For those who remember when the Topolos winery and restaurant in Forestville was run by brothers Mike and Jerry Topolos, the winery and restaurant that are now there must seem like they've been transformed by the wave of the good witch's wand into Russian River Vineyards and Corks restaurant.
A native-plant landscape, installed by the steps leading up to the front door, was originally pretty scraggly. Now it's pretty. The interior of the 1890s-era farmhouse has been given an expert makeover, with beautiful wood floors and a clean, modern look. Part of the brick-floored outdoor patio has been closed in to become a romantic, dimly lit dining room. Just outside is the rest of the brick patio for al fresco dining, bordered by redwoods with a view of the winery's hop-kiln-like towers.
After the property was sold in 2008, the restaurant became Stella's, and then later Corks, where three chefs, each working on different nights, offered a wide and confusing range of styles. Now Todd Davies is the sole executive chef and Corks is in able hands.
Chef Davies, 44 and a native of Boise, Idaho, graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. His resume is impressive: the River Caf?in New York, La Truffe in Philadelphia, the Lark Creek Inn in Larkspur, the White Elephant Hotel in Nantucket, Bertrand at Mister A's in San Diego, and executive chef at mc? in San Francisco. Now he gets a chance to show his stuff to Sonoma County.
This guy can cook, but what he cooks is mostly predictable. That may be a strategic decision by management to please the most palates, but it doesn't give Davies a lot of room for experimentation. His abilities have to show in the quality of the dishes, rather than through innovative creations.
And show they do. Let's start with his magnificent <CF103>Crab and Citrus Salad</CF> ($14 ****). Half an avocado brimming with fresh-picked Dungeness crabmeat snuggles down into a bed of red Belgian endive and lovely winter greens. Red grapefruit segments spooned out of their casings lay on the greens like sea creatures paying homage to King Crab. A squirt of citrus juice for dressing and this refreshing salad is unsurpassed. Bravo.
Our table also tried the <CF103>Classic Caesar Salad </CF>($10 ***?) because we couldn't resist seeing how classic it was. With whole leaves from the innards of a head of romaine; a Caesar dressing of lemon juice, olive oil, coddled egg, Worcestershire sauce, garlic and black pepper; a few curls of Italian cheese; house-made croutons, and a single fresh anchovy filet, it was about as classic as you can get — although Caesar Cardini's original creation didn't include anchovies.
However, the basket of bread brought to the table was a poor-quality Italian. This restaurant is surrounded by great bakeries: Wild Flour in Freestone, Village Bakery in Sebastopol, Nightingale Breads in Forestville. Why the cheap bread?
The house wines — made right there at the winery — are generally in the $20 to $30 range, although the upper-tier merlot and pinot noir edge toward and in one instance reach three-figure status. The list is short, selective and local. Corkage is $15 except Thursdays, when there is no corkage.
Service is carried out earnestly if not always expertly by the young staff, and they make it pleasant.