On a recent night at Iron Stone, the new restaurant in the Hotel La Rose in Santa Rosa's Railroad Square, co-owner John McNulty was behind the small wine bar, pouring tastes of what he called "Sonoma County's first amarone," the 2009 Mora Estate from the Alexander Valley.
Of course, it wasn't really amarone. That wine comes only from the hills near Verona, Italy, and is made from grape bunches partially dehydrated by lying on trays in the cool, breezy upper floors of the region's stone barns for several months before being fermented. The drying changes the fruit flavors and concentrates the sugars and acids, resulting in a unique and delicious wine.
McNulty explained that Mora Estate's winemaker Fabiano Ramaci has planted his vineyard with the classic amarone grape varieties from Valpolicella: Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara. He produces his wine, which he calls Valpo, from grapes partially dehydrated on bread trays in cool, breezy Penngrove. The wine had several customers swooning.
McNulty functions as wine steward for the restaurant, while his brother and co-owner, Tom McNulty, is the chef. It was exciting to run across something as unusual as our first, local, late-vinified wine made from the actual grape varieties of Valpolicella. And the wine list in general is stuffed with unusual labels. There's the Speedy Creek Cab from Knight's Valley for $52, for instance, and the Hobo "Rock Pile" Zin for $53, and the Joseph Jewell Rose of Pinot Noir for $35 — all Sonoma County wines. Would the food also be as unusual and good?
Well, not unusual, but good nevertheless. The menu is about as predictable as menus get, and that includes nightly specials which, on a recent night, included seafood pasta for $18 and 10 ounces of grilled, grass-fed beef rib-eye steak for $24.
The restaurant occupies the space that used to be Josef's, across Wilson Street from the old train station, and part of the 104-year-old hotel that is listed in the National Trust Register of Historic Hotels. The restaurant's name connotes the iron railroad and the local basalt blocks used to build the hotel. Plans are to open a beer garden in the adjacent vacant lot.
If the hotel and restaurant seem old-fashioned, they are honestly old-fashioned, not new facilities made to look old. And as such, there's a comforting familiarity to the place — fireplace and wall-to-wall carpeting — and to the menu — like New England Clam Chowder ($7, 2 and a half stars ), creamy, thick, and well-made, with lots of clam meat.
Also at the beginning of the dinner, you are brought a basket of hot, yeasted buns and slabs of butter, an offering with which generations of kids have spoiled their dinners.
Caesar Salad ($8, 2) is close to correct. The dressing is light and tangy rather than thick and cheesy. What cheese there is comes as big curled flakes of parmesan riding atop the fresh, crunchy chopped romaine. The first Caesar salads in the 1920s were always made with the whole inner leaves of romaine, but then chefs started chopping the lettuce. Now chefs who want to present classic Caesars are going back to whole leaves, so Iron Stone's chopped romaine qualifies as old-fashioned.
Deep-Fried Calamari ($8, 3 stars) are coated with a coriander-laced batter before their plunge into hot oil. They emerge redolent of the spice, tinkly-crunchy, delicious, and tender. Eat them while they're hot because they toughen up as they cool off. There's a spicy sweet chili dipping sauce that seems superfluous, although two lemon wedges can add a welcome tang.