Dinner for Close Friends

 

The night was the hottest so far of the year; so hot for spring that we definitely weren’t going to cook that night, and anyway, we’d been thinking a lot about the food at Hazel, a new restaurant we’d tried last fall, a short drive south on the Bohemian Highway, about 15 minutes from Ananda.

Hazel opened last summer in a small place on the outskirts of the town of Occidental, taking over the location from a popular eatery known as Bistro des Copains (that we never got a chance to try). “Copains,” as far as our French goes, means something like “close friends” (another translation is “boyfriend or girlfriend”) … and like we said, the place is small.

The Bistro is gone, but Hazel still seems like the spot for close friends—yes, because it’s slightly close quarters—but much more so because some of the fare is pretty perfect for sharing, especially the selection of about half a dozen wood-fired pizzas (more on that in a bit). And the welcoming, stripped-down rustic atmosphere, punctuated with colorful art and warm lighting, invites conversation.

 

When we visited Hazel in October, diners had packed the place everywhere but the small patio, where it was too cold to sit. That time, we ate at the bar, enjoying the people-watching that sitting near the front door afforded. Just the kind of cozy evening that makes autumn such a well-loved season.

On this most recent visit, we did longingly consider the patio, but evening temperatures can drop pretty quickly this time of year, and we knew the heat would disappear when the sun did. But with all the windows open, the restaurant offered a welcome taste of summer in April. We’ll just have to save the patio for next time.

A wood-fired pizza oven, visible from the dining room, turns out a centerpiece of Hazel’s menu: a range of thin-crust pizzas, with more familiar choices like the margherita or pepperoni (spiced up with jalapeño), as well as more unusual pairings, some of which change with the seasons: sausage with egg; butternut squash with pine nuts and crème fraîche; or caramelized onions and Gorgonzola cheese with toasted walnuts.

We started with a roasted asparagus appetizer and then shared the Gorgonzola pizza and a red quinoa bowl with sautéed kale, asparagus and maitake mushrooms.

The pizza was rich, dominated by the strong flavor of melted Gorgonzola, but with sweet undertones from the caramelized onions and a welcome crunch of walnuts—it’s so creamy and rich, it’s definitely a good choice to split. The clean flavors and wholesomeness of the quinoa bowl balanced nicely with the decadent pizza.

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Paired with caramelized onions and toasted walnuts, creamy melted Gorgonzola makes for a rich pizza.

 

The quinoa bowl is one of about five or six main dishes that highlight a variety of proteins, including seafood, poultry and steak. From starters all the way to desserts, the menu features lots of local ingredients, from the cheese on the pizzas and starters (showcasing some of the North Bay’s many awesome creameries—always a great thing), to locally grown produce.

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Plenty of fresh greens in the quinoa bowl—and they didn’t skimp on the cheese, either.

 

We finished off dinner with a perfectly not-too-sweet apple crumble a la mode. During dessert, we ended up googling what a “fruit crumble” was not only because we didn’t really know the difference between “apple crisp” and “apple crumble,” but mostly because all that brown sugar—and a good amount of butter?—in the lightly crunchy topping made us want to learn how to make our own, even if it won’t live up to Hazel’s version. It’s good stuff. (And unfortunately, we were so eager to tuck in that we didn’t take a photo.)

About halfway through dinner, we were surprised by a loud siren that seemed to echo in the streets. Especially since most of the other diners didn’t bat an eye, we were so curious that we had to ask our server what the siren was all about. She told us that the local volunteer fire department was being summoned to a call, adding with a smile, “That’s small town life.”

Occidental is small—we hate to use the “q-word” but we’re going to—because Occidental is quaint in the best possible way. And this location actually makes Hazel seem that much cozier. So even though it’s not officially the spot for “copains” anymore, it’s still a perfect spot to bring close friends—or have a romantic dinner.

 

Part of WordPress’ Weekly Photo Challenge—Dinnertime

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Going Old-School in Duncans Mills

 

One of the things that makes exploring the North Bay and Sonoma so much fun is how many unique small towns we’ve discovered just in driving around. Each town has something that makes it special—beyond location, that is, which is always pretty scenic.
On one of our first visits to the area, driving to Goat Rock Beach, we happened upon the town of Duncans Mills, and now we stop there often on trips to the coast—it’s pretty close to home and a fun place to stop (just through the woods and over the river we go).

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Crossing the Russian River and heading into Duncans Mills from Monte Rio.

Even though Duncans Mills is small—the population is 175—there’s still enough to do there that we haven’t seen it all yet. Next on our list to check out: the Depot Museum, which hearkens back to the hamlet’s origins as a lumber town.

The museum features a restored depot and train cars, including a passenger car and caboose. Across the street from the museum are rodeo grounds. Duncans Mills also hosts the Russian River Rodeo each summer—the 50th anniversary rodeo will be held June 25-26, 2016.

It’s not just the rail museum and the rodeo—the town has an Old West vibe through and through, thanks to a shopping district that combines historic buildings and newer structures built in an old style. Adding an extra vintage touch are wooden boardwalks in place of sidewalks.

And it only makes sense that many of the shops sell antiques. One of our favorites specializes in a combination of American midcentury housewares, as well as much older furnishings from Europe and Asia, but the store also sells handmade soaps. Other merchants in Duncans Mills include restaurants, jewelry and clothing shops, stores that offer multicultural goods, a tea shop, a kitchen store and a wine tasting shop.

Future apples

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There will be fruit: blossoms on our little old apple tree in the forest.

Sonoma County has long been known for its agriculture, but at the turn of the previous century, the area wasn’t known for wine, but for apples. We don’t have a road in these parts called the Gravenstein Highway for nothing, after all.

Vineyards are everywhere now, but plenty of sweet remnants of the apple’s heyday in the area remain: certainly Sonoma County is still home to apple orchards, including places where you can pick your own fruit in the fall, and there are also apple trees in many a yard, probably a combination of volunteer trees and those that were planted by homeowners.

The old apple tree in our yard must be of hardy stock—with our location in the redwood forest, the tree doesn’t get the hours of full sun that most fruit trees need to really produce. There aren’t many orchards in the forest.

Nevertheless, our tree keeps soldiering on—it gave us a little more than two dozen apples last fall. And it looks like we’ll have apples again come September, because the tree is blooming right now. Of course, we always look forward to the apples, (even though they’re small and a little sour, they’re homegrown), but right now we’re just enjoying the beautiful blossoms and watching the bare branches of winter come alive again with snowy flowers and bright green leaves.

 

Part of WordPress’ Weekly Photo Challenge—The Future

Coming in for a landing

 

Depending on the friends or family who might be with us, how we spend our visits to the Russian River and North Bay can vary, from parent-friendly trips to the casino to kid-friendly strolls in the woods; dog-friendly visits to the beach to wine drinker-friendly stops by local vineyards.

Wine-loving friends, who spend a lot of time in the area themselves, brought us to Lynmar Estate for wine tasting. It’s a sustainable winery located about half an hour’s drive from the house.

The wine we tried was wonderful, but equally impressive was the winery’s beautiful garden, planted with both edible crops and colorful flowers. The garden, like the winery, uses sustainable practices. Certainly this butterfly, headed for a Mexican sunflower, seemed to enjoy the garden—which made us enjoy the garden that much more.

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A Tiger Swallowtail butterfly spots the perfect place to land: a Mexican sunflower in the garden at Lynmar Estate.