The best time to go to the Mendocino Coast? If you ask me, it’s right about now, when crab season is still humming along and you might as well sit inside on a cold, blustery day and watch the crashing waves over a hot bowl of chowder. BiteClub spent three days wandering the bluffs of southern Mendocino County between Little River and Fort Bragg, eating, drinking, and enjoying a little solitude between sea and sky. Though this list is far from comprehensive, here are some of my faves from this trip.
Best Clam Chowder and Crab Cakes: LITTLE RIVER INN
We all do it: visit the coast and eat clam chowder and crab cakes. And most of the time, let’s be honest, it’s a huge disappointment. Pasty bowls of rubbery clams and hard potatoes, crab-ish cakes made mostly of bread crumbs and egg. Even worse is when you know it’s been shipped in from some corporate kitchen hundreds of miles away. Little River Inn gets clam chowder right: a generous bowl of creamy broth, bits of Roundman bacon (see below), celery, onions, and clams still inside the shell. Best. Chowder. Ever.
Also a winner, literally, are their crab cakes; they’ve won the Mendocino crab cake cook-off several years in a row. The secret: lots of crème fraîche and sour cream, cornbread crumbs, and citrus zest. While you’re there, leave room for the olallieberry cobbler. 7751 California 1, Little River, 707-937-5942.
Best View: Mendocino Headlands
There’s no shortage of dramatic ocean vistas along the north coast, but some of my favorites are along the rugged coastline in the town of Mendocino. Be sure to bring a warm coat, hat, and gloves, then just park off Main Street and walk along any of the many trails along the bluffs. If you look closely, you may find a stairway down to a quiet cove, or a path through windswept trees to the edge of the world. On windy days, the Pacific booms in the caves below and ocean spray pelts your face. Just be careful, because this is unforgiving surf and one misstep can really ruin your day.
Best Local Seafood: WILD FISH
Hidden behind a small convenience store and gas station, Wild Fish is the best restaurant you’ve never heard of in Mendocino. Using carefully sourced local products, including seafood from nearby Noyo Harbor, nearly everything on the menu just sings out to be ordered. Chef Jackson Clark is behind one of the best restaurants on the coast, with a dinner menu that includes whole Dungeness crab, local sablefish, swordfish with hedgehog mushrooms, and roasted goose from nearby Salmon Creek Ranch. The lunch menu is also incredible, with tequila-lime fish tacos, crab mac and cheese, roasted mussels, and the Wild Louie salad. Prices can be a little steep, but the view and the impeccably prepared dishes are well worth it. The wine pairings are spot-on as well. With just 10 tiny tables, be sure to call ahead for a reservation. 7750 California 1, Little River, 707-937-3055.
Best Winery: NAVARRO VINEYARDS
The Sonoma Coast and nearby Anderson Valley are home to my favorite cool-climate whites and pinot noirs. And for everyday sipping, my absolute favorite bottles are from Navarro Vineyards, often hard to find outside of Mendocino County or their own Anderson Valley tasting room. We love seeing Navarro wines all over local menus; they’re well priced and pair so perfectly with the local seafood offerings. Their sister business, Pennyroyal Farms, offers up incredible goat’s milk cheeses that can also be found in restaurants and local grocers. If you find it, be sure to snap it up, because it won’t last. For kids (or non-drinkers), Navarro offers a line of nonalcoholic grape juices that are almost as good as the fermented stuff. 5601 Hwy 128, Philo.
Best Dessert: TRILLIUM CAFE AND INN
Snuggle up around a cozy fireplace at this combination inn and restaurant. Though the restaurant lost its chef a few months after opening last year, the sous has kept things running smoothly. Though we’re sad that the baked Alaska has disappeared off the menu. It’s just as well, however, because the owner’s homemade salted caramel and ganache tart more than compensated. 10390 Kasten St., Mendocino, 707-937-3200.
Best Buns to Wake Up To: GOODLIFE CAFE AND BAKERY
One of the best things about small towns like Mendocino is that everyone knows everyone else. Walk into GoodLife and you’ll overhear friends and neighbors catching up over the week’s news and a good cup of coffee. To boot, there’s an incredible array of freshly baked pastries, bagels, soups, salads, and daily specials like pumpkin curry. The morning bun, however, is a swirl of flour, butter, sugar, cinnamon, cardamom, and orange that’s best enjoyed with a spicy cup of chai. Cozy up at a window seat to get the best view of downtown’s small-town bustle. 10483 Lansing St., Mendocino, 707-937-0836.
Best Smoked Everything: ROUNDMAN’S SMOKEHOUSE AND BUTCHER SHOP
“We’ll smoke anything,” is the motto of this Fort Bragg meat shop, which upon entering, immediately infuses your soul with the sweet scent of smoke. They’ve got cases of housemade smoked sausages, cheeses, salmon, tuna, tilapia, hams, beef jerky, chicken, duck, lamb, and, well, you get the idea. They’ll smoke anything. The beef comes in from nearby H-Bench Ranch in Covelo. 412 N. Main St., Fort Bragg, 707-964-5438.
Word broke earlier this week that Thomas Keller is opening AD LIB, a “pop-up restaurant” at the Silverado Resort through early March while the French Laundry undergoes a renovation. The restaurant will operate Thursday through Monday evenings out of the resort’s Royal Oak Room from January 21st to March 2nd.
According to the website, the menu consists of “traditional, honest food.” The à la carte entrées range from $28-$55 and include classic Caesar salad and steak tartare, both prepared tableside, fruitwood-smoked kielbasa, Black Angus chop steak, root vegetable potpie, braised beef short rib “Wellington,” broiled Alaskan king crab legs, and a seven-layer coconut cake. Guests can also expect a hearty selection of daily specials influenced by The French Laundry culinary garden.
This is a collaborative effort from the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group’s chef de cuisine Devin Knell, and The French Laundry’s chef de cuisine David Breeden and sous chef Michael Wallace, who is also the chef de cuisine of the pop-up.
But here’s the rub. Unless you’ve got at least four people, you’re out of luck (and even then, you’ll have to call soon). Tables for two have already been snapped up for the duration of the pop-up. Details and more info online. 1600 Atlas Peak Road, Napa, 707-754-4148.
Andrew Wilson has been named the new chef at Charlie Palmer’s DRY CREEK KITCHEN in Healdsburg, replacing Dustin Valette. Wilson was most recently at the Carneros Bistro & Wine Bar in Sonoma. With Wilson at the helm, Palmer says he plans to create “an elevated dining experience at the Hotel Healdsburg restaurant with a new style of service, enhanced operations, and all-new menus.” We look forward to seeing what changes Wilson brings to the destination restaurant. Dry Creek Kitchen at the Hotel Healdsburg, 317 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg.
Milk bread, where have you been all my life? Found primarily in Asian bakeries, this Japanese-style bread (also called Hokkaido) makes a supple, sweet, heavenly loaf, with nary a sprout, seed, or whole grain in sight. Perfect for toast, sandwiches, or simply nibbling straight from the bag, fresh loaves are baked daily at the recently opened pan-Asian EAST WIND BAKERY. The loaves are about $5 each and are flecked with bits of Earl Grey tea, herbs, or cinnamon (as well as plain).
But that’s just the start of the inevitable caloric overload. This beautiful little bakery, owned by partners Doug Quick and Tony Tam, also features barbecue pork curried beef, red bean, and taro bao; kimchi- and Chinese sausage-stuffed croissants; garam masala-spiced sweet buns; Massaman beef and Thai chicken potpies; pork banh mi; and, well, you get the idea. Go with a sense of adventure and a hungry belly, and don’t miss out on the Sea Foam Coffee (made with a sweet-salty whipped cream and Asian spices) or boba tea. They’ve also got plenty of Western sweets (cupcakes, lemon tarts, etc.) that are equally delicious. 3851 Sebastopol Rd., Santa Rosa, 707-568-6081.