There are two routes to the Applewood Inn and Restaurant just outside Guerneville.
One speeds you along the Russian River, through small West County hamlets, dropping you — and everyone else riding your tail — into downtown Guerneville rather unceremoniously.
The other, along State Route 116, gently winds you through historic apple orchards, redwood groves and vineyards, and is designated as an official “scenic highway” of Sonoma County.
Applewood Chef Jamil Peden suggests you take the road less traveled. Because you’ll probably pass some of his ingredients along the way, setting the stage for a menu that is entirely inspired by the seasons and flavors of West County.
Built in 1922, the historic Applewood Inn isn’t new, but 38-year-old Peden is. Taking over the once-Michelin-starred restaurant in April 2015, he’s revamping everything from the staff and menu to the culinary gardens and dated interior to recapture a “uniquely Sonoma County experience”. Something, he feels, has been missing the last few years as chefs shuffled in and out.
“When Brian Gerritsen was chef 15 years ago I came [to Applewood] and it felt to right, so Sonoma County. I believe deep down I can recreate and make it that again,” said Peden, standing among lettuces, fennel and dill growing in the gardens outside the inn. Hens quietly cluck in the background while the wind rustles through apricot and apple trees in the nearby orchard.
“I want [Applewood] to be a destination experience again,” he added. Gerristen, who now works in San Francisco, is one of several outstanding young chefs showcased at the inn over the years, including David Frakes (now at Lynmar Winery ), Brian Anderson (Bistro 29) and Bruce Frieseke (Bella Vineyards). Frieseke captured a Michelin star in 2011, and again in 2012, but the restaurant has since lost it.
If any local chef is up for the challenge of recreating a Michelin-worthy restaurant that’s both rustic and ambitious in its culinary outlook, it’s Peden. Critics gushed over his luxe tasting plates at Petite Syrah (where he was chef de cuisine under chef-owner Josh Silvers) that included beets with panna cotta, horseradish, black leek ash and beet sprouts. At Woodfour he defied a simple burger and brats menu for upscale fish and chips, braised short ribs with carrot-miso puree or heirloom bean cassoulet with truffles. Memorable stuff, for certain.
But Peden has always needed a place to call his own, to really spread his culinary wings and fly. “I’m tired of bouncing around. I’m ready to slow down,” he said.
Plucking a handful of nasturtium leaves, he heads into the kitchen to fire a plate of rye gnocchi with dollops of sheep milk ricotta ($26), gingerly placing the green leaves around the plate. Next, he plates a ring of salmon crudo with horseradish, radish seed pods and pickled beets that puts an entirely new spin on Surf and Turf (tasting menu, $85).
“I’m opening with some solid dishes from my past,” he said of the crudo, which has been elevated from a similar dish at Woodfour. But he’s also working toward 100% West County sourcing, using area farms, ranches and fisheries to inspire new dishes. So don’t expect to see Maine lobster or even foie gras on his menus. “I just don’t want to. I don’t need to,” he said of these luxury ingredients. Instead, Peden serves duck liver mousse ($16, not using an enlarged duck liver) with rhubarb or local rock cod ($32) with sugar snap peas and purslane.
Other dishes from the menu that inspire: Grilled octopus with Meyer lemon curd, capers and potatoes ($18) that returned my tastebuds to the simple, fresh flavors of Italy’s Amalfi Coast; salmon with truffle lemon cream and celery leaf ($36 or on tasting menu); or perfectly cooked egg atop fried quinoa, avocado, favas and lacto-fermented carrots (tasting menu). Most dishes are available a la carte, but the $85 tasting menu is the best bet for really experiencing Peden’s creativity.
Calling his cuisine “Interpretive American”, he’s avoiding the ubiquitous California/Mediterranean cuisine that dominates much of Wine Country.
“I like to deliver something that just might take you a little off guard,” he said. “I want you to think ‘Why is that ingredient there?’ and then take a bite and think, ‘Oh! That’s why that’s there’,” he said.
As for regaining that elusive Michelin star that Applewood? “I’m not really going after it, but it would be a nice reward for hard work and being true to myself,” Peden said.
Applewood Inn, Restaurant and Spa: 13555 Hwy. 116, Guerneville, (707) 869-9093, applewoodinn.com. Open Wednesday through Sunday, 5:30 to 8:30p.m., reservations suggested.