Applewood Inn, Guerneville, CA (EATS)

August 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

Peanut butter semifreddo profiteroles = heaven on a plate

A friend was telling me the other day about how his great-aunt, a dainty Southern woman, always eats dessert first. After living more than seven decades, she feels she can do whatever the heck she wants. Amen, sister.

Too bad she lives in Tennessee and not in California. I’d love to take her to the Applewood Inn in Guerneville, a liberal outpost of 2,200 people in Sonoma wine country, whose “downtown” whizzes by before you realize you’ve arrived.

The peanut butter semifreddo profiteroles – creamy and cool peanut buttery goodness ensconced by airy puff pastry, presented atop an artful zig-zag of caramel and hot fudge sauces and crowned with a fluff of whipped cream and a mint sprig — are the best case I’ve come across recently for starting dinner with dessert. They’re certainly the primary reason why my husband and I limited our wine consumption in order to drive an hour, each way, along windy Route 116 from Sonoma to eat there.

But there are plenty of other reasons. Before I get to the food, which is typically what I care most about, let me tell you that the whole package is perfect for a romantic date with your sig o or a quiet dinner with your parents (or in-laws).

The restaurant is set within a small hotel around a bend on Route 116; if you’re not watching out for it, you’ll easily pass the salmon-colored sign quietly announcing the inn’s presence. You walk through small grounds planted with clusters of flowering trees and up a flight of stairs before entering a cozy dining room with a fireplace at the far end and a screened-in sun porch flanking the right side.

Service is deft and cheerful, in an understated sort of way. Jason, the server we’ve had every time we’ve been there, offers precise descriptions of the menu items when you ask him for help on what to order and will find out anything and everything about the provenance and preparation of your dish. (He also makes nutter butters from scratch at home, which to me is reason enough to like him.)

So, the food. It’s outstanding. The menu focuses on local ingredients, but in a matter-of-fact way that makes you feel that the proprietors simply believe that’s the best way to eat, rather than with a reverence of “branded” produce that you find in many San Francisco eateries. In point of fact, many of the herbs and veggies featured on the menu travel only a few yards, from the inn’s on-site garden to your table.

Another instance: my husband and I both enjoyed a Gravenstein apple salad to start. First planted in Sonoma in 1812 by Russian trappers, the Gravs became a major crop during World War I, supplying troops with dried fruit. In 1958, when the dried apple industry that set the Gravenstein on its way to success was just beginning to slow, there were 5,449 acres of Gravensteins in the county; last year there were 875. The drop occurred when cheap foreign juice imports and high wine grape prices caused many growers to go out of business or replace orchards with vineyards. Seven years ago, citizens went to their apple farmers to ask what they could do to help save the Gravenstein. The SlowFood Movement recognized the Grav as an endangered heritage food in 2003, and seven years later, 93 Bay Area restaurants have agreed to feature the apple on its menu and demand from consumers is up. (Click here for a great, brief overview of the project.)

Gravenstein apple salad

While I dearly love wine (especially wine produced in the Sebastapol-Guerneville area, as I last wrote about), I have to say I’m sad about the decline of the Gravenstein’s prominence but optimistic to see a resurgence…because the apples are tasty. The apples were crisp and slightly tart, complemented perfectly by crumbles of funky, savory roaring 40’s blue cheese. The apples came composed with sweet butter lettuce and table grapes, toasty walnuts and a smattering of chives. There was nothing trendy or unconventional in the salad, but the well-known flavor combination was fresh and perfectly executed.

The other reason we return – the rack of lamb – does offer a more unexpected taste sensation. The lamb is grass-fed, locally raised in Santa Rosa, crusted in cocoa nibs and roasted rare, served with mint chimichurri, fresh fava beans, bars of chorizo braised in sherry and mashed parsnips so naturally sweet you could eat them in a tart crust for dessert. You also get to eat it with a ginormous steak knife (yep, that’s it in the background).

Rack of lamb

The appetizer I ordered for my entrée, the steak tartare, was also on the more thought-provoking end of the spectrum. The steak is from cows that were also grass-fed and Santa Rosa-raised, ground in-house from fresh cuts of sirloin. The meat was served on a bed of blanched green onions, with basil oil and avocado aioli on the side. The revelation of the dish for me, though, was the cilantro flowers perched atop the tartare. They tasted like cilantro that had been concentrated to its essence. I was pumped to recognize what they were from having them in my garden and to discover an edible use for them.

Steak tartare with cilantro flowers

All in all, a perfect date.

Applewood Inn, 13555 Highway 116, Guerneville, CA. 707.869.9093. www.applewoodinn.com

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