When a popular restaurant closes, albeit briefly, it seems to cause consternation whether in small villages such as Glen Ellen or big towns such as San Francisco. This winter when the small (just 42 seats) the fig café closed its doors for renovations,
foodies in and around Glen Ellen in rural Sonoma County went into culture shock.<br>Where, they wondered, would they enjoy a pot roast with horseradish-mashed potatoes or a fresh green salad with aged sherry vinaigrette? To the culinary rule about closures and consternation one might add another: Don’t keep fans waiting too long or they’ll forget about you.
In Glen Ellen, locals sauntered down Arnold Drive to Stars, where chef Ari Weiswasser holds forth, and a bit further afield to the Hot Box Grill on Sonoma Highway, which has recently reopened after it changed hands.
During the fig café’s infamous renovation, innovative cooks did their best to duplicate the restaurant’s dishes at home with varying degrees of success. Help came from the year-round farmers’ markets and farm stands that offer fresh produce and often provide the inspiration for home-cooked meals.
Still, when the restaurant reopened for its seventeenth year, locals dutifully joined the long line that began at the front entrance and extended down the sidewalk. All this drama and anticipation in sleepy Glen Ellen — a place without a single chain store, not even a Starbucks, though it was home for years to M.F. K. Fisher, the legendary food writer who liked to serve cold champagne and chilled oysters, along with steamy conversation. Friends still remember her and her dinner parties.
With the crowd outside the fig café you might have thought that Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley had arrived in town to promote The Imitation Game and wanted to sample inimitable Sonoma flavors.
It’s first come first served at the fig café, no reservations and no corkage fee, either, which makes it a popular destination and good for business, too. No one likes the corkage fee. Its abolition felt like the repeal of a hated poll tax or unjust levy.
Along with Café Le Haye and Eldorado Kitchen, the fig café has carved out a unique place for itself in the world of Sonoma restaurants and helped to make Sonoma and the Valley of the Moon synonymous with gourmet. The cafe has also built up a loyal cliental that includes locals with disposable incomes as well as tourists with money to splurge at wineries and at top-end restaurants. Occasionally, teens will fill a table to celebrate graduation from high school and dine on burgers and fries.
Word of mouth has spread the cafe’s fame to distant valleys and states. Sonoma Valley grape growers sit side by side with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and talk about global climate change and spring fashions. Along with the wait staff, the clientele helps to create the ambiance of the place that’s part strange and part familiar: a bit of France in the Valley of the Moon, as Indians and early settlers called it and as Jack London labeled it in his novel of the same name that’s about California landscapes and California food which was much simpler in his day.
With a group of friends, the best place to sit and eat at the fig café is at a table; if alone then a stool at the counter is almost obligatory. From there you can watch John Toulze, the executive chef, and Uriel Ortiz, the chef de cuisine, grill, sauté, bake, toss and stir. Jeremy Zimmerman provides another set of expert hands. The kitchen feels like a three-wing circus crammed into a tiny space where miraculously no one seems to collide. Occasionally, Toulze will take time out to show a novice how to prepare the dough for a pizza, tossing it in the air effortlessly.
At peak hours, say from six to nine p.m., the tiny kitchen turns out some of the best meatballs around, along with piping hot pizzas. The Fig Royale and the French Kiss, a blend of sweet and dry Vermouths, offer tantalizing ways to start a meal.
You can’t really complain about the fig café. The restaurant does a good job of showcasing the best of local ingredients with the best of bistro-style cooking that includes classics like steamed mussels and steak and frites. Bree Mayorquin, with her youthful zest, manages the fig café with panache. On weekend nights the place hums; foodies go home feeling good, knowing they’ve had an evening to remember with fondness.
Sondra Bernstein, the savvy proprietor, has long been committed to local, organic farming and fine food. She likes to travel to France as often as she can; she brings back Rhone wines, recipes and a certain flair that she translates into northern California life styles. Bernstein has made the fig her trademark and her ticket to fame. In addition to the fig café, she owns the girl and the fig, a popular restaurant in the town of Sonoma, where figs always appear on the menu. sonoma figbits is the name of Bernstein’s blog. “Fig art” — paintings that feature figs — decorates the walls.
Jonah Raskin, a long time member of Slow Food, is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California. He writes for the Bohemian and The Press Democrat, grows his own tomatoes and basil, makes tomato soup in summer, freezes it and then thaws it, heats it and enjoys it in winter.