Take a Farmer Out for Dinner

By May 10, 2016 May 30th, 2016 Blog
Jonah Raskin with Farmer Kellen MacKay at 25 Lusk

Beyond the Bay Area’s Best 100 Restaurants: Take a Farmer Out for Dinner

Where to eat? What to eat? And when to eat? Questions about food and eating proliferate endlessly. Each day brings new challenges, new desires and perhaps even new fears in an era of food insecurity. 

To help foodies, gourmets and gourmands decide basic questions about the where, the when, and the what of fine dining, The San Francisco Chronicle has just published its 21st annual list of the top one hundred restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Not surprisingly, most of the restaurants — from Acquerello, which serves excellent Italian food, to Zuni Café, which offers California cuisine at its best — are located in the city itself that’s exceedingly proud of its food past.

One would expect a San Francisco newspaper to tout its own restaurants. After all, there’s pride in proximity. But there might also be food provincialism in the Chronicle’s selections.

Even when the editors venture beyond the city’s hills and valleys their selections are predictable.

Tiny Yountville in Napa — widely known as a food destination — has six famous restaurants on the list, including Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry and Michael Chiarello’s Bottega. It would be a culinary crime to omit them, though they may not need or even want accolades anymore.

Indeed, why not praise a new location, a new chef, and a bold new experiment in the culinary arts?

Not a single Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, Graton, or Geyserville restaurant appears on the top 100, though the Underwood Bar and Bistro and the Willow Wood Market Café  — both in the hamlet of Graton and both shaped by the genius of chef and ex-New Yorker Matthew Greenbaum — are arguably as good as any of the bistros and café on the Chronicle’s select list. Healdsburg has three restaurants on the list: SHED Cafe at the Healdsburg SHED, Madrona Manor and Bravas Bar de Tapas that’s renowned for its fried chicken — hardly a staple on tapas menus in Spain.

Americans have to have old standbys such as fried chicken and hamburgers and fries.

Sonoma and Marin, to say nothing of Mendocino and Lake still take a back seat to Napa County, and its booming tourist industry, in the established food world. If you want to make it as a chef, hunker down in a capital and not in the outback.

Curiously, the Chronicle doesn’t claim that the Bay Area has the best restaurants in the nation.

That would not only be outrageous; it would also be easily refuted. New York, Chicago, New Orleans, Miami, and Los Angeles have many of the nation’s best restaurants.

Indeed, no one single region in the U.S. has a monopoly on good cooking and good eating.

What the Chronicle does say in the preface to its list is that “No other area of the country has a more dynamic scene, and it keeps getting better.”

In the Bay Area, restaurants come and go. The restaurant scene is in near-constant upheaval. Chefs and cooks reinvent themselves again and again and adapt to new waves of thinking about food and new ways of cooking and serving.

San Francisco also has legions of Millennials with disposal incomes who are eager to spend money in restaurants and show that they have educated pallets. They drive the food juggernaut and help to create dynasties such as Zuni Café.

What the Chronicle list sadly misses more than anything else are the connections between the restaurants and the small, local farms that dot the landscape all over the Bay Area and that produce tasty vegetables all year long.

Granted, the Chronicle review of Chez Panisse offers this tidbit:

“While the farm-to-table approach is common today, Chez Panisse still stands alone.” The Chronicle also notes that, “No other restaurant in Sonoma so gloriously embraces the agrarian history of the county as the Shed in Healdsburg.”  Still, it’s not so much the culinary past as it is the culinary present that one discovers and enjoys at Shed. Fifty or even twenty-five years ago, no one in Sonoma County ate the kind of food that’s served at SHED Café.

For the most part the farmers, ranchers, and cheese-makers go unheralded in the Chronicle.

That’s sad because the chefs are only as good as the vegetables, the fruits, the meats and the dairy products allow them to be.

The ingredients are decisive: the fresher the better.

There will always be lists of the best restaurants and it can be fun to go up or down a list and eat at The French Laundry and Chez Panisse, if you have the money and can snag a reservation.

There’s yet another factor the Chronicle doesn’t begin to consider: It’s not where one eats that matters most, but who one eats with.

Perhaps more than any single group of people — more then chefs and cooks — farmers, ranchers and the producers of artisan products, make for some of the most delightful and intelligent dinner companions. The riveting stories that they tell add to the mix of flavors in the dishes on the table.

I recently had dinner with two young, enterprising farmers at 25 Lusk, a San Francisco restaurant that didn’t make The Chronicle’s list of the 100 best restaurants. The food was excellent, so was the service and the conversation was sensational. I joined Kellan MacKay, who works at Oak Hill Farm, and Rachel Kohn Obut, who manages Flatbed Farm, both on Highway 12 in Glen Ellen.

We shared everything, from first course to last, as well as the wines. The meal began with caviar and blinis with red onion, dill and crème fraiche. Then it was on to a chilled English pea soup. The three main dishes were: a vegan pot au feu with root vegetables, runner beans, tofu and blossoms; braised rabbit and chevre ravioli; and a tender, tasty lamb sirloin.

We met the executive chef, Matthew Dolan, who raced from the kitchen, sat with us and talked about food and produce, and then raced back to the kitchen. Cezar Kusik, the sommelier, kept our glasses filled with wine and our heads satisfied with entertaining stories. One of the owners, Chris Dolan – Matthew’s cousin – also made an appearance, checked to make sure we were happy, then sat down and had dinner with friends.

Perhaps the biggest surprise came from the waiter who lives in San Francisco and who told us about his urban garden where he grows peas, lettuce and strawberries.  

Next time you go to a restaurant, a café, or a bistro, you might think about inviting a farmer, a gardener or a cheese maker to go with you. Maybe that’s you. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy the conversation as much as the food itself.

Jonah Raskin is a member of Slow Food Russian River and the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California.

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