One of my favorite things about living in Sonoma County is exploring its many “census-designated places.”
Before moving here almost twenty years ago, I had never heard of this term. To my surprise, the county has 28 unincorporated communities, cities, towns, or boroughs that meet the US Census Bureau’s definition of a census-designated place.
In Wine Country parlance, such a term means that you are almost guaranteed to find a picturesque hamlet often unknown to most tourists. Think Glen Ellen, Monte Rio, Bodega or Penngrove.
One of my favorites is Forestville. With a downtown area spanning just three blocks, it’s packed with unique treasures. Here you’ll find places like Ryme Tasting Room, which offers “for her” and “for her” styles of vermentino and malbec rosé packed in a bag, and family-owned Ideal Hardware, with its antique parquet floors and staff. friendly that can solve even the most confusing DIY project riddle.
Forestville has long been a quiet destination for great dining with gems like Canneti Roadhouse Italiana and, until COVID-19 kills it, Backyard Restaurant. The village has always seemed like a secret to cuddle.
So it’s with mixed emotions that I’ve watched the place grow over the past few months. Suddenly it explodes (up to three blocks can explode). Former pop-up star Sonoma Pizza Co. recently opened a modern outdoor restaurant in the space of the former Jigar’s wine tasting room. While I love their exquisite artisan pies, I will miss Jigar’s adorable pinot noir and chocolate donut pairings.
Several months earlier, chef Gerard Nebesky of Food Network paella fame opened a limited takeout and dine-in paella shop in the former Twist grocery store.
And in late March, A La Heart Kitchen opened in the former 80s Forestville Pizza location on Mirabel Road, just off the main Front Street/Highway 116.
A La Heart is no newcomer to the area. In 1982, Deborah Rodgers founded the catering business at Duncans Mills. Later, Rodgers moved to a dedicated kitchen in Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square, then retired in 2015 and handed the business over to his daughter, Mariana Krambs Belew.
The veteran restaurant business’s business thrived until the pandemic. But with few events scheduled in 2020, Krambs Belew has decided to move out of the longtime Wilson Street location.
“When COVID hit, I made the difficult decision to let our cooking go and hand it over to the lovely ladies at Miracle Plum (café),” Krambs Belew said. Miracle Plum in Santa Rosa now uses the community kitchen for education and pop-ups.
Fate intervened when Krambs Belew and her husband bought a house in downtown Forestville, one block from the closed pizzeria.
“I originally planned to get the restoration back up and running, but after spending some time in the space I realized there were people coming and going all day, as we are right next to post office,” she said.
“We did a major renovation, ripping out the dark red ceilings and really funky carpeting and making it light and bright and clean and full of fun stuff.”
This spring, Krambs Belew launched the new café with a small patio, a glittering gourmet market and take-out coolers for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The long menu of selections changes daily. As Krambs Belew said, “You walk in, check the fridge and see what looks good today.” (Or if you want to know ahead of time, check Facebook at facebook.com/alaheartkitchen).
It’s not a delicatessen. Meals are pre-packaged, but as we’ve learned throughout the pandemic, food freshly packaged by experts can outlast made-to-order meals. Prices also fluctuate, as ingredients are mostly local and purchased in small quantities.
During the recent heat wave, I escaped to the cooler Sonoma coast and stopped for breakfast. With all the new activity in town, Front Street was so busy it was hard to find parking. I have never seen this in Forestville before.
Inside, homemade cookies and thick sausage gravy beckoned, as did homemade Rice Krispie treats (cereal is breakfast, after all). There were plate-sized cinnamon buns covered in thick vanilla cream cheese frosting; dense blueberry scones sprinkled with crispy maple bacon bits; Soft spinach-mozzarella quiche, Costeaux pastries and Healdsburg Bagel Co. favorites. They are all so satisfying.
I also picked up picnic items for my afternoon with friends at Sonoma Coast State Park. Southern Cobb salad topped with chicken, bacon, hard-boiled egg, Pt. Reyes blue cheese, sweet corn, black beans, tomatoes, and creamy caramelized onion dressing; a piece of buttered cornbread with sweet peppers and strong cheese; chicken pad thai which was thankfully tasty instead of the American-style sweet recipe; a pizzetta topped with pesto, four cheeses and roasted red peppers; and a few slices of cheesecake drizzled with a salted pecan praline sauce.
Krambs Belew has the restaurant skills to keep the meals I tasted to restaurant caliber. Go for herb-roasted pork loin with a creamy stone-ground mustard sauce, date-bacon caramelized onion relish and roasted sweet potatoes, or Tuscan chicken dinners with mashed potatoes with sour cream and a cauliflower gratin. The shop is also doing well with reheat take-out dinners, including vegan, gluten-free, and even kosher options.
On the market side, you can stock up on gluten-free breads from Mama Mel’s from Petaluma, Volo Chocolate from Windsor, Organic Comet Corn popcorn from Santa Rosa, Iced Sunshine Coffee from Forestville, Revive Kombucha from Petaluma and much more.
Forestville, you get whimsical, and the secret comes out.
Carey Sweet is a food and restaurant writer based in Sevastopol. Read his restaurant reviews every two weeks in Sonoma Life. Contact her at [email protected]