My husband & I just returned from another wonderful trip to the Mendocino Coast. We enjoyed returning to some old favorites and exploring some new-to-us spots in Little River, Mendocino, Fort Bragg and Anderson Valley.
On our way along Hwy. 128 in Anderson Valley, we stopped at Roederer Estate to stock up on sparkling wine for the holidays. This is one of the few tasting rooms where both my husband and I just grin and admit we like everything. One of the unique features of this tasting room is that they pour their brut from 750ml and from 1.5 liter magnum. It’s a very unique approach, and very enlightening. They also poured the L’ermitage 1999 from 1.5 liter magnum and the L’ermitage 2000 from 750ml. I am very fond of L’ermitage, and think it is one of the best sparkling wines in the state. We obviously left with some 2000 L’ermitage, as well as some non vintage brut rose, which is a great everyday bubbly.
We also stopped at Claudia Springs. It’s been years since I had their wine, but I have fond memories of tasting with owners and winemakers Bob & Claudia Klindt at various events through the years. Bob was there, pouring his Pinot Noirs and Zins, as well as the wines he & Claudia make for Harmonique. He is a fascinating guy, and good for stories about clones, crazy vineyards and their owners. Frustratingly, all of the wines had been opened the day before in a room rife with fruit flies. These are youthful wines, so being open for a day or so shouldn’t have been a problem. But those fruit flies congregating around the open bottles just numbed the aromas and veiled the flavors. I was able to discern enough about the Zins to convince me to buy some. It was nearly 1PM and we were his first customers of the day on a sunny Saturday, so I didn’t want him to open fresh bottles for us to taste. He’s the winemaker, and I respect him a great deal, so I just didn’t bother with the “Hey, did you know the fruit flies are robbing your wine of its aromas and flavors” discussion. I encounter this problem frequently at all kinds of wineries and wine bars and half the time when I mention it, I get looks like I’m crazy. Oh well, hopefully the good frost we’ve had this week will kill the last of the little buggers. We opened a bottle of 2005 Mendocino Ridges Valenti Ranch in the room later that day and it was really quite nice with good but restrained red fruit and classic Mendocino bramble spice. It was even better the next day, stored overnight without fruit flies around. The other Zins we purchased and tasted were the 2006 Mendocino Zin, and the 2006 Mendocino Ridge Perli Vineyard Potato Patch. The 2006 Mendocino Zin is a blend from various vineyards and can have the addition of varietals like Merlot and Syrah. The 2006 Potato Patch was fairly burly, even through the fruit flies. Overall, these wines had a classic Mendocino Zinfandel aroma which is a floral-bramble-some red but largely black fruit composition.
At Egghead’s, in downtown Fort Bragg, the Glenda’s Garlic & Crab Omelet special was even better than we remembered. Stuffed with large, sweet meaty chunks of crab, crushed garlic melted jack & cheddar cheese, diced Canadian bacon and tomatoes and draped in silky, house-made champagne hollandaise, this is just an incredible way to begin the day. Service was a bit slower than we remembered, taking about 30 minutes to get our food to us. We learned from Becky, the owner that several of the staff, including their longtime cook, had abruptly departed to start the Fort Bragg Steakhouse south of downtown. It sounds like the transition has had both challenges and benefits. But the food is still excellent and the remaining staff is banding together. We had seen the Fort Bragg Steakhouse, but didn’t have time to check it out. It’s in a location that seems to be something different every time we visit. We also overheard Becky mention that Egghead’s is usually closed for a winter break this time of year. It was a good reminder to us to call ahead when planning off-season visits because many places up here do close for a spell in the winter.
It’s been a few years since we stopped at Jenny’s Giant Burgers at the north end of Fort Bragg, but we needed something hearty to-go for an oceanside winter picnic. The menu is simple; burgers, cheeseburgers with American cheese, a veggie burger, fries, sodas and shakes made from soft-serve. They use pre-made patties, salted and cooked to order, resulting in a burger several notches above a regular fast food burger. The Giant Cheeseburger is 1/3 lb before cooking and left me full, but not stuffed. Next time I think we’ll ask them to cook it till just pink. They use red onions, which you can have raw or grilled. The fries are just ok, slightly thicker than most fast food fries, and of the pre-sliced frozen variety. They don’t salt them, so ask them to salt the fries or be prepared to douse them with salt the minute you get them. Overall, the burger and fries hit the spot as we washed them down with a glass of Cab Sauv overlooking the beach at MacKerricher State Park.
Once again, Mendoza’s Harvest Market in Mendocino and Roundman in Fort Bragg proved reliable stops to pick up snacks.
A new find for us was Frankie’s in Mendocino. They offer Cowlick’s handmade ice creams, as well as think crust pizza by the slice or by the pizza, a small beer & wine list and baked falafels. We just stopped in for ice cream, but the pizzas sounded interesting and creative, so we’ll be back. They also have live music Thursday-Saturday evenings and free wi-fi. As always, Cowlick’s ice cream is delicious. I had a scoop of the chai and a scoop of the blackberry chocolate chunk. The gal serving up the ice cream indicated that both of these are summer flavors, so I don’t know how long they’ll be around. It was odd to think of chai as a summer flavor with all the spices that make me think of fall and the holidays. The blackberry chocolate chunk actually tasted like real blackberries. My husband had the mushroom ice cream, which was slightly denser and had the unmistakable maple-like flavor of the candy cap mushroom. Overall, we really like Cowlick’s ice creams for their creamy, not-too-sugary, true tasting ice creams.
Staying at the Little River Inn, we decided to check out the restaurant. We started in the bar with a glass of bubbles and a couple of appetizers. My husband ordered the warmed brie and the crab cocktail. The brie warmed by a brief spell on the grill, as evidenced by cross-hatch marks. It was served with water crackers and beautifully arranged fruit. The crab cocktail was served in a tall shot glass, but was basically crab in ketchup. The bar itself has a beautiful view of the ocean, and seems popular with locals. The dining room is surrounded by the gardens. The menu offered several enticing options, among them Dungeness crab pot pie, pine crust crusted salmon and flat iron steak diane. My husband settled on the vegetable torta and I opted for the lamb shank with roasted garlic bread pudding. We each started with a dinner salad, which was good but not overly exciting. The vegetable torta was layers of vegetables in a puff pastry crust surrounded by a spicy marinara. I find that too many veggie entrees tend to lack in creativity or layered flavors that continue to entice bite after bite. This was the exception. It was comforting and creative with flavors that were delicious to the last bite. The lamb shank was delicious, gentle, rich, slow braised lamb flavors from a large shank paired against the chewy texture and savory flavors of the bread pudding. Our server was a delight and she searched high and low for an implement to help me get at the tasty bone marrow, alas without success. I took the bone in a box to our room where I had my way with that marrow, which was like lamb flavored butter. Mmm. For dessert, I had the raspberry sorbet, which they source from Cowlick’s. Again, lovely real fruit flavor and not too sweet. My husband had the walnut-chocolate-caramel tart. It had a buttery crust and rich drizzles of chocolate and caramel over the walnut filling. We appreciated the restraint in this dessert that used the not overly sugary chocolate and caramel as accents focusing the attention on the walnuts. This could have been one of those desserts that come off as overly decadent after a long meal, but instead it was comforting and a bit homey. I spent several minutes chatting with John, the wine buyer, who has put together one of the most interesting and creative wine lists I have seen in awhile. It’s full of fun little subplots, offering wines from throughout California and even a few treats from Oregon, but a couple of the usual suspects for the intimidated. I couldn’t resist a split of Tablas Creek’s Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, a blend of Roussane, Picpoul Blanc and Grenache Blanc that lived up the tasting notes on the back of the bottle, offering hints of honeysuckle, hazelnut and a touch of minerality. A very interesting wine! Corkage is $15 but they will waive it if you buy a glass or two of wine or of course, a bottle from the list. Our server was thrilled when we left her the partial bottle of wine we had brought with us. Appetizers, wine, salads, entrees and dessert plus tax and tip were right around $160. We would return again.
We also took advantage of room service dining at the Little River Inn, and had a delicious, relaxing breakfast overlooking the stunning ocean view. My husband had the Olallieberry cobbler, which arrived still warm in a large ramekin, with a flaky top crust and juicy flavors of olallieberry without too much sugar. They offered a choice of whipped cream or ice cream. He chose the latter, and it arrived in a separate dish. He adored the fresh squeezed orange juice, which had excellent flavor. I had Ole’s Favorite Breakfast, which consists of 2 eggs, a choice of bacon or sausage and two of Ole’s Swedish Hotcakes. The eggs arrived over-easy as requested, still warm and the sausage link had classic breakfast sage-flavor. The hotcakes were thin, but not crepe-like with tangy flavor and fluffy texture. I had a choice of olallieberry jam or syrup and chose both. The syrup was imitation, so I smeared fluffy whipped butter and jam over the hotcakes. The jam still showed bits of berry and tasted of the berry and not too sweet (yes, I guess there is a theme here). The in-room coffee maker is stocked with packets of Big River organic coffee, from Santa Rosa. It was far better than the usual in-room coffee. The downside was using powdered creamer because I forgot to add milk to our breakfast order.
Another new discovery was La Petite Rive, located adjacent to the post office in the defunct gas station building (across from The Little River Inn). We’d heard about this from Gail at the Atrium B&B earlier in the year. Owned by chef couple Troy & Melanie, they offer two seatings Wednesday through Sunday evenings, serving French-inspired cuisine. They are tiny, with only 7 tables, perched on the west side of Hwy. 1 boasting a stunning view of the Pacific. We were one of three couples at their 8PM seating on a Sunday evening. Had it been summer, the view would have been breathtaking, but even in the dark we could see whitecaps. We were greeted by the chef, who popped his head out of the tiny galley kitchen with two glasses of Navarro sparkling gewürztraminer. They offer full dinners with an amuse bouche, soup, salad, palate cleanser and entrée at very reasonable prices. They have a few appetizers and desserts available for an additional charge. They offered a choice of about eight different entrees, ranging from lamb, duck, a few seafood selections and two filet mignon preparations. The crab-gruyere melt amuse arrived with another, smaller glass of the Navarro sparkling Gewürztraminer. It was a nice savory first bite and I liked the pairing of the bubbly. The soup was carrot-ginger with a garnish of sour cream and dried parsley. This was a delicious soup, creamy with good flavor but crème fraiche and fresh parsley or scallion would have been a better, less dated garnish. The mixed green salad was a mix of romaine and mixed spring greens with a balsamic ginger dressing. It was good but not as delicious as other salads we’ve had in the area. My husband said it lacked that addictive quality that makes you want to keep eating a great salad, and he was annoyed that they repeated the ginger flavor in the salad after it was in the soup. We agreed that a citrus dressing would have been a better bet. The palate cleanser was a small, not-too-sweet scoop of tropical fruit sorbet balanced on a slice of lime. It was a nice touch. My husband had the peppercorn encrusted filet mignon with a reduction sauce. I had the goat cheese & rosemary encrusted rack of lamb with a sherry or Madeira sauce. Both offered generous portions of meat, perfectly cooked, and came with small, soft mashed potato pancakes topped with sour cream, a bit of caviar and two tiny spears of just overcooked asparagus. My husband and I agreed that while his steak was tasty, the sauce was one-dimensional and detracted from the enjoyment of the meat. My lamb was good to very good, but with five large meaty rib chops, the flavors were a bit rich by the last bite. We split a double chocolate cheesecake which wasn’t too sweet but balanced chocolate flavors against slightly sour dairy flavors. The wine list is small, with only three or four selections in each category (white, red, sparkling) due to their limited space, but overall it’s not very inspired. The most interesting thing on the list was a special of the Navarro sparkling gewürztraminer. I’m glad we brought our own wine and paid the $15 corkage. Troy & Melissa are appealing, the space and concept are charming but the food is a bit dated, and repeats flavors at times. It’s an absolute bargain for a romantic dinner, especially during the warmer months when you can take advantage of the view. We paid just under $110 for full dinner, dessert, corkage, tax & tip. Despite the fact that I’ve spent way too much time analyzing what how the experience could be improved and stay within the prices, I’d probably be willing to return when we could get a sunset view of the ocean. My husband would be less inclined to return.
Once again, our visit to this area only made us eager to return and soon. There are a few favorites we didn’t hit this trip, and several spots we’re eager to explore.