A Visit to Chateau du Sureau and The Elderberry House
When Ethan de Graaff was just 13 years old, he knew there was no other choice but to become a chef.
Now, the head chef of The Elderberry House in Oakhurst, he explains with a chuckle, “Once my dad started using mayo as a sauce on everything, I knew what I had to do.”
Today, he oversees the menu at the fine-dining restaurant at the Old World Chateau du Sureau, a 9-acre oasis in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, not far from Yosemite National Park. He works in conjunction with Culinary Director Chris Flint, the former chef de cuisine at New York’s storied Eleven Madison Park and former executive chef of Michelin-starred Maude in Los Angeles.
Also tasked with overseeing sister property First & Oak in Solvang, Flint was hired in late 2022. Since his arrival, he’s brought back the restaurant’s tasting menu and leaned into sourcing locally even more.
Last week, when I was invited in as an overnight guest of the Relais & Chateau property, I had a chance to experience the roll-out of his first full new menu.
You might say my visit was more than two decades in the making. Way back when, while staying at another property near Yosemite, my husband and I had made dinner reservations at The Elderberry House. Unfortunately, it happened to be one of those precarious winters with such a deluge of snow that we were alarmed to see a snow plow had gone off the side of the road. Because the onslaught kept forcing the closure of the roads, we ended up canceling our reservations, fearing that even if we made it to the restaurant, we might never be able to get out again.
Finally making it here was definitely worth the wait. Imagine pulling up to a turreted estate in the European countryside, and you get an idea of what Chateau du Sureau is like.
It was originally founded by Erna Kubin-Clanin, an Austrian chef and restaurateur, as The Estate by the Elderberries with the restaurant named Erna’s Elderberry House.
There is no check-in desk here. Instead, you pull up onto the driveway, and two staffers walk out to greet you, handle your luggage, and escort you inside for an overview of the chateau, which includes 10 rooms, as well as a separate two-bedroom villa.
You can relax in the salon in the main house, with its soaring beams, grand piano, fireplace, books aplenty, and cozy chairs to sink into.
Each of the guest rooms are named for an herb or flower from the South of France, such as “Rosehip,” “Sweet Geranium” and “Rosehip.” Genteel and storybook-like, many of them sport fireplaces and four-poster beds. There are no TVs in the rooms, though, you can request one, if you must.
In the room are also gifts that include a bottle of Coquelicot Estate wine, a Los Olivos winery owned by Bernard Rosenson, who purchased the inn from Kubin-Clanin before it was sold to Relais & Chateau. There’s also a fresh-baked Gugelhupf, a moist, and gently sweet yeasted mini Bundt cake to enjoy.
As you settle in, you’re also brought a welcoming refreshment. At this time of year, it was shot glasses of chilled, creamy, sweet-savory strawberry gazpacho garnished with mint from the property’s culinary garden, alongside thumbprint cookies and fresh berries.
When it’s time for dinner at The Elderberry House, just walk the short path past the swimming pool to its front door. The Old World vibe continues here with chandeliers and ornate framed artwork on the walls of this intimate dining room.
The menus are personalized with your name, making for a nice keepsake. The restaurant offers a $95 three-course option (with $70 wine pairing) or a $135 five-course ($95 wine pairing). We enjoyed the latter with a sampling of Coquelicot wines.
Dinner begins dramatically with a lacquered piece of foraged wood carried to the table holding canapes spotlighting sea urchin, caviar and spring peas, and decorated with sprigs of spruce and manzanita. There is a crisp, fragile tartlet shell filled with creamy, sweet crushed peas and topped with a lobe of uni plus caviar. Alongside is a chilled panna cotta, smooth, rich, and intensely tasting of uni, with an herb foam and fresh peas atop. The spring sweetness of the peas comes through, as does the sweet salinity of the sea urchin.
It’s a harbinger for the rest of the meal — a sense of lightness and elegance in everything while playing up the veracity of key ingredients.
The ahi tuna tricks the eye at first, with the slabs of raw fish lying on a sauce the exact color of wasabi. But it’s actually sorrel, providing a lemony brightness to the dish. Grated fresh horseradish goes over the top, providing the sharp bite of heat that wasabi would. But since most so-called wasabi is actually tinted horseradish, this was a truer way of enjoying it.
A warm roll is brought to the table on individual warmed plates, a little seen touch that goes a long way. There’s miso-honey-roasted garlic butter to spread on with abandon.
De Graaff talked about how the next dish was inspired by a visit to nearby Kern Family Farm, where he picked chickweed, miner’s lettuce, and other “weeds.” Those lesser-hero greens make up “Kern Farm’s Weeds,” a beautiful melange of leaves that encircle a center of ricotta crowned with puffed amaranth and grated cured egg yolk.
Olive-oil poached steelhead trout, with the silkiest texture, is done up with the colors of a Monet painting, thanks to a light broth heightened with butter and lemon thyme, and garnished with orange salmon roe, crunchy, thinly sliced snap peas, and purple petals.
Duck breast is cooked sous-vide, then cold-smoked, leaving it not just succulent but suffused to its core with a lovely smokiness that enhances the game flavor even more. A strawberry-miso puree provides a perfect sweet-salty touch.
Dessert brings a deconstructed strawberry shortcake. It’s lighter than the classic. Hidden underneath the thinnest meringue cracker speckled with strawberry dust is a round of angel food cake, compressed strawberries, goat’s milk yogurt that adds a nice tang, and a strawberry consomme that has a hint of rose to it.
The last bites are salted caramel-chocolate macarons. Until you return to your room, that is, to find chocolates and a sweet good-night note on your bed.
Breakfast the next day is included in your room rate. Enjoy it outside on the back patio of the chateau if the weather’s nice.
There are croissants with jam and butter. Then, your choice of yogurt with fruit; a charcuterie assortment; or a citrus curd tart.
That’s followed by a goat cheese or cheddar omelet with a slightly spicy saute of mushrooms, celery and bell peppers overtop.
Afterward, take a morning walk around the property, where bubbling fountains, ceramic frogs, and the cutest garden statuary can be found.
Down a walking path, you’ll discover the delights of a gazebo, bocce ball court, rustic swings, and even a giant chess board.
When it’s time to check out, you’ll be sent off with a goodie bag full of bottled waters, kettle corn, and relaxing herbal tinctures — ensuring the restorative, pampering feeling received here happily lingers just a little while longer.