Strips of seaweed dangle like party streamers high above the industrial burners in Chef Ben Spiegel’s Guerneville kitchen. Foraged that morning in the cold coastal waters of Northern California, the green leaves have been dried to inky black by ambient heat from the stove. On the kitchen counters are dried sea beans, and beneath his knife, an entire Marin halibut that looks as if it has just jumped out of the water.
This is Revival Restaurant, the restaurant Spiegel and restaurant visionary Crista Luedtke hope will be just that, a new chapter in the life of a once-great Guerneville restaurant.
A love letter to the fish, fowl and fields of West County, Revival has the potential to redefine farm-to-table and sea-to-table dining in a very real way, not only by serving the food from this unique part of Sonoma County but by weaving a story into every bite.
Revival Restaurant: Rising from the ashes
After nearly a year of neglect, the restaurant at Applewood Inn was in need of a makeover. The carefully planted gardens had gone to seed after the sale of the property, and the kitchen had been abandoned since the former management abruptly closed, just eight months after opening it.
“This place just had so much potential,” said Luedtke, who was tapped to manage the restaurant by the inn’s new owner, Ric Pielstick of EpiSoul hospitality group. As owner of the popular Boon Hotel, Boon Eat + Drink, El Barrio and Big Bottom Market, all in Guerneville, the 43-year-old has transformed the face of this historic river logging town, bringing a new cache and destination-worthiness.
Like her other projects, Luedtke saw the potential to bring new life to a Guerneville treasure.
“I couldn’t say no. I’m just so in love with what’s happening here,” said Luedtke, who serves as Revival’s business manager, chef, designer and bartender.
The urgent need for a chef who shared her passion led her to Spiegel, who moved to Sebastopol in 2014 after stints in Scandinavia and at Washington’s Lummi Island Inn and the highly acclaimed NYC restaurant, Skal. Looking for a life change, the east coast native found a calling in coastal cuisine, learning to forage, preserve and seek out micro-regional products for his menu. Products like seaweed.
“It’s a narrative about what’s being harvested,” said Spiegel, with quiet intensity and an infectious earnestness. “We wouldn’t have seaweed on the menu in the Midwest,” he said. “There’s just a moral responsibility here at Revival. It’s a decadence based on the origin of the products.”
If that all sounds a bit highfalutin, it’s understandable. Too many bad restaurants have tried to co-opt the ideals of showcasing pristine local products, and too many snooty chefs have ostracized locals who want a great meal on a Wednesday night that won’t set them back a week’s wages.
But Spiegel and Luedtke are trying to carefully walk a line that offers many dishes under $15 (entrées are $22 and up), a forthcoming locals’ night and a bar menu. This is their backyard, after all, and Luedtke knows that locals are a key clientele. She and Spiegel also are creating food that’s profound, delicious and unique, with a focus on the craft, quality ingredients and hours of painstaking handwork in the kitchen.
“We reprint the menu daily, because some small nuance has changed,” said Luedtke. “But really, we’re just trying to make delicious food.”
And that’s what will make Revival worth making a pilgrimage.
Time to make the caviar
Three prep cooks with black plastic gloves carefully harvest salmon roe from tongue-like skeins of eggs. It’s ridiculously painstaking work using a fine mesh, salted water and the patience to tease out a few ounces of caviar. The brilliant orange eggs will be part of tonight’s menu, topping raw beef from Napa’s Five Dot Ranch, served with smoked tomato and cheese-cured egg yolks ($18).
Meanwhile, another prep cook eviscerates finger-length anchovies with a quick pinch and twist, their silver scales flashing in the light. Typically used as bait, these plentiful fish will get a more heroic memorial at Revival. They will be fried, tossed with slices of citrus and served with a gribiche (or cold mayonnaise-style sauce) made with seaweed, pickled plums and eggs that Spiegel calls “greenbiche.” The surprisingly mild and tender fried fish is as approachable as a puppy and much easier to dunk in the savory green sauce.
Revival isn’t just about seafood, however. There’s plenty on the menu that showcases the farmers and ranchers of the region. At the moment, slices of perfectly ripe heirloom Ha’ogen melon are paired with plentiful lemon cucumbers, mint and a bit of whey, as in “curds and whey,’ the watery by-product of cheesemaking that adds just a hint of creaminess. It’s summer in a bowl ($6).
Smoked duck or a simple flat iron steak, served off-center on a white plate, are both luxurious and simple ($29), not overcomplicated with heavy sauces or sides, just simple spigarello broccoli leaves.
As delicious as they are, each ingredient has been carefully curated as part of the story that Spiegel and Luedtke want to tell about West County.
The story of food
For all the hipster jokes about precious pickle pedigrees and heirloom hamburgers, there are those who truly care about how that beautiful piece of radish actually got on their plate.
“Food has to tell the story,” said Luedtke. “So much goes in to it, and that gets lost if we don’t tell it.”
That means hearing about the restaurant garden, which is filled with edible flowers, greens and fruit trees. Or the laying hens, the herb garden just outside the door, the cultured cream in your panna cotta, or the farmer who brought in Gravenstein apples this morning.
Spiegel frequently walks through the dining room, sharing insightful tidbits about the aspic used in the halibut crudo (made with bones that would otherwise be thrown away), or why most things on the menu include something fermented, a skill he learned in Scandinavia’s limited growing seasons.
“We have no attachment to the ingredients. When it’s done (for the season), it’s done,” he said. “Except broccoli, and that never goes away.
“This (menu) is a narrative about what’s being harvested and knowing where food comes from. Chefs can change tastes, and as we move from a protein diet to using more produce from around us, it’s so much more sustainable,” he added. “We’re trying to contextualize the food based on what’s around us.”
Most important, though, the food has to taste good. “I’m very particular, and this food feeds my soul,” Luedtke said, eating a bowl of seascape strawberry sorbet with fig leaf vinaigrette, parsley oil and Genoise cake. “I just love to eat food that’s so beautifully done, so simply prepared, and from right here,” she said.
Revival at the Applewood Inn, 13555 Highway 116, Guerneville, (707) 869-9093, eatatrevival.com. It’s open for dinner at 5:30 p.m. Thursday through Monday, closed Tuesday and Wednesday.