By Amanda Yskamp
E ditor's note: First Bite is a new concept in restaurant writing. This is not a go-three-times, try-everything-on-the-menu report; rather, this is a quick snapshot of a single experience. We invite you to come along with our writers as they—informed, intelligent eaters like yourselves—have a simple meal at an area restaurant, just like you do.
When Monte Rio was a stop on the North Pacific Coast Railroad, the summertime population would swell to over 30,000, drawn by the dancehalls, the seven-story hotel cleverly built into the side of Starrett Hill, so that every floor was a ground floor, and the elaborate riverboat revels.
You can catch a whiff of old-time Monte Rio at the Highland Dell. Established in 1906, this hotel (gorgeous rooms, $99–$259) with bar and restaurant is redolent of a bygone era, but with some new twists. Owners Herb and Ingrid Loose have taken what was a cozy, rustic dining room and floated the roof up high, so that when we walked in one evening, all I could think of were trapezes and doves. The wall facing the river is all windows, with an amazing view of the bridge, the beach and the roiling, sinuous Russian River.
The rest of the place is beautifully appointed: creamy yellow walls, lots of mahogany and brass, lustrous leather chairs. All the scrappy elements of river culture—which, being a river denizen myself, I love, don't get me wrong—seemed far away, cast afloat on a rosy sea of the biggest dang cosmopolitan ($7.50) I have ever been served. The place has a pampering elegance that creates an ambiance equally appropriate for conversations about the symbolism of dreams, the history of the platform shoe or tawdry tales of office misalliances. On Friday evenings, diners can enjoy acoustic music by local guitarists.
Jude and I went on a Local's Night (Monday or Thursday) when a three-course prix fixe meal is priced at an astounding $9.95 in appreciation for local patronage. I appreciate the appreciation whether I order the local's meal or not, which, as it turns out, neither of us did. We went instead for the Schwabentopf ($17.95) both for the pleasure of saying its name, and because the Highland Dell is known for its German fare. This savory mound of pork, bacon, mushroom and onions on cheese-spaetzle (German for "little sparrow," and a little like fried macaroni and cheese) puts the comfort in the overused phrase, "comfort food."
Other traditional German dishes featured include JaŽgerschnitzel ($15.95) and Sauerbraten ($16.95). The catch of the day sounded interesting and tasted, well, interesting. I guess I should have known that seared sea scallops with vanilla lemon bean butter ($21.95) would be on the sweet side, but the scallops were also perfectly cooked and tender.
For punctuation, we chose the brandy chocolate mousse from among other sweet things, including an almond torte, bananas Foster, ice cream sundae and fresh fruit crisp (all $4.95). The mousse was all it promised to be, deeply, darkly, richly, creamily chocolatey with an expanding air of brandy. Oh, for the tongue of giraffe to get inside that parfait glass!
Herb and Ingrid made us feel very welcome indeed. It won't take a return to train service to draw both visiting and local patrons back to Monte Rio. The Highland Dell is a destination in itself.
Highland Dell Lodge, 21050 River Blvd., Monte Rio. Open for dinner Thursday–Tuesday. Brunch begins Sundays after Easter. 707.865.2300.
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