New Russian River Brewing in Windsor takes menu up a notch

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Is this really the sleepy little town of Windsor? Here I am, in a 2-acre parking lot, gazing up at a multistory, multibuilding campus spanning 85,000 square feet of beer brewery, a 195-seat restaurant, a beer-tasting salon, a 1-acre, pet-friendly beer garden, two bars and a gift shop. All in all, the property sprawls across 15 acres about 1½ miles from the city’s quaint Town Green park.

It seems a bit surreal, but yes, this is Russian River Brewing Co.’s new location, adding to its original spot on Fourth Street in downtown Santa Rosa. Founded as part of Guerneville’s Korbel Champagne Cellars in 1997, then sold to its original brewer, Vinnie Cilurzo, in 2003, RRB is a point of pride across Sonoma County. In America’s ever beer-loving culture, RRB has gathered international attention for its innovative, hoppy microbrews like Double India Pale Ale (Imperial IPA), sour beers and rabidly sought-after triple-hopped Pliny the Younger ale that is only available for two weeks each February.

While the 135-seat Santa Rosa spot remains highly popular, the huge Windsor palace is drawing lots of clientele, too. Opening week last October drew thousands of customers, and each time I’ve stopped in since then, the restaurant has been busy and loud. The concrete and grass garden has been mostly empty (thank you, historic winter-spring rains), and so has the beer salon, with its nine brews on tap (which isn’t too surprising, really, considering that the restaurant boasts up to 20 oft-changing beers, so why not just sip there, with a nice nibble alongside?).

RRB Santa Rosa has food — pizza, sandwiches and snacks like chicken wings and antipasto. But RRB Windsor sports a bit fancier food — a cup of silky, overly sweet fall squash soup drizzled with pistachio butter and honey ($9), and roasted half-chicken that’s pleasantly dressed with squash-sourdough panzanella, arugula and crunchy hazelnuts ($22).

Personally, I wouldn’t make a special trip for the good enough but mainstream eats. Yet if meticulously crafted beer and a party atmosphere is your thing, make a beeline.

Like at the original pub, chicken wings are well-executed, delivering a half-dozen meaty gams ($11) glistening in a gently hot honey-chile glaze. I’d like more spice, and there’s no sauce served alongside, so I add a splash of the Sonoma County-made Chiligods red pepper sauce my server brings.

Most self-respecting brew pubs have fish ‘n’ chips, and RRB’s version is satisfying, delivering three big, fluffy, beer-battered pieces of flaky cod set atop too-soft, thick cut Kennebac fries ($15) with a side of mild, creamy tartar sauce. I do my work with the red pepper sauce again, and it adds more attitude, a welcome touch since so many of the beers here are so big and bold. That ever-popular Blind Pig, for example, wallops my palate with its hugely hoppy, full-bodied brew underlaid with pine notes and a dry, bitter finish.

I wouldn’t necessarily crave salad with beer, but this chopped recipe is layered with the meaty flavors of cubed salami, provolone, hard boiled egg and garbanzo beans among the creamy vinaigrette-dressed cucumber, arugula and tomato ($13). I can see enjoying this while lounging on the garden lawn when the sunshine returns, relaxing with friends and my mellow Rhodesian Ridgeback. To go with: an Aud Blonde, a light, nutty ale kissed with grapefruit zing.

It’s hard to go wrong with a burger, and this one is plenty satisfying, in a mix of ground chuck and short rib for a bit of chew ($16). I like the white cheddar fondue that melts all the way into the sesame seed bun, though wide slabs of bacon were way overcooked. The menu promises malted bacon, and while my server isn’t sure what that means, it doesn’t much matter if it’s malted vinegar or salt, since I don’t taste anything different.

Fans of powerful beers will likely most appreciate my favorite plate: the pastrami Reuben ($15) that stands up to hoppy brews. Served open face on marble rye over soft onion and sauerkraut, the pastrami is salty and succulent, carved thin and piled with sliced dill pickles and layered with earthy Gruyere. A side of creamy, chunky potato salad helps temper the robust flavors.

King salmon is the most elaborate dish, and it’s perfectly cooked to a golden, lightly crispy edge. The deck-of-cards size fillet is a decent value for $21, the plate rounded out with a baked casserole-like slab of cheesy corn and zucchini topped in crunchy breadcrumbs, a handful of gold and red grilled peppers and herbed arugula.

Cavernous space broken up a bit by white paneled pony walls; there’s an upscale feel with hardwood floors, sleek columns, funnel-style metal fireplaces and a statement ceiling of white panels accented with circular wood cutouts to match the floor. The open kitchen gleams with stainless steel, as does the main bar with its long row of stainless steel taps. Even the waiting/lounge area is classy, set with leather armchairs and couches.

Sampling in the tasting salon finds 5-ounce tastes for $3 to $4 each. In the restaurant, explore exclusive on-site selections such as bottle reserve Temptation Blonde ($25, 375 ml), a sour ale aged with pluots, a cross between a plum and an apricot created by Luther Burbank right here in Sonoma County, then aged in used chardonnay barrels from local wineries. Or go really big, and knock yourself out with the 20-glass flight ($MP), each beer designated by a bottle cap set into the indented wood tray.

Do be sure to check out the brewery, too. Take the free, self-guided tour available from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., viewing the impressive set-up through windows on the third floor. You’ll wander past the yeast cellar, the fermentation room, Brite beer tank area and packaging room. Read the signs next to each space to learn the nuts and bolts, like how essential ingredients include malt and hops, but also extras like the dextrose sugar added to some beers like Pliny the Elder. That’s done to achieve “straight fermentables” for more flavor (look it up — it’s a science project conversation involving words like Kettle adjuncts, enzymes and wort). You’ll come away smarter about suds, and impress your friends.

And worry not that the explosive growth means we’re losing our beloved, boutique brewery to a big-box owner. Cilurzo says he’s not going anywhere, and is simply working toward distributing more draft and bottled beer to current markets, as well as to expand to other California areas.

Cheers to that.

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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