The courtyard at night (1 of 4)
Stone Ember (2 of 4)
Quarters (3 of 4)
Customers at Baxter (4 of 4)
A lot has changed in the microscopic town of Philo since Jim Roberts opened his inn, The Madrones, three years ago. Prompted by financial woes of the recession, Roberts transformed the design center and office complex he'd owned for 25 years into a quiet four-room B&B. Now, it's an opportune point on the skinny ribbon of highway between 101 and the Pacific to lean over the iron railing of your hotel window and pretend you're a vintner overlooking his cache of Syrah in Provence. In the mornings, Roberts (let's just call him Jim), Jim delivers a continental breakfast to your door, Philo style—like a fresh-baked scone with hunks of strawberries poking out in little red triangles.
Jim has found no shortage of other ways to find new life for defunct cubicles: “I handed over my old project manager's office to a friend at Drew Family Cellars, and he turned it into our first tasting room.” Soon Bink Wines' tasting room followed, and two more opened this spring: Knez Winery and Signal Ridge. Add to those the splashy restaurant that just opened, Stone & Embers, and consider The Madrones a nexus of the holy trinity of travel: sleep, eat, and drink (play is optional). At Stone & Embers' helm is former Gary Danko and Bouchon patron, Patrick Meany. On a recent visit I was reminded about an old piece of wisdom a restaurant manager shared with me: You can tell if you're about to have a good meal by the quality of the bread served. I thought about that as I bit into Meany's slow-ferment country levain, which came in crusty quarter loaves and a ramekin of home-churned butter.
As it turns out, that restaurant manager was right, at least in this case: soon after the table was flooded with more Anderson Valley ingredients. From my seat I could see them shining through the smoke of the oak wood-fire oven, where nearly the entire menu is cooked. “Everything on the menu is inspired by some combination of fire and the local environment,” Meany says. Delicate roasted summer corn soup with blistered heirloom tomatoes that pop in your mouth with a sprinkle of piment d'espelette, and the spicy squash bucatini with mint served on wares from Heath Ceramics artfully showcase the local end of summer bounty. In true communal Mendo fashion, when I ask Meany where he gets his herbs, he responds with the names of his friends just up the road, not a store or even a roadside farm stand. “In SF, nearly all the chefs source their ingredients from the farmers' market, but up here, it's right in our backyard,” Meany says. Other produce—currently Asian pears, figs, and French filet beans, to name a few—comes from Jim's nearby property, Sugar Hill Farm, or the on-site garden.
Stay for enough courses, and you'll notice playful details like the chocolate pot de crème topped with a layer of emulsified almond that mimics sand from the nearby coast. Meany already has his sights set beyond an evolving nightly menu for down the line: Whole lamb and pig roasts, experimental clay pot cooking, a fermentation program, popup winemaker dinners, and expanding the garden. But for now, the intimate 40-seat al-fresco Mediterranean-style courtyard is the perfect spot for soaking up the last glimmers of summer.
Can't sit still? Should you feel the need to stray from this roadside oasis, across the street the bocce courts at Balo Vineyard is the kind of tasting room you intend to stop by for one tasting, and end up spending the whole day: Bocce courts added last year are lined with shaded picnic tables for their cheese platters and charcuterie plates a la Penny Royal Farm and Creminelli. And down the road the new micro tasting room at Baxter Winery is bringing a touch of midcentury modern glam to this bare woodsy region.
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