**Ed note: Alas, Cafe St Rose closed in October 2009. —John**
One of the joys of being a travel writer is discovering new out-of-the-way places. While researching an upcoming book for Lonely Planet, I found just such a spot: Saint Rose, a funky roadhouse-cafe with high-concept cooking, halfway between Sebastopol and Occidental in West County Sonoma.
The sun-dappled hidden back patio has the feel of a secret garden—a portrait of West County, with mismatched chairs, tile-top tables, a ramshackle fence and waist-wildflowers everywhere you look. The mint-green dining room would be cozy on a rainy winter’s night, but on a warm summer evening, I’d only sit outside.
Instead of bread, the waitress brings deep-orange melon and unhulled green almonds to start the meal—a nice touch. The daily-changing menu is refreshingly atypical for its lack of anything familiar—no chicken breast, no steak. The seasonal-regional cooking is simple and clean, with such dishes as braised pork shanks and ratatouille, and hibachi-grilled poussin with tomato fried rice. I begin with a morel and corn croquette, followed by a pork-and-crab green-curry panade grilled in a banana leaf. Though each ingredient’s flavor shines through—particularly the just-out-of-the-garden produce—I’d have appreciated more sure-handedness in the balance of acid, sweet and salt. Still, the chef’s experimental nature delights my culinary sensibilities.
There’s a folksiness to Saint Rose that you don’t find at other indie restaurants around Sonoma County. To wit, you can thumb through the owner’s classic-record collection, then play what you like on a vintage-1970s console stereo. I’ve forgotten the feel of vinyl in my hand, the delicate placing of the needle, and get a rush of memories from an old Steely Dan collection. Saint Rose’s risky menu isn’t for everyone, but the next time I’m in West County with a posse of foodie friends, I know exactly where I’m taking them.
The stats: Saint Rose; Map; 707-829-5898; mains $18-22; dinner Weds-Sun, brunch Sat-Sun. Reservations recommended weekends