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Cox: High-class cookery at John Ash

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Those who were fortunate enough to have dined at John Ash’s restaurant when he was still in the kitchen will remember how excitingly innovative his cooking was. Where can we find that kind of culinary excitement today?

What about at John Ash & Co. at the Vintners Inn? Chef Ash himself departed years ago, leaving only his name attached to the restaurant. Now the place is owned by Don and Rhonda Carano, two of the nicest and most down-to-earth moguls you’d ever want to meet. The Inn has become a complex of hotel, visitors’ center, meeting place, restaurant, bar, and lounge. The current chef is Tom Schmidt, who, with his sous chef Devin Kellogg, turns out just about perfect renditions of old favorites like chicken cordon bleu, pan-seared scallops, and calamari fritti.

Their choices of starters and main dishes may be mainstream — surely a conscious decision given the nature of the establishment — but their motto seems to be, “Let’s do the basics but do them so well we’ll wow people.”

By and large, they achieve their aim.

The restaurant has always been known for its extensive wine list, which now includes 600 wines from Sonoma County and around the world, accessed on an iPad. Among wines by the glass, there’s a lovely chardonnay from Joseph Jewell for $11 and a depth-y cabernet sauvignon from Medlock Ames for $14, plus a whole lot more. Corkage is $20.

Service is impeccable, as it always has been, but impeccable doesn’t mean snooty. The people who wait on you are relaxed and friendly.

The restaurant offers a four-course tasting menu at $65 per person or $100 if the savory courses are paired with wines. But it’s much more fun to pick and choose among the many menu items.

The bread basket included a slightly spicy chunk of hot cornbread so a little butter melted invitingly on it. And an amuse bouche was a creamy liquid made of avocado blended with buttermilk. We’re getting toward the end of the oyster season and I wanted to see what shape the local bivalves were in, so dinner started with a Half Dozen Hog Island Sweet Water Oysters ($18 ***). They were just beginning to develop that muddy sac that precedes the summertime spawning, and were still plump with sweet glycogen. They’re served with various washes and dips, but it’s also good to dress them with just a squirt of lemon juice and maybe fresh cracked black pepper.

Manila Clams and Gypsy Girl Chorizo ($13/21 ★★½) in a tomato-y sauce with house-grown leeks, chickpeas, and garlic had enough spiciness to warm the mouth. Two pieces of toasted ciabatta tasted bitter for some reason. Then came three Dungeness Crab Fritters ($16 ★★★), each a little larger than a golf ball, each packed full of shredded crabmeat, battered and fried golden brown, and served with mango dice and spicy mango aioli. On the side was what the menu calls “Mexican cabbage salad,” but seemed just like good cole slaw.

The hit of the night was Mexican: Tom’s Chili Relleno ($21 ★★★★). The poblano was fire-roasted, de-skinned, stuffed with pepper jack cheese that melted and spilled out on the warm plate like the contents of a cornucopia, plus guacamole, red rice, and pico de gallo. White crema was drizzled back and forth across the pepper.

Roasted Liberty Duck Breast ($36 ★★★) came to the table nicely sliced and bathing in a pinot noir reduction sauce with a pear and huckleberry chutney and grilled radicchio leaves. Sweet fruit and duck are perfect together.

The meal ended with a chocolate bacchanal called Mom’s Buttermilk Chocolate Cake ($11 ★★★) from pastry chef Casey Stone. Layers of chocolate fudge alternated with dense chocolate cake, with a cocoa nib tuile, chocolate toffee, and malted vanilla gelato. Wow!

To sum up: High-class cookery is going on around here.

Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review for the Sonoma Living section. He can be reached at jeffcox@sonic.net.

John Ash & Co.

Where: 4350 Barnes Road, Santa Rosa

When: Dinner from 5 to 8:30 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, and to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays

Reservations: A good idea. Call 527-7687

Price range: Expensive to very expensive, with entrees from $21 to $39

Website: www.vintnersinn.com

Wine list: ★★★★

Ambiance: ★★★½

Service: ★★★½

Food: ★★★

Overall: ★★★½

KEY

★★★★ Extraordinary

★★★ Very Good

★★ Good

★ Not Very Good

0 Terrible

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