Catching up with Chef Rick Vargas at Sebastopol’s La Bodega in the Sonoma Wine Shop
News that Chef Vargas was cooking at La Bodega in the Sonoma Wine Shop, as reported here was cause enough for celebration,
Sonoma: La Bodega Cheese and Pasta in the Sonoma Wine Shop?
Then when I read the announcement in Biteclub that he’d be returning to the space that once housed his Bistro V, I had to check it out.
In the middle of last Friday’s downpour, I pulled up to the restaurant to see what might be going on. I learned that it had been serving for a little more than a week. This was supposed to be a “soft opening” but word has gotten out. There's no real sign yet, but I knew the location across from the flea market. The young woman at the wine bar by the entrance explained to me that the set-up was for counter service and that I could help myself to plates, utensils and water set out on this station and choose a seat.
She said that it’s been a little bit of a challenge to get customers used to the idea. This became evident when I stepped over to pick up my place setting and one of the staff members rushed over to take them from me and help me find a seat. Later she would also refill my glass. I commented jokingly that I was trying to get into the self-service mode but she wasn’t helping, and she nodded that it was hard for her to get used to as well.
Here’s the opening menu for La Bodega (Sonoma Wine Shop), the name for the establishment seems to be in some flux as well. I mentioned thatthe layout needs redesign to make it easier to follow, also the terminology should be tweaked. The "small" plates are entrée-sized, whereas "large" are family-size, so value is better than it seems at first glance.
While I was waiting for my food, I guess one of the staff felt that I was alone for too long and brought over a complimentary helping of some deliciously smoky, spiced candied pecans.
Soon a piping hot plate with my cannelloni came out. Five-cheese bechamel, black trumpet mushrooms, braising greens, and marinara sauce with porcini, $14, this “small” was a huge portion, more than I could eat in one sitting.
The runner turned out to be Chef Vargas, and he came back to check on how I liked the dish. He explained that this was an unusual day, as he would normally not be in Sebastopol during service. He plans to use the kitchen here in the morning to bake and prep for the much smaller Sonoma location and coordinate with Sebastopol’s staff. His cook for Sebastopol has been with him since Bistro V and will execute the dishes. He said that with self-serve, customers can be assured that they’re getting the maximum bang for their food dollars. His locavore sourcing includes meats from Sonoma Direct and produce from Greenstrings and Laguna farms, predominantly. His current menu is a wild mushroom lover’s delight, utilizing black trumpets, chanterelles, porcini, and horns of plenty that he collected himself. His plan is offer ready-to-eat dishes, fresh pastas, desserts, and mise en place ingredients that patrons can pick up after work with a bottle of wine from the retail shop and have an instant meal at home or to eat on site.
When I stopped at the bar to pay for my meal with a credit card, my receipt was printed out on the wine shop computerized invoice. No place to add an optional tip . . . La Bodega is serious about self-service.
Stalking Chef Vargas at Bistro V (Sebastopol)
Chef Vargas @ Stoa
Sonoma Wine Shop
2295 Gravenstein Hwy S, Sebastopol, CA 95472
Three years ago, I'd stumbled in on a celebration of Shavuot here and been invited to join the marvelous dairy dinner. Photos here,
So, last night when we drove over to the La Bodega for some small bites and found the parking lot full, I quickly realized that there must be a Rosh Hashanah dinner going on. Inside, the dining room was full already. We were offered seats at the bar if we wanted to stay for the $27 fixed price dinner. While we weren't really hungry enough to justify a big meal like this, the price was right (including a glass of wine). And I pointed out to my friend that this might be one of the few opportunities to taste these traditional Ashkenazy dishes prepared well using organic and local ingredients. We ordered one meated and one vegetarian dinner in order to share tastes.
Served family style with vegan and gluten-free options, we shared platters of food with the two other people seated with us at the bar. We started with apples with honey, house-baked challah rolls, and a mesclun salad not listed on the menu. Then we valiantly rolled through mushroom or chicken kreplach, apple kugel, roast chicken, brisket, and Yemeni honey cake doused with fruit compote.
My favorites were the chicken kreplach, stuffed cabbage and the brisket. The chicken soup for the kreplach was obviously homemade and enriched with a puddle of schmaltz. Good to the last drop.
Actually, the mushroom kreplach were tastier than the chicken filled ones, but the vegan soup was oversalted.
The vegan stuffed cabbage from a family recipe was filled with onions and dill-scented rice. What really made this dish was the fresh tomato sauce. The haricot vert garnish added a bright green visual element and taste to the long-cooked dish.
The dish that I'll remember fondly over the years will be the brisket. The most homely and homey of presentation, the beef was served with the delicious fatty edges intact and bathed in a glorious reduction. The slabs were cut with the grain, that first raised my eyebrow. But setting the knife to it and gliding through the buttery tender and juicy beef, I understood that it would probably have fallen apart if carved against the grain. The brisket was so soft and succulent, I assumed it was cooked sous vide. I learned that the kitchen spent a few days making demi-glace from mountains of bones to enrich the juices for this dish. This gravy was beyond description in its depth and complexity.
I ate dinner last night (Saturday) at the Sebastopol La Bodega/Sonoma Wine Shop. My dining partner was a food professional and chef in her own right. We were both very impressed by the salad (Beet salad - homegrown beets, Greenstring beets, Redwood Hill bucheret, sour cream, tarragon vinagrette), ravioli (Spinach & Cheese w blush tomato, cream, basil), and lasagna (Caramelized Artichoke & onions, Roast red pepper, Stanislaus pear tomato marinara w Fiscalini cheddar, Lionza and Vella Dry Jack) that we shared. The high quality of the ingredients was evident and the flavors were outstanding. I had a glass of an Albini 2007 Zinfandel and I liked it so much I had another one. This was a new wine for the shop from a small producer, about 500 cases total, in Windsor. This is a very friendly and casual place. Be prepared to be a bit puzzled by the ordering routine but hey, it's a fun place with very good food and wine and friendly people.
On a trip up to Sebastopol, we stopped by La Bodega, a bit early (maybe 10:30 or 11 AM). Standing out by the front door, we were reading the menu outside, and then Rick opened the door and invited us in. They weren't really open yet, but he was happy to talk with us, and invited us back into the kitchen while he finished making a large batch of tiramisu.
We ended up spending about 2 hours there, chatting with Rick and Bryan (the wine guy), and had a wonderful lunch after telling Rick to choose some dishes for us.
First course was a porcini/chantrelle ravioli in a chantrelle cream sauce - really excellent fresh pasta and a wonderful cream and herb sauce. Second course was an interesting and more complex ravioli dish with an Anaheim chile sauce, with Redwood crotin cheese filling. And for dessert we had a dish that was actually a starter, but sounded great for dessert - a pear and Pt. Reyes Blue cheese tart on puff pastry.
Everything was excellent, and served by Rick in an extremely casual but friendly setting. We split a 1/2 bottle of a nice Cabernet (a 2003 Edgewood (?) - forgot to write it down) and just enjoyed the whole time talking with Rick and Bryan. We talked a lot about their wine club and ended up buying a couple of bottles to start our once-per-quarter pair of bottles.
We plan to go up there every quarter to pick up the wine, so that we can eat there again - it was really one of the best pasta meals I've had recently, and is an incredible bargain given the care taken with the preparations, and the high quality of the ingredients.
This is a bit of a drive up from Marin, but I think it's a destination-worthy place if you're up for a casual, but very high quality dining experience.
Thanks to Melanie for her great reportage of her visits - that's what sold us on tracking it down and going inside.
We'll go to the Sonoma location next, when we visit a friend of ours there. I'm looking forward to more of Rick's excellent pasta, and the genial atmosphere! A rare treat...
Slight correction to the above - I found the copy of the menu I'd taken along.
The first course was local coast Porcini, Wild morel with Carmelized Artichoke hearts and Fiscalini Vintage Cheddar filling,
The second course was sweet and spicy eggplant filling with the Anaheim chili sauce, and shaved Redwood Hill crotin. I'm still thinking of these and can't wait to go back there...
On Sunday I was back at La Bodega with a friend. We’d been busy all day with barrel tasting and just wanted a quick, light meal nearby. I had liked the food my first visit, on returning, I can give it a stronger recommendation. We sat at the bar this time where we had a chance to chat with Bryan, the owner, and some other customers.
Wines (all from California) are priced at retail with a 15% discount for club members. Prices for a glass of wine is one-quarter of bottle price.
We learned something about the menu descriptions. Anything that has meat in it is clearly indicated. Meat is not used as a hidden flavoring, and meats are stored in the refrigerator separately from other foodstuffs. Dishes are scraped and rinsed of meat before going into the dishwasher even. As might be expected at a retail wine and cheese shop, many of the selections are heavy on the dairy use but can often be made vegan on request. The menu had already changed in two days’ time.
New in the soup selection, Vegetarian French lentil soup seasoned with zhug (Yemeni spice blend), $8. This was quite a large serving and more than enough for us to split. The taste was so hearty, I had to ask if there was any meat stock in this. NO. The nutty French lentils were softened but kept their integrity. The tiny dice of carrots and onions had a bit of tooth and fresh vegetable flavor, not boiled down to mush. Very savory and complex with just a bit of warming heat from the spice, adding a little bit of the crème fraiche served on the side to the soup rounded out the flavors. We were lucky to score a complimentary taste of 2002 Peter Michael L’Apres-Midi (Sauvignon Blanc) that the staff was trying.
Knowing that the stash of wild mushrooms wouldn’t last much longer we ordered the ravioli with Santa Cruz Mountains chanterelles foraged by the chef, $17. The filling combines these wild mushrooms with fresh spinach in the filling, and more of the chanterelles appear in the cream sauce. The pasta wrapper was so light, tender and silky, these ravioli felt like wispy clouds in the mouth. The sauce was a bit over-reduced, making it too rich for my taste, but that’s a minor nit.
We shared a glass of 2007 Napa Viognier. Wish I could remember the producer (a new one to me) or single vineyard designation, as this was quite good with generous aromatics and decent acid balance.
Splitting these two amply portioned dishes, we were already full. But the wood-fired pizza, $13, we’d ordered was on the way. Topped with squash, cheddar, fresh mozz, and basil pesto, the crust was soon soggy from the moisture of the heavy toppings. Cracker thin, the first bite of the crust though was quite crispy and rich in flavor. I might ask for less cheese next time. The San Marzano tomato sauce was wonderful.
So far, so good. Compared to the other new openings in the county serving up elevated comfort food at popular prices, namely Jackson’s Bar and Oven in Santa Rosa and P/30 in Sebastopol, I think that La Bodega will be getting more of my business. The cooking here is not as refined as the other two, but I like it for what it is and I’m happy to have such a wide range of vegetarian selections. With the self-serve mode, prices for food and the retail wine list offer great value. That’s what I’m looking for these days.
I'm looking forward to a visit to the Sebastapol location but, you can't go wrong with a visit to the Sonoma location. Their cafe is small but was very good last time I tried it. If it doesn't ring your bell, there are several great spots to chow within walking distance of the Sonoma Wine Shop. and it is a GREAT wine shop !
Sonoma Wine Shop
2295 Gravenstein Hwy S, Sebastopol, CA 95472
re: Melanie Wong
I went to La Bodega in Sonoma today and had a lovely late lunch. The original plan was to stop at the Sebastopol place also,but time has not been kind to me recently.
In fact, I had no intention of stopping. I just wanted to see where it was. As I approached it, a parking spot opened right in front ... you have to accept a gift and sign from the food gods.
It is quite charming, in a little courtyard I've never explored before. On one side is the cheese shop and across the way is the wine shop. It was 3:30 and I was supposed to be in San Pablo at 3. So I could only glance quickly at the cheese shop, but it was very cool with big wheels of cheese on the counter. There were bags of dried spices on the windowsill and lots of other interesting things.
I ordered the ravioli with horn of plenty mushrooms, dinosaur kale, carmelized onion, vintage cheddar. This was quite delicious, the ravioli filled with the cheese and topped with sauteed mushrooms and kale. It was in a brown butter sauce.
Walked across to the wine shop and got a flight of reds to drink with it and got to chat with the owner about wine. It was very informative and I look forward to stopping by the shop often when I return to the Bay Area next year.
The were really swell. I wasn't hungry. I was in a hurry. They put four ravioli on a plate for me to try and packaged the rest. They gave me a dish of their deliious house-made crackers
The owner mentioned a champagne and goat cheese pairing/tasting and i almost wanted to pospone the trip again ... but I want to be in Guatemala for Easter.
They are still working on the area and by late spring will be able to seat 30.
Anyway .... having said this a half dozen times ... at least ... I think this really was my last meal in the Bay Area and I couldn't think of a more pleasant last meal. The food gods did smile at me.