Saturday, July 4, 2009

Emmy's Spaghetti Shack Update

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Sonoma hometown girl Emily Kaplan of Emmy's Spaghetti Shack in Sonoma - Jeff Kan Lee/PD

This Shack Rocks

Published: Saturday, July 4, 2009 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, July 2, 2009 at 8:17 p.m.

We think of cocktails as a phenomenon of the past hundred or so years, but journeyman bartender Brian Scanlan at Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack in Sonoma serves one that dates back 300 years. He calls it the Barnacle.

EMMY’S SPAGHETTI SHACKWhere: 691 Broadway, Sonoma
When: Sunday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. and to midnight on Friday and Saturday
Reservations: Not taken. Call 933-3823 for takeout
Price range: Inexpensive to expensive, with entrees from $9.50 to $18
Web site:
More Photos:Emmy's Spaghetti Shack

It’s made with lemon juice, rum and a touch of maple syrup — just what the sailing ships of the early 18th century would have been carrying back and forth between Boston and the Caribbean.

Such a drink is a little odd, kind of fun, and quite tasty, very much like Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack itself. The mistress of all the gaiety is Emily Kaplan — a hometown Sonoma girl who went off to the big city to seek her fortune, and a decade ago opened Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack in the Bernal Heights district of San Francisco. A friend described it as “a restaurant version of a good dive bar.”

That must be just what those wacky San Franciscans were looking for, because most nights you have to wait an hour or so to get a table. So with her success there, she decided to start a second Shack and returned to Sonoma to open up the town to her good times. Here’s what she has to say on her Web site: “We shouldn’t have to leave our town for some fun. I’m creating an atmosphere coming from the needs and spirit of my generation. Sonoma is ready for this type of establishment.”

Evidently it is.

The place has been swamped since it opened almost a month ago. As in the city, it’s first come, first served, and there’s usually a wait for a table at the height of the dinner hour, although not nearly as long as at her city venue.

A slightly louche atmosphere pervades the place, which may be part of its charm. A picture of a Bettie Page type pin-up hangs in the main dining room. A photo of Motley Crue graces a hallway. Even the sign outside announcing Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack has an image of a tousled Kaplan looking very relaxed. And to cater to Sonoma’s “night people,” it’s open to 11 p.m. all nights except Fridays and Saturdays, when it’s open to midnight.

The restaurant occupies the building that was Deuce. If you know that place, you’ll remember its late-hippie era architecture — swirling arabesques and mandalas — created in the early 1970s by Sausalito woodsmiths. A mix of country music and rock plays on the sound system. Gone are the white tablecloths. In their place, bare tables and paper napkins. The waitresses wear tank tops. A row of old-fashioned, flouncy aprons hangs from the ceiling in the dining room.

As for the food, let’s strike for the heart of the menu, the Spaghetti and Meatballs ($12.50, 2½ stars). It’s a mountain of food, easily enough for two unless the diner is a lumberjack. Three meatballs the size of handballs have the texture and flavor of meatloaf. A huge pile of big, thick spaghetti is doused with not quite enough red sauce, sprinkled with chopped parsley, and topped with shavings of parmesan cheese. OK, it’s not the greatest spaghetti and meatballs in the world, but it’s good in the kind of way that will please folks who are having a good time and aren’t too picky.

The place is about fun, remember? The menus are hand-scrawled and smothered with Emmy love, including lipstick impressions, hearts, XXXs and OOOs, and exclamation points. If you bring the kids, you’ll find a kids’ menu where the entrees are $6 each and include all the classics like spaghetti and meat ball, mac-n-cheese, burger with fries, mini meatball sandwich, and grilled cheese.

The wine list is short and inexpensive, but there are some good bottles. The 2007 Clarbec Pinot Gris is $30 a bottle, and for a wild blend of red grapes, who can resist the 2006 Homewood Flying Wizzbanger for $30? Beer and ale run the gamut from the dark, heavy, alcoholic Old Rasputin ale for $5 a bottle to light and frothy Jamaican Red Stripe at the same price. If you want to go downscale, Pabst Blue Ribbons are $3. The emphasis, however, is on Scanlan’s cocktails, each $9. His mint julep, made with sweet black tea, fresh mint, and a lot of Maker’s Mark bourbon, is fabulous, if dangerous. A cucumber gimlet sounds refreshing, and a layered black raspberry lemon drop sounds tutti-fruiti.

A Summer Corn Soup ($6.50, 3 stars) is one of chef Eric Center’s best creations. It’s a fresh-tasting sweet soup with pancetta and avocado topped with a drizzle of basil oil. A small order of Garlic Bread ($4.50, 2 stars) is a simple three slices of toasted Italian bread smeared with garlic butter. Nothing out of the ordinary, but if you like garlic bread, this will fill the bill.

Snap beans are dipped in batter and deep fried to make Fried Green Beans ($8, 2 stars). They’re served with a romesco dipping sauce made of tomatoes, bell peppers, garlic, olive oil and almonds. If the price seems a little steep, remember that portions at Emmy’s are very generous, and a light eater might find the bean dish all that’s needed for dinner. You might also consider the Roasted Beets and Goat Cheese Salad ($9, 3 stars) light fare, but be aware, it eats a little more robustly than it sounds. That’s because the earthy beets, both red and yellow, are interspersed with pebbly red mustard leaves and joined by pickled carrots and marcona almonds in a truffle vinaigrette.

The Flat Iron Steak ($18, 3 stars) may well be the best steak deal in the area. The inch-thick, tender steak is big enough to satisfy just about anyone. It comes with a load of mashed potatoes, a braised leek, and very spicy sautéed broccolini. Everything is given a royal trumpet mushroom demi-glace.

You’d expect a place like Emmy’s to offer a burger — and you’d be right. A current TV ad for a fast food hamburger chain shows a woman eating a hamburger in a manner so sensual that modesty requires one to avert one’s eyes. That may be the way to approach Emmy’s Burger ($11, 3 stars), an inch-thick burger cooked medium as ordered on a big crunchy bun. It’s so juicy you’d best hold it over your plate when you bite into it. To heighten the experience, cheddar or blue cheese, bacon and caramelized onions are available for a dollar more.

Betcha can’t finish the huge bowl of Orecchiette ($14, 2 stars), which is filled with “little ears” pasta disks mixed with a creamy sun-dried tomato and pesto sauce, and sprinkled with pine nuts.

The desserts are as good, if not better, than the appetizers and entrees. A Chocolate Truffle Cake ($7, 3½ stars) was decadently gooey and rich, served with almond brittle and a scoop of vanilla. Blueberry Bread Pudding ($7, 3 stars) featured a sweet bready biscuit stuffed with blueberries and finished with a sidekick of vanilla ice cream. The desserts are house-made.

To sum up: Emmy’s is down-home fun with good old Ital-American food and lots of it. The staff is out to make you comfortable, and if you can’t relax in this flamboyantly inelegant atmosphere, don’t blame Emmy.

Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review column for the Sonoma Living Section. You can reach him at

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Emmy's Spaghetti Shack spices up Sonoma life

John Foley, Examiner
July 3, 7:59 AM2

While the city of Sonoma is preparing for its gala July 4th fireworks extravaganza tomorrow night, the explosion caused by Emmy Kaplan and her new restaurant,Emmy's Spaghetti Shack, will linger long after the smoke settles on the grasses of General Vallejo's field.

Kaplan, a Sonoma resident, and San Francisco restaurateur opened her latest location in the heart of this iconic wine country town "six weeks" ago and immediately came under fire for what she had done to one of the town's well-known spaces, Deuce. Kaplan decided the décor of Duce didn't fit her "shack" theme. Although signs of sledge hammers are not apparent she morphed the space with a remodel in mind from casually elegant to one step below Eddie's Ghetto in St. Martin. That didn't sit well with the locals. Whereas Eddie's is actually a sophisticated shack, Kaplan's is less on the smooth side.

Kaplan's San Francisco location, in Bernal Heights, has received mixed reviews on social networking sites but diners do comment on the "large portions" of spaghetti. Since she lives in Sonoma with her husband and young son, she decided to open a place in the town that she calls home. For those of us who have every opened a restaurant that was the least bit controversial, we will all agree opening a restaurant and pleasing everyone is not a n easy if ever-achievable task. However, Kaplan received more than her fair share of comments.

Of course, the town which boasts eateries of an ilk that would make the mouths of Mamaroneck resident's water, there has yet to be place like Emmy's within the city limits of this wine country bastion of palatable casual sophistication. Kaplan has caused a stir with her menu, her remodel, her garden redesign and her approach to a location in a town where the hottest happy hour is holding "Stop the war" signage park side, at the foot of Broadway just under the flags of city hall.

In a town where they arrested a man for having chickens, causing a stir with spaghetti and meatballs might not be so tough to chew. They don't take things lightly here. So when Kaplan decided – in the course of her remodel- to rip up the front yard gardens of Deuce, delete the roses, and cut down a tree or two, it was a thorn in the side of some of the "locals".

More obscene, in the eyes of town folk, was Kaplan's vision for the inside of the building once housing a mortuary where some relatives of the locals where laid to rest. In her quest, I presume, to "shack it up" Kaplan painted the inside of the once oak and mahogany space a deep rose tone- ironic isn't it? - mixed with a shade of blue-green that in varying degrese of sunlight could be consider, well, horrendous. But her concept is spaghetti shack- the key word being shack. And, she certainly has accomplished that goal. One would be hard pressed to find another operator who could perfect the art of theme by taking a space known for fine dining and transforming it into shack as quickly as Kaplan managed to do. It appears she is a master of conceptual focus through previous concept destruction. The question here is whether or not it will work?

The case study is going to be of interest to every restaurant owner who has ever spent fortunes on high priced interiors, lavish booths and banquets, equipment, lighting and artwork. Add highly paid culinarians and professional waiters, managers, and sommeliers. Tally up the overhead, add the rent, linen, taxes and salaries for musicians and entertainment and running a restaurant in today's world is a gamble of astronomical proportion.

Kaplan has also fired a shot across the bow of another famous shackster - Mary. Sonoma is home base to Mary's Pizza Shack a multi-unit family owned operation that is refined shack rather than shack, shack. Mary's offers casually professional accoutrements, throughout their concept and is more family oriented.

To take the concept full circle, Kaplan has posted her hours next to the entrance of her space on a five-dollar hardware store-hours sign, while not opting for the typical sign announcing closings and opening hours. And, for the piece de resistance, she has posted an employee, in the bike lane of Broadway, holding a sign that reads, "Yes, we're open", which in the world of dumbing-down a concept is at the top of the heap.

Will Kaplan's concept work? Only time will tell. There have been other shacks before, Joe's Crab Shack, Gump's Seafood, and Famous Dave's all began as shack concepts. However, none has perfected shackism as well as Kaplan.

This will be an interesting summer as we watch the Sonoma Spaghetti wars add spice to life in the valley.

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Over the years my opinions have changed but this will never change: Jesus Christ, Lord, God and Savior, died on the cross and rose from the dead to pay for my sin.