A trio of pork tacos at El Molino Central.
When a noted chef tells you the name of a restaurant he thinks is the very best in the Bay Area, your ears can’t help but perk up.
And when he reveals that it’s an unassuming taco joint, you really get intrigued.
Such was the case when I recently interviewed Chef Louis Maldonado for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle Food section about his favorite places in the Healdsburg area.
Maldonado, former chef of Spoonbar in Healdsburg and now culinary director of Mugnaini Imports in Healdsburg, was effusive in his praise for El Molino Central in Boyes Hot Springs. So much so that when I found myself in the area last week, I just had to try it, paying my own tab at the end.
The back of the restaurant.
El Molino Central is a tiny place with a tamale-sized kitchen. Inside, there’s barely room for two small tables, and the counter where you place your order. Lest you think you’ll have to eat your food standing up, you will find a cheerful patio in the back with picnic tables, covered by a trellis and a revolving ceiling fan. You’ll have to walk through the compact kitchen to get to it, though — or go out the front door and walk around the building to the back.
The Asian charcuterie platter at Cassia.
SANTA MONICA — When my friend and talented cookbook author Andrea Nguyen raves about a place, I know I have to try it.
When Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer Jonathan Gold deems the food “brilliant,” I know I’m in for something extraordinary.
Indeed, that’s how superlative Cassia in Santa Monica is.
This expansive restaurant is run by Chef Bryant Ng, who has cooked with Daniel Boulud and Roland Passot, and counts Nancy Silverton as a mentor.
How pretty is this lemon cake from Sycamore Kitchen?
Sure, they serve lunch, but I was there for the baked goods. But of course.
Husband and wife owners Quinn and Karen Hatfield cooked for a spell in San Francisco, before departing for Los Angeles to open Hatfield’s. In 2012, they also opened the Sycamore Kitchen, an urban cafe and bakery with a large outdoor patio.
Karen is a long-time pastry chef, so it’s no surprise that the pastries excel here.
How good are they?
Let’s start with the buttercup ($3.50), the renamed version of a kougin-amann. It’s buttery alright. It’s also the closest kouign-amann I’ve found to that of Belinda Leong’s of B. Patisserie in San Francisco and John Shelsta’s of Howie’s Artisan Pizzeria in Redwood City (he trained with Leong). It’s golden and crisp, with airy layers that are just a smidge heavier in texture than Leong’s and Shelsta’s versions. It’s a dream to nibble on.
The buttercup (kouign-amann).
Yup, this is a babka.
Then there are the cookies. At first glance, they look incredibly flat and thin — almost as if they were a mistake. But take a bite of the rice crispy cookie ($2.50) and the oatmeal toffee cookie ($2.25) and you know they were baked with purpose. The thinness means they are somehow crisp and chewy through and through. Brilliant.
The Ahwahnee looking as it should in winter.
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, CA — Last week, I had the great pleasure of returning for the fourth year in a row to help host the incomparable 31st Annual Chefs’ Holidays event at The Ahwahnee in Yosemite.
Besides the stellar chefs, the welcoming staff, and the outstanding food, there was one other unforgettable highlight: snow.
Yes, after four years of drought, and a January a year ago where it was so dry and warm that I hiked in a T-shirt, it was a joy to see Yosemite dusted in powdery, fluffy white, looking every bit its picture-postcard self.
(L to R): Sous Chef Daniel Gomez Sanchez of La Toque, Executive Chef Ken Frank of La Toque, Sarah and Evan Rich of Rich Table, and David Bazirgan of Dirty Habit.
Chefs’ Holidays takes place every January through early February. It is comprised of eight sessions, with each one spotlighting three renowned chefs, each of whom does a cooking demo. There is a wine reception to meet all the chefs. Each session ends with a gala dinner prepared by the headliner chef or all three participating chefs.
Yellowfin tuna at Barndiva.
On a recent rainy Friday afternoon, my husband and I ducked into the pretty trellised courtyard and right through the inviting doors of Barndiva in Healdsburg.
Apparently, we weren’t the only ones lured inside by the laid-back, rustic warmth of its barn-like setting, as the cozy dining room soon filled up with locals greeting each other with hugs and kicking back with glasses of wine.
It’s easy to see why this is a spot that attracts folks again and again.
It has a free spiritedness about it with eclectic artwork on the walls, including a wall of vintage wooden shoe forms at the entrance. In fact, the secondary dining room is an actual art gallery by day, and an event space by night.
The bar area.
I hadn’t dined at Barndiva since shortly after it opened in 2004, so I was happy to go again in December after being invited in as a guest of the restaurant.
About six years ago, Chef Ryan Fancher came on board after cooking alongside Richard Reddington at Auberge du Soleil, and Thomas Keller at both the French Laundry in Yountville and Per Se in New York.