January 17-23, 2007

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First Bite

Sunflower Caffe

By Michael Shapiro

On a recent weekday afternoon, my wife and I headed over to Sonoma for lunch at the Girl and the Fig. No tables were available, but the hostess offered us a couple of seats at the bar. Rather than wait, we wandered the edges of Sonoma's plaza.

Less than half a block away, on First Street, we found the Sunflower Caffe. Entering through a narrow door felt like plunging into a wildly unexpected world, a place where delicacies were dripping from the trees, as in Alice in Wonderland or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Impulse buyers beware: the Sunflower has a cafeteria-style set-up, and while on line you pass one treat after another. It would be so easy to add a little bottle of Amala Springs Syrah or a Wellington Zin (all the wines are from Sonoma or Napa counties) or a gourmet Venezuelan-bean chocolate bar from Chuao. Oh, and why not start with a cappuccino ($2.75) or a nice hot mocha ($3.10)? The coffee is organic and comes from local roasters.

The front counter leads to a back dining room, where patrons sip coffee and pound on their computers. And though we'd never have guessed from the front, in the back we found a spacious patio, where we soaked up the mid-afternoon sun and watched a hawk circle and squawk above us.

The Sunflower Caffe is not as refined as the Girl and the Fig; you line up to order, take a number and soon a server brings your meal to your table. That was OK with us.

The varied menu made it hard to decide what to order. We were tempted by the Sonoma Cheese Plate with seasonal fruit, toasted almonds, apple butter and a baguette ($14.75), but the cool weather led us to start with the split pea soup of the day. This can be a boring, routine soup, but the Sunflower's split pea was bursting with flavor. The fresh peas were spiced up with salted ham and just a enough pepper to tantalize the taste buds. A bowl of this rich soup ($4.90) and the baguette slices that come with it could be a satisfying meal, but we shared the soup and ordered entrées.

I had a lemon-garlic chicken breast on a salad ($4.90, small; $7.90, large). The chicken was tender and the lemon and garlic were just right, noticeable but not overbearing. The portions of both chicken and salad were generous. My wife had the old-fashioned roasted chicken salad ($7.25), which evoked childhood picnics. The chicken was diced into small cubes and prepared with celery, onion and just enough mayo. I washed it down with an orange GuS (Grown-up Soda).

The server who brought our food was warm and friendly, as was the young gent who took our order at the counter. If you can't finish it all, don't worry, the staff will pack your leftovers in biodegradable to-go containers.

In the end, we were thoroughly satisfied and couldn't have been happier that on this day, the Fig was too busy to take us.

The Sunflower Caffe, 421 First St. (on the Sonoma Plaza), Sonoma. Open for breakfast and lunch daily from 7am to 6pm; 7pm on weekends. Starting in May and through the summer, hours are extended by one hour in the evening. 707.996.6645.

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Quick-and-dirty dashes through North Bay restaurants. These aren't your standard "bring five friends and order everything on the menu" dining reviews.