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April 21, 2008 4:35 PM

Duskie, John, and Zoi: Top Chefs from Seattle cookin' in Sonoma County

Posted by Nancy Leson

I recently made a quick trip to Northern California to help my "wicked" stepmother, Betty, move from the home she'd shared with my (dearly departed) dad. Knowing the trip would be a lot of fun (not!), and that I'd be arriving in Santa Rosa at 8:30 on a Friday night, I decided to start the weekend right and made reservations for dinner at Zazu.

Zazu Restaurant & Farm, a short ride from the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, is owned by Duskie Estes and her husband, John Stewart -- both veterans of Tom Douglas Restaurants. It's a place I've always heard about but never been to. So while I'm sorry my stepmother had to move out of the house she and my dad shared for 25 years in Novato, I'm glad I now have a restaurant with a Seattle connection only 10 minutes from her new home in Santa Rosa. And she's glad, too, because I introduced her to Duskie, who's about as warm a human being as anyone can ever hope to meet:

I ordered this $33 County Line rose, and was told by our wonderful waitress -- who's worked there since the place opened seven years ago -- that it was a cult classic, grown and bottled by a local wine-guy. She said sommeliers from all over the country clammor for the stuff. I certainly understand why.

Between the rose, and the copper-topped tables, the whole evening took on a distinctly rosy glow.

To start, we shared an antipasto plate whose highlights included housemade Black Pig salumi (John's a disciple of Armandino Batali and proved it by branding his arm with the Salumi Artisan Cured Meats logo):

Next, Betty ordered Bodega Bay Dungeness Crab with angel hair pasta and artichoke pesto:

And I made short work of a whole grilled trout with browned butter and almonds. Unreal:

The trout came with a choice of side. I chose swiss chard, pulled from the garden plot just outside the restaurant's door and gently sauteed:

For dessert, we shared this array of housemade gelati and sorbetti:

And that's when Betty looked across the table and told me: "This is the best food I've ever eaten in my life." Which is saying a lot because three days later, while movers were schlepping 25 years worth of accumulated je ne sais quoi to Santa Rosa and we bid the old house in Novato a teary goodbye, she celebrated her 73rd birthday. I should look so good at 73:

While we were at Zazu, we met a national celebrity: "Top Chef" contestant Zoi Antonitsas (who also worked for Tom D.). Here she is hiding behind a menu -- as directed by the folks at Bravo, who, for now at least, control her image:

Zoi is Duskie's sous-chef, and regardless of what anybody has to say about her ability to season mushrooms, I say she's a helluva cook.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to spending time in Sonoma County, and can't wait to get back there to try Duskie and John's other restaurant, Bovolo. I can't say enough good things about Horizon's quick service to Sonoma County: a two-hour ride from Sea-Tac that drops you right in the heart of the wine country.

By the way, Betty loves me not only because I flew down twice in a month to help her with the move and took her to Zazu, but because I kept my mouth shut when I realized my dad's beloved wine collection had turned to plonk, which was not her fault but his. (We spilled the 1985 Chateau Mouton Rothschild, below, directly down the drain.) I also kept mum and happily drank Maxwell House instant coffee for three days -- since the coffee machine and the good coffee had been packed away before I got there.

Trust me: the instant coffee tasted 10 times better than the vintage Bordeaux. Anyway, who needs expensive French wine when you're in Sonoma County wine country?

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