Ambiance and company are part of most dining experiences -- and sometimes they are crucial elements. So is one’s hunger level. When you’re famished or thirsty, most things – even simple fare and ordinary wines -- taste pretty good.
On my President’s Day weekend fishing getaway, I had two memorable dining experiences – one at The Carter House in Eureka and the second on a riverboat.
Frankly, there aren’t many food and wine havens once you leave Healdsburg in Sonoma on Hwy. 101. It’s a long but beautiful drive winding through the spectacular redwood forests and past rushing rivers, with periodic glimpses of the Pacific Ocean in all its rugged glory.
The Carter House’s Restaurant 301 is a great dining spot with an elegant old hotel dining room and a sensational wine list. It has earned Wine Spectator's Grand Award in each of the past seven years, and it bills itself as the foremost dining spot between San Francisco and Seattle, which covers a lot of territory and leaves plenty of room for debate. But once you pass Cyrus in Healdsburg, put your money on 301. Does anyone know of other spots in between worthy of recommending?
I’ve known proprietor Mark Carter for years, since he’s a regular at the Wine Experience as an elite member of the fewer than 90 Grand Award-winning restaurants in the world. And for years he has graciously extended an invitation, as in, “Please come and visit me!”
Last weekend I made my second visit to The Carter House and had a great meal with Mark Carter and two terrific Napa Cabernets – a 2002 Harlan and a 2004 Colgin Herb Lamb Vineyard. Carter is such a wine lover that owning a great cellar wasn’t enough; he decided to start his own namesake label in 1998. It specializes in Napa Cabernet, with Nils Venge overseeing winemaking. Carter and Venge also bought a winery in Calistoga, called Calistoga Cellars, and renamed it Envy, producing a Sauvignon Blanc and soon a Cabernet from the surrounding vineyard.
While dinner at 301 was a white-tablecloth and fancy stemware experience, I then moved north to Gold Beach on the Oregon coast, where I stayed for two nights at the Tu Tu' Tun Lodge. Sitting right on the Rogue River, it's a classic mix of cabins and hunting lodge décor. I dined with friends in a cabin and enjoyed the casual outdoor setting.
My second memorable meal came aboard a chartered 30-foot aluminum jet boat. We were anchored in chilly waters in a tight canyon on the Rogue somewhere near the hamlet of Agness when our guide broke out his camping stove and began to prepare breakfast. I’d been up since 5:45 and was starving and just as startled to see our guide Terry Kennedy prepping his Coleman propane gas grill.
The temperature was cold at about 40 degrees, but comfortable. A swift moving river, towering trees and snow-capped mountains provided a stunning setting, and Terry’s pancakes were the best I’ve ever had – cooked to perfect crispness and soft in the middle. It turned out that the recipe was pretty simple, as you might expect – made from a package pancake mix and cooked in Crisco cooking oil.
We eagerly ate the flapjacks, but focused our attention on what turned out to be a banner day of steelhead fishing—we boated four steelies. Still, those of us on the boat remarked on Terry’s breakfast. I’ve never had a guide prepare a meal, much less cook on the river. Later, as we recounted the day’s highlights, we all agreed that the pancakes were the best we’d ever had, a perfect 100-point rating on that frosty morning on the river.