St. Orres in Gualala - a long report
I stayed here last weekend with 3 friends and had a lovely dinner at the restaurant. The dining room is quite special and inviting. If you go, reserve a table at a time that will enable you to dine from late afternoon through night -- the way light works in the room is a show all its own.
First, the complaints (so that the compliments can ensure I end this post on a bright note):
I know that when you're running a restaurant out in a fairly remote area, finding high quality service can be tough. So I kept that in mind when one of the staff, removing our plates from the first course, stacked them in the middle of the table and nearly knocked over several wine glasses before hoisting up the great stack of messy plates and carted them away, soiled forks and knives perilously teetering off the edges. And I tried to not be bothered by having missing utensils and an empty water glass for long stretches at a time.
I also cut our hostess some slack when she was reciting the specials. She turned monotone and robotic, but who could blame her -- there were at least ten specials to remember and it was clear that she memorized them verbatim.
The lengthy list of main course specials was repeated yet again by the waitress, who was actually quite a delight. She also shared with us an equally lengthy list of appetizer specials. She knew the items inside and out, which made me believe they offered them fairly often. So why not just print them on the menu? Or have a separate list to hand out to people whose short term memory isn't the greatest? I can't remember them all now, and guess what -- I couldn't remember them all then. A diner needs time to mull over so many choices. This was my biggest problem with the place (which is not such a big problem to have, I suppose).
But before I move on, let me just ask: why on earth would you start off a dining experience for your guests by confusing them? It really annoyed me. It's thoughtless, intimidating, alienating, and just plain old unnecessary.
Okay, I'm over it. On to the food.
The meal set up is a $40 prix fixe that includes a soup (your choice between hot or cold), a salad (no choice) and an entrée (pick one of the dozens on and off the menu). Any appetizers and desserts are an extra charge. It’s a very fair deal.
We started with the garlic flan appetizer, which was an additional charge and shared by all four of us. I can't imagine fewer than 3 people eating this, as it was quite rich. But delicious. Served with a demi glace and wild mushrooms, it was earthy and unique. The fresh rosemary bread they provided was fantastic on its own, even better for sopping up the sauce.
The soup came next: cold was a peach soup, hot was a roasted red bell pepper. The peach was a bit too sweet for my taste, but it did have a savory creamy finish that saved it from feeling like dessert. The person who ordered it could not stop raving about it. It also went exceptionally well with the fantastic Rochioli Sauvgingon Blanc (the wine list is well-edited, Sonoma and Mendocino-focused, and fairly priced for the most part).
The red bell pepper soup was more nuanced and complex than I assumed, and I liked it (even though I ordered it as the lesser of two evils…the problem with this type of prix fixe set up).
The salad was watermelon with arugula, goat cheese, and strawberry. It was ridiculously over-composed: Jenga-like sticks of bland watermelon stacked and pierced with a wooden skewer (one of my dining companions almost got his eye poked when the server put it down, as it was about 12 inches high). The cheese was so very wonderful, but there was way too little of it: about a dollop the size of a nickel. And of course, I can't remember what kind it was since it was not printed on anything. The arugula was the kind you'd buy in a bag at Safeway. Disappointing. The one strawberry was nice, but I noticed some at our table got a blackberry as well. Not a big deal, but why the difference?
The entrees were lovely and the proteins were - perfectly - cooked. The sturgeon, on a napoleon-like presentation of puff pastry and mashed potatoes, was a delicious piece of fish. The accompanying baby vegetables were cooked and composed perfectly. This is a side dish that can be overlooked, but the kitchen carefully combined just the right notes of slightly bitter turnip, sweet earthy baby carrot and asparagus, bright sweet corn kernels, and juicy summer squash.
The venison loin with huckleberry sauce came on a yam waffle: witty and charming. The textures, colors, flavors were unique and a pleasure to experience. And the venison was the best I've ever had. As for the Sonoma lamb chops, they were equally impressive. Perfectly cooked with a Dijon mustard crust. Not the most inventive dish, but who cares when it's this good?
We passed on desserts (too full), but the tables around us all indulged, and everything looked generously portioned and delectable.
The bill was about $380 for four people: 4 prix fixe $40 meals plus three bottles of nice wine and the additional garlic flan. I thought that was fair.
There's no question that I would come back here if ever in Point Arena, Elk, Gualala, Anchor Bay or environs. But I might want to bring a note pad or tape recorder. It's a minor (pretentious?) affectation they add to the experience that some might find "fancy". I didn't appreciate it, but I definitely appreciated the quality of preparations and the ability to have such a fine meal in such a lovely little spot in California.