Wanting to calibrate with Rochelle McCune on what she considers the truest rendition of chicken-fried steak in California, I skipped up to Hopland for lunch Sunday. I snagged a counter seat at Bluebird Café (which is for sale, BTW), the last one in the full dining room, only to learn that chicken-fried steak is no go for lunch. I had mistakenly assumed that a breakfast/lunch place would serve breakfast items all day, and could not convince the kitchen to make me an order. While the salads coming out of the kitchen looked fantastic, I needed some serious protein. None of the sandwiches or burgers appealed, so I took my leave.
Across the street, the Phoenix Bread Company had a big banner proclaiming new barbecue offerings and of particular interest, North Carolina Pulled Pork. Protein! As I got closer, I could see a smaller sign said that the sauce is made from black stout (its next door to the Hopland brewery). Once inside I ask about the sauce used on the pulled pork sandwich and learn that its available with the regular barbecue sauce (which only comes in one strength with no heat gradations) or a Carolina-style vinegar sauce with cabbage. Still not able to decide, I asked to taste each. Good thing, as the pulled pork bits were stringy, dry, lean and not smoky at all. When I mentioned the dry and not smoky problem to the counter woman, she said I would like the pork ribs better.
Priced at $8 for three ribs, an order included a side of potato salad and some barbecue beans, plus three slices of the famous bread. The roast garlic studded bread turned out to be the best part of this lunch. Thick, dense crust and a sturdy and somewhat moist crumb with some irregular holes, the style of bread here is rustic, firm and almost elastic to the bite. While it had great texture, it wasnt that flavorful other than the garlic or that yeasty. The sauce was also good with a slight sweetness from stout but not molasses sweet. Quite mild and not hot, it had a light tang and good complexity. The pork ribs themselves were not good, even though I received an extra portion because it was the end of mealtime. Too soft and lacking meaty intensity after parboiling (why do places do that???), hardly smoky at all, and just a bit of crustiness, this is not my idea of barbecue. The potato salad was interesting with slivers of sundried tomato, capers, and marinated artichoke hearts (which I dislike immensely), but too mushy. The beans were candy sweet. Oh well, I nibbled on two of the ribs to fill my stomach before some wine tasting across the street.
A quick perusal of the bakery counter showed gargantuan pastries: vol au vent (turnover-like things), pecan-studded dense-looking morning buns, and thick-crusted wet pizza, plus the humongous sized loaves of hearty breads. Big is the order of the day here; Id also noticed that everyone having lunch had leftovers to take away. Even though the pastries had that heavy sinker look, I was curious enough that I was ready to buy a sampler. But while I waited for the cashier to return, I noticed that a family of six big flies was flitting around the baked goods, and I changed my mind.
Next stop was the McDowell vineyards tasting room across the street. First taste was the 2000 Grenache Rosé at last a winner today! It had been a few vintages since Ive tried this one, and Id forgotten how good it can be. Crisp, dry, loaded with strawberry fruit, and deeply colored cerise red, so refreshing. Its a steal at $9, and even more so for $16 for a magnum (1.5 L). I bought one big bottle to have on hand for the next summer picnic.
Also nice were the 2000 Viognier, 1999 Marsanne, and the 2000 Syrah, considering the price points. Ill mention that the winery is closing out the 1999 Mendocino Syrah for $75/case, yes, thats $6 and change per bottle by the case. Unfortunately, the party before me had bought every bottle in the sales room and it was not available to try, but would be restocked from the warehouse. Still Ive got to believe that its a huge bargain at the price, and had been named by Wine Spectator as one of the 50 great wine values at the regular $12. Members of the Silver Buckle wine club get an extra 20% off and theres no membership fee, so the price drops to only $5 per bottle! I asked Mike (who was running the tasting room) how it compared to the 2000, and he felt the 1999 was a little lighter but still nice in its own way. If youre planning to be anywhere near Hopland, Id suggest paying for a case to reserve it and pick it up during your visit.
One caveat, while I checked to be sure that the Altec composite cork (a source of TCA taint as discussed on the General Topics board) was not used to close the Rosé, I did not inquire about the closure used for the 1999 Syrah. I know that McDowell has used the Altec in the past and dont know when ceased. If the Altec was used for the Syrah, its no bargain, even at $5 per bottle.