bottle of a Sonoma County’s own St. Francis Merlot, a fine pairing for sure, but after talking with Ghilarducci I was a little embarrassed not to have gone the vino route).

To finish, I luxuriated with the torta gianduia, a sponge cake layered with hazelnuts and Mascarpone cream, speckled with Torani hazelnut syrup and topped with whipped cream and a swirl of caramel sauce. Try this dessert with a port. It will help you get up the nerve to ask if the Ghilarduccis have a room to rent.