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Carolyn Jung | Photo: Courtesy of Harbor House Inn | July 9, 2018
A chef with serious kitchen creds turns a coastal hideaway into a must-visit.
In the remote Mendocino Coast town of Elk, with a population all of 200 and little more than shaggy-haired Highland cows as its closest neighbors, the newly reopened Harbor House Inn has managed to assemble a remarkable team. Executive chef Matthew Kammerer, former executive sous-chef at Michelin three-starred Saison in San Francisco, heads the small crew that includes husband-and-wife sous-chef David Hopps, formerly of Saison, and pastry chef Elise Hopps, previously of Craftsman and Wolves in San Francisco; as well as 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.
What lured them all to the seemingly middle of nowhere? The opportunity to turn the circa-1916 building—with its intimate nine rooms and tasting menu-only restaurant—into not just an alluring getaway, but a rarefied dining destination in the vein of Michelin-starred ones in the far-flung European countryside. Only, here, it takes a languid three-hour drive north from San Francisco through meandering vineyards and redwoods to reach this property on a secluded bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. “Highway 101 doesn’t run here,” Kammerer says. “You have to work a little to get here. But it’s so worth it.
Kammerer aims to make it so with a $150 tasting menu, composed of eight to 10 courses, showcasing ingredients foraged in the wilds, fished from the local water, and grown on-site in the 15 raised beds he and his team built for Mara des Bois strawberries, negi, cardoons, celtuce and other specialty produce. The sea salt? Dried from pure ocean water he’s hauled up from the beach. The butter for the house-baked sourdough? Flavored with seaweed he’s harvested. The chopstick holders? Fashioned from reclaimed abalone shells that have washed up on the inn’s private beach. The potatoes? Steamed in coastal pine. The fermented turnips? Grown from seed, then preserved to make sure nothing goes to waste. “We want to honor the gems in this area,” says Nemec. “You won’t find this type of dining anywhere else around here.”
First-time hoteliers Edmund Jin and his wife Eva Lu purchased the property in 2005, which had been built originally by the Goodyear Redwood Company. Jin—CEO of E&E Co., a Bay Area-based manufacturer of home goods—became captivated by the inn when he discovered it on a diving excursion. He spent four years restoring it, including vaulting the redwood-planked ceiling in the 25-seat dining room and doubling the size of the restaurant’s kitchen. He even created a Harbor House line of linens and furniture, which now decorate the inn’s rooms.
Wanting the cuisine to be as naturalistic as the inn’s setting, Kammerer committed to sourcing as much as possible from within a 50-mile radius. That meant going so far as to track down small purveyors through word of mouth, many of whom don’t have websites or even deign to answer their phones, he says with a shrug. “We are making it extremely difficult on ourselves to find the best of the best,” he says. Dinner begins outside on the deck with glasses of Sur La Mer brut cider made from organic apples by Drew Family Wines, just an eight-minute drive from the inn. That’s paired with a series of snacks that might include abalone tucked inside edible garden leaves and duck-leg jerky spiced with espelette from Boonville. At the dining table, the meal continues with lightly cured slices of albacore; asparagus plucked from Kammerer’s backyard and accented by grapefruit and nori; and Muscovy duck served alongside a steaming pot of Mendocino wild rice set atop old railroad spikes repurposed as a trivet. A series of desserts might include grilled rhubarb with ice cream infused with yerba buena, a foraged mintlike herb as fragrant as citrus.
Moving from San Francisco to this out-of-the-way locale wasn’t a stretch for this New Jersey coast native who has always favored more rural living. In fact, both the Michelin-starred In de Wulf in Belgium and the Royal Mail in Melbourne, Australia, two other establishments where he relished working, were attached to hotels in isolated places. Moreover, when he worked at Saison, he’d regularly drive up to Mendocino County to explore and decompress—even if he only had one day off. “I just fell in love with the area,” Kammerer says. “It’s one of the only places I’ve seen that’s still raw. It’s a place where nature still shows you that it’s in charge.” Rooms $475-$670, 5600 CA-1, 707.877.3203
Originally published in the July/August issue of Silicon Valley