There’s an unwritten rule that professional restaurant critics give their review subjects two months before visiting, to let the chef and staff work out the inevitable opening hiccups.
Certainly, I stop in pretty quickly after a place opens to get a feel for a potential new hotspot. But I don’t write a public analysis until returning again later.
So I’ll start out by saying that Pinoli Cucina Rustica has been serving dinner at Applewood Inn of Guerneville since May. A small fire beset a downstairs area of the Inn in July, but the restaurant was not greatly affected. Set in the former, oh-so-sadly-short-lived Revival space, it has great bones, with its wood floors, bare wood tables, white walls, metal wheel chandeliers and a balcony patio overlooking a flowering, fountain-burbling garden.
A notable chef is in charge, Christian Darcoli, an Italian-born, European-trained talent who also owns another Pinoli Ristorante in San Juan, Puerto Rico. This is no absentee operation, either — he moved to Wine Country to oversee his new baby, and is hard at work making fresh pastas daily and, as my server told me, traveling to Point Reyes to hand pick perfect peas from a friend’s family farm.
Several of the same dishes appear on both Pinoli menus – the apple, goat cheese and arugula salad, for example, plus the pappardelle draped in rabbit ragu and porcini mushrooms, and the branzino dressed with capers, olives and arugula. Which just means, cooking the chef’s personal classics here should be a slam dunk.
And yet, through several visits, I’ve been waiting for those opening gasps to subside, with no luck. This place still feels like a work in progress, run by a crew with in-training jitters.
When it’s good, it’s quite nice. The kitchen celebrates the resort’s on-site garden, bringing pretty bites like one evening’s special of homemade ravioli stuffed with sheep ricotta, borage, zucca flower and braised herbs, then bathed with butter, Parmesan and sage ($25). Some details are thoughtful, like one evening’s amuse bouche in an appetizer-size portion of two slabs of zucchini tart speckled with barley and held together with a bit of tangy cheese for dredging in thick sundried tomato puree.
I really like the fontina stuffed grape leaves, a fat, tangy pack that’s grilled and scattered with sliced, grilled grapes and a drizzle of dark, sweet vincotto ($12). Guazetto clams get a pleasing, Mediterranean update with fregola (small, Sardinian semolina pasta) and zucchini in a mild clam broth ($18). Liberty duck breast, meanwhile, is a success, pan-seared until the skin is brown and crispy, then glazed in a butter-rich sauce of Late Harvest white wine and fresh berries all served over garlic-studded farro.
But bread (free on one visit, then $3 on another), is oddly presented in a small, brown paper bag-wrapped basket and filled with small squares of fluffy, forgettable this-and-that with more sundried tomato puree.
Then, Alaskan halibut was cooked to dry blandness one night, doused in a thick, overly sweet vinegar sauce with mushy eggplant ($28).
So I understood as I overheard a couple at a table next to me grumble on a recent evening, comparing an unhappy experience with seared tuna ($20) dressed in plum, celery and “way too much balsamic,” against a “fine” hand cut fettuccine ladled with rock fish in a garlicky puttanesca stew ($20).
Part of Pinoli’s challenge may be the unusual staffing set-up, where chefs serve guests at their tables.
The idea is to help combat the depressingly low wages typical cooks earn, by awarding them the tips a waiter would typically keep (here, via an automatic 18 percent gratuity).
It’s also hoped that guests will enjoy interacting directly with the chefs — which I absolutely do, even when it’s clear that the shy cook is suffering through the exchange or stressing being away from the stove.
The method was used with the Culinary Institute of America’s new CIA at Copia Napa restaurant debut in January, with chefs tempting with random items carried around on trays.
It’s worked well at San Francisco State Bird Provisions, too, where it’s done with carts dim sum style.
At Pinoli, though, a single floor server, or perhaps a cook, or sometimes Darcoli himself takes our order from a printed menu.
Then the server, or perhaps a cook, or sometimes Darcoli himself delivers the food, and so on through bussing and check presentation.
The result feels disjointed, and mistakes inevitably happen, such as when a cook delivered my “spilled wine” sausage ravioli and then my exceptionally attentive server, realizing the cook had not brought my sauce for its ceremonial tableside pouring, sprinted over with the small carafe.
It wasn’t sauce, actually, but Frico Rosso, a light bodied, cherry sweet sangiovese-cabernet sauvignon-merlot blend that seeped into the shaved Parmesan topping.
Chef Darcoli’s grandmother made the recipe, the menu explained, and I would have been okay with the lamb, pork, sausage and beef stuffed ravioli quartet ($20) if the pasta weren’t overcooked to stiffness.
Then, how awkward is it when a dish isn’t all that enjoyable, but the hopeful cook himself picks up your half-eaten meal and ask for comments?
This happened with my braised rabbit ($25) — another Darcoli signature in Puerto Rico — when the gray-skinned legs and loin were stringy and flavorless in a tepid white wine thyme broth overpowered with lots of whole kalamata olives on a good, savory square of farinata (a Genoa style chickpea pancake with a custardy interior).
I wimped out, and just nodded, smiled and said, “Thank you.”
Pinoli holds such potential. But it’s still got too much see-saw after being alive for three months now.
Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at email@example.com.