Wine Country Cuisine: The Restaurant at Applewood

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Wine Country Cuisine: The Restaurant at Applewood

At an acclaimed Wine Country restaurant, it's not surprising that a dinner bill for two, including a few drinks between us, can easily reach $200-plus. On a recent evening at The Restaurant at Applewood in Guerneville, we hit that mark with little effort, ordering two appetizers, two entrees, and two desserts.

Helping nudge the tariff up, of course, were appropriate beverages, but in wine country, and at this graceful restaurant where the servers are schooled like sommeliers, to go dry would simply not be right.

Yet here's an insider's secret. Applewood also offers a Russian River Night Menu on Sundays, where locals (actually anyone who wants to join in on the bargain) can enjoy a three course dinner for just $30. There are specially priced wines through the evening that usually include a local sparkling, red and white for $6-$7, plus extraordinary generosity on BYOB, bringing free corkage on all Russian River wines, and $10 corkage on anything else.

That's definitely good to keep in mind for my next visit. Russian River Night features change weekly, and though it looked good the evening we were there, the special entrée of risotto was vegetarian, and both of us were in the mood for something meaty.

Our server pointed out that the chef's tasting menu also can be a good deal at $75 for 5 courses (plus $55 per wine). And it's certainly popular, since this wood trimmed space with a flickering fireplace, white tablecloths and soft, warm lighting is a special occasion experience. Yet fair warning, this lengthy meal can run into several hours.

Much of the tasting menu can be enjoyed a la carte, however, and this is how we found ourselves starting with a plump knob of pork belly, pan seared to a crispy edge and topped with a tiny, sunny-side-up quail egg ($15).  It's a lot of flavors and textures all at once, with the meat drizzled in dark jus over a swath of pea-colored turnip top pureé, and presented alongside slabs of roasted carrots and a dollop of mashed brown butter turnips in lobster reduction.

Another appetizer of a large pan seared diver scallop atop whipped Yukon potatoes looked primarily gentle gold on white, but got a boost of color from a tangerine-hued smear of Mendocino uni, a brilliant saffron butter sauce, sprinklings of Piment D'Espelette and a crowning touch of microgreen ($17). We didn't taste much distinctive uni, but the silky sea creature added lovely, fatty mouth feel to the perfectly seared scallop.

With flavors this rich, and the ample artisan bread service, I could easily make a meal of just an appetizer and great sip of wine – the list spans nearly a dozen pages of boutique California productions, including dozens available by the glass.

Wisely, our server gave us a little time to relax between courses and take in the setting. I've always loved the simplicity of the towering barn structure tucked into a hillside off Hwy. 116, where visitors can wander past the grape vine trellised entry back into the courtyard of the adults-only B&B and feel like they're in a secret garden. Vaulted wood ceilings, subtle pin lighting, and understated décor of antique plates and wine posters on the walls allow the scenery to dominate through soaring windows.

For main plates, the kitchen knows that to do with succulent beef. The hefty cut of tenderloin filet was char-grilled to juicy turn, scattered with crunchy sea salt, and paired with purple potato fourchette (fork mashed), chopped foraged hedgehog mushrooms and whole caramelized cipollini onion, all nestled in a puddle of bone marrow Bordelaise ($35). Steak and potato lovers will be in heaven, and even diners who tend to less beefy meals will want to splurge with this perfect presentation. 

Still, the star of the show was miso glazed California black cod ($34). The flaky soft fish has a lovely buttery charm all on its own, but when it's marinated in sweet miso and bobbing in a big white bowl brimming with golden ginger broth, grilled leeks, parsley and toasted sesame oil, it's sublime. For the finishing touch, the cod sat atop a puree of earthy broccoli, capped in whisper thin crispy-fried black trumpet mushrooms. It spoke of an expert kitchen, skilled in balance. 

On the other hand, a dessert of chai crème brulee was much too strong, the crackly topped custard heavily perfumed with the Indian herbs, and further complicated by two petite cookies made with candy cap mushrooms (the fungi taste a bit like maple syrup), and charred squares of marshmallow ($10). Perhaps the components could have worked fine on their own with something more simple like vanilla ice cream, but all together, they were too much. 

Honey cannoli put the meal back on track, stuffed and topped in whipped mascarpone cream, then ladled with ginger stewed figs and apricots in their syrup ($10). Our server advised us that they were untraditional, in two soft rolls rather than crispy tubes, but we liked it just fine. He also offered that the dish was delightful with a Moshin Potion No. 9 dessert wine (Sonoma County, $12), and his suggestion was spot on.

It was just another example of what has helped this restaurant earn its awards. Servers are skilled in reading their customers, for what level of attention they want, and how much they would like to be guided through their meal. 

In a thoughtful touch, servers sometimes even ask if you've been wine tasting that day, and if the answer is yes, they will recommend you start with one of the international beers, to reset the palate. You can also enjoy beer pairings throughout the meal. 

That kind of service, paired with excellent food and gracious surroundings, makes Applewood priceless.

Details: Applewood Inn and Restaurant, 13555 California 116, Guerneville, 707-869-9093, applewoodinn.com.

 

Sonoma County Restaurant Week 2013 takes place March 18-24, when more than 100 of our best local eateries will tempt with special three-course dinner menus at $19, $29, or $39. To whet your appetite, we are sharing reviews of some favorite Restaurant Week destinations.

Carey Sweet
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