From the moment you arrive at the bucolic Farmhouse Inn in tiny Forestville in the Russian River Valley, you know you will be in good hands.
After all, Charlotte most likely will be the first to greet you.
This is one friendly, adorable black cat you will want crossing your path. The inn’s resident pet, Charlotte, keeps pests in check on the property. But she’s also not above sneaking into your room to take a snooze.
And what rooms these are.
Eighteen rooms, cottages and suites ($345 to $745 a night) dot the property, whose centerpiece is a pale yellow 1873 restored farm house. The farmstead has been owned for the past decade by siblings, Catherine and Joe Bartolomei, whose family has farmed in Sonoma County for five generations. Recently, my husband and I were invited to be guests of the inn for an overnight stay that included dinner at the famed restaurant on the premises.
We stayed in an upstairs suite in the newly built barn at the back of the property. The suite definitely has a rustic vibe — but one attuned to Ralph Lauren. Bright, airy and chic, the suite featured a four-poster bed adorned with a pillow decorated with a black cat in homage to Charlotte, of course. A double-sided stone gas fireplace sat across from the bed and could be enjoyed from the other side outside on the deck, too. The bathroom featured a jetted tub, separate steam shower and radiant heat floors to toast your tootsies on chilly mornings.
At turn-down, fresh-baked chocolate-chip and oatmeal cookies are left by your bed.
The main house, where you check-in, has other amenities you won’t want to miss, including a help-yourself seasonal bath bar with homemade scrubs, salts and olive oil soaps for you to make bathing in your room a total spa-like experience.
There are also jars of trail mix and pretzel mix to help yourself to, as well as all the makings for s’mores (Valhrona chocolate, housemade marshmallows and gourmet graham crackers) to enjoy at the firepit on site.
We tried not to fill up too much on all the cookies and s’mores. After all, we had dinner to attend to. Steve Litke, chef of the Farmhouse Inn, who cooked at Maxwell’s Plum in San Francisco and Bistro Ralph in Healdsburg, spotlights local, seasonal produce in his cooking, much of which comes from the nearby family Bartolomei Ranch. Litke also avails himself of the figs, mulberries, blackberries, Meyer lemons, Key limes and oranges that grow on the Farmhouse Inn property.
The restaurant can accommodate only two seatings a night of 32 diners each. So do call for a reservation ahead of time if you plan on eating there.
The romantic dining room is bathed in a golden glow from large wooden chandeliers. A mural of people sharing convivial meals in various settings rings the top of the room to set the mood.
Choose from either a three-course dinner for $69 with wine pairings an extra $40; or a four-course dinner for $84 with wine pairings an additional $50. For every course, there are about five different selections to choose from.
The amuse that evening was a shot glass of heirloom tomato gazpacho, layered prettily with different colored variations on the refreshing soup.
The chef has a sure hand in technique and the confidence to let the food star on the plate, rather than overdoing it with extra frills that would be superfluous.
For my first course, the duo of local albacore brought a fennel-pollen, seared crusted loin alongside a tartare with a hit of jalapeno and citrus. It was a studied showcase for the meaty fish to shine in two different ways.
My husband opted for the fruitti de mare, a lovely tangle of local calamari, Gulf shrimp, and bay scallops in a bright yuzu vinaigrette with olives lending a buttery, salty punch.
My second course was one of the best renditions of octopus I’ve ever had. When octopus is not cooked properly, it can have the unpleasant texture of pencil erasers. But when it’s handled with skill, it’s sublime — with the mouth-feel of a tender scallop. Litke’s version was pure pleasure to eat. Mediterranean octopus was grilled, lending a smoky flavor. A chorizo vinaigrette added a touch of heat and richness.
My husband went with the Durham Ranch buffalo tartare with its big meaty flavor heightened by the sharpness of mustard and capers. A sunny-side-up quail egg, rather than a raw one, topped it. Alongside were crisp crostinis smeared with bone marrow butter for more meaty goodness.
My entree was the signature dish of “Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit.” It’s easy to see why this dish has become a favorite. It’s three different preparations of rabbit: an applewood smoked bacon-wrapped loin, a roasted rack (its tiny bones impossibly frenched clean), and a succulent leg confit. You’ll want to spoon up every last drop of the velvety, whole grain mustard cream sauce on the plate, too. If you are squeamish about rabbit or don’t think you’ll like it, this dish will make a convert out of you.
My husband’s porterhouse of veal was a straightforward dish done beautifully with a big hunk of tender, juicy meat accompanied by can’t-miss roasted garlic mashed potatoes.
For dessert, he chose the whimsical “Chocolate Popcorn,” which featured popcorn sorbet, caramelized banana slices, Valrhona chocolate cream and caramel corn so fresh you wish you could get it that way at the movie theater. It was as much fun as it sounds, too.
Taking advantage of the last of summer’s peaches, I went with the “Roasted Peach Melba.” A soft, tender semolina cake was crowned with Dry Creek peaches, Shone Farm raspberries, vanilla bean gelato and a rock candy tuille that looked like an artsy piece of broken glass.
Our server took the liberty of bringing us a Valrhona chocolate souffle, too. And really, who is going to turn down a souffle when it’s brought to the table, right? It was warm and airy as a cloud. Take your spoon and poke a hole in the top to pour in the accompanying bourbon creme anglaise — and prepare to sigh deeply.
If you stay overnight at the Farmhouse Inn, the good eats don’t end with dinner. Breakfast in the restaurant is included in the price of your stay.
A fresh fruit cup, along with a just-baked Morning Glory muffin are brought to you right after you sit down. There’s a choice of two entrees. The day we were there, it was a hearty, spicy huevos rancheros with chorizo and black beans or fluffy oatmeal pancakes topped with apples and walnuts, and served with applewood smoked bacon.
With that and plenty of strong coffee to fortify us for the road ahead, we waved good-bye to Charlotte, feeling like we’d really gotten away, even though we were only mere hours from home.
Another Visit to West Sonoma County: Tasting Wine and Food at Russian River Vineyards