In the heart of Healdsburg, right there on the charming main plaza, tourist traps abound. The famous Oakville Grocery at the corner, full inside and out, is but a Whole-Foods-like shadow of its authentic self along highway 29 in Oakville that still draws me during visits to Napa Valley. But hidden behind yet another quaint-ish bookstore is a gem of a place called Bovolo, that is a foodie’s delight. Founded by John Stewart and his wife Duskie Estes, famous for their high-end Cali-Italian Zazu restaurant in Santa Rosa, and perhaps even more so for her brief appearance in season 3 of the Food Network’s The Next Iron Chef, Bovolo is Zazu’s sister restaurant that adapts the Cali-Italian theme to a chill and unpretentious cafe that’s no ordinary bookstore coffee shop. Opened in 2005, Bovolo’s pork cheek sandwich was voted in the Top 5 Sandwiches in the Bay Area by San Francisco Magazine. I had to check for myself, and I was not disappointed. On the contrary, not only was this spectacular sandwich loaded with fall-apart-at-the-touch-of-a-fork pork cheek, roasted peppers and salsa verde on a grilled bun with a side of zesty olives, but Rona’s simple looking salad of spinach with house-made black pig bacon cubes was extraordinary as well.
Sitting out in the back patio of the book store, I felt miles away from the touristy center plaza. I managed a few peeks at the dishes at a table nearby – a platter of salumi, another of crispy bacon, a decadent looking thick macaroni and cheese – simple things that looked like a million bucks – an Asian family at the table chewed and nodded approvingly. Knowing that no casual tourist would ever discover this hidden spot made the meal ever more enjoyable on the perfect 80-degree day in mid November.
I ordered a glass of Argentinian Torrontes (Aymara, 2009) with my sandwich. It’s an unusual pairing. The clerk recommended a Zin (what else in Sonoma county!), but on such a brilliantly warm and spotlessly sunny day, I politely declined. It felt like a white! The full bodied Torrontes tasted of jasmin and ripe lychees, and (unlike most of the local white wines, despite what their marketing department would have you believe) had excellent acidity. The fruitiness worked great with the pork, while the acidity refreshed the palate before the next succulent bite.
What is particularly interesting about this place is the whole set-up in the back of a bookstore. It appears to be a new phenomenon: gourmet eats can be had in places you’d least expect – a roaming food truck, the back of a touristy bookstore, a gift shop at a national park, or a cafe in a museum.
Example of the latter is Cool Cafe at the back of the Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center, next to a souvenir shop. Jesse Cool is considered by many the Alice Waters of the SF Peninsula. Her Cool Cafe (and several other restaurants) serve only fresh, in-season, organic and local ingredients. Her grilled grass-fed beef burger with caramelized onions, chipotle aioli on a potato bun is excellent. I also tried her grilled chicken sandwich and the pulled pork sandwich, and both had unique twists, and were very good. Sit back, relax, grab one of those delightful sandwiches, and feel very smart out there on a veranda at the back of the cafe, looking over the lush green lawn, the famous Rodin sculptures and the ornate buildings of the venerable Stanford campus, knowing that only Stanford intellectuals and real hard-core foodies frequent here.
Is this a trend, a movement? I think so. Chefs opening their comfort food eateries away from beaten paths, where even the knowledge of such gems means you are an “insider”. Just ask the hoards of rabid fans following food trucks on twitter.
Where can you find more spots like Bovolo and Cool Cafe? Let us know where your favorite hidden gems are.