Albion River Inn – Northern California

By Shelley Pittman;
European Wines and California Cuisine
It’s the perfect marriage for this seaside village

Northern California is famous for its breathtaking scenery, undeveloped coastal drives, country bistros and eccentric art epicenters. San Francisco and Napa Valley are the bustling gateway to this part of California but take a three-hour drive north, and everything changes.

Relax into a meandering pace as you drive along the curvy rural road that takes you through mountain ranges, then past acres of vineyards and farmlands, before arriving at charming seaside villages rich with fishing and maritime heritage. Old fortresses, creaky wooden piers, sea-salt sprayed lighthouses, and redefined timber lodges still stand strong while they weather the test of time. It appears that not much has changed in the past hundred years or so, including the pace of life. Moreover, the locals like it this way.

Not unlike many parts of Portugal, Spain or New England, the earlier set-tlers presence, still to this day, shape the historic architectural style in the village of Mendocino. The backdrop for this cozy village are the towering canopies of gigantic redwoods trees, some being the oldest trees on earth, lacy fern lined canyon walls, lofty wooden water towers, sprawling rows of vineyards, and an ocean that is always lapping itself against crags of the rugged shoreline.

It may seem la bit odd to compare Mendocino County to parts of Europe. Much of Mendo still feels untamed, compared to the long-settled ‘Garden of Europe’, but there is an important cultural common thread: an appreciation of life, classical cuisine, and a love for superb wines. Dolce far niente!

Let’s take a culinary pilgrimage to one of California’s best-kept-secret lo-cated in the small seaside village of Albion, seven miles south of the town of Mendocino.

The Albion River Inn is perched high on a cliff side, overlooking the inlet where the Albion River meets the moody Pacific Ocean. Twenty-two well appointed New England-style suites and cottages are dotted along the rose and fresh pine scented garden paths that sauntering out over the 10 acres of headland bluffs. Open to dramatic views with easy chairs perched on private decks, the lodgings are luxuriously accessorized with huge king-size beds, bathtubs for two, cozy bathrobes and a wood burning fireplace for that romantic escape. While the soft drumming rhythm of the ocean relaxes one’s soul while you sleep, a full gourmet breakfast awaits you in the morning.

This romantic Inn’s waterfront location is not the only reason for it is popularity. In fact, the locals simply refer to it as, ARI. The hidden gem you will discover as you stroll along the moss-carpeted pathway is the Albion River Inn Restaurant.

The building was once a blacksmith shop, and then a Ford Model A car showroom. Owners Flurry Healy and Peter Wells in 1982 completed the last transformation. Using wood salvaged from the Girlie Mahoney ship-wreck to embrace the areas rich history and adorn their ambiance, the backdrop was set. Their ornate burnished bar casts an amber glow over the candlelit tables dressed in white linen, carefully crafted glassware and accented with a single delicate vase of wildflowers, which are arranged center floor. Original works of art from local artisans line the walls, while the brick embodied fireplace crackles through the night.

This is the stage where they weave their magic of the harmonious marriage of creative versions of classical cuisine, the finest libations, an atmosphere of lighthearted joy and one of the most incredible ocean views of the Pacific Ocean. ARI’s Restaurant is built on the philosophy that one should celebrate life and live it well.

This is known as the ARI experience, and it awaits you each evening.

Now meet the duo of Sommelier Mark Bowery, and James Beard Foundation Awarded Chef Steven Smith, These two remarkably talented men have been responsible for orchestrating the creative dance between food and wine at ARI for the past 20+ years.

Chef Steven Smith’s cuisine is heavily influenced by the surrounding deep blue waters and all its bounties. Together with locally raised grass fed beef, organic seasonal produce, harvested wild mushrooms and artisanal cheeses, they make the perfect canvas to which he completes the picture by applying his talents, knowledge, and training of classical French Culinary techniques.

Chef Steven then turns the reins over to his long time friend Mark, to complete the experience.

Mark Bowery’s taste in wine is just as distinctive and playful on your palate as their cuisine. He has crafted an extensive wine list, well over 500 labels from around the world and 135 of Scotland’s most refined single-malts for which he has received the Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence for 19 consecutive years. The finest of the worlds wine and spirits await you whether it is before, during or after your meal.

If you are envisioning what your dining experience might be, your selection could include any of the following offerings.

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Point Reyes Blue Cheese Salad
Crisp greens tossed with spicy walnuts, in a dried cherry, shallot & red wine vinaigrette, garnished with sliced Asian pears & crisp leeks.

Ginger Lime Prawns
Sweet jumbo shrimp marinated & basted on the grill with lime, ginger, garlic & soy, sauced with a tangy cilantro-lime butter & served with steamed coconut jasmine rice & caramelized beets.

Vacheron, Les Romains Vineyard, Sancerre, Loire Valley, France, 2012
Domaine Vacheron is one of the shining stars of the Loire Valley’s Sancerre appellation, and Les Romains is arguably its finest. The 60-year-old Sauvignon Blanc vines infuse layers of crisp pear, lemon zest, and citrus notes with a mineral-driven finish that displays the essence of this unique vineyard.

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Warm Spinach & Strawberry Salad
Rosa’s local organic spinach tossed with caramelized bacon, sweet red onions & strawberries in a sweet balsamic vinaigrette.

Bouillabaisse
Manila clams, Prince Edward Island mussels, fresh seafood, rock shrimp & bay scallops, in an aromatic saffron, tomato & fennel broth, with caramelized leeks, white wine & garlic, served with crostini & drizzled with fire-roasted red bell pepper rouille

Koutsoyannopoulos, Assyrtiko, Santorini, Greece, 2012
This compelling white wine is both complex and beguiling. The particular style of Santorini region produce wines that have been described as ‘Rich and Roasted.’ It is ripened green fig plumpness, and tight acidity is then followed by the sweetness of the fruit itself, before an ending that is smooth and long.

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Steamed Shellfish
Prince Edward Island mussels, Manila clams & tender rock shrimp with caramelized bacon, brandy & lemon, finished with a touch of cream & fresh basil.

Grilled Filet Mignon
Certified choice beef gratinéed with bacon & Bavarian Cambozola cheese, sauced with a mushroom, brandy & shallot demi-glace, served with garlic-mashed red potatoes, and sautéed seasonal vegetable medley.

Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, Pauillac, Bordeaux, France, 1990
Having developed beautifully with a quarter of a century in the bottle, this gem features enchanting aromas and flavors of red currant, black cherry, dried herbs, and violets. Elevated acidity adds energy and clarity to the long, smooth finish. Classic Pauillac.

Or perhaps:

Vega Cecilia, Unico, Ribera del Duero, Spain, 1962
In 2012, the Wine Advocate wrote: “The 1962 Vega Sicilia possesses quite astonishing purity on the nose with candied dark cherry fruit, eucalyptus, kirsch and a touch of cinnamon. This is what you might describe as a perfect bouquet. The palate is medium-bodied and is satin-like in texture. Youthful, vivacious and compelling, this is a profound wine that even after decades is surfeit with precocity. Undoubtedly, this must be one of the greatest Spanish wines to have graced this planet.”

Whichever direction your taste buds lead you to experience, every dish is a reflection of talent and devotion with a dash of love, and each wine glass will be home to a vintners masterpiece. For this seaside village restaurant, it’s a perfect marriage of European wines and California cuisine.

Bravo, Albion River Inn!

SHELLEY PITTMAN
www.a-toast-to-life.com