Back in the late 1980s, what's now the Farmhouse Inn in Forestville was a much rougher place. The building needed work. You could get a beer, maybe some fries with your burger, and listen to guys like Charlie Musselwhite play some soulful blues in the big room.
Since then, it seems like the place has undergone continuous refinement. With each visit, the physical interior seems more and more deluxe and the lighting subdued, while the food seems more and more ethereal. On a recent visit, Chef Steve Litke's creations seemed almost diaphanous, the portions reduced, the flavors delicate.
Except for the desserts. They were spectacular and jumping with bright flavors. Pastry Chef Patty Taan makes them in-house and each was a four-star triumph.
But first, the dinner fare. If this food were music, it would be Erik Satie or perhaps Miles Davis in his "Kind of Blue" period. Minimalist at first glance, but on closer inspection, exquisitely composed of many subtle elements. There are no flavors that combine to shock or assault the palate. Rather the dishes are astounding because so many different parts add up to something so polished and seamless.
For instance, little pillows of handmade dough are stuffed with sunny-tasting, finely minced potatoes to make Yukon Gold Potato Ravioli (3? stars). These meltingly tender ravioli are accompanied by several small bites of freshly cooked Maine lobster and small, sweet, white corn kernels whisked with a luscious butter sauce. You are not going to fill your belly with this plate: if all the elements were put into a measuring cup, it would make a half cup of food at most. But within that half cup is a graduate course in delicacy, if you think of the flavors of these ingredients and the way they flow together.
I'm not including prices in the marks I give to each dish because pricing is unique at the Farmhouse. You can choose a three-course dinner of two savory dishes and a sweet dessert for $69 per person, or a four-course dinner (three savories and one sweet) for $84. There were three of us, so we each chose the three-course rate. We brought a well-aged wine, which evidently is discouraged as corkage turned out to be an astronomical $35. But Master Sommelier Geoff Kruth runs one of the best wine lists in the county. Add in taxes and a 20 percent tip, and the evening for three people totaled over $100 apiece. Is it worth it? Absolutely. Chef Litke, sous chef Neil Corsten and dessert chef Taan are creating edible artworks and they are part of what makes Sonoma County such a destination for the world's pleasure-seeking palates.
An assortment of sweetmeats from the sea comprised Frutti di Mare (4 stars). Yuzu is a Japanese citrus whose rind is used to impart a unique flavor to dishes. Here it's made into a yuzu vinaigrette and enhances a plate of a few little bay scallops, baby squid, tentacle rings, two Gulf shrimp, tiny tomatoes, and sprigs of arugula and frisee.
The few times I've tried octopus, it has been rubbery to the point of inedibility. Not at the Farmhouse, where slices of tender Grilled Mediterranean Octopus (3? stars) consorted with little squares of bacon, fresh chickpeas, grilled cherry tomatoes and arugula enlivened with a tangy vinaigrette.
Speaking of tough meat, a few weeks ago I ran into a surprisingly tough piece of Berkshire pork. But at Forestville's Farmhouse, I encountered what was probably the most tender piece of Berkshire Pork Tenderloin (4 stars) on the planet. This beautiful (the only word that does this piece of pork justice) round roll of meat was encrusted with ground, black trumpet mushrooms and cooked to a homogenous perfection throughout, then sliced and laid on a bed of saut?d chanterelle mushrooms and sweet white corn kernels. So ensconced, the chefs surrounded it with a concasse of green tomato and chimichurri sauce, the latter being a mixture of parsley, cayenne, onion, garlic, olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. If this doesn't sound like the delicate and refined flavors mentioned at the beginning of this review, remember that it is used just to touch the chopped tomato, and that in turn is used sparingly around the meat.
Wild King Salmon (3? stars) have been crowding into the inlets and streams up in Alaska, and here a six-ounce block has made its way to Sonoma County where it's been encrusted with ground macadamia nuts and baked, then set on a bed of bok choy and leeks flavored with a coconut-lemongrass emulsion. One of the only missteps of the evening came with the Wild Alaskan Halibut (2 stars), which was underdone and translucently slithery instead of being perfectly cooked, bone-white, and flaky.