Country-Chic Food Rocker Oysterfellers
Good things come in small packages. That could be the slogan for Valley Ford, a pint size town in rural West Sonoma County that’s home to just about 150 residents.
Yet visitors travel from San Francisco and beyond just to dine at Rocker Oysterfeller’s, and indulge in the signature Tomales Bay Shooter of a fresh-plucked, fresh-shucked oyster dunked in Tito’s Handmade Vodka with a dash of house-made Bloody Mary mix ($7).
Set inside the historic, six-room Valley Ford Hotel built in 1864, Rocker rules over the half-mile-long downtown, welcoming plenty of tourists on their way to-or-from the coast, but also regulars like area winemakers and boutique farmers. Families bring their dogs to lounge on the front porch of the clapboard mansion, lovingly restored by co-owners Shona Campbell and Brandon Guenther, and the back garden patio is a preferred spot nearly year-round.
I’ve eaten in the dining room plenty of times, and it’s charming, done in quaint wood country furniture, tables draped in butcher paper, hardwood floors, French doors and landscape paintings on lemon curd-colored walls. But my favorite perch is in the front lounge, where Tiffany lamps cast a sophisticated glow over the polished mahogany bar, glinting off antique lanterns and adding elegance to what at its heart is a low-key rural bar.
You sit in multi-color chipped paint chairs at tall tables, and within seconds, a server will be by to take drink orders. No matter the time of year, I can’t resist the ice-cold Pimm’s Cup ($9), served in a big Ball jar with Pimm’s No. 1, ginger beer, and a rainbow array of chunky chopped and sliced cucumber plus seasonal fruit like apple and citrus. It’s not too sweet, just a bit tart, and reflects the area’s rich history of orchards and farms.
Meals should start with the Rocker Oysterfeller plate, delivering a half dozen big, fat mollusks topped in arugula, bacon, cream cheese and cornbread crust then baked golden brown ($14). The baked Estero Gold oysters are beguiling, too, topped in Valley Ford Estero Gold cheese, chorizo and the fiery bite of Serrano chile.
For other excellent appetizers, Dungeness crab, plucked straight from the coastal waters, is picked fresh then fashioned into cakes jazzed up with artichoke, fried capers, Cajun pine nuts and remoulade ($13), while tiny, fluffy buttermilk biscuits arrive stuffed with Kentucky country ham and Estero Gold pimento cheese ($9).
I could easily make a meal of deviled eggs dolloped in creme fraiche and dry cured olive tapenade or tarragon and sliced olives ($8), plus Mary's grilled free range buffalo wings dunked in Point Reyes blue cheese sauce ($12). The fried okra is exceptional, too, steaming hot and crisp ($7), and everything is better washed down with wines from the primarily Sonoma County list.
If I’m feeling thrifty, I bring my own favorite wine, since in a friendly nod, corkage for Sonoma County wines is $10 ($20 for magnums).
On a recent winter’s evening, though, I was craving body- and soul-warming food, too, and went straight for the potato clam chowder, studded with chunks of applewood bacon ($8/$12). No thin broth this, but sturdy and silky and excellent dunked with a biscuit. A salad of Dragon Tongue arugula gave peppery contrast, tossed with shaved fennel, candied persimmon, toasted walnuts and Bellwether Farms Pepato cheese ($12).
Rocker is known for its buttermilk fried chicken ($20), and it’s good stuff. The batter is crackly and the meat is suitably moist, but the best thing about it is the gravy, fashioned of Lagunitas Ale spiked with caraway. I ordered extra to sop into the fried herb-flecked crushed potatoes served alongside.
And this is worth noting: at Sunday brunch, the chicken comes with a cornmeal waffle and real maple syrup ($16).
Remaining entrée choices are brief - cornmeal fried oyster or Gulf shrimp po’ boy ($24), creamy Estero Gold cheese grits with wilted Bloomfield Greens and mushroom ragout ($14), and beer battered fish tacos ($14).
But my companion was craving a burger, and Rocker makes one of the best. It’s a monster, in a half-pound of Niman Ranch Angus beef slathered in Baconaisse on griddled ciabatta bun with Kennebec fries ($13). One caveat, the price can rise quickly if you pile on the goodies, as we did. Add $2 for white cheddar, grilled red onions, fried farm egg, onion rings or gluten free bun; add $3 for Estero Gold pimento cheese, Point Reyes blue cheese, applewood bacon or grilled trumpet mushrooms.
At dessert, the seasonal fruit crisps ($7) are always a win, though it didn’t take me much convincing to up my fruit quota by ordering another Pimm’s Cup, too.
Be warned that Rocker is often busy, particularly on Thursday nights, when raw oysters are just $1 each. Making reservations is a good idea.
But should you find yourself out west County way, you can always take a chance and simply stop in. Just turn when you see the apple red, antique stagecoach at the driveway. In such a tiny town, you can’t miss it.