Thursday, December 17, 2009
The restaurant at Ventana Inn, Cielo, was destined to perish. After triumphing over the Basin Complex Fire, Cielo reopened for just one week when a kitchen fire destroyed the 34-year-old interior. It took a year and a half to rebuild what is now The Restaurant at Ventana. Good name. That’s what everyone called it anyway.
Arriving for a recent dinner, I expected to see that the design team had yielded to the impulse toward change, and was pleased to discover the space looks the same, only better. The natural wood warmth was retained and some cool was added: The bar flows into the dining room more organically, the former clean lines are more streamlined, and a wine room replaced a waiting area.
Wood poles support the soaring cedar ceiling, thousands of ends of lumber make up the floor, a long slab of redwood trunk forms the bar counter like a tree sliced lengthwise, lying on its back.
It was nice to see Carlene greeting guests as she has for many years, and veteran Paco, our server. He always brings joy and attentiveness and, on this occasion, focaccia by pastry chef Gina Scalla, creator of our killer dessert.
There’s no point in becoming too attached to the menu. Executive Chef Dory Ford, formerly of the Aquarium’s Portola Restaurant, rolls with the seasons and leaps onto whatever tasty tidbits surface from local food purveyors, whether it’s goat cheese, honey, tomatoes or beef. I salute Ford for his dedication to sustainable foods, and for long-term plans to expand the on-site garden plus add an orchard for extreme locavore ingredients. He even harvests his own sea salt from a secret beach.
The lunch and dinner menu prices fairly match the quality and portions. Unless you want a dinner entrée of vegetarian risotto for $26 with a Caesar salad for $9, most entrees cost $29 to $45, and most appetizers $11 to $15.
The “bar and lower terrace” menu is more affordable, with high caliber casual fare such as a burger made with local grass-fed beef or a trio of sliders (chicken, beef, and/or lobster). One night we made a bar run, consuming an apple and endive salad with roasted squash ($11), a burger with fries ($16), three sliders ($12), dessert ($10), two premium cocktails ($21), and cappuccino. With tax and tip, a $90 total. The bar menu is served 3pm to 5pm and 6pm to 9pm, but the kitchen will rally if you arrive hungry during their 6pm break. The inspired burger deserves an award.
Even at dinner, we chose to sit in the bar. The upholstered banquettes and padded leather chairs are both comfortable and beautiful, a fire blazed nearby (controlled, thankfully), and black granite tables are larger and more suitable for dining than typical cocktail tables.
A glass of 2008 Pelerin Roussanne, Santa Lucia Highlands ($12) went beautifully with an appetizer of Chestnut ravioli – handmade apple pasta, leeks, cranberries, sage and a Calvados sauce ($15). The sweet and savory autumn dish was balanced by the wine’s many personality traits and slow snazzy exit. I’m psyched by the balance of pear and vanilla and fleeting honey and flowers of this Roussanne blended with Chardonnay and Viognier. The wines on the short, carefully selected list of glasses are mostly from local and neighboring counties, and the 21-page list of bottles covers the globe.
I chose an entrée of Sonoma duck breast schnitzel with warm German potato salad, and Savoy cabbage ($32). Caraway seeds imparted a wonderful Eastern European flavor to the side of pearl onions, purple potatoes and fingerling potatoes. A touch of whole grain mustard, cabbage, and a breaded, pounded duck made for cozy Old World comfort food on a wintery night. Excellent.
My guest’s organic chicken breast was accompanied by pasta with black truffles hand-pressed into the dough for a more intense flavor than the usual powder-and-blend, or worse, truffle oil. Nice way to upgrade chicken, along with trumpet mushrooms and spinach ($29).
For dessert, the $10 price tag was easily justified in the chocolate trio. A rectangular dish framed the triptych: chocolate sea salt toffee chunks with caramel ice cream; a chocolate ganache-like “Marquise” with a saucy coconut sabayon; chocolate crème brulée with tiny citrus cardamom cookies. Accents like apricot, citrus and coconut kept their egos in check so that the choir could perform beautifully.
Tempting lunch menu examples include a sandwich of tarragon-marinated chicken, roasted pear, chevre, red onion marmalade, and wild arugula; and from the hot items, California sea bass with artichoke risotto and heirloom tomato stew. Main dishes cost $15 to $21. Most appetizers cost $8 to $16 and include sustainable seafood chowder and foraged mushroom strudel.
Ventana Inn has always epitomized poise. It feels as if the entire operation is sealed off from the world beyond, unconcerned with the flurry of trend-making and trend-following.
Reliable quality and an exemplary-yet-earthy dining experience are still the hallmarks of its restaurant. “You won’t find any architectural towers of food or rare ingredients from far-off corners of the Earth,” Ford says. “It’s rustic indulgence.” I’ll go with that.