Nick and Jen Demarest don’t make life easy for themselves at their Harvest Moon Café in downtown Sonoma. The graduates of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, change their menu every day, spanning six appetizers and five entrees for executive chef Nick, plus up to seven desserts for pastry chef Jen.
That means shopping for what’s freshest and finest, then devising and pricing out new recipes, then posting new menus to their website and restaurant entry signs. Every single day. The staff, my server explained, arrives each evening to learn the new menu, and then the chefs stay after service each night to take ingredient inventory and start dreaming up the next evening’s offerings.
Yet to my sympathetic mutterings, my server only smiled. Operating that way keeps the chefs and staff interested and happy, he said. Customers like it, because many are regulars, and they like the surprise of finding out what’s for dinner. And to be honest, favorite dishes do make repeat appearances, including classics dating back to opening day, plus menus that have held traction over time to showcase seasonal splendor.
Either way, I still think it’s admirable work for the charming mom-and-pop spot that’s been a Sonoma Plaza fixture since 2006. And for that, I say, thank you, Harvest Moon. Though all these years, while trends come and go, the restaurant has remained true to its roots: delicious California comfort food with spark and soul. The clean cooking makes it easy to tell that Nick trained at Chez Panisse and the former Eccolo in Berkeley, and Jen at the former Downtown in Berkeley plus the former La Toque in Rutherford.
You can feel the family vibe as soon as you enter the space that zigzags through a 20-seat front dining room, past a small wine bar, then a kitchen work station bar and another tiny dining room out to a tree lined gravel patio seating 50. We’re immediately greeted with a friendly, “welcome.”
Unfortunately, the current décor is a little too down-home these days: dark, cramped-feeling and tired, with warped white-plaster walls devoid of art, dark wood tables and the only life lent by small chandeliers and some pillows on banquettes. The space used to be prettier with paintings, and now, it could benefit from some refreshing.
Still, I immediately zoomed in on the basket of bread on the bar — the beautiful crusty loaves are Jen’s work, and they help me understand the $6.95 charge for a half-dozen slices with a hefty chunk of salted butter.
You might luck out, too, and find that the nightly soup comes with grilled bread, such as one evening’s velvety potato-celery model dolloped with crème fraîche and chives ($10.95). Another evening’s yellow squash-zucchini recipe was breadless, but still satisfying, especially because its mild flavor was enlivened by that tangy crème fraîche and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil ($10.95).
The marinated beet salad caught my attention, too. The slightly tart vegetables were stunning, surprisingly paired with spicy-sweet Galia melon sprinkled in mint, hazelnuts, yogurt and lemon ($14.95). What a wonderful recipe, for earth, acid, cream and crunch all together. Another appetizer, penne, wasn’t inventive, but it was perfect, in its mantle of slow-simmered, hearty pork Bolognese finished with fried herbs, just a hint of black truffle oil and Parmesan ($15.95).
Harvest Moon Café
Where: 487 1st Street West, Sonoma
When: 5:30 to 9 p.m. Sun., Mon., Weds. & Thurs., 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Fri. & Sat.
Contact: (707) 933-8160, harvestmooncafesonoma.com
Cuisine: California, Mediterranean, Asian
Price: Very expensive, entrées $22.95-$34.95
Summary: After 12 years, the beloved Sonoma Plaza bistro continues to shine with its nightly-changing menu of inspired Cal-Med cuisine.