My boyfriend and I just got back from a romantic weekend in the Russian River Valley... I took some pointers from these Chowhound pages and made out pretty well. We stayed at the Jenner Inn, which is near the mouth of the Pacific on the Russian River. It's a beautiful place and highly recommended for a weekend of romance.
Dinner was at the River's End restaurant out of convenience. Reservations are recommended, but on Saturday, we were able to get in with no problem. Friday night was a little busier, but we had reservations. We went both nights, since the ambiance and service were so great. Go at sunset where the view is unbeatable. Food was pretty good too, though a little overstated and flashy. Our server was Lichi, who was more than fantastic throughout the night.
On Friday, we had a Portabello Mushroom Salad appetizer. It was layers of mesclun, topped with thick tomato slices, roasted red pepper, mozzarella-type cheese, and of course, portabello mushrooms in a balsamic viniagrette.
It was tasty but there wasn't enough portabello mushrooms and the cheese was a little overcooked. As much as we tried to avoid it, it felt like tiny strings of mozzarella were everywhere... the cheese hardened really quickly and tasted gummy within moments. I think I would have preferred a baked goat cheese in the dish, but then one might hardly taste the portabello mushrooms which was what they were highlighting.
There were many delicious items on the menu and on Friday, we opted for the rack of elk, cooked medium, served with a crust of blue cheese, mashed potatoes and a sauce that I didn't eat enough of to recognize; I had the rack of lamb, cooked medium rare, with a crust of goat cheese, mashed potatoes and a fantastic huckleberry sauce. All of the entrees came with baby autumn vegetables, including yellow squash, zucchini, asparagus, and yellow and orange carrots. Both were very flavorful dishes even though the elk came out slightly undercooked and the lamb was cooked medium. I never had elk before and expected it to be gamey like moose I had tried years ago, but it tasted surprisingly similar to lean beef tenderloin.
Being in the Russian River Valley, they had an decent wine list. I had a lovely balanced Merry Edwards Pinot Noir while my boyfriend tried the other fruitier Pinot Noir offering.
Go for the cheesecake! I had the brandy trifle, but after a bite of the baked ricotta cheesecake covered in a blueberry compote that my boyfriend had, I wished I had ordered the cheesecake. We actually ate it a day later since we were so full from the meal.
On Saturday morning, Jenner Inn served a great breakfast: vegetable quiche and apple pecan french toast. Be forewarned that despite their claim that they serve a full breakfast, it is continental sized. Being the feeder that I am, we had to go get brunch elsewhere and found a great place at the Duncan Mills Cafe. They have a whole page dedicated to Benedicts, which is a personal fave of mine. In most of the dishes, they replaced the muffin with a peppery serving of grits and topped it off with a lemony hollandaise sauce, which was amazing. I don't normally like grits, but it was fantastic. I had the Norfolk Benedict with chopped tomato, spinach and onions. Even the home fries, which I usually eat around and avoid, were perfectly cooked and spiced. My boyfriend had the smoked salmon and goat cheese frittata which was pretty amazing too. Big chunks of hot smoked salmon covered his plate. I surprisingly ignored his dish entirely since mine was too good to pull my attention away from. I was so thoroughly enjoying my meal that the guests who sat at the table next to us asked me what I had ordered. Service was curt but efficient. It was busy and we were at a cafe.
After a day of wine tastings, we returned to the state beaches south of Jenner on Rte 1 for a muted sunset (since it was an overcast Saturday night!) and went back to Rivers End (mostly out of convenience) for dinner. We shared the mushroom XXXXXX (some unpronounceable word that I've never heard of), that was basically puff pastry wrapped around mushrooms in a cream sauce. It was delicious.
I was wined out by then so I had the Raspberry Mojito, which was pretty good, made from mint in the gardens at the restaurant, handpicked by our server, Lichi. Entrees on Saturday were the Kickin' Ahi, seared tuna in a light sesame-miso sauce with jasmine rice, and the Two-way Duck, shredded duck confit and sliced duck breast in a blueberry sauce. The duck was cooked medium-rare and was excellent. The seared tuna was good too, but I've had that way too many times in a similar style to enjoy it. My boyfriend seemed to like it though. We were way too full to have dessert again.
On Sunday, we had pancakes and a teacup of baked egg at the Jenner Inn. For additional sustenance, we made a stop at the Gold Coast bakery in Duncan Mills, where they roast their own coffee. The bakery items were so-so, but the dark roast coffee was excellent when you added a touch of half and half and raw sugar. I should've had their light roast black, but it was delicious regardless.
That afternoon, we returned to Healdsburg to buy more wine at Seghesio since we didn't think we bought enough and stopped at Willi's Seafood on Healdsburg Ave. It's a tapas-style restaurant with small plates. For food, it was the highlight of my weekend. While I enjoyed the food at Rivers End, it paled in comparison to Willi's. There were several things not on the menu which the server explained from the beginning that the cooking staff just couldn't get right enough to serve it, though it was on the menu. I appreciated the honesty and the fact that they wouldn't serve anything that wasn't less than perfect.
I had a fresh lemonade (since I was again wined out), which came out a beautiful milky light yellow color and was served with a small cobalt blue vial of sugar water for those who like it less tart. My mouth is still watering in memory of that lemonade.
We started with a spinach and frisee salad with goat cheese, spiced nuts and dried fruits in a creamy viniagrette dressing (sounds counterintuitive to me, but that's how the dressing was described). It was the best salad I've had in a while and as I was scraping the bottom of the bowl, I was disappointed to see that we had finished it so quickly. But the server came with flash fried fresh calamari in an orange chili gremolata served on a small bed of mixed greens and I forgot my disappointment. Mmmmm. The calamari was heavenly. That was followed by skewered pieces of hangar steak in a chimichurri sauce with a side of aji panca. The hangar steak was also marinated in another red pepper type sauce. I'm sorry that I didn't study what was in the sauce, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, whatever it was. It reminded me of an Argentina parilla. The cucumber salad I could have done without, but it did complement the dish with its coolness while the red pepper sauce and chimichurri added a spicy kick. Willi's is definitely a stop you must take, if you're in the area and even remotely in the mood to eat!
Rivers End Restaurant in Jenner - okay for food, excellent ambiance, great drinks.
Duncan Mills Cafe in Duncan Mills - great for breakfasts and brunches, excellent nontraditional benedicts.
Gold Coast Bakery in Duncan Mills - go for the fresh roasted coffee and small neighborhood feel.
Willi's Seafood & Raw Bar in Healdsburg - A++ excellent tapas, excellent lemonade.
Check the dates of River's End since they don't serve dinner on certain days midweek.