I may have been living in San Francisco for the past 20 years, but there is a country mouse side to this city mouse. Back when I was in the middle of third grade, my family packed up our life in San Mateo to move to Gold Country. We landed in Mariposa, not far from Yosemite National Park, where my parents bought 69 acres; they planned to build our dream home on the land, with our family friend as the architect. My father manifested his dream of getting out of the burbs and opening a pizzeria and delicatessen. My mother worked as an R.N. at a nearby hospital, and still managed to cook all our meals, make our clothes (it was that or order clothes from the Sears catalog for delivery into the depot in town—they wouldn’t even deliver to your house), and she also learned how to kill rattlesnakes (thanks Mom, good save that one afternoon).
We were there for three years, and while it didn’t pan out—it ends up Mariposa wasn’t quite ready for spicy coppa and imported Italian wine—and we had to move back to the Peninsula, our time there made for a really sweet period in our lives, especially for me and my sis. We had dirt bikes, a huge yard, dogs and cats and a horse, and we got to run around and unleash our inner tomboys. I’m ever grateful for those years living in Gold Country, they were such a vivid part of my childhood.
Some years later, I remember my parents going back up to Yosemite for a big wedding anniversary dinner, and they dined at a very special place, ERNA’S ELDERBERRY HOUSE RESTAURANT. (It’s the kind of name that stays with you.) Flash forward to one evening at Gary Danko a few years ago, when a charming young lady from the staff and I put together that we both had connections to Gold Country—and look at that, her mother was the Erna of Erna’s Elderberry House Restaurant in Oakhurst.
And then let’s flash back to not too long ago, when I received a very kind invitation from the lovely Erna Kubin-Clanin to come experience a meal at Erna’s Elderberry House, and to stay at the CHÂTEAU DU SUREAU. I couldn’t believe it—of course I called my parents immediately since they have such a treasured memory of the restaurant (the château was not built yet when they dined there).
Now, for anyone who has ever been to Yosemite, you may remember passing through Oakhurst, which is full of antique stores, big chain drugstores, and plenty of fast food. So to say that there is one of the most exquisite properties I have ever visited in the United States, a château that felt like it was transported from Europe lock, stock, and barrel (including the staff) and dropped off in Oakhurst of all places, well, that’s kind of what happened.
Ms. Erna is the most divine hostess, born in Vienna, and as soon as you get a look at her, you’ll be enchanted. She is so stylish and chic, with her fabulous French glasses, svelte figure, and tasteful high heels. She has a soothing and charming voice, full of kind words and comments. Ms. Erna is the kind of host who can handle diplomats and country folk with equal ease.
As soon as you pass through the gates to the château, it seems incredible that you are actually in dusty Gold Country. The place is an oasis of beauty, full of flowers and gorgeous landscaping. While many guests travel from far and wide to dine at Erna’s Elderberry House, the 10-room Château du Sureau (opened in 1991) also has an impeccable reputation. Not only is it a Relais & Châteaux property (since 1993), but it has won many other awards as well, from being a five-star Forbes Travel Guide property for more than 18 years to its five diamonds from AAA since 1992. And here’s why: Erna has a deep love for beauty, hospitality, and the finer things in life, and it shows in every corner and square inch of the property.
The two nights my friend and I spent there were like a shot in the arm of European class and elegance. The château is filled with antiques Erna found abroad, with tapestries, artwork, and unique pieces everywhere, along with fresh flowers and orchids too. Fresh lemonade sits out for guests. Oh, and how can you not love the chambermaids flitting about the property with their white aprons? I felt like I was going back in time. The staff is incredibly gracious.
All the 10 rooms are different; our room (The Elderberry Room) had exposed beams and a canopy bed (complete with a feather duvet and silky ironed linens, oh you know it). The room was mercifully devoid of a TV, a fireplace taking its place. It was actually pretty challenging (in a charming way) to find a place to plug in my iPhone and iPad by the bed (it would be better to write a letter to a friend on the château’s stationery). The spacious bathroom came with French tiles, and a soaking tub that I wish I had made time to enjoy.
On arrival, we were greeted with an afternoon snack in our room (tea sandwiches of housemade ricotta, cucumber, and beet on housemade bread, plus a tasty little almond cake) and two glasses of sparkling wine. (That’ll do fine, why thank you.) When we made our way down to the pool for an afternoon dip, we were offered more pink bubbles to enjoy poolside. (Careful, Marcia, don’t get to used to this…)
When it was time for dinner, it was an easy stroll through the gardens to Erna’s Elderberry House Restaurant, which opened in 1984. It has a French country look, with a trio of rooms (the Escoffier, Point, and Paul Bocuse rooms) full of fabric and old-world charm, plus a garden terrace (if you sit near the windows, your view is framed with flowers).
Before Erna was overseeing all aspects of the property, she was the chef and managing owner (her husband René owns it with her)—she now has chef de cuisine Jonathon Perkins overseeing the kitchen. Her first restaurant was Scorpio’s in Westwood (Los Angeles), and she then became known in the Sierras in 1977, when she cooked at The Redwood Inn next to the Wawona Hotel for six years, offering a five-course meal of nouvelle and European cuisine. She was a trailblazer in the area for sure.
My guest and I enjoyed an elegant five-course meal ($108, $78 wine pairings), full of seasonal and well-prepared ingredients, along with a few modern techniques too (dessert featured some coconut “snow”). Our amuse was stunning: arctic char, pickled mustard seed, cucumber gelée, and trout roe, and a fragrant cauliflower soup had fascinating ribbons of flavor, with apricot chutney, curry oil, cilantro, and toasted almonds.
I also loved the old-world touch of serving the salad after the meat course, and the presentation was so inventive: the heirloom beet salad came with field greens with a thyme and lavender vinaigrette, and there was a scoop of a chèvre mousse with beet whipped in (it was the most gorgeous color), as well as Bull’s Blood beet purée and mulberries on the plate.
A few dishes had components that were a bit strong, like the Tahitian vanilla jus that dominated the milk-poached veal loin, but otherwise I could not believe I was having this elevated dining experience in Oakhurst of all places, and not some beautiful château in France. Pastry chef Kyle Waller’s dessert of milk chocolate panna cotta would fit right into most of San Francisco’s fine dining rooms. (They are many more photos here.)
You can see how much training the staff has had (it’s not like there’s a big pool of employees trained in fine dining service in the area), and we also had some excellent wine service and pairings (from Sinskey’s Abraxas to the Azelia “Bricco Fiasco” Barolo). It was one of those “somebody please pinch me” moments when we were able to walk back down the garden path after dinner and fall into our feather bed for a night of deep sleep. While the “full board” experience is part of the charm of staying in this fairy-tale place, you can also just come to Erna’s Elderberry House Restaurant for dinner—you don’t need to be a guest of the château.
They also host a three-day cooking school twice a year, and many themed meals, including the annual Evening in Vienna dinner, with music. I’d subscribe to the newsletter to keep up on the happenings (and special offers) in case you are mulling over taking a trip to Yosemite. (How long has it been? When was the last time you walked through a meadow? It was far too long for me.)
While it’s very hard to leave the kingdom for the day (trust), we got up early to make our way to the other kingdom: Yosemite. It’s a short drive to the South Gate from the château, and the staff kindly packed us a picnic lunch to enjoy in the park. We also had a fabulous breakfast on the terrace before we headed out for the day that we were going to need to hike off: freshly made croissants and brioche with housemade jam, marmalade, and thick pats of butter, plus a European-style platter of meats and cheeses, a ramekin of egg frittata topped with ratatouille, and excellent coffee.
Our day in Yosemite was pure magic—we were there in mid-May, so we had beautiful springlike weather and the falls were running. We spent the day walking the trails around the majestic valley floor, and since it was a Friday, we didn’t have to deal with a crush of humanity. We had our picnic lunch next to the Merced River, such a dreamy spot.
We ended our epic day with bubbles on the back terrace at the Ahwahnee Hotel and were invited to stay for dinner. Is there a more jaw-dropping dining room, with its 34-foot-high beamed ceiling and hulking granite pillars? Of course you end up thinking about The Shining half the time (Kubrick’s set designer mimicked many elements of the Ahwahnee for the Overlook Hotel).
We got a kick out of our jacketed server, who handled the huge pepper grinder with aplomb, and I’d say sticking with simpler classics is the move here, like roasted Brussels sprouts ($15). It’s all about the prime rib ($42-$48) with Yorkshire pudding; some of the other dishes were too much of a reach, like my friend’s lobster and coconut bisque. I can imagine the setting for Sunday brunch is fabulous.
I wouldn’t recommend the long drive back to the Château du Sureau after a late dinner like ours to many people—fortunately I love driving mountain roads and so does my Fiat. But it was definitely a haul in the darkness after such a big day. Again, that feather duvet was waiting for me at the end, a strong motivator to get back safely.
The next morning we enjoyed a more leisurely start, with breakfast on the terrace once again (hello, croissant, I was missing you), a last dip in the pool, and a walk around the grounds. A newer addition to the property is the Spa Sureau and the Villa Sureau, which we were lucky to get a peek at since they were in between guests.
Because Ms. Erna just doesn’t stop, she created this secluded and private manor house in 1999, full of turn-of-the-century antiques (her husband René helped restore many of the treasures), a marble tub, a baby grand piano, and two bedrooms in its spacious 2,000-square-foot footprint. It’s grand, daaahling, and for those who can afford a stay there (it’s $2,950 a night), it’s a very singular spot where you can effectively play out a manor-born fantasy. Just gorgeous.
A visit to the Château du Sureau and Erna’s Elderberry House Restaurant is a unique one, because its particular kind of luxury is so personal. Fortunately the elegant and visionary Ms. Erna wanted to create and share her world of cosmopolitan flair and grace—it so obviously (and thankfully) couldn’t be contained.
You can view my entire photo album of our weekend getaway here. Trust me, you want to look!