To discover good food it helps to veer from the familiar and take old taste buds into new territory.
That’s what I did on a recent Thursday evening at the Hot Box Grill, nestled on Route 12 in Boyes Hot Springs. A local farmer and his wife, an artist, joined me. For two-and-a-half hours, we ate slowly, sipped good wine and talked about food and farming. We could hear one another without shouting—a real bonus, given the noise level in many restaurants these days.
At 34, the Hot Box’s Norm Owens is the youngest of the hotshot chefs in the Valley of the Moon. Born in Maryland and raised in New Hampshire, he attended college in Montana and traveled across Europe and Asia, cooking and eating his way from continent to continent, country to country. His rosy cheeks and infectious smile give the young chef a cherubic air.
“I guess you could call me a rolling stone,” Owens says on a quiet Friday afternoon as the sun streams through the Hot Box windows. “The menu here reflects my global ramblings and the lessons I’ve learned from master chefs, including John McReynolds, Michael Chiarello and a bunch of guys in France who allowed absolutely no screwing around in the kitchen.”
Owens shops at the open-air Friday market in the town of Sonoma, and, while he occasionally consults cookbooks, he mostly lets fresh local produce give him the inspiration for dishes he prepares. If he has a golden rule, it’s this: “Don’t mess too much with the ingredients. Let them stand out.”
We started with two sides: Brussels sprouts, pancetta, garlic and chile flakes ($6), and duck-fat fries with malt vinegar aioli ($6). If you haven’t eaten duck-fat fries with mayonnaise, you haven’t tasted real fries of the sort I’ve grown to love.
The farmer ordered chicken paillard with potatoes, celery root and squash ($18). The artist ordered pot roast with potato pancake and horseradish crème fraîche ($19). I took the Cornish game hen with cornbread pudding, coleslaw and mac ‘n’ cheese ($22 half a hen; $38 whole). We shared the dishes and ate steadily. By the end of the evening, there was plenty to take home for supper the next day.
The Hot Box lives up to its reputation for serving large portions of comfort food, though it also ought to be known for distinctive flavors. Roasted baby beets come with shaved fennel, grapefruit, feta cheese, toasted pistachios and citrus vinaigrette ($9). The spicy ahi tuna timbale is accompanied by lime and mint cucumbers, chili-infused sesame oil and ponzu, the popular Japanese sauce ($14).
Many of the meat dishes take days to prepare. Owens believes in slow cooking to bring out the fullness of the flavors and to make pork and lamb as tender as can be. There’s also a 32-ounce rib-eye steak that takes 20 to 25 minutes to cook. “It’s cowboy-size,” Owens says.
For vegetarians, there’s ricotta gnocchi with crimini mushrooms, shaved Parmesan cheese and kale ($18).
One of the kindest chefs around, Owens’ manner means a lot to the staff. “I never yell at anyone in the kitchen,” he says. “Treat your workers right, and they’ll treat you right.”
A chef who cares about his workers is a chef worth all the rib-eye steak and duck fat in the world.