The lobster risotto at John Ash & Co. is delicious, the sweet seafood tumbled with creamy Italian carnaroli rice, leeks, lobster oil, and a touch of preserved lemon and Parmesan ($24 appetizer/$38 entrée). So are the short ribs, braised in sweet-sour brown sugar-balsamic glaze atop cheesy grits and roasted carrots and sunchokes ($35).
Yet one evening, I decided that a pepper Jack cheeseburger would really hit the spot. So I grabbed a seat in The Front Room Bar & Lounge at the John Ash entry, and scarfed a big, juicy BN Ranch grass-fed Angus model ($16) served with homemade zucchini pickles and a silver bucket of shoestring fries. My companion, meanwhile, went for the risotto.
That’s the flexible John Ash experience for you. You can eat in the handsome, main dining room with its vaulted wood ceiling, stone fireplace, colorful abstract paintings, and windows overlooking the gardens. Or, you can kick back in the dark wood trimmed Front Room, which also serves the full John Ash menu alongside its own options like grilled fish tacos ($14) and a pulled pork quesadilla ($14).
These days, however, there’s less difference between the two spaces. John Ash is still billed as fine dining, as it has been for the nearly four decades it’s held court at Santa Rosa’s Vintner’s Inn. Except now, the place has adopted a relaxed mood with more casual service.
It’s just one part of the evolution at Vintner’s Inn, built in 1983. Last fall, hotel owner Rhonda Carano opened a second eatery, River Vine Café, for daily breakfast and lunch. Then this fall, the 98-acre property unveiled a $17 million renovation and expansion, adding 34 new rooms and suites, and debuting Vi La Vita Spa with its own health-oriented small bites menu.
Glitches pop up here and there — the elegant eatery still presents white tablecloths, for example, but on one recent visit, mine needed ironing to release the thick fold lines. Too, a dress code posted on the Ash website requests jackets and collared shirts for gentlemen, but now, it’s not unusual to see guests wearing t-shirts and sweats, or — gasp — shorts.
The food, fortunately, remains a class act under the direction of executive chef Tom Schmidt. He’s been in this kitchen for a decade now, and has perfected his satisfying Cal-American staples. As always, local produce plays a starring role on the seasonal menus, such as autumn’s squash that’s roasted and made into a thick soup scattered with toasted pepitas and a drizzle of sweet pomegranate molasses ($10).
Wines are still a hallmark, too. The Sonoma County-heavy list (more than 275 wineries from this region alone) features boutique finds like a 130-case production 2016 Bennett Valley Flanagan Viognier, and a 215-case production 2017 Dry Creek Valley The Larsen Projekt Grenache Rosé.
I could fill up on the fluffy, moist corn muffins slathered in butter. And it’s cliché, perhaps, but I also like to start with Hog Island Sweetwater oysters, the shellfish clean and briny on ice alongside ramekins of slightly spicy cocktail sauce and mignonette ($20 a half dozen).
This is also nirvana for foie gras lovers, or even newbies who want to explore various presentations. A trio ($27) brings the rich liver pan seared, torchon cooked, and crackly sugar topped crème brulée style for spreading on toasted brioche. The nubbins are all the better for tangy accouterments of pickled apples and quince jam, plus a sprinkle of Pop Rocks that’s a whimsical way to cut the richness.
Still, my favorite starter ($15, or $25 for an entrée) is the humble chili relleno. As odd as the messy dish feels in an upscale venue, it’s been on the menu for forever, and the only problem I have with it is that it’s hard to share with tablemates. I want the whole thing for myself, coveting the mild, fire-roasted poblano that’s crisp-battered and fried to a lacy jacket. Cut into it, and gobs of cilantro-spiced pepper jack ooze; you eat it like a TV commercial with thick strings of cheese pulling from your fork. Mexican style rice, chunky guacamole, pico de gallo, crema and more cilantro round things out.
Fish is a successful choice here, thanks to the chef’s celebration of crispy skin. That skin makes an otherwise straightforward piece of salmon stand out on its bed of lentils, whole baby carrots and artichoke hearts ($38). I requested crispy skin for my roasted Pacific white sea bass, too ($38), and the salt and texture made a difference for the mild (OK, bland) fish. Sides were particularly good, too, with al dente herb spaetzle, spiced apple braised greens and parsley emulsion.
Anyone who thinks chicken is boring, meanwhile, should give this “brick” version a go ($26). The boneless Rocky breast is flattened down as it roasts in the skillet, so again, that important skin crisps golden and meat juices intensify. The bird is then cut into hearty chunks and arranged with charred leeks, pearl onions, cremini mushrooms, nicely fatty pork belly lardons, polenta croutons and just enough red wine chicken jus for flavor without sogginess.
At dessert, longtime pastry chef Casey Stone still impresses. The current lineup speaks of fall, including a light, nicely tangy pear cranberry crisp with housemade vanilla bean gelato and spicy cinnamon caramel sauce ($11). Brioche bread pudding, on the other hand, is heavy but pleasing, doctored with apple, currant, toffee sauce and rum raisin gelato ($12).
Here’s a tip, by the way. If John Ash is a special occasion spot well known by tourists, The Front Room is a local’s treasure. Happy hour is packed all week long for bites like two fish tacos for $6 and drink discounts. And on Sundays, that cheeseburger and fries goes for just $10.
Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.