Creative take on Native American cooking at Francis Ford Coppola's Werowocomoco
Oh, what a fuss over fry bread. Poor Werowocomoco, that nice little cafe at Francis Ford Coppola’s new Virginia Dare Winery in Geyserville.
Even before the place opened last November and the first plate of bison ribs had been served, several journalists tsk-tsked about the theme being patronizing to American Indians. The name, after all, refers to what is considered the original capital city of Virginia, and means “place of leadership,” as it was the center of the Powhatan Confederacy of 30 tribes in the early ?17th century.
The concept is a bit cartoonish, too, featuring painted animal skins stretched across the entry’s rustic wood walls, and dishes like wood-smoked rotisserie “prairie” chicken ($18.50).
Some Virginia tribe spokespeople seethed on social media that taking the name for commercial use was an “outrage” and a “disgrace,” especially as the winery location is all about alcohol. On a local level, some critics lamented that the restaurant wasn’t named after a California tribe.
Coppola was annoyed enough by all this that he penned a lengthy article for the San Francisco Chronicle’s opinion pages that fall. He noted that he “shared meals on Indian reservations in Arizona and New Mexico, in private homes and eateries for local people,” and he “formed a council of advisers consisting mainly of Native Americans of different tribes from around the country, to bring authenticity and respect for these traditions.”
Personally, I don’t get the uproar. I grew up in Arizona, where eating American Indian cuisine is a common joy. Fry bread shines there (the Fry Bread House hole-in-the-wall eatery won the 2012 James Beard American Classics award), and we savor cactus, tepary beans, I’itoi onions and mesquite bean pods.
One of the best restaurants in the nation, in my opinion, is the AAA Five Diamond/Forbes Five Star luxury Kai in Chandler, on the Gila River Indian reservation. The kitchen works with the reservation’s resident Pima and Maricopa tribes for riveting dishes such as grilled tenderloin of “tribal buffalo” with smoked corn puree, cholla buds, chorizo-scarlet runner bean chili and saguaro blossom syrup.
Besides, we’re talking about Coppola, here, who isn’t known for subtlety. As he wrote in his opinion piece, “I confess that I used my own imagination and creative powers to bring this project to life much in the way that I would have in making a film.”
Bottom line, Werowocomoco is pleasant and a nice variation for Wine Country dining. It’s certainly not authentic, and I wouldn’t drive out of my way for it, but if I was in the area, I would stop in for a fry bread taco, you bet.
This is really a stop-in kind of place, tucked behind the winery tasting room and welcoming with a cafeteria-style line at an order counter. Simmering tubs of ingredients await behind a glass sneeze guard, and staff assembles some dishes to-order, for us to collect on our trays at the cashier. Other dishes are prepared in the kitchen and brought to our table in paper lined wickers baskets and compostable bowls.
Of course, fry bread is not a traditional Native American food. It’s something Indians came up with trying to create something edible from the horrid white flour and lard rations the U.S. government forced on them in reservation camps in the 1800s. Yet as with many awful-for-you foods, it’s one of my guilty pleasures.
Werowocomoco’s version lets me down. I wonder if this recipe uses my beloved lard; I suspect the cooks snuck healthy ingredients into the light, puffy bread instead. It’s virtually greaseless and flavorless. Still, the whole becomes delicious with the addition of slow-roasted, shredded bison that has been lightly rubbed in chiles, coffee and chocolate ($11).
We added beans - calypso, pinto, or one visit, black because the kitchen was out of calypso. We piled on toppings, such as my choice of shredded lettuce, diced tomato, crumbled cotija, crema Mexicana and chiles. We chose salsas from a list of five, like the sweet-fiery barbecue corn-cranberry with Anaheim and Serrano peppers, or the too-sugary grilled butternut squash with smoky Turkish urfa chiles and pomegranate molasses.
Note: the fry bread can be had plain or stuffed; plain means open face, and that’s the way to go, because stuffed means the bread is awkwardly rolled into a loose burrito and is impossible to eat without the insides falling out.
The rest of the menu is hit and miss. Vegetarian green chile stew brings an excellent, chunky melange of spicy roasted Hatch and poblano chiles, plump mushrooms and sweet corn ($5 for a half-pint, $8 for a pint). Venison chili needs a lot more spice in its mild mix topped in diced red onion, Cotija, chopped tomato and cilantro scooped with fry bread ($7/$10), though it’s satisfying. And cactus salad is ho-hum, in a chop of slippery nopales, onions, tomatoes, cilantro and a few dried cranberries, tossed with lime vinaigrette that needs more acid bite ($5.50).
Larger entrees are out-of-place for such a casual setting, with uninspired preparation, high prices and need to eat with compostable cutlery. I don’t taste the promised spices in salmon, cooked on a cedar plank over the wood grill, and for $24, I’d like a classier side than waffle cut sweet potato fries. A healthy $18.50 scores me just three meaty but petite bison ribs with a cup of bland wild rice (I get none of the menu-listed cranberries and cider ginger vinaigrette flavor in the mix) and a dipping portion of sticky blueberry barbecue sauce.
Meanwhile, a dessert of pine ice cream (two scoops, $5) is more novel than exciting, imbued with curious piney, slightly menthol-citrus notes.
Besides the tacos, ultimately, one of the best bites here is corn on the cob, char-grilled to a juicy crunch and slathered in sweet chile lime butter, cotija and cilantro ($4). Sure, the argument can be made that this is really a Mexican specialty, not Native American.
But then, this place is Coppola’s vision, sitting next to a gift shop stocked with tchotchkes such as woven silk basket jewelry made by southwestern Navajo artist Florence Manygoats. So who’s to worry over a little creative license?
Carey Sweet is a Santa Rosa-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.