the girl and the fig

Sonoma county, just north of San Francisco, has to be one of the most expensive

places in the world. Basic B&Bs cost about $200 a night, with a 2-night

minimum at weekends, while small vineyards go for millions. When I went for

a wine-tasting tour last weekend, a crappy St Francis merlot was horribly metallic,

the sort of thing you’d reject in a Glaswegian pub. It was also $25 a bottle.

Good wines – the sort of things which cost maybe $8-$13 in your local

wine shop from Australia or Argentina – cost $50 at the Sonoma wineries.

So when we needed a place to eat on Friday night, I wasn’t expecting anything

amazing. We cruised around the town of Sonoma, and one of the first restaurants

we saw was called the

girl and the fig (they want it in lower case, they can have it in lower

case). "I like girls, and I like figs," I said, so we checked it out.

The menu looked

good, we went in and asked if they had any tables that evening, they did, and

the choice was made.

the girl and the fig is cozy and comfortable: easily the most welcoming hotel

restaurant I’ve ever been in. Maybe that’s a California thing, maybe it’s because

it had already been going for four years in a different location before it moved

in to the Sonoma Hotel about a year ago. The staff are efficient, friendly and

informal; the settings are rustic in ways that make you feel at ease, without

sacrificing any quality. (The wine glasses, naturally enough for Sonoma, were

top-notch.)

I think I would have been happy eating at the bar, where a casually-dressed

clientele paired flights of wine with delicious-looking cheese plates. When

we were shown in to the dining room, I already knew one thing I was going to

order: we started off with the combination platter of three cheeses and one

aged sausage.

Before it arrived, we had to decide if we were going to go for flights of wine,

or whether we should do the old-fashioned thing and order a bottle. I thought

that flights would be too distracting, and that drinking 2oz glasses of wine

with food was a bit on the impractical side, so I ordered a local cinsault off

the very approachable wine

list. (Castle Vineyards, the wine maker, is so small that I think the only

place you can get their wine is at the winery or at the girl and the fig.) It

turned out to be a great choice, although I’m sure I could have more or less

thrown a dart at the reds and come up with something equally good.

The wine list is exceptional in more ways than one. While being very carefully

chosen, and obviously biased towards local wines, nearly everything on it is

under $50. the girl and the fig has obviously decided not to apply standard

restaurant markups to the wine, which means they can offer good Sonoma wines

at non-threatening prices. What’s more, you’ll look in vain for any chardonnay,

merlot or cabernet sauvignon – this is a place to discover less well known

Rhône varietals like cinsault, mourvedre and – especially –

viognier.

The cheese was easily the best I’ve ever had in north America. Going against

type, we were given a hard goat, a hard sheep, and a soft cow. The sheep, Ossau

Iraty from the Pyrenees, was nutty and delicious. The goat, with the fabulously

Californian name of Cypress Grove Midnight Moon, was only just hard: it held

together fine, but melted in your mouth. But it was the cow which really blew

us away. A triple cream cheese called Pierre Robert from Seine-et-Marne in France,

it was soggily soft and bursting full of flavour. Apparently it’s enriched with

crème fraiche, which sounds a bit dubious to me, but boy does it work.

At about this point I wanted to order another cheese plate, with another three

cheeses (they have a dozen or so on the menu at any one time), but our first

courses were coming. I had the specialite de la maison, the fig salad,

while Michelle had a butternut squash soup (her favourite) which she pronounced

the best she’d ever had. (On the other hand, she usually says that when she

has butternut squash soup.)

Good as the fig salad was, I still think that figs are a bit like oysters or

lobster: the sort of thing which is best eaten pure and unadorned, on its own.

Perhaps the fig salad is a year-round thing, and they have to gussy the figs

up for the time when they’re not fresh. But these were good figs, and good figs

don’t want to be covered in a port vinaigrette, no matter how light.

Then, while Michelle had the fig salad as a main course, I moved on to the

duck. I’m one of those people who finds it almost impossible not to order duck

when he sees it on a menu, so I’ve had a lot in my time, but this was definitely

among the best I’ve ever tasted: the skin was so crispy it crunched, while the

flesh melted in the mouth.

The meal was at an end, we were both very happy indeed, and the last of the

cinsault had been poured. But just as we were about to make the standard no-we’re-completely-stuffed

noises, I spied a port and fig ice cream on the desert menu, and the friendly

waitress told us about the pot de creme special. We couldn’t resist.

Much as I love my local ice

cream artisan, I have to say the port and fig ice cream was beyond a doubt

the best ice cream I’ve ever had. Lusciously creamy and lip-smackingly flavourful,

it was almost enough to make me think that there are good ways to cook with

figs after all. And then the pot de creme – what my grandmother used to

serve as her world-famous petit pots, only bigger, darker, and covered in coffee

whipped cream. Michelle, the chocaholic, said it was the best chocolate desert

of all time, and I was inclined to agree, yet even so it was so rich that the

two of us together couldn’t finish it.

All that was left was the bill, which I have to say I dreaded. When a restaurant

serves food this good, with chocolate, ice cream, duck and cheese all in best-ever

land, you know you’re not going to get away without a painfully hit wallet.

When it’s in Sonoma, you know it’s going to be worse. But our four courses,

with a fantastic local wine and excellent coffee, came to just $112.55 (before

tax and tip) for the two of us. I’ve had meals which cost that much per person

which don’t compare.

No wonder, then, that when we started telling people where we’d eaten, they

all looked at us in astonishment and asked us how on earth we managed to get

a reservation: apparently the girl and the fig is known throughout northern

California as a gourmand’s paradise. All I can do is thank my lucky stars we

managed to get a table on an hour’s notice, thank the girl and the fig for the

best meal I’ve had all year, and hope that I will be able to repeat the experience

some time. And encourage you all, if you find yourselves anywhere within a 50

mile radius of Sonoma (and that includes San Francisco) to get a reservation

and go there.

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    In France, isn’t Cinsault predominantly grown in the Languedoc-Roussillon region?

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