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Area Restaurants | Picnics | Reserve Table | Special Events | Wine Bar

Stevenswood an Extraordinary Delight

Reviewed by Jeff Cox

On several occasions on our trips to Mendocino and the North Coast, my wife and I stayed at the Glendeven Inn, a sweet little B&B on Route 1 in Little River.

Then, in the early 1990s, a new place called Stevenswood went in next door, and with it, an installation of large pieces of modern sculpture, some painted with bright, saturated colors, on the lawn that borders the highway.

That big, urban-style sculptures had been set amid the Victorian charm and natural beauty of the coast made me suspect that Stevenswood itself, shielded from the highway by trees, might be less than classy.

And so it was without much anticipation that we stopped in for dinner on a recent night.

Driving up to the front door didn’t reassure me. The main building was woodsy and inviting but no stylistic knockout.

Restaurant: Stevenswood, Route 1, Little River

When: Open for dinner at 15-minute seatings from 5:30 to 9 p.m. Thursday through Tuesday. Closed Wednesday.

Reservations: Absolutely. Call 937-2810

Price range: Very expensive, with entrees from $25 to $32

Wine list: 3 stars
Service: 4 stars
Ambiance: 5 stars
Food: 5 stars
Overall: 4 1/2 stars
(out of 5 stars)

The interior reception area was another matter, nicely appointed and comfortable. The host checked our reservation and showed us to our table in the dining room and — surprise! — a more tasteful, sophisticated, and yet naturally homey room I can’t imagine.

I first noticed large French doors, flanked by big bay windows, leading out to a garden.

Beautifully hewn exposed beams with finely-fitted tongue and groove boards between them darken the ceiling and focus the attention on the 14 tables, two by a gray banquette, three with small spotlights dimmed by blue shades hanging right over the tables. Small spotlights on the ceiling throw pools of illumination on the other tables. Soft white walls hung with elegant artworks also keep one’s attention at table level.

A rustic fireplace that night held a cheery real wood fire. An exceptionally well-crafted wooden mantle is decorated with hand-thrown pottery.

Real candles in artfully designed holders help with the soft lighting at each linen-covered table. Chairs at the tables are very comfortable, generously proportioned, and rattan-backed.

The floor appears hand-fashioned from oak boards. It was then that I realized the whole dining room was a work of handmade art, designed for pure visual pleasure, and given the extra pleasure of Louis Armstrong singing and playing in the background.

I go on at length here because the room is singularly well done and delightful to dine in.

The service was every bit as careful as the dйcor. We were given every attention we wished, and not one more. The staff brought a most welcome basket of Cafй Beaujolais’ Austrian sunflower bread, house-made crackers and focaccia, accompanied by small pots of hummus, garlic butter and pesto-laden olive oil, and worked with us on wine choices.

Forty-nine wines are listed by the fullness of their body, and eight are available by the glass. A pleasant, light, and perhaps a bit too youthful 1999 Pacific Star Viognier is $28 a bottle; a more substantial 1996 Chalk Hill Chardonnay is $55. Among reds, Ferrari-Carano’s 1996 Merlot stands out. It’s $42, and Merryvale’s 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon is a good choice at $38. If you want to go way over the top, the 1985 (great year) Chateau Pichon-Lalande is $240.

Chef Mark Dym’s cooking is nothing short of marvelous and his presentations elaborate, and even beautiful. But mostly, dinner at Stevenswood turned out to be a lot of elegant fun.

Gravlax tartare with sevruga caviar. $14

You’re brought a plate with a strictly-defined pyramid of raw, finely diced salmon, cured in Akavit, with the top quarter of the pyramid made of black Russian sevruga caviar. The pyramid sits on a bed of red onion strips, and it’s surrounded by oblong slices of cucumber in a mustard dill sauce and caper emulsion. The plate is decorated with three triangular microthin wafers. This appetizer was monumentally delicious.

Potato gateau with forest mushrooms. $12

Lightly crisped potato thins are interspersed, napoleon-style, with sauteed crimini, shiitake, and portabello mushrooms, and covered with a rich cognac-truffle demi-glace. As if this weren’t enough, also on this plate is satiny smooth and lovely “cured foie gras” so dreamy I had to ask how they prepared it. First, it was explained, they devein the liver, then press it between layers of cheesecloth, and cure it in kosher salt.

Bibb lettuce salad. $7

The bibb (butter) lettuce is the ruby-edged sort, seemingly plucked from the garden moments before, laden with crumbles of Maytag blue cheese for savory punch and candied walnuts for sugary crunch. It’s given a delicate grenache vinaigrette that’s a pretty addition to the greens, not sour but lively on the tongue. This is topped with three very thin slices of ripe red pears, and the salad is garnished with a chive stalk (blossom attached).

Wild mushroom consomme. $7

When restaurants say “wild mushrooms,” that usually means anything other than white button mushrooms, even if they’re commercially grown. This consomme is made from shiitake stems but contains a couple of whole morel mushrooms, which are indeed wild, and give the dark but clear soup the aroma of a pristine forest. Pheasant is ground, delicately seasoned, and stamped into ravioli, then slipped into the soup along with white truffle essence and snips of chives.

Osso buco of lamb. $28

The lamb shank was outstanding, tender and glazed with lamb demi-glace and pan juices, and the roasted root vegetables — shredded parsnip, red and yellow beet accompanying rosemary garlic bread pudding was less successful. The bread was dry and hard on the edges and the essential oils in the rosemary overwhelming, as the herb never had a chance to become integrated with the lamb.

Laquered Alaskan halibut. $26

Nothing beats Alaskan halibut when it’s this fresh, and Chef Dym retained its moisture by the clever tactic of covering the surface of the fish with a rich, dark brown, demi-glace-like lacquer. (I found Alaskan halibut in Santa Rosa a few days later and tried the lacquer trick before broiling, and it turned out perfect.) Also on the plate is a crisp cake of soba noodles with Asian vegetables, sliced shiitake mushrooms, all very savory, decorated with red and green tobiko and a pungent wasabi mayonnaise.

Prime dry-aged New York steak. $30

A gorgeous, big, inch-thick steak is grilled medium rare and coated with a roasted shallot au jus. Fried onion straws and scalloped layers of potatoes, plus an exceptional medley of lightly cooked snap peas, zucchini rounds, carrots, and asparagus tips split down the middle finish the plate.

Blood orange and raspberry napoleon. $7

The napoleon is constructed of almond filo pastry, and seems homemade, which filo dough seldom is, alternated with layers of Grand Marnier and raspberry creams, and topped with oven-dried blood orange slices and fresh raspberries, with dabs of crиme anglais around the outside. It tastes better than it sounds, especially when you hit the Grand Marnier cream along with a bite of the tender blood orange. We also tried a mango and ginger sorbet ($5) that was equally outrageous.

Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review column for On Q.

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