ELK, CA — A good three hours drive north from San Francisco through winding roads of vineyards and redwoods, this place is definitely off the beaten path. But it is making quite the splash.
Built in 1916, Harbor House Inn reopened this spring with decidedly new life. New owners bought the 9-room inn in 2005, and have spent the past few years not only meticulously restoring but improving it — most notably, with the restaurant.
They doubled the size of the restaurant kitchen and managed to lure an incredible team to oversee it: Executive Chef Matthew Kammerer, former executive sous chef at Michelin three-starred Saison in San Francisco. Husband-and-wife, Sous Chef David Hopps, formerly of Saison, and Pastry Chef Elise Hopps, previously of Craftsman & Wolves in San Francisco. Chef de Partie Holden Tal from Michelin two-starred Commis in Oakland. And sommelier Corrina Straus, a veteran of both La Folie in San Francisco and Michelin three-starred Manresa in Los Gatos. Amanda Nemec, former program manager for media operations at Facebook and Kammerer’s partner, is the inn’s general manager.
A few weeks before it opened to the public, I was invited to be a guest to come check it all out. (Full disclosure: I was hired to write some of the inn’s marketing materials.)
The Mendocino Coast town of Ellk has all of 200 people, and this inn, situated on a bluff right over the ocean, really does make you feel a bit like you’re in the middle of nowhere. There’s little else directly around it, save for a herd of shaggy-haired Highland cattle across the road.
But that’s not a knock, especially if you crave a peaceful getaway from everything.
There’s even a private beach, reached by a set of steep staircases that the owners added. You’ll pass a waterfall on your descent. When you get to the sandy beach, you’ll be rewarded with a most magnificent view of Wharf Rock with its distinctive archway.
The property was originally built by Goodyear Redwood Company. As such, the rich warmth of redwood is prominent in the main house, including the 25-seat dining room, which has massive windows that overlook the ocean.
It’s almost a shame that Michelin inspectors don’t venture this far north for the Bay Area guide because the food coming out of the kitchen is just that good.
Kammerer offers a $150 tasting menu, composed of 8 to 10 courses. He aims to cook from the land and the sea here, and he truly means it. He and his kitchen team built raised beds on the property to grow berries, greens and herbs. He hauls seawater ashore to make his own salt. He tries to source everything he uses from within a 50-mile radius.
Every dinner starts with a glass of Sur La Mer brut cider from nearby Drew Winery. If weather permits, as it did when I was there, the sparkling cider is enjoyed on the terrace, along with a series of snacks.
A box of lamb jerky is set on the table before me, cured with apple juice and accented with pimenton from Booneville. Its flavor is robust, its texture chewy but with a lot of give.
Next to arrive are just-picked radishes from the garden to dip into a sea lettuce vinaigrette that’s got a natural sweetness that rings through its brininess. Lastly, nasturtium bundles hiding abalone fermented with grapefruit kosho, giving the crunchy yet tender morsels a touch of fermented tang. All of these snacks are cleverly made from parts of ingredients that might normally go to waste, Kammerer explains.
After that repast, we’re escorted into the dining room for the rest of dinner. Everything that can possibly be made in house is. That includes hearty loaves of rye bread and sourdough flavored with local seaweed that can be slathered with seaweed butter and sprinkled with kelp salt.
The Vermillion rockfish spotlighted in the first dish was actually caught by the inn’s owner on a recent spear-fishing excursion in the cove fronting the inn. Kammerer presents it austerely in all its simple beauty with a drizzle of kelp oil along with fermented turnips from the garden. To eat the silky slabs of fish, there are chopsticks that lay atop reclaimed abalone shell pieces from the private beach.
Then arrives farmed abalone that’s been grilled over house-made charcoal, then arranged over a broth of sauerkraut juice with radish flower wakame. It’s all very light, with clean, clear flavors of the fermented broth and briny umami of the seaweed.
Artichokes get layered in a bowl with the fried leaves, as crisp as potato chips, covering pieces of the heart in a creamy artichoke sauce.
When Kammerer rented his cottage, he lucked out with a backyard planted with asparagus. The slender sweet green spears arrive next with a complement of grapefruit.
Potatoes have never received such revered attention as here, where they are steamed in coastal pine, accented by hedgehog, yellowfoot and horsetail mushrooms. A slow-cooked onion sauce mad with beer vinegar is poured over at the table that tastes as intense in flavor as onion soup if it had a touch of soy sauce in it.
Much of the serveware is made in Mendocino County, including knives made with recycled saw blades with mesquite wood handles that have a copper band at the top.
The main dish arrives in a mini parade. First, old railroad spikes are placed on the table, which can’t help but make you go, “Huh?” They’re cleverly used as a trivet for a steaming pot of nutty-tasting wild rice grown in Mendocino. Then, a woven box is brought out, filled with greens from the garden that are ever so lightly dressed with olive oil. Next, little bowls of pickles — golden beets, red beets, and purple cabbage. Finally, out comes succulent lamb grilled over charcoal in a lamb sauce with seaweed butter. You dig in, filling your plate with a little of this, a little of that.
A most interesting palate cleanser arrives after all of that: chamomile ice, dressed with honey infused with crushed cypress berries, and, of all things, turkey tail mushrooms so vivid that they almost look like they have been tie-dyed.
Unlike most intermezzos, this one is not sweet, but tastes slightly medicinal note. It’s like eating a forest snow cone.
A lavender buckwheat doughnut is presented in a little bowl with lavender custard at the bottom with eucalyptus honey. The dougnut is tender, not saccharine sweet like typical ones, but quite floral tasting from the custard.
Next, the softest, smoothest ice cream, made with the foraged herb, Yerba Buena, that has the texture of thickened whipped cream. It has a gentle leafy green taste, like spearmint without the minty note. It’s garnished with grilled rhubarb finished with ice wine vinegar to give the entire dessert a sweet, savory, tangy complexity.
Instead of the usual bon bons, the mignardises are pepperwood skewers of dried grapefruit with ginger and marigold. They definitely perk up the palate with spice, astringency and citrus brightness.
The finale is most zen-like — fragrant cups holding a warm infusion of lemon peel and herbs from the garden that wash over the palate like the waves of the ocean outside.
Breakfast is included in the room rates, $475 to $670. You can opt to enjoy it in your room or in the dining room. We chose the latter.
It’s a breakfast that hits both sweet and savory desires. There are crisp, airy oolong tea scones with sugary tops to enjoy with burnt honey butter, as well as big salty chocolate chip cookies that are plain irresistible.
Instead of bacon, there is cured duck breast made from fowl raised in Mendocino. It’s not crisp like bacon, but more like a duck version of gravlax with a rich taste.
Slowly poached shirred eggs are arranged prettily in heavy bowls with green garlic, fava greens, Chinese broccoli, and other greens just picked a minute ago in the garden. Flaky croissants arrive with the eggs, along with small bowls of refreshing grapefruit segments drizzled with almond oil and fresh mint.
Farm-to-table may be the buzz these days. But Harbor House goes beyond that. It really makes you feel one with its extraordinary setting. It’s as if you feel, breathe, and consume nature in all its totality there.
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