'Sea-to-table': Mendocino coast inspires Harbor House chef
Chef Matt Kammerer may be the only boss anywhere who is pleased when one of his sous chefs arrives late for work, with the excuse that the young man “had to hit the beach.”
That’s because Kammerer operates Harbor House, a sea-to-table restaurant inside the historic Harbor House Inn. Set atop a secluded, ocean-side cliff in the tiny village of Elk in Mendocino, Kammerer and his crew source most of their ingredients from the very landscape they admire daily, including seaweed, sea lettuce, abalone, crab, sea urchins and rockfish. A sous chef may run late sometimes since he specializes in collecting the daily bucket of ocean water from a prime cove near his home, that, once at the restaurant, will be turned into homemade sea salt.
Since opening in May, the novel concept has been a hit with diners, Kammerer said, with guests traveling from all across the Bay Area to dine at his 25-seat restaurant. Some stay overnight in the nine-room inn, and others come exclusively for the tasting menu-only experience that changes as frequently as the tides.
Calling his concept “refined new American with a coastal perspective,” Kammerer’s cooking really needs to be explored firsthand to truly understand it. The idea reminds me of Single Thread in Healdsburg, with its meticulously crafted, artfully presented small plates, where everything, from the ingredients down to the pottery bowls and hand-forged knives, has a story.
But rather than fussy and formal, as Single Thread is, Kammerer and the inn’s general manager Amanda Nemec keep things relaxed and almost homestyle. Even diners who may not appreciate unusual dishes such as morel mushrooms imbued with chile-spicy kosho and grilled pine essence from a nearby forest will fall in love with the graceful, friendly service and the living room-style mood.
Then, there’s the setting, which mesmerizes with its beauty from foggy dawn to shimmering sunset. Built in 1916, the redwood-trimmed inn originally was a corporate retreat for Goodyear Redwood Co., a lumber business harvesting massive numbers of Elk-area trees.
It was purchased eight years ago by Edmund Jin and his wife, Eva Lu, then extensively restored and renovated to the tune of $10 million. Jin is CEO of E&E Co. Ltd, a Bay-Area based manufacturer of luxury home goods, and it’s his classic leather and wood furniture you’ll see in the entry lounge.
The dining room is simpler, with tables draped in beige-gray burlap-style cloths and little adornment except a centerpiece carved wood display table. The plainness is all the better to focus on the spectacular Pacific Coast views of thrashing waves anchored by magnificent rock arches and caves.
Take a stroll on the deck outside the restaurant, and you’ll see the new culinary gardens, planted with delicacies like alpine strawberries and pineapple sage.
Each morning, Kammerer harvests from the garden, then clambers down a steep, winding pathway to the cove and private beach below.
There, amid pearlescent abalone shells scattered across the sand, he plucks seaweed to turn into the earthy kelp vinegar he uses to lightly dress a salad of bitter greens. He’s never been in better shape, he jokes, as he climbs back up the cliff.
If it seems an odd place for a high-end restaurant – Elk is home to 208 residents - Kammerer somewhat agrees.
To come here, he left a career as executive sous chef at Michelin three-starred Saison in San Francisco, after working at Michelin-starred In De Wulf in Belgium, Michelin three-starred Nihonryori Ryugin in Tokyo, and the World’s 50 Best Restaurants-rated Attica in Melbourne.
But now, even working nearly around the clock, he says he loves the bucolic area and connection with Earth.
Somehow, the tiny team of just four kitchen staff manages to create the food, including elaborate breakfasts for inn guests, all while baking their own pastries such as oolong-infused pound cake, churning their own gray-green sea lettuce-infused butter to slather on thick, crusty sourdough, and foraging their own mushrooms.
Based on eight to 10 courses ($150, plus $90 for wine pairings from the custom leather-bound, largely local list), the menu doesn’t offer much information.
“Abalone, sea vegetables, wild cabbage,” for example, brings a teal bowl with slices of the tender-chewy seafood crowned in yellow flower petals, slippery greens from nearby Greenwood Cove and an intriguing, briny dressing.
Servers don’t really explain what we’re eating, either, or how it’s prepared except for “steam and/or fire.” And that’s fine, because there’s no benchmark to compare this extraordinary cuisine to.