the girl & the fig – 15 Years In Wine Country

Photo by Steven Krause

“I love our plats du jour  at all our restaurants, we’ve been doing it forever.”  Restaurateur Sondra Bernstein is perhaps best known for her iconic Sonoma wine country restaurant the girl & the fig.  She first opened it in the charming Sonoma County town of Glen Ellen 15 years ago, in 1997.  Since then she moved the eatery to the square in downtown Sonoma.  the girl & the fig Cookbook was published in 2004 and is now in its 5th printing.  Her latest tome  Plats du Jour:  the girl & the fig’s Journey Through the Seasons in Wine Country is truly handcrafted.  “I taught myself book design and I self-published,” she says.  It’s also available in an e-version.

Photos by Steven Krause

Plats du Jour reflects Sondra’s philosophy of eating locally with the seasons.  What is a plats du jour?  Translated from French it means “plate of the day;” or the daily special if you will, but always offered as a three course meal, with an appetizer, entree then cheese or dessert to finish.  Sondra developed a love for the plats du jour menu during her travels through France.  At  “the fig” (Sondra’s shorthand for the restaurant) the plats du jour menu changes weekly.  “It’s a nice cross section of each of the seasons and because we’re doing so much at the farm, it’s a nice way to follow the seasons and see what’s really happening there.”

That farm is on the property of Imagery, a local Sonoma winery, and dubbed “the farm project” because since launching it in 2010, Sondra and her staff have been learning along the way about what and how the produce grows and how to deal with it in the kitchen.  “Summer may go into fall a little bit,” she says, or there may be a sudden overabundance of tomatoes.  There’s also a garden plot next to the girl & the fig restaurant.

Sondra says it took about two years to compile Plats du Jour.  Photographers Lauren and Steven Krause “shot over a year, we had at least 28 to 30 photo shoots.”  About self-publishing, Sondra says, “I got to learn how to design it,  got to be my own boss, was able to pick photographers and people that I like really have a good time with and I wasn’t limited to how many pages or how many photographs or anything.”  Plats du Jour is illustrated with beautiful and scrumptious photographs that are so lifelike you get hungry looking at the them.

Photo by Steven Krause

Plats du Jour is more than just a cookbook.  Sondra shares stories about her local purveyors – farmers, cheese makers, olive oil makers, ranchers.  Cheese is so important to Sondra that she’s devoted many pages throughout the book to educating people about the different types of cheeses and also offers tips on pairing cheese with wine. One thing I learned is that cheese is seasonal too.The recipe for Sondra’s famous grilled fig & arugula salad, which she’s been serving for 15 years, is there, in the Autumn No. 2 menu.  You’ll learn how to stock your own artisanal larder (pantry that is) with vinegar, salumi,olives and more.  There are recipes for cocktails such as a lavender mojito, or a sparkling French pear.

Photo by Steven Krause

Executive Chef John Toulze developed the recipes in Plats du Jour.  He’s also behind the success of the fig culinary empire.  John’s been in the fig kitchen since day one, 15 years ago.  “He’s evolved from not knowing how to cook to being a really great chef, totally self-taught,” she says.  Now he’s curing salumi in-house, baking bread and overseeing culinary operations at all the fig restaurants.  “Its’s a good partnership and I feel very very fortunate,” says Sondra.  She has many other long-time employees, something hard to maintain in the ever changing restaurant business, and a tribute to her managing style.

Plats du Jour is the latest project from one of wine country’s busiest and most prolific restauranteurs.  Sondra’s grown her “fig” empire to include fig cafe & wine bar in Glen Ellen, FIGfood (her Red Onion Confit confit is one of my favorite things to cook with) body lotions and candles, scented with figs, natch, and Suite D, where her catering business kitchen is located, and where she holds cooking classes, special dinners and events.

Photo by Megan Clouse

Suite D is in a warehouse district, along with the small wineries that form the Sonoma Eighth Street Wineries district.  For this venture Sondra turned to Kickstarter to raise the funds to open it, meeting her goal of $30,000.  That’s because she sees way more possibilities for the space than just  catering or events.  She envisions Suite D as a unique community center, where other groups can come in and hold their own event, and where local food can be celebrated.  Lucky backers are treated to special receptions or dinners and other goodies. The space itself is “very funky, very eclectic, a lot of re-planed wood and salvage anand galvanized metal,” says Sondra, “along with 30 foot canvas paintings.”  There’s a pizza oven and a ping pong table too, and Saundra sees everything from a rehearsal dinner to a ping pong kegger happening in the space.

Photo by Megan Clouse

I don’t think Sondra’s ever met a challenge she didn’t face and take on.  She’s really proud of the success of the fig for 15 years.  But this year has been “bittersweet” too as she closed ESTATE, her Italy focused restaurant, in mid September.  “I don’t have any regrets of what we’ve done and I love this property.” Given the right location, “I would do ESTATE again I really loved it.”  And it’s not completely gone, as Sondra’s hosting ESTATE pop up dinners at Suite D.

Going forward, Sondra is pickling vegetables from the farm project for Sonoma Valley Sharecropper, to which Sondra and her team give jars of pickled produce and apricots, etc. in exchange for using the farm land.  Her pickling spices from the Sharecropper label are sold at Williams-Sonoma stores.  And she has tons of ideas for Suite D.  So it looks like there’s no slowing down for Sondra any time soon.  “I really know that I like to put it together creating it, designing it, figuring it out and then honestly I really want to go to the next thing.”

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