For years, Russian River Vineyards was like a blind date with amazing potential and a great personality who shows up wearing stonewashed jeans and a Members Only jacket. You didn’t really want a second date, but hey, maybe we could be friends?
Recently renovated, Russian River Vineyards has become hot-list worthy. It’s revitalized tasting lounge, in the shadows of a historic hop kiln, new chef, and updated dining patio is an entirely new experience at this oft-overlooked restaurant, winery, and farm.
Though there are still rough edges around the property, the imperfections somehow add to the authentic Sonoma County experience. A blue-haired singer belts out pop tunes on an acoustic guitar as visitors meander around the outdoor lounge, snagging picnic tables for plates of charcuterie and sips of the winery’s pinot noir. The restaurant’s outdoor patio shares the other half of the backyard space, making for a lively if sometimes slightly noisy dining experience. We can’t complain too much, however, since on a warm summer evening the space feels like a convivial beer garden rather than a stuffy restaurant.
The winery and restaurant (previously named Corks), filed for bankruptcy in 2011 after acquiring the property in 2008. Over the last six years, several chefs have come and gone as the property slowly underwent improvements.
What makes Russian River Vineyards and Farm so special, however, is the food.
The 1.25-acre farm just behind the hop kiln is the foundation of Chef Ben Davies’ menu, a gold mine just feet from his kitchen. Farmer Kayta Brady has worked several acres of the property, providing edible flowers, fruit and produce from tomatoes and green beans to lettuces and ground cherries. Davies mixes up the menu with the most recent harvest.
During such a bountiful season, that means melons, tomatoes, fresh amaranth greens and Sonoma County’s favorite pepper, the Jimmy Nardello. In the kitchen only about four months since his departure from the now-shuttered County Bench, Davies has assembled a solid team focused on technique and presentation of local products, including truly sustainable seafood like San Francisco Bay Halibut. Though we’ve long admired Davies’ passion for local food, he seems to be stretching his wings with this unique opportunity.
Prices range from $6 for a plate of compressed melon or $10 for halibut rillette to a $26 to $36 for main entrees. Suffice it to say if you’re not passionate about the where and why of what’s on your plate, this may not be a good fit. (The restaurant is open for lunch and brunch, along with the tasting lounge for more thrifty eats).
Sitting with Hawaiian-shirted co-owner Chris O’Neill, sharing a bottle of his 2014 Horseridge Vineyard pinot noir, he says he’s optimistic about this next phase for the property as well as continued renovations. With the taste of still-warm tomatoes and beans from the farm still on our palates, we can only hope that the Davies and his team remain a signature part of Russian River Vineyards. Because suddenly, this blind date has become the very dateable Sonoma County destination it’s always had the potential to be.
Here are some best bets:
– Roasted Heirloom Beets, $15: The prettiest dish of our summer. Sweet, earthy beets in brilliant ruby and gold get even more grounded with smoky creme fraiche (why did we never think of this?). Golden beet puree seems like an afterthought, especially when poured a bit clumsily on the jewel box of a plate. Otherwise, perfect.
– Warm Burrata, $16: I’ve never met a burrata I didn’t like, and this is no exception. Served with Nightingale bread and summer tomatoes, it’s enlightened.
– Seared Octopus, $17: Perfectly cooked, these tiny tentacles work well with the intense flavor of compressed melon, lemon cucumber and baby basil leaves.
– Halibut Rillette, $10: These adorable potted rillettes are almost impossible to put down. Mixed with creamy caper onion aioli, it’s a decadent spread atop house made herb crackers. A seal of clarified butter between you and the rillette can be a bit confusing—just remove it with a knife and spread it on crackers when it softens.
– Grilled Akaushi Coulotte, $36: Yeah, we had no idea what that was either. Akaushi is a breed of Japanese wagyu now raised in America. It’s prime, it’s expensive, it’s like butter when properly cooked. Coulotte is a very tender cut of sirloin. The pool of blue cheese mousseline underneath doesn’t overpower this tender steak, simply adding an umami note. Charred Jimmy Nardello peppers add just the right amount of sweet and bitter to the mix.
– San Francisco Bay Halibut, $32: We all want to eat sustainably, but seafood is one of the worst offenders in the food chain. Even for chefs, knowing the backstory on where their seafood has been caught, and how, is something of a mystery. San Francisco Bay Halibut is caught, well, here and is a highly sustainable fish. It’s also a delicious white fish that’s seared, served atop beans, roasted cherry tomatoes, and eggplant. Roasted corn broth is the essence of summer, with coriander vinegar to sass up the whole dish.
– Dessert: Leave room is all we can say. Talented pastry chef Victoria Madrigal has come with Davies from County Bench, where her sexy desserts were always a show-stopper.
Overall: A stunning organic farm is the foundation of this truly farm-to-table restaurant. With Davies at the helm and a talented kitchen staff, Russian River Vineyards has become a Forestville dining destination instead of a Hwy. 116 drive-by.
Russian River Vineyards is located at 5700 CA-116, Forestville, 707-887-3344, russianrivervineyards.com.
Heather Irwin is the fork behind the long-running weekly dining column, BiteClub. She pays for all meals unless otherwise indicated.