They’ve Got A Ways To Go

I’ve been critiquing restaurants for a few years now, both semi-professionally, and on my personal blog. I think this will be the first truly negative review I’ve published. I usually just give attention to restaurants I like, because I like to promote them, but I feel this information is both beneficial, letting you know the Cheese Trail exists, and cautionary, letting you know the Cheese Trail exists, but, it has a ways to go.

It all started out well enough. A few weeks back a client of mine told me about the Sonoma Marin Cheese Trail, as seen in a recent Sunset Magazine article, I can’t remember who, but if it was you let me know! It’s no secret that Pete and I spend a fair amount of time in the Sonoma valley. We like it better than Napa valley, though we do often stop in Napa Valley on the way through, usually our destination is the Glen Ellen Oyster and Martini Bar. The reason we like this place is because of the ambiance, the lovely and always delicious food, and the wonderful little cottages out back. Mostly, however, we love the fact that we can drink half martinis all evening (I have favorites, but the menu is huge so I often try something new) and head back to our room within less than a minute!

This time however, we wanted to try something completely different, but since we don’t generally have a large amount of time to spend, the cheese trail seemed like a good compromise! Our plan was to head to Novato, one of the prettiest places on earth in my opinion. The stunning valley outside of town on Novato Blvd. towards Petaluma and Pt. Reyes Station, is one of my happy places; I will always believe this is where the ad exec got the idea for Happy California Cows. Even as a young teen I fantasized about owning an acre or two up in the hills that separate Novato and Petaluma. When I was around 14 my sister, my mother, and I lived in a condo for about a year that backed up to these mountains (hills really) My sister and I would walk her German Shepard Rocky up the hill that was unbelievably lush and green, with the most picturesque little vernal creeks running down the slope for weeks after a rain. When we got to the top, it would have been a very easy walk down into Petaluma if you were so inspired, but the drive through the hills towards Pt. Reyes Station is literally the prettiest place I have ever been.

We planned to head up the coast highway from Pt. Reyes to Bodega, and then turn east and head to Sebastopol, and then on a little farther to where we were to spend the night and next morning relaxing at the Flamingo Resort in Santa Rosa.

The drive from Sacramento to Novato was nice and without incident. We discussed the bizarre fate of Vallejo, the perfect location for a fabulous water-side bedroom community for the Bay Area, that is a sad little ghetto do to the closure of Mare Island (anybody else ever notice that military bases, while they do bring prosperity while they’re open, always seem to leave devastating scars when they’re gone?)

When we arrived to the 101 I missed the exit to 101 and went into town earlier than I intended. When I lived here I knew my way around, but since I didn’t drive yet, I couldn’t quite remember which roads where which (it has been about 30 years since I lived there). We lost a good half hour thanks to my faulty memory, but once we found Novato Blvd, all seemed well. Driving through those hills in the spring is what I imagine Ireland to be…

That’s about where the happy times ended.

It turns out the Cheese Trail map doesn’t show Novato Blvd. and we spent a good hour cursing the Cheese Trail map, Google maps (we didn’t realize the road we were looking at on the printed map was 101, not Novato Blvd), and the stupid Cheese Trail organizer variously, to calm our nerves as we turned around two separate times, and never did find the Spring Hill Cheese Co. Hopefully we didn’t miss much.

By the time we finally realized the tourist trap cheese shop I was trying to avoid was actually the second cheese shop on our list, the Marin French Cheese Co. We just wanted to stop. So though I intended to pass this shop, we figured what can it hurt to taste some cheese and get a water?

It’s not that it’s bad mind you. I’ve seen it there for over 30 years, every time we passed by it I looked and thought, “huh.” But that was it. Old habits die hard. But it’s nothing I think anybody should go out of their way for. It’s kind of like a deli inside, but any sandwiches are pre-made. The cheeses (mostly mild cream cheeses such as Brie or Camembert) are sort of bland, and that’s really a statement from me, because though I love a strong cheese, I’m very happy gobbling up a butter mild brie. And the fact that they were selling 8 lb. for $20, and giving away a full wheel of brie with every purchase didn’t really make me feel better about the experience. We bought four small mild cheeses more out of guilt than anything, and shoot, it was cheap. Pete took the free wheel they were giving out with any purchase to one of his various musical company’s rehearsals the next day; we had been told it was “extremely” ripe and best used soon. Pete said it was excellent, so it wasn’t a total loss.

Our next stop was a little easier to find. We had passed Nicasio Road at least twice before that day, so the Nicasio Valley Cheese Company was easy to find down a short side street (Nicasio Road). Luckily it was a short road, it would have been very disappointing if we had traveled far. This was merely disappointing. The little shop is fine, with a very nice lady attending. The cheeses are all set out on a table under cake domes, which is very nice. You don’t feel like somebody is hovering over you. However, other than the herbed cows milk “shmear” as I think of it, I didn’t like any of them. Mostly very pungent slightly aged cheeses, often with extremely pungent rinds. Eh. I know that some people really like that sort of thing, but it’s not a taste I really wish to cultivate. Another small cheese (the “shmear”, which is my name for it, not theirs) that again we sort of bought out of guilt, and honestly, the more the eat of it the less I like it.

Oh well, the next stop was Pt. Reyes Station and the world-famous Cowgirl Creamery and Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co. We were sure this would be a sure thing, and it was. The cheese we tasted, presented by a very knowledgable and perky cheesemonger, was spectacular. All of them. We happily bought a Pt. Reyes Blue, and a Cowgirl semi-firm, sort of like a really, really good Jack.

While I was getting an iced tea, Pete chatted up the cheesemonger, and she recommended two restaurants up the coast a bit. One 10 minutes away, and the other 20. I was surprised that she recommended something out-of-town. I happen to know there are several very good eateries in town, but since the traffic was really heavy that day, we figured it was good to head up coast and be on our way anyhow. She said the 10 minute one was good, but that Nick’s Cove was better. 

So to Nick’s Cove we went. It’s a cute little place, nice bar, typical central coast river rock and aged wood decor. It would be a lovely place to hang out if you were staying near, I’m sure. But when I tell you it’s a seafood restaurant, that doesn’t actually quite get it right. They basically served oysters and crab (at least for lunch). Oh they did have a fish and chips, which is what I ordered, the fries were good, but when I pick up a piece of fried fish and oil drips off, I just can’t eat it. My stomach wasn’t happy for the rest of the day. Pete had some kind of crab melt sandwich, which he said was just too rich to eat much of. I don’t often see food left on Pete’s plate, so I know he couldn’t have been thrilled with it. To make matters worse, somebody had ordered the truffled fries. Truffle oil, major ick. The smell makes me nauseous. 

Granted, the dinner menu is bigger, and if you looove crab or oysters, it might be good, but I doubt we’ll try again, many better options up or down the road.

At this point my stomach said no more food. It wasn’t food poisoning, just blech. So we gave up on the rest of the cheese tasting, besides, from what we could tell, there weren’t any other that were “open to the public” on a regular basis. We didn’t make it to our favorite sounding creamery, Pug’s Leap, oh well. 

We headed on to Santa Rosa, and of course hit construction, nothing was going to go easily this day. Once we got past the construction, we didn’t have any trouble getting to the Flamingo Resort where we were staying for the evening, but since we hadn’t planned on being there as early as 3:30, we had an awful lot of time to kill. The pool was closed, the hot tub filled with  children, and the bar boring, we watched TV in the room and ordered room service, and lord knows we never watch TV…yah right.

The Big Bang Theory always cheers me up, but it can’t make up for what feels like a wasted trip, and though I can’t blame it all on the Cheese Trail, I have to say the frustration, and disappointment we experienced didn’t really give us the mini vacation we were hoping for.

The next morning, around 6, I was lying in bed awake when I decided I couldn’t handle it any longer. I wanted to go home and spend at least a few hours in my very own bed before heading to work. I was still not feeling very well, and the drive home certainly didn’t help. You think drivers in Sacramento are bad, Marin County drivers are complete a-holes. I’ve never heard honking of this sort in my 25 years of commuting into Davis. Ever. A-holes.

Just a few hours later, only two hours after we drove past Davis, the entire freeway was closed, two dead, and many, many people’s days turned upside down. I can only thank providence that we weren’t there; Thursday turned out to be going a lot better for us than I thought.