First Bite

First Bite

Market Cafe at Cornerstone

By Heather Irwin

Editor’s note: First Bite is a new concept in restaurant writing. We invite you to come along with our writers as they–informed, intelligent eaters like yourselves–have a simple meal at an area restaurant, just like you do. This is not a go-three-times, try-everything-on-the-menu report; rather, this is a quick snapshot of a single experience.

Driving along Highway 121, the giant blue limbs are pretty hard to miss. Like a flocked Christmas tree left out way past the holidays, it stoops beneath the sky without needles or gifts, looking oddly out of place among the vineyards. Created by artist Claude Comier, the naked tree, simply called Blue Tree, is part of the head-on collision of art, architecture and vegetation at the Cornerstone Festival of Gardens. Part art installation, nursery and gift shop, the starkly designed compound outside the town of Sonoma has recently opened another commodity, the Market Cafe. Walking through thought-provoking gardens is, after all, hungry work.

Even getting in is a challenge. After leaving the parking lot, it’s not readily apparent where the entrance, exit or main feature of Cornerstone is, and that seems purposeful. Exploration is the name of the game as you wind in and out of pathways and around various installations. The cafe is at the far left side in a lofty, open room dominated by a 25-foot wall covered in cheesy fake flowers and Wonka-like pads of ersatz grass, both odd and whimsical, that seem to grow from the concrete floors.

The cafe’s food is similarly a mix of the pedestrian and fascinating, with a menu of soups, salads and sandwiches that includes everything from simple turkey sandwiches to exotic mixes of lettuce and herbs and creative panini.

The pork panini with blackberry barbecue sauce ($7.25), for example, was impossible not to try. Handing me the waxed-paper-wrapped sandwich, the cook admonished, “Eat that baby fast”–as in right now, before the whole thing gets soggy. No worries. The grilled sandwich, embellished with red-bean paste and jalapeño relish, disappeared in moments. Though not quite as intensely flavorful as the mouth-watering description had led me to believe, this gooey-sweet sandwich didn’t disappointment, with its crunchy, toasted French bread and kick of spicy relish. The sweetness of the sauce was slightly overwhelmed by the bean paste, and on that warm day, the hot, drippy pork left me feeling weighed down and sticky rather than ready for a walk through the gardens.

The grilled peach salad ($5.95) was a better choice, as temperatures soared and heat radiated off the compound’s metal siding. A tangle of intensely fresh lettuces and small pieces of grilled fresh peaches are thrown into the mix, along with candied walnuts and (not enough) Carmody cheese from local Bellwether Farms. The whole thing is topped with a whisper-light lemon and honey vinaigrette. It’s simple enough to eat with fingers, though friends might appreciate the use of a fork and napkin.

Eating at the cafe is not a fancy affair. Orders are placed at the counter and names shouted out as orders come up. The cafe also offers a selection of deli-style meats and cheese for picnics, along with juices, water and soda. Breakfast includes house-made muffins, scones and granola.

Kids can snack on organic peanut butter and jam sandwiches or grilled cheese, and dogs are welcome to lounge outside–just as long as they keep their distance from Blue Tree.

Market Cafe at Cornerstone Festival of Gardens, 23570 Hwy. 121, Sonoma. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 11am to 5pm; Monday, noon to 4pm. 707.935.1681.

From the July 13-19, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.

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