The Dining Scene
In addition to growing wine grapes and making wine, residents of Mendocino and Lake counties maintain long histories of eating from the land, of raising their own meat, growing their own vegetables and fishing for their own seafood.
The Mendocino Coast thrives on freshly caught seafood, with inns and restaurants finding new ways to delight diners year round. In winter, Mendocino holds its annual Crab, Wine and Beer festival, during which top chefs in the area vie for “best crab cake” honors. Spring brings wild mushrooms, while in summer, the town of Fort Bragg on the coast hosts the world’s largest salmon barbecue.
The climate supports growing just about any type of fruit or vegetable. In particular Lake County remains a still-prolific region for crops that have sustained the county for decades, such as pears and walnuts. Here, as in Mendocino, the dishes people enjoy reflect the local agriculture and the Italian roots of so many forebears.
Though Lake County is sparse in restaurants compared to Mendocino—and certainly in comparison to its Napa and Sonoma neighbors to the south—there are a few destination spots worth seeking out.
The lovingly historic Tallman Hotel in Upper Lake is one of them, set in an 1895 building restored to its rightful grandeur over several years beginning in 2003.
It now serves as a romantic retreat and wonderful place for visitors and locals alike to gather, eat and drink within its on-site restaurant, the Blue Wing Saloon. With an emphasis on freshly picked produce, some of it grown around the hotel itself, and local wines, the Saloon offers both indoor and outdoor seating, beer on tap, fresh cocktails and live music.
“We love being able to use our local Shannon Ridge Ranch lamb for all menu items, and it pairs beautifully with our local wines,” says general manager Susan Mesick, who previously worked at nearby Six Sigma Winery. “The braised short ribs is a typical recipe, and the herb-crusted rack of lamb is one of my favorites.”
Tallman Hotel co-owner Bernie Butcher says when he first opened the Blue Wing he couldn’t find enough good local wines to serve so he made a bit of his own. Flash forward a couple of years and nowadays he has so many fine options from all around him he doesn’t need to do that anymore. The Saloon serves as a hangout for winemakers and growers to try each other’s wines.
Favorite Farm-to-Table Finds
GREEN BEANS: An abundant crop best dressed with a twist of lemon, garlic and olive oil and ideal with Lake County Sauvignon Blanc. Green bean season peaks in summer when area farmers’ markets feature everything from traditional to crunchy, mildly sweet Blue Lake green beans, a gourmet variety that originated in Lake County.
LAMB: Vintner and longtime grape grower Clay Shannon of Shannon Ridge and Vigilance Winery raises his own sheep, which graze and weed (best landscape artists on the planet) among the vines. The resulting grass-fed Shannon Ranch USDA lamb is among the best in the state and available through his wineries.
PEARS: The second-largest supplier of premium fresh pears in America, Lake County’s pickings are often called mountain pears because they grow in the county’s high elevation, though the variety is traditionally Bartlett. A massive pear festival takes place in Kelseyville every September.
Braised Lamb Shanks
Olive oil, to sauté
8 center-cut lamb shanks
1 cup flour, optional
2 onions, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
4 stalks celery, chopped
2 tablespoons garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon rosemary, chopped
1 tablespoon oregano, chopped
2 cups tomato purée
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 bottle red wine, preferably same or similar to dinner wine
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Heat a large skillet over medium heat, and add oil to coat the bottom. Toss the shanks in flour, if desired, and place in pan. Sear until golden, then turn. When both sides are browned, place in a deep roasting pan.
Top with vegetables, herbs, tomato purée, salt, pepper, wine and enough water to cover at least halfway up the lamb.
Cover with foil and bake in a preheated oven for 2 hours or until tender.
Serve over creamy polenta or your favorite starch. Serves 8.
Brassfield Estate Lake County Erution Proprietary Red Wine
Mustard and Herb Crusted Rack of Lamb
1 pair 8 bone lamb racks, frenched
2 cups red wine
4 cloves garlic, sliced
2 sprigs rosemary, plus 2 more, chopped
1 tablespoon thyme, chopped
1 tablespoon Italian parsley, chopped
2 shallots, minced
¼ to ⅓ cup whole grain mustard
Salt and pepper to taste
Extra virgin olive oil as needed
Lamb or beef stock, 1 pint
Cornstarch as needed
Combine red wine, garlic and 2 sprigs rosemary in a saucepan, reduce by half, let cool.
When cool, add lamb racks to marinade, let marinate 4 hours.
Remove lamb from marinade, reserve marinade, pat dry, season with salt and pepper and sear over medium high heat until browned. You will need to reposition the racks throughout the searing to assure browning on all sides.
In a bowl, combine the remaining rosemary, thyme, parsley, shallots, whole grain mustard, salt and pepper. Whisk in enough olive oil to make a loose but spreadable paste. With a pastry brush or pastry spatula, coat the entire lamb rack with the mixture, place on a baking pan and bake in a 350°F oven until desired doneness. Let rest 10 minutes before slicing into 2 bone chops.
For the sauce:
Place the stock and the reserved marinade in pot and reduce by half. Make a slurry with the cornstarch and enough cold water to loosen the cornstarch, mixing with your fingers to blend. Add cornstarch mixture to the simmering stock mix and stir until it thickens to an appealing consistency, season to taste. Reserve on low heat until needed.
Note: mint or any preferred herb can be steeped in the sauce; strain before use.
Obsidian Ridge Red Hills-Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon