Story and Photos by Deborah Grossman.
Mendocino is 1.4 times larger than my home state of Delaware. This may explain why I am always awed by the grandeur of the geography and diversity of landscapes each time I visit Mendocino County. On this trip to the Mendocino coast with my spouse, we stayed in the tiny hamlet of Elk located on a bluff overlooking a driftwood strewn beach. We drove north past rock outcroppings known as sea stacks through Albion and Little River to explore the picturesque village of Mendocino.
My goals on this journey were simple: enjoy the seascapes, shop at unique stores, find good meals and learn more about Mendocino wine. Our travel plans to the coast included passing through the Anderson Valley wine region on scenic Highway 128. The valley is nestled among a series of forest-laden ridges. Given my heritage from the Mid-Atlantic flatlands of Delaware., we traversed the twists and turns of this alternate highway very carefully.
Anderson Valley wine region: William Anderson, the first White settler to the area is reported to have called the area “a garden of Eden.” Over time, the ideal grape growing conditions of the valley led to vineyard development and establishment of tasting rooms at 31 wineries. The Anderson Valley vintners hosts a White Wine Festival in February and a Pinot Noir Festival in May.
Domaine Anderson: The first stop was at Domaine Anderson in Philo on Highway 128. The vineyard, towering oak tree and picnic tables on the lawn set the bucolic and peaceful setting for the tasting room.
Inside, the ambiance is understated elegance. Given the working record player, club members receive their allocated wine and enjoy a dance party during the periodic Vinyl Pickup Event. When we saw the cheese and salami plate available to club members, we were tempted to join. The cool climate and ideal soils for growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir attracted Champagne Louis Roederer from France to launch sparkling house Roederer Estate in 1982. Wanting more vineyard land, they purchased the property for Domaine Anderson in 2011 and built a tasting room a few years later. The wines are made from organic grapes farmed with sustainable methods. The single vineyard Dach Chardonnay carried full body indicating the opportunity to age or drinking now while the Walraven vineyard Pinot Noir showed bright fruit and balanced fruit.
Lula Cellars: In 2010, Ken Avery retired from forensic accounting and fulfilled his dream of opening a winery. The micro-boutique winery, also in Philo, offers a rustic, relaxed ambiance. Set in an outdoor covered area, Lula Cellars tastings cost just $10. As the server shares the wines’ backstory, you can watch sheep graze in the vineyard a few hundred yards away, listen to bird songs and enjoy the beauty of tree laden hills.
The array of wines, distributed only in California, sold in the tasting room or online, is stunning. The Chardonnays are not overly oaked while the selection of Pinot Noir shows intense flavor with an overall balance of alcohol and earthy notes. Lula also crafts other wines such Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Elk, the town with two names: Our lodging, Elk Cove Inn, resides in a town with a unique history. Elk is 15 miles south of the village of Mendocino. The 200 residents call their home “Greenwood” but the post office officially labels the hamlet Elk. In the 1850s, the Greenwood family settled there and built a sawmill. One second-generation son built a new town elsewhere in Calif. and named it Greenwood. When the other brother requested a post office on the coast, he was surprised to learn a Greenwood post office already existed and reluctantly named the town Elk after the local elk herds.
The Elk Cove Inn is located on a bluff overlooking a cove with Gunderson Rock dominating the seascape. The inn has a private staircase to the mile-long Greenwood State Beach below. Our schedule and the winter rains precluded a walk along the beach.
The small Greenwood Museum is staffed by volunteers and was closed during our visit. The history of the area depicted in a mural, photos, books and artifacts is worth a visit. The two-block hamlet boasts one retail outlet, The Elk Store, which offers deli sandwiches, local organic jellies and jams.
Elk Cove Inn has 16 rooms including those in the refurbished mansion of the sawmill to four suites. We stayed in a spacious cliffside cottage room with cozy chairs and a fireplace. The roomy suites have a bar area, sitting area and large deck. Hospitality runs high at the Inn due in large part to innkeeper and co-owner Melissa Boon. With a welcoming smile and delightful laugh, Boon greeted us warmly and reminded us to fill out our breakfast requests. Her husband Victor Passalacqua is the chef of the inn’s acclaimed SIBO restaurant.
For our first night, we drove north to Mendocino village for dinner at Café Beaujolais. This stop was the only repeat element on this trip. We ate breakfast at Café Beaujolais during the 1990s when Margaret Fox was the chef-owner. The restaurant made headlines in former Gourmet magazine, and we enjoyed her famous waffles and blueberry cornmeal pancakes.
Café Beaujolais remains the iconic restaurant in Mendocino. We were not surprised to see a half-page “Brief History of Café Beaujolais” on the back of the menu of the small, two room eatery. Current chef-owner Julian Lopez has continued the fine work at the stove and mission of supporting local purveyors. The paintings displayed throughout the cafe features nature scenes, and portraits of workers such as oyster shuckers and farm hands.
When the server set down a breadbasket, we discovered Lopez’s baking prowess. His Austrian seed bread with fresh-baked aromas and an excellent texture of wheat, oat, barley and sesame seeds excels over any store bought seed bread.
The meal started with Vietnamese style dungeness crab cakes in coconut cream with Vietnamese herbs and Thai chiles. For mains, my husband chose large, succulent pan seared Hokkaido scallops with crispy cauliflower and pistachio browned butter. With proximity to the ocean, I ordered cioppino loaded with clams, scallops, prawns, Dungeness crab in tomato sauce with white wine. Dessert was a shareable, not-too-sweet apple and pear crisp.
The next morning the breakfast delivered to our room was remarkable. You can order whatever strikes your fancy on the menu, and I wanted to taste many things. Since I wasn’t driving, a sip or two of Champagne sounded delightful, too.
A breakfast highlight was the chef’s specialty brouillette, scrambled eggs with truffle oil, shallots and crème fraîche. I also liked the more humbly named “potato casserole” with cream cheese and herbs. My husband especially enjoyed the generous portion of avocado toast and house smoked salmon—not the standard thin slices but a thick piece of high-quality salmon lightly seasoned. When I told Melissa the chocolate mini-muffins were delicious, she popped two extra in our bread basket the next morning. After the substantial breakfast, we didn’t need to pick up deli food at The Elk Store. Since the Greenwood Museum was closed, we hurried on to a wellness class at the Stanford Inn by the Sea.
Stanford Inn by the Sea: Located across a short bridge over the Big River and only a half-mile from Mendocino village, the Stanford Inn calls itself an eco-resort. We met Jeff Stanford, the friendly, outgoing owner who has a strong interest in environmental preservation, organic farming and wellness.
The resort hosts a plethora of activities: Walks through the gardens, relaxation in the pool, attending nutrition classws, wellness or gardening classes, renting a bike, or catching an outrigger canoe for a trip down Big River, browsing the small bookstore with healthy living titles. Stanford and his wife Joan established the plant-based restaurant called Ravens at the resort which is open to the public for breakfast and dinner by reservation.
While in the area, I attended a Breathwork class. with Wellness Director Sid Garza-Hillman. The director impressed me with his knowledgeable of deep breathing techniques that integrated forms functional breathing to increase oxygen intake and improve overall health.
Exploring Mendocino Village: Relaxed after the class, we wandered around Mendocino. First stop was the Next Door Lounge, owned by Café Beaujolais and literally next door. The lounge is a combination restaurant, waiting room, bar-coffeehouse, and bakery shop. We bought a loaf of Austrian seed bread to take home. There are many stores, boutiques and a bookstore in Mendocino. We chose to wander along Main Street, a key shopping lane by the sea. We walked into the back entrance of Compass Rose American Crafts set back from Main Street. Located near the town’s historic water tower, Compass Rose features many American crafts from artwork to pottery and stationery. But the draw here was the plethora of handcrafted leather goods. My husband couldn’t resist buying a distinctive watch band at a reasonable price. Nearby on Main Street, Astoria Home Décor and Gifts stocks many locally handmade keepsakes and souvenirs such as wooden replicas of the water tower. and accent décor. I was attracted to the Mendocino-made wooden charcuterie and cutting boards and well-curated children’s section.
Trillium Café: Located a short block off the ocean, Trillium Café is housed in a picket-fenced cottage with a spacious, plant-filled patio, and two guest rooms in an adjoining building. On the windy day we visited, we sat inside in the cozy art-filled back room. The homey front room sported a fireplace and deep sea-hued artwork. Chef Roberto Tamayo knows how to maximize seafood flavor and add creative touches to each dish. We enjoyed Dungeness crab cakes with capers and a tangy house made Meyer lemon marmalade. Our knowledgeable server recommended Drew Valenti Ranch viognier which paired well. The bacon, lettuce, tomato and avocado sandwich with grilled wild Gulf shrimp with a blend of textures and flavors on local sourdough was a grade above the average BLT. Though we gravitated to fish, our server advised that the short ribs and fettuccine with duck confit at dinner were popular.
Our kind server offered us a dessert sampler. The toasted chocolate babka with toffee chips and lemon curd tart were delicious. But the candy cap crème brûlée topped with maple glazed apples was spectacular. Candy cap mushrooms were dried, powdered and then infused into the cream. After lunch, we window shopped at several other boutiques and jewelry stores. The view of Mendocino Bay along Main St. prompted us to pause and admire the beauty of nature where the Big River meets the Pacific Ocean.
Meyer Family Cellars: Heading toward the tip of Main Street, we enjoyed a tasting at Meyer Family Cellars. Since we had to detour above Yorkville on Route 128 where the production winery and main tasting room are located, we tasted at Meyer, the only winery tasting room in the village.The décor is sleek and modern with a rotating art gallery on one side. Meyer family photos grace the other walls.
Justin Meyer gained fame as the winemaker for renowned Silver Oak Cellars of highly rewarded Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa. In 1999, Meyer bought land in the southern part of Anderson Valley in Yorkville and established his own winery. Second generation Matt Meyer and his Australian winemaker wife Karen Edwards now own the winery.
The Yorkville tastings are held in a large wood barn structure with nearby bocce ball courts and shaded picnic area: we were pleased with the sleek décor of the village location. I was enchanted with the Meyer Sauvignon Blanc with medium body and pineapple notes and envisioned accompanying it with grilled shrimp. Among the several Cabernet Sauvignon offerings, I liked the smooth Meyer Bonny’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. The final taste was a Port-style wine. Given that the Chocolate Haus shop is next door, pairings for the Port-style wine are easily accessible.
Back to the Elk Cove Inn, we explored the property. These days elk sightings are rare, but we spotted deer on our meanderings. Among the innkeeper’s own menagerie are chickens, rabbits and goats. Landscape amenities too were many. A gazebo area welcomes ceremonials and their guests as does the natural amphitheater below. Scattered around the gardens, locally carved wooden benches beckon visitor to take in the views.
SIBO restaurant at Elk Cove Inn: With a unique name, SIBO dinner restaurant offers a memorable Mendocino food and drink experience for guests and the public. The name SIBO is a takeoff on ‘Zebo, the restaurant of the previous owners of the inn. “Zebo was an abbreviation of gazebo, a prominent feature here. Yet, added proprietor Boon, “SIBO is also a sound-alike version of the French phrase, “si beau” which means so beautiful.” The view alone is worth a dinner visit.
Chef Passsalacqua requests guests to order dinner selections in advance to enable a sustainable supply of the freshest ingredients and to avoid wasting food. Choosing our four-course meal was challenging. I began with an outstanding onion soup. The richness came from slow-cooked onions reduced in a concentrated way without flour. The beet salad included beets from the chef’s garden that he pickles in-house; the goat cheese is from an Anderson Valley producer.
A former wine salesperson, Innkeeper and sommelier Boon’s recommendations throughout our meal were excellent with Husch Anderson Valley wines for the first courses. We shared a generous and delicious portion of locally harvested mushrooms sautéed with garlic. I took advantage of the chef’s French cuisine expertise with imported escargots à la Bourguignonne, a rarity on menus.
For the main course, I chose another specialty item, râble de lapin. The saddle of rabbit, deboned and braised with prunes, Cognac, and wines, was savory and succulent. With the rabbit, I sampled a Pinot Noir from Wentworth wines located nearby on Mendocino Ridge. My husband enjoyed his vegetable curry and kindly shared the crispy papadum and well-seasoned chickpea salad. For dessert, we shared a large portion of apple galette along with lemon curd cake.
The next morning, we didn’t want to leave our room. We had become attached to the ocean. But it was time for the windy drive through the forest-laden hills back down to reality. From botanical gardens to historic sites, there is much more to explore on the Mendocino Coast. We shall return for more adventures and scenic wonders.
IF YOU GO LINKS: The Mendocino County Tourism Site; Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens; Mendocino Art Center; Domaine Anderson ; Anderson Valley vintners ; Lula Cellars ; Elk Cove Inn ; Greenwood State Beach ; Café Beaujolais ; Stanford Inn ; Compass Rose American Crafts ; Astoria Home Décor and Gifts ; Trillium Café ; Meyer Family Cellars; and for a more on the the Mendocino Village area see “Indulge in a Getaway to Mendocino County.” by Lee Daley and ” On the Mendocino Coast, a Frolic on the Rocks ” by John Sundsmo.
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