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Last week I joined a friend for a preview of Handline in Sebastopol. Featuring California Coastal cuisine, Handline opens its door to the public today. Hours will be 11am to 10pm daily. A long-time dream of the partners behind Peter Lowell's, it's located in the former Foster's Freeze and continues the fast food approach, but with local, organic, sustainable food sourcing.
The main structure aligns with the original footprint. Closer to the street, an alcove was added on (under the "soft serve" and "burgers" signage) for an in-house mill and tortilleria.
Chef Natalie Goble trained with the team at El Molino Central in Sonoma Valley to learn how to make fresh masa and tortillas. I showed this photo of Handline's stone grinders to a friend who grew up in Mexico, and she said, "Old school! Where is this in the States? I want to buy the masa."
The tortilleria has its own full cooking set up, and a pass through to the main kitchen. And there's talk that it might become a late-night taco window some day. Once the operation is streamlined, Handline plans to offer fresh masa in bulk for home use, much as one can buy dough from a neighborhood pizza restaurant. Currently, the organic corn to make the masa is supplied by El Molino Central.
For the friends and family preview night, two cooks were devoted continuously to tortilla-making, as seen through the pass.
Orders and payment are taken at the counter. You're handed a number, then food and drink are brought to your table. I started with a lovely Saison that was a great match with my meal.
Though the dining area was more than half-occupied and included families with children, the high ceilings and baffling moderated the sound. The Douglas fir plank tables and shoji-like windows that slide open to bring in the outdoors lend a peaceful air of tranquility even at busy times. Besides tables inside and out, a long counter and a bar nestled in the back offer more seating options.
My food appeared quickly. First up, "La Sirena" tostadas, $13, topping crisp, bubbled house tortillas with tender market squid, buttery avocado, tomato, red onion, cilantro and chipotle aioli. The poached calamari was so sweet and fresh, and I appreciated that the tentacles were included with the rings. This was my favorite dish of the night.
Cantaloupe was the daily "Seasonal Fruit Agua Fresca", $6. "Smothered Summer Squash", $7, featuring naturally sweet calabacitas from Goble’s family-operated organic Two Belly Acres Farm with a romanesco-like sauce dubbed "CA mole" and crisped pepitas. The squash were too water-logged this time diluting the mole. Compared to the recipe published on the restaurant's blog, http://www.localfoodmatters.org/2016/... , these squashes seemed as if they were boiled or steamed rather than roasted with oil.
Things were back on track with "El Coronado", $10, a pair of tacos filled with lightly battered and fried rockfish, lime slaw, chipotle aioli, avocado and sliced radish. Tasting the freshly milled, made-to-order corn tortillas is proof of god in heaven. Soft and pliable with chewy resistance to the bite, deep and complex corn flavor, toasty aromas, pebbly texture . . . these are tortilla perfection.
"Inglewood", $11, the LA-inspired burger made with pastured beef, fonduta, crisp whole leaf iceberg lettuce, thousand island dressing and Calabrian relish on a toasted bun. Owner Sheldon Lowell uses whole animals at his other restaurant. The burger on the menu here is a way to make use of all the cuts. Ordered medium-rare, this was cooked more done than that with only a faint suggestion of pink. The thinnish patty's not juicy but well-flavored. I loved the oozing fonduta made with local Matos St. Jorge cheese. For now the airy buns are housemade, but that might change in the future.
To end, "Ode to Foster's Soft Serve", organic Straus creamery vanilla, chocolate, or swirl combination ice cream is available in cone or cups.
Each table has a bottle of the housemade hot sauce. Though it looks similar to the chipotle aioli that dresses many of the plates, it is a whole 'nuther beast. Much hotter, this is based on habanero chiles and tomatoes, for bigger fire power with a back drop of fruitiness. I liked it very much, but had to go easy.
The divider in the dining area houses a fun diorama with scenes of the sea, including Mermaid Barbies. I happened to be choose a table next to it, and was surrounded by kids coming over for a closer look. This would a be a good table for parties with children to sit.
The outdoor spaces have also been designed with care as well. Behind the restaurant is a patio under oak trees with picnic tables and room to roam.
Palm trees still sway over the parking lot.
Retaining walls and barricades are Gabion walls made with recycled paving of the Foster's Freeze parking lot. We joked about the many years of spilled ice cream, sodas and children's tears preserved in these materials.
Staff are a mix of employees from Peter Lowell's and new hires in their first week of training. The two chef/partners were circulating in the room, so my food was cooked competently by the line. Things ran pretty smoothly and I liked the upbeat attitudes. Since this was a friends and family preview, the usual caveats that the food and experience might be different for walk-in customers would apply. Still, I have a good feeling about Handline from this strong starting point and predict that it will only get better from here.
935 Gravenstein Highway South
Sebastopol, CA 95472
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