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
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
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 –
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.