The Restaurant at Russian River Vineyards ups the ante on garden fresh flavors
One of the joys of dining in Sonoma County is that so many restaurants showcase locally grown, seasonal produce. Even better, more and more restaurants here are planting their own culinary gardens, guaranteeing that their vegetables, fruits and herbs are so fresh that they've likely been picked that very day.
Delicious case in point: the newly renovated Restaurant at Russian River Vineyards in Forestville. The garden idea took root back in the summer of 2014, when its ownership team installed a simple plot to support its onsite restaurant - what was then called Corks - with plantings maintained by winery farmer Kayta Brady.
Over the past three years, Brady has been busy expanding the site into what's now a 1.25 acre certified organic mishmash of interesting greens, rainbow hued beans, tomatoes, squash, peppers, root veggies, edible flowers, herbs of all kinds, corn of all colors and a variety of berries and other fruits.
And now, the new restaurant - called simply “Restaurant” - puts its garden bounty on a pedestal, for inspired California dishes such as smoked sturgeon rillettes dotted with raw red onion, fermented celery and aioli, to be spread on handcrafted herb crackers ($10). We have the fertile ground to thank, too, for treasures like the vegetable sandwich, stacked with a crispy spaghetti squash fritter, smoked blue cheese mousse, pickled fennel, greens, and delicata squash ($16).
One of the challenges of dining in Sonoma County is that restaurants relying on the freshest produce have to adapt their menus on the fly when Mother Nature doesn't cooperate. Case in point: winter's first surprise rains that muddied Russian River Vineyards' gardens, which meant that when I ordered the caramelized onion soup stocked with Yellow Eye beans and braising greens ($10) at one lunch, none was to be had.
But no worries as our rainy season sets in. The restaurant's new chef, Ben Davies, previously worked in several Michelin-starred restaurants, including Meadowood, Murray Circle, and the former Mirepoix, and most recently, as chef de cuisine at Santa Rosa's now-closed County Bench. A Sonoma County native, he knows how to coax the best out of his brief menus, offering about five to eight appetizers, three salads and a soup, and six or so entrees at lunch, dinner and weekend brunch.
And the scenery will not disappoint. Like many dining establishments in Sonoma County, the surrounding landscape that feeds its gardens are beautiful.
When RRV owners renovated their property that dates to 1963, they enhanced what was already pretty outdoor dining space and made it spectacular, lavish with flowers, succulents, bistro and picnic tables plus couch areas, and a stunning dining patio set with elegant wood tables and mismatched pattern fabric chairs.
The sprawling space is so charming and cozy that one sunny afternoon, I whiled away several hours admiring other guests' (and the winemaker's) dogs and listening to live music while nibbling on a nice Nicoise salad with butter lettuce, green beans, purple potato, olives, cherry tomato, pearly white chunks of olive oil-poached yellowtail and an egg cooked to a soft, creamy yolk ($18). I sipped Tina's Vineyard Chardonnay 2016 ($45/$10) and felt a little jealous of myself.
I tucked into a persimmon delicata squash salad, enjoying the tart fruit and rich, silky heirloom gourd brightened with spicy field greens, crisp cranberry, and an interesting, cashew and coffee seeded granola for bitterish crunch ($16). The dish speaks of the cooler season.
I liked the powerfully flavored halibut tartine, too, for its zingy fermented celery amid the smoked fish, shaved radish, arugula and red onion aioli on a long wand of country toast ($18). And boar meatballs were well-seasoned satisfiers, creatively plated with a dense, beautifully fresh squash puttanesca ($16) that made me appreciate the farmer's work even more.
The burger is pricey at $20, but it's a good one - nearly softball-sized and topped in applewood smoked bacon, butter lettuce, caramelized onions, yellow tomato, Fiscalini cheddar and aioli on a brioche bun. The chips alongside are terrific, made by hand, whisper thin and airy light with a skin-on rim.
Sonoma County gardens need rain, and when it pours, RRV guests must dine inside. But no hardship - the indoor dining room is lovely, too, as an old farmhouse trimmed in oak, pine and brick with mismatched chairs, and expansive windows overlooking the patio. As the weather batters outside, it feels like a cozy cocoon in here, and in an unusual twist for a winery, the restaurant is open until 8 p.m. nightly, making this a secret spot for an even cozier dinner.
You might skip the seared octopus ($18), in a busy affair of amazake Japanese sweet rice sake, honey-brined chicory, hazelnuts, currants, bee pollen and bright purple anise hyssop buds, where the seafood is lost among all the flavors.
Another starter of lamb tenderloin was too complicated, as well, the meat juniper-encrusted atop cauliflower puree, confit chanterelles and a harsh splash of hop oil (perhaps a nod to the Restaurant's adjacent historic hops tower that this month was turned into a tasting room).
Yet, the Liberty Duck breast is superb, the skin crisp over succulent meat, and paired with a bit of duck confit, fire roasted kohlrabi, red bok choy, sweet-tart huckleberry gastrique and an intriguing, earthy walnut puree ($34). To drink: Stony Point Pinot Noir ($46/$12).
For all its near-perfections, Russian River Vineyards exudes that charm that usually only comes from homestyle touches and private (non-corporate) ownership. Consider winemaker and co-owner Giovanni Balistreri, who often personally tends the patio tasting bar, and visits with guests at garden tables, his dog by his side. Admire the Chester's Zinfandel and Riley's Red Blend wines, created to honor the RRV winery dogs.
And then, take in that gorgeous setting, anchored by the culinary garden that, while looking somewhat scattered and homemade in its veggie glory, produces such perfect food.
Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.