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Boonville Hotel chef returns to his roots with simple, seasonal menu

The welcome at the Boonville Hotel restaurant was an unusual one, as a deep bass voice crooned, “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman…”

And as I peeked into the open kitchen, I saw that voice belonged to a cook, deep into his work prepping for tonight’s dinner.

Executive chef Perry Hoffman came around the corner then, and grinned. “We’re a little goofy here,” he said.

Dressed in a navy button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled up, jeans, a workman bib apron and a baseball cap, he looked like he might be running a blacksmith shop instead of what is an enticing new destination 50 miles northwest of Healdsburg. His presence is a surprise: with a population of just over 1,000, Boonville is better known for its winding, mountain-side roads, sprawling wineries, vast open space and rustic character than Michelin Star chefs.

Yet for Hoffman, who earned his first Michelin Star at 25 as executive chef at étoile, Domaine Chandon’s now-closed Yountville restaurant, this is a homecoming. Born and raised in Napa, he felt destined to be in a fine dining kitchen even as a toddler, as his grandparents, Don and Sally Schmitt, owned and operated The French Laundry until Thomas Keller purchased it in 1994. But his grandparents also owned The Apple Farm, a 40-acre biodynamic orchard in Philo, just 9 miles northwest of the Boonville Hotel.

That hotel was (and still is) owned by his uncle, Johnny Schmitt, and Hoffman had worked at its restaurant starting at 18 years old, right after graduating from Napa High School. Johnny was the chef for the first 20 years after he bought the hotel in 1988, and Sally Schmitt taught cooking classes at the farm for a decade before passing that baton to her daughter, Karen Bates.

“Food has always been a force for our family, and Boonville was our second home,” Hoffman recalled. “We would stay at the farm every holiday, and for weeks through the summer.”

Initially, Hoffman’s sights were set on a corporate career, as he was hired as sous chef at Rutherford’s Auberge du Soleil when he was 20, then moved to étoile at 22. In 2015, he took over as culinary director at Healdsburg’s now-closed farm-to-table marketplace/café Shed. The bigger, and busier, the better, he believed.

Yet when Boonville Hotel’s chef Brennon Moore left after 10 years in the summer of 2018 - just after Hoffman and his wife, Kristen, had welcomed their first daughter, with a son arriving in April - he started thinking of a more remote, relaxed lifestyle.

“I loved doing the high-energy crazy work, but after my daughter was born, it was like a light switch,” he said. “I’m still a workaholic, but I can only go so far in Boonville, so it helps keep me in check, and lets me balance life and family.”

So now, Hoffman is running a 40-seat, eclectic, farm-chic decor restaurant and 60-seat seasonal patio that serves dinner Thursday through Mondays (during high season of April through November) and Friday and Saturday dinner with Sunday lunch December through March. The prix-fixe menu is single choice, changing nightly, supplemented by a selection of a la carte small plates (note that a 20% service charge is added to provide a living wage for the crew, with no additional tips expected).

Keeping things even more streamlined, on Sundays, the fare is paella, slow-cooked in a giant paella ring on the courtyard, on at least one occasion an all-pescatarian symphony of Mendocino rock cod, gulf shrimp, Monterey squid, local saffron, chive aioli, bean, and basil smoked cour di bue tomatoes, served with a simple salad and a dessert bite.

Mondays bring just one main course, which recently featured local beef and pork polpettes atop Red Florini polenta with creamy Piment d’Ville ricotta, sprouting broccolini and Sicilian oregano.

Whatever is on the table, this is clean cooking. Given the Anderson Valley town’s rural location amid gorgeous farms, the chef focuses on daily-picked local produce, including delicacies grown on the 4-acre hotel site such as lemony Maldovian Dragon Balm herb, horseradish leaves, lemon basil, tamarind, fragrant Bachelor’s Buttons, sweet corn shoots, French lavender for honey, plums, quince and persimmons.

Surrounded by such natural beauty, the mood and food seems even more spectacular, feeling like a fairytale at rustic wood tables in the garden under towering shade trees. On a late summer visit, we started with several small plates, including extraordinarily smoky, charred-on-the-edges, rosy curls of speck ham accented with Boonville-grown sweet-spicy Piment d’Ville red chile dust, juicy peach chunks and delicate marigold blossoms, all glistening with olive oil ($13).

Next was a superb riff on salmon rillettes, the chunky fish mix reminding me of the world’s fanciest tuna salad with its creamy-rich binding and cornichon coins, tucked in crunchy Little Gem cups with rough diced herbs singing with rainbow flavors ($12).

At first glance, the dinner menu looked quite basic: a salad of Gwen dwarf avocado and romano beans, tomatillos, red cabbage, cilantro, coriander vinaigrette; grilled beef brochette, morels, leeks, shallots, salsa verde, oregano; and a summer berry galette, Chantilly cream, bee pollen ($48).

But as Hoffman proved at Shed, pristine ingredients don’t need gilding with complicated sauces and theatrical manipulation, while herbs can paint portraits. The al dente, meaty romano beans were served both in and out of tender shell, tossed with thinly sliced beautifully sour tomatillo, slightly tart young avocado soft against the crunchy cabbage, flurries of white-tipped cilantro blossoms, shallots and cucumber-crisp purslane leaves shimmering with lemon-pepper notes. A coat of Boonville’s Filigreen Farm olive oil and sea salt pulled it all together with buttery, acidic sparkle.

Lots of garlic, too, brightened the charred Wagyu brochette, skewered in big chunks with the vegetables and crowned in nasturtium, spring shallot bulbs and very bitter greens. It was too chewy, heavy and powerfully flavored for my taste buds, though anyone who loves macho red meat would enjoy it with a briar-blackberry Murder Ridge Zinfandel (2014, $62).

The tart-sweet galette, meanwhile, reminded me of a warm, home kitchen favorite, the juicy stewed local blueberries and marionberries trailing a lovely, thick residue, like a sophisticated snail strolling across the sugar-crystal crust.

Dining here truly reflects the seasons. That means on a recent October evening we were offered a first course of roasted Italian Carmen sweet peppers with Boonville’s Pennyroyal Farm fluffy, cottage-cheese like Laychee, sprouting broccoli, arugula and pickled garlic scapes; a main course of pan-roasted California sturgeon with romano beans, braised tomatoes and chanterelles kissed with olive vinaigrette; and dessert of chocolate orange almond torte with oranges and citrus cream ($58).

A following evening (stay over in the hotel, it’s a delightful 15-room - soon to be 17-room - retreat), we were presented with California yellowtail ceviche dotted with brilliant Mexican sour gherkins, spicy habanero chiles, Gwen dwarf avocados, cherry tomatoes and radish; chilled Filigreen Farm sweet corn soup finished with Peace and Plenty farm saffron, roasted Muscat grapes and rosemary cream; Liberty Farms duck breast with roasted butternut squash, grilled savoy cabbage, matsutakes, autumn herbs and wild huckleberries; and Bosc pear tart drizzled in brandy cream and chocolate sauce ($68).

Through it all, Hoffman and crew keep the experience professional but friendly - or perhaps, playfully goofy. He pops out of the kitchen to describe purslane as “tasty weeds,” brochette as “kabobs but in fancy French,” and his belief that his restaurant’s rosé on tap “isn’t alcohol, since it comes out of the wall.”

He is happy, it’s clear, and as guests, we feel his enthusiasm, heightening what is already a glorious experience.

“Food just feels right, smells right, looks right and tastes right in this setting,” he said. “I didn’t realize how spoiled I was until I left here.”

Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at carey@careysweet.com.

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