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WEEKEND ESCAPE: SONOMA

Bed and Bearnaise

Visiting chefs and hands-on classes at a new cooking school with upstairs B&B

April 04, 1999|DIANA MARCUM | Diana Marcum is a freelance writer based in Palm Springs

SONOMA, Calif. — It was my friend Karman's idea for us to stay in a bed-and-breakfast on the second floor of Sonoma's new cooking school. I can make a nice salad, but Karman's the sort who kicks back with the Food Channel and isn't sheepish about subscribing to "Martha Stewart Living."

But after one cooking class and two days in Sonoma, where delis offer cheese tastings, wine is worshiped and even an ice-cream sundae is a revelation with homemade caramel and toasted hazelnuts, I'm converting. I want to join the Foodies. I want to buy heavy knives with sharp blades, make bearnaise sauce and grow my own radicchio.

The initiation began upon entering Ramekins Culinary School and Bed and Breakfast: The doorknobs are forks and spoons. A wooden staircase of carved asparagus spears leads to the six-bedroom inn. Our large, pretty room had walls the color of butterscotch, and fruit-themed art. But the whimsy wasn't overdone. The 11-month-old building is made of rammed earth, an environmentally friendly architectural style that doesn't use wood. Each bedroom has one decorative earthen wall, made intriguing by cracks and twigs.

After thumping our twin beds' thick down comforters and stepping out on the balcony, we followed the asparagus staircase down to cooking class. The demonstration kitchen was all light wood and gleaming stainless steel. With just three rows of classroom, there weren't really any bad seats, but two viewing monitors were mounted above the chef just in case.

Ramekins, which opened last summer, offers a constantly changing selection of classes and visiting chefs (many of them well known from their books and television appearances). We chose a class called "Millennium's Elegant Vegetarian Cuisine," taught by that San Francisco restaurant's executive chef, Eric Tucker. The food was brilliant: a thick spicy soup, rich pa^te, cumin-flavored flat bread and an entree of colorful Indonesian rice tamales wrapped in banana leaves that could have passed for sculpture.

The problem was that this accomplished chef had to work hurriedly through the entire 2 1/2-hour class in order to prepare the meal, and that was with everything chopped and diced beforehand. I wouldn't try it on my own unless I had two chef's assistants and my horoscope read "exotic vegan fare featured tonight; you will surprise yourself with unknown skills."

After class, however, we chatted with classmate Greg, a young orthodontist staying at Ramekins and taking a series of classes. The three of us went to dessert at La Casa, the only restaurant near Sonoma's plaza that stays open past 9 p.m. Over Ice Box Cake--layers of tortillas, sour cream and bitter chocolate--he told us that some of his classes had been very useful, such as hands-on gnocchi making.

Later, Ramekin's kitchen manager, Suzanne Cochrane, noted that demonstration classes taught by chefs from high-end restaurants tend to appeal to food professionals and food appreciators, who just want entertainment and a chance to taste spectacular dishes. The basics classes, such as soup- and sauce-making (my bearnaise lessons), offer more take-home skills.

We spied on a cheesecake class in which instructor Karen Shapiro sped around dispensing advice on everything from the best way to crack an egg to how to make your own ricotta cheese.

Breakfast both mornings of our stay was disappointing. Karman and I had both expected this bed-and-breakfast to pay attention to the breakfast part. But at this bastion of food reverence there was bitter orange juice, one fruit plate to share and slightly dry Danish.

On our second day we rented bicycles at the Bikeman on Sonoma Highway. The $4-an-hour rental fee (a 20% discount for staying at Ramekins) included bottled water, sunscreen, locks, maps and helmets--and free roadside pick-up service if you need it. Owner Doug McKesson clued us in on a 12-mile loop that took us through meadows of new spring grass and rolling hills dotted with black and white cows. We rode past picket fences, hillside cha^teaus and pink clouds of cherry trees, and up a narrow road to Gundlach-Bundschu, an old stone winery that makes a great Gewurztraminer. On a tip from one of the wine workers, we walked through the wine caves and pushed open a heavy door that deposited us on a hillside overlooking Sonoma. I couldn't imagine a better picnic spot.

Coming in early March, we squeezed in between rainstorms and caught the cusp of spring. The good news is the days will only grow warmer; the bad news is the prices at Ramekins go up in April.

When we made reservations we stumbled upon an unadvertised winter special that included two nights' stay, two classes and dinner at the neighboring restaurant, The General's Daughter, for $390 for the two of us. (April 1 the room rates went from $175 to $225 a night for two, and classes run between $35 and $80 per person.) Plan on booking two months in advance for summer stays, we were told.

We ended our bike ride at Sonoma Cheese Factory, where we bought sandwiches and sat in the sunshine across from the plaza fashioned by Mexican General Mariana Guadalupe Vallejo. It was at The General's Daughter restaurant, a reference to one of Vallejo's offspring, that I vowed to learn to toast hazelnuts and make caramel sauce from scratch. And maybe while I'm at it, start an herb garden and invest in fine olive oil, and definitely drink more wine. It's a Sonoma thing.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Budget for Two

Air fare to Sacramento (1): $134.00

Ramekins winter package, 2 nights, 2 classes, dinner: 390.00

Lunch, Sonoma Cheese Factory: 13.80

Dessert, La Casa: 10.59

Bike rental: 36.00

FINAL TAB: $584.39

Ramekins, 450 W. Spain St., Sonoma, CA 95476; tel. (707) 933-0450, Internet http://www.ramekins.com.

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