A Taste of Fig Café & Winebar
For her birthday recently, my friend was clear on what she wanted for dinner: The Fig Café & Winebar from chef-owner Sondra Bernstein. Great with me; the lovely restaurant in Glen Ellen is one of my all-time favorites, too, as the smaller, more casual offshoot of the internationally known The Girl & the Fig in Sonoma.
The café offers sumptuous Cal-French cuisine, with touches of the Mediterranean, classic American, and even a bit of Creole, like feather light shrimp beignets for dunking in spicy rémoulade ($11).
And while the food is stellar, it’s budget friendly, with extra values such as a weekly changing three course plats du jour prix fixe ($29) that recently included an appetizers of crispy-juicy fried green tomatoes with corn relish and lemon aioli, an entrée of braised rabbit with bucatini, squash and creamy smoked ricotta, and dessert of crème caramel scattered in candied walnuts.
The look: The 42-seat cottage tucked in Glen Ellen’s tiny downtown is cute as a button, dressed in lime green paint, hand carved woodwork, geometric metal and mineral designs, and colorful ceramic, glass and granite accents. And as with her local food and wine purveyors, Bernstein focuses on local talent for artwork.
To eat: There’s a reason there are usually lines forming on the sidewalk for the dinner-only spot. Everything is sophisticated, brightly flavored and soul satisfying, from the must-order starter of soft, hot Parker rolls sprinkled in fennel seeds and dotted in olive oil ($2), to the butterscotch bread pudding crowned in vanilla chantilly, salted caramel and toasted pecans ($7).
Steamed mussels ($17) have been Bernstein’s signature since 1997, when she first partnered with her longtime chef and business partner, John Toulze. The big bowl is a classic presentation of shellfish resting in a robust broth of roasted onions, garlic, white wine, house cut bacon, and herbs (you’ll sop up every lost drop with the grilled country loaf bread alongside).
I often get the fig arugula salad, too, another Fig Café signature in a toss of greens drizzled in sweet fig-port vinaigrette and sprinkled with tangy chevre chunks, toasted pecans and salty pancetta ($12). Then, it’s on to a crispy crust pizza, topped seasonally in a dynamite combo of white peaches, house smoked ham, four cheeses, crème fraîche and peppery arugula ($15).
The kitchen here knows how to coax maximum flavor out of humble chicken and beef. Chicken thighs are pan seared for crisp skin and juicy interior, sharing the plate with asparagus, roasted Yukon potatoes and zingy spring onion marmalade ($23). Pot roast, meanwhile, delivers tender-chewy knobs of beef flooded in rich gravy over tender cipollini onions, braised greens and smooth-whipped horseradish potatoes ($22).
Technically, polenta is served as an entrée, but my companions and I order a plate for the table, sharing the delicious creamy cake with its crisp edges. The mushroom ragout is thick and savory, crunchy with toasted hazelnuts and finished in fresh herbs and Parmesan ($19).
To note: The highly popular café doesn’t accept reservations. But if you’ve got a large group, you can call ahead and staff will accommodate you if possible.
Dessert: Instead of birthday cake, our merry band of celebrants put candles in these hallmark treats: a profiterole draped in bittersweet chocolate sauce with a side of fig and port ice cream ($5); and a salted fig caramel brownie sundae layered with vanilla ice cream, brandied cherries and whipped cream ($7).
To drink: Bernstein is known for her extensive wine lists, and this place impresses as much as the fancier The Girl & The Fig. Selections include her own Girl & The Fig Rhone style labels. Here’s a friendly touch, too – there’s complimentary corkage nightly, and on Wednesdays, local winemakers offer complimentary tastings.
Details: 13690 Arnold Drive, Glen Ellen, 707-938-2130.