Back in the mid 19th Century, Gold Rush millionaire Sam Brannan took one look at Calistoga’s ancient geothermal springs, and thought, “money.”
The land’s original residents, the Wappo Indians, had settled Calistoga some 8,000 years ago, and believed that the geysers’ steaming mineral water had healing powers. Even more special, Brannan’s site also boasted a deposit of pure volcanic ash from the eruption of Lake County’s Mount Konocti millions of years ago, and legend said that this soot, combined with the rich water, created a magical mud to restore body and spirit.
So, in 1861, Brannan opened a geyser-fed spa and lodge for elite Bay Area families. Generation after generation, the place thrived. Yet one thing was lacking: a restaurant.
Scoot ahead to early 2015. Current Indian Springs Resort & Spa owners John and Pat Merchant had just wrapped up a $20 million renovation and expansion, and as the crowning touch, they debuted Sam’s Social Club in a brand new, 6,000 square foot building near the property’s signature Olympic-sized mineral pool. Offering breakfast, lunch, dinner and weekend brunch, it was designed to open up the 17-acre oasis to visitors and locals alike.
Unfortunately, my first dinner visit then hardly thrilled me. The eclectic Cal-American menu read nicely enough, yet there was little flavor impact in the many mainstream dishes like deviled eggs or Bolognese pasta. A few plates stood out – I recall an excellent house-made ricotta and chevre tortellini smothered in spring vegetables and carrot butter – but overall, there were much more interesting restaurants in the neighborhood, like Evangeline and Solbar.
Last summer, a new chef was installed. Sort of. Shaun McGrath was sous chef when Sam’s opened; he was promoted when opening chef Kory Stewart departed. And today, the menu still features some of the same original dishes, plus many quite similar ones. Except now, the kitchen has found its groove, and Sam’s has become a pleasing destination.
First off, the place is stylish. Swank, even, with a gently arched roof that looks like shutter blinds, brass head nail trim leather chairs set at wood bistro tables seating 90 guests, woven dome pendant lighting, and, behind the big wood bar, a showpiece Gatsby-esque mural by Berkeley artist Lauren McIntosh.
There’s outdoor dining, as well, on tree-shaded, hill-flanked patio set with fire pits and a natural geyser-fed fountain carved into a stone wall. It’s a delightful place for a sunset appetizer of daily market ceviche tumbled with avocado and lime pickled onion scooped with sweet potato chips ($18). Add a cocktail, like the Caliente Mule of housemade pepper infused vodka, ginger beer, pineapple juice and angostura bitters ($13), a glass of wine from the California focused list, or a beer – Sam’s makes its own brews in the restaurant cellar, including a refreshing Cannonball Blonde Ale ($6).
Here’s Sam’s real secret weapon, however: breakfast. An egg-in-the-hole is so delicious, it’s almost absurd ($16). First, the chef takes a big, thick slab of housemade brioche and coats it in Parmesan and what must be a wicked amount of butter. He cuts a hole in the center, and drops in an egg. Then he pan-fries the bread to a bronzed crunch that’s almost a shellac, giving way to custardy brioche and runny-golden egg sprinkled in pepper.
THIS WEEK’S BLIND TASTING
Cabernet Sauvignon, the venerable statesman
Rodney Strong, 2015 Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon, 13.5% alcohol, $20. ★★★★
This is a cab that clearly overdelivers. It has generous fruit — black cherry and black raspberry — with herbs and spicy oak. It has good structure with firm tannins and a nice length.
J. Lohr, 2015 Hilltop, Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon, 14.9%, $35. ★★★★: This is a pretty cab with black raspberry fruit, herbs and spice, and the flavors meld together seamlessly. The cab has good balance, ripe tannins and a lingering finish. It’s well-crafted.
Duckhorn, 2014 Three Palms Vineyard, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 14.9%, $98. ★★★★: This is a gorgeous cab with notes of black raspberry fruit, and notes of cinnamon and clove in the mix. It has a soft and supple texture, with ripe tannins. Nice length. Striking.
Cliff Lede, 2015 Stag’s Leap District, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 15%, $78. ★★★★: This is a striking cab with complex aromas and flavors. It has notes of jasmine, black currant, blackberry, cinnamon and black pepper. The Cliff Lede has bright acidity and great balance. Top rate.
Justin, 2015 Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon, 14.5%, $25. ★★★1/2: This is a savory cab with dried herbs at the forefront, while cherry and black currant fruit play backup. What melds it together is a hint of caramel. Smart.