Driving north on Highway 101, it’s easy to forget that you are still in the heart of one of the most fruitful winegrowing regions in the world. You pass industrial parks, sleepy towns, old gas stations and tumbling hills dotted with those famous happy cows—but just beyond the roadside scenery is a vast patchwork of some of the most fertile agricultural land in the world, marked by a variety of geographic characteristics. Mountainous terrain is heated by the sun during the day, and cooled by coastal winds at night. Fog lingers in valleys full of rich, rocky soil quenched seasonally by the Russian River.
Along that river lies a hidden gem of a Wine Country destination, a town humming with energy and driven by a creative spirit that is fed by the surrounding fertile land. Make a quick exit off the fast-paced highway and in less than a mile you are delivered right to the center of Healdsburg, the Wine Country town you might not have known you needed to visit.
As all great adventures should, mine begins with an excellent meal: brunch at Barndiva. If one dish could express the spirit of this restaurant, it would be their tater tots on caviar crème fraîche. An American cafeteria classic elevated with French sophistication, it’s the perfect juxtaposition of high and low.
The Barndiva team, led by Creative Director Jil Hales, knows how to do things right without taking themselves too seriously. The cocktail menu includes drinks with names like “Dope Hemingway” and “Why Bears Do It.” The space is high-ceilinged, big-windowed and defined by a crowning jewel of a twinkle-lit back patio that seems straight off a Pinterest wedding board. The rustic chic vibe is made unique by quirky accents like the pig head made of wire hanging on the wall and shoe trees that act as a coat rack.
The menu offers upscale dishes like duck leg confit and yellowtail Hamachi crudo, but you can also order a banh mi, eggs Benedict or a Reuben. At first glance it seems an odd mix, but when each dish comes out of the kitchen it all makes sense. The goat cheese croquettes are plated in a diagonal across the plate, drizzled with lavender honey, and manage to be light and airy and sweet and tangy, all at the same time. The duck confit melts off the bone, sprinkled with crumbled bacon and accompanied by a side salad dressed to die for. But the star of the show is actually the Reuben. Tender pastrami brisket is layered club-style with melted Swiss cheese, pickled red cabbage and beets on soft and mild toasted rye. When my dining partner gets up to use the restroom I can’t stop stealing bites off of his plate. Barndiva’s overall mission is to do something wholeheartedly good. If you’re going to do a Reuben, it has to be the greatest Reuben you’ve ever eaten. And with that, the standard is set for the rest of my Healdsburg trip.
After only a few hours in town, I start to pick up on the feeling of community that exists among the locals, visitors and business owners. We step into Cellars of Sonoma on a whim, looking for a quick wine tasting before checking into our hotel, and end up leaving over an hour later with a bottle of Grenache Blanc and several business cards for local spots to visit next.
Cellars of Sonoma is relatively new to the Healdsburg Plaza, and is one of the only tasting rooms there that offers wine from a variety of producers. Tasting room manager and longtime wine educator Dave Batt brings us through a tasting experience guided more by storytelling than convention, pulling bottles from the back and opening new ones he’s personally excited about, always with a tidbit of interesting information that goes beyond varietal and vintage. This is a tasting room that feels more like someone’s living room than a business, a theme I find quite common in Healdsburg.
Another theme I notice is a commitment to sustainability that seems to go above and beyond what is customary, even in our area. A prime example is H2 Hotel, our home away from home while in Healdsburg. The building itself, as well as the custom furnishings within this LEED Gold certified hotel, were made from recycled materials and foraged lumber, and 85% of the construction debris generated while it was being built was recycled. Solar panels and a living roof provide renewable energy and air purification assistance; and a custom water filtration system helps ensure the steelhead trout in nearby Foss Creek swim in clean waters. Touring bikes are available free of charge for guests, and the food served in the hotel’s Spoonbar restaurant is sourced locally and organic when possible. H2 doesn’t just mind its own environmental impact, it actually contributes to the health and sustainability of its environs.
The moment I walk into the lobby I feel a sense of calm and welcome. The space is large and wide open, the décor modern and chic, yet approachable and warm. Reclaimed wood and concrete are contrasted with floral accents and mixed patterned fabric, flooded by light streaming through an abundance of glass paneling. Walking into my room, I slip the key card into a slot in the wall to power up the electricity, a device designed to conserve energy when guests are out of their rooms.
H2 manages to seamlessly merge environmental consciousness with comfort and warmth, a goal that partner Circe Sher states as central to H2’s founding principles. Over an exquisite cocktail at Spoonbar, she describes the thought process behind H2’s design. “A lot of sustainable, eco-friendly buildings just felt so cold and industrial,” she says, “so we wanted to make H2 feel comfortable and inviting.” Mission accomplished, I’d say.
Speaking of cocktails, there is something of a craft cocktail revolution happening in Healdsburg. Spoonbar’s cocktail program is as impressive as the hotel itself, with a lengthy list of mainstays, so-called “experimental” cocktails and a rotating seasonal offering based around one spirit. I order a “Man from Okinawa” off the experimental menu, and receive a delightful fennel, ginger and orange-infused whiskey cocktail enhanced with sesame simple syrup and Japanese seven-spice tincture. The drink is served in a glass with a photo from the movie Kill Bill taped to the side. I also have my eye on the Nimble Leaf, a mix of Wilder gin, Hanson of Sonoma organic cucumber vodka, basil, lime, agave and basil oil, but we’ve heard that there is an abundance of seriously good spirits to be had around the Plaza, so we forge ahead. Duty calls…
Duke’s Spirited Cocktails, a relative newcomer that was highlighted in the Summer 2016 issue of Edible Marin & Wine Country, offers an impressive list of craft cocktails with names like “Unicorn Tears” and “Mr. Bojangles,” the latter filled with exotic ingredients such as elderberry, clarified honeydew, sage and pink peppercorn. Not to be left out of the party, nearby restaurants Barndiva, Mateo’s Cocina Latina, Campofina and local tapas hotspot Bravas also boast impressive cocktail repertoires.
In addition to cocktails, Healdsburg offers another unique alternative for those who are tapped out on wine: Sonoma Cider’s taproom. At the time of my visit, the taproom had only been open seven weeks, yet it was clearly already a popular hangout among locals—even on a rainy Sunday night. Live music, comedy shows and pool tables make the space a lively addition to the Healdsburg scene. But it’s the cider that sets Sonoma Cider apart from any regular bar or beer hall. While you may have seen their popular classics in the grocery store (pear, apple and bourbon), their offerings at the taproom go far beyond just a few ciders. More than 20 are available to taste, including seasonal specials and one-time releases.
Over a tasting of six apple-forward, dry ciders and an incredible spread of charcuterie and housemade burrata, founder and CEO David Cordtz tells us about his journey from winemaker to cidermaker. As he speaks, it becomes clear that Sonoma Cider is driven by his creativity and expertise, and enhanced by his son Robert’s willingness to try things that no one else will. Fresh, organic ingredients like habanero, rhubarb, lime juice and eucalyptus honey are used for flavor infusions. They’re experimenting with brandy and a Calvados-like spirit, as well as potentially producing mead. For the father-and-son team, the taproom is a place to share the love and fun that goes into making a superior product in a burgeoning market. As I leave, David asks me what’s for dinner and I tell him we’re headed to Mateo’s. “You’re in for a treat,” he replies, and makes a point of adding: “Don’t tell him we fed you!”
I am wholly unprepared for the experience I’m about to have at Mateo’s Cocina Latina. On the outside, it looks like just another Mexican-inspired California-cuisine restaurant. But as soon as I step inside, I realize that this is something else entirely.
Chef-owner Mateo Granados greets us with enthusiasm, talking a mile a minute and clearly excited about a new fruit he’s discovered, a “Mandarin-quat,” which he hands us to smell and taste. Seamlessly, he leads into a discussion of cocktail ingredients, showing us how he chars citrus so that it releases its oils, eliminating the need to add bitters and toning down the acidity.
It becomes obvious that everything Mateo does has a dual purpose: to taste incredible, and to honor the ingredients themselves. More than once, he tells us: “The life of the animal defines how you should cook it.” Hearing him talk is more than inspiring. He knows every last detail of his sourcing, supporting only local producers like Healdsburg’s Front Porch Farm and Preston Farm & Winery, farms that practice sustainable, responsible and humane farming and animal husbandry.
Mateo’s story is a combination of the American Dream and the pinnacle of authentic “farm-to-table” cooking. Of Spanish and Mayan descent, Mateo was born into a family of butchers in Yucatán, south-eastern Mexico. He moved to the US, speaking no English, and began working as a dishwasher in San Francisco. Through hard work and talent he moved up to be a cook and was trained in classic French methods under Chef Julian Serrano at the renowned Masas. He left Masas to work with Chef Margaret Grade at West Marin’s beloved and highly acclaimed Manka’s Inverness Lodge. Next up were stints at Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen, also in Healdsburg, as well as winemaking. Returning to his roots, Mateo began selling Yucatán tamales based on his grandmother’s recipe from a food truck before opening his own restaurant in 2011.
It’s no surprise, then, that Mateo runs an impeccable kitchen with an emphasis on creativity and precision. Everything served at Mateo’s is housemade, including butchering done in-house. The chef butchers whole animals himself, utilizing every part—including the fat, which he saves in a huge tub and uses to cook nearly everything. He pickles, ferments and crafts condiments from vegetables grown in his own yard.
Our meal is a string of incredible plates, one after the other, all paired with drinks. Highlights are the slow-braised lamb ribs fried in pork fat; black cod with steamed rainbow chard, romanesco and cauliflower; wild forest slow-braised chicken shank with toasted polenta, steamed escarole and baked delicata squash; and an extraordinary cut of beef from West Petaluma’s Progressive Pastures that Mateo pairs with an earthy, small-batch mezcal, a pairing that’s mind-blowingly good.
Three hours, 10 courses and many spirituous libations later, we leave buzzing with Mateo’s energy and passion for local ingredients, feeling revolutionized and lucky to have experienced such a raw expression of the combination of his history and California’s future.
At this point in my visit, I’m not sure if Healdsburg can get any better. But the next day I wake up and, after a cozy Aztec mocha at local favorite Flying Goat Coffee, I head over to Healdsburg SHED for a lunch to rule all lunches. SHED is the passion project of Doug Lipton and Cindy Daniel, who moved to Healdsburg two decades ago to raise their kids and pursue a life of farming. [See the profile of Doug and Cindy’s HomeFarm in the Fall 2015 issue of Edible Marin & Wine Country].
SHED is more than a restaurant or mercantile. It’s a place for the community to gather and celebrate local food and the people who make it through an inspiring farm-fresh meal or a hands-on workshop. It seems to be the intersection of H2’s commitment to environmental sustainability and Mateo’s passion for locally sourced ingredients, and it is so beautiful inside you could wander the space for hours. High ceilings, paneled windows that let in a flood of light, and a mix of recycled steel and reclaimed wood perfectly frame the bounty of expertly curated offerings that fill the space.
There is a mercantile; a larder with cheese, charcuterie and prepared meals to take home; a café; and the fermentation bar, which serves up house-brewed kombucha and kefir water on tap alongside juices, beer and wine. A devotee to the ancient grain movement, Doug grows wheat and mills it on-site for SHED’s exquisite pastries. What they can’t make or grow themselves, they source as locally as possible, and showcase a limited number of exceptional imports.
We meet with SHED’s Culinary Director Perry Hoffman, who is practically vibrating with love for SHED and the way it has allowed him be spontaneous and creative with his cooking. His eyes light up as he talks about vegetable farming, which he almost abandoned his culinary career to dofull-time, and his love for unusual ingredients and simple but fresh cuisine. [Read more about Chef Hoffman in the Escoffier Questionnaire in the Spring 2016 issue of Edible Marin & Wine Country.]
We sit down to a lunch that involves a series of vegetable-forward, colorful dishes with the power to make a seemingly mundane ingredient like turnip an elevated culinary experience. Some favorites are the scallop crudo (caught that morning by a fisherman named Jake, we’re informed) with winter citrus, Jerusalem limes and edible flowers; anchovy toast with pesto and lemon aioli and pickled red onions on San Anselmo’s MH Bread & Butter toast; and the cauliflower and turnip kale salad served over a curry vadouvan with pecans and dates. The beauty of Hoffman’s style is that he doesn’t mask an ingredient like cauliflower, which is traditionally a bit bland, but uses complementary flavors to bring out the ingredient’s essence in a new light. As SHED Events Director Stephanie Callimanis puts it, “After you eat here, you just feel so nourished.”
I end my Healdsburg trip as anyone should: with wine and ice cream. Of the handful of wonderful tasting rooms on the Plaza, the two I visit are Cartograph and Banshee, both Pinot Noir—focused and committed to a friendly, conversational experience of what the local region has to offer in terms of wine. At Cartograph, winemaker Alan Baker recounts the story of how an incredible bottle of Riesling inspired him to leave a 40-year broadcasting career in Minnesota to chase a dream. With a wine podcast and an ambitious spirit, he moved out west and began immersing himself in the world of winemaking. Several years later, he and wife Selena Lourie have their own vineyard, label and tasting room.
Banshee has a similar story: a group of friends and wine-lovers all living in San Francisco came together to form a label, each bringing a specific skill set to the table. The Banshee tasting room feels more like a wine bar, with cozy seating areas and modern, trendy décor that take the pretention out of wine tasting. But the Pinots are as serious as they come—Banshee produces around nine different types, all offering something slightly different based on the vineyard and region from which they hail.
For my ice cream fix, I stroll across the Plaza to Noble Folk. The bright and welcoming parlor’s constantly updated seasonal menu features unique flavors like Japanese Purple Yam, Strawberry Sage and Cornflake Crown Maple, all handcrafted with local ingredients. If you’d like some pie to go with your ice cream, you’re in luck: Pie varieties like apple cranberry, whipped cream butterscotch walnut, and grasshopper mud pie ensure there’s something for any taste.
With the savory-sweet taste of Japanese Purple Yam in my mouth (surprisingly subtle and delicious) and a belly full of farm-fresh foods, I leave Healdsburg inspired about the future of Wine Country, sustainable architecture, California cuisine and all the people who make our special region hum. Napa has its prestige, Sonoma its history and Calistoga its quirkiness. Healdsburg has a kind of friendly warmth that just feels like home. It won’t be long before I return.