September 24, 2019
Product. Technique. Timing. Sustainability. Precision. Individually, each of these nouns represents a facet of the culinary arts. As a collective, they form the vision and philosophy that embody the cuisine of Matthew Kammerer, executive chef of the Harbor House Inn, a fine-dining destination located in the town of Elk, California. This Mendocino County community, home to the restaurant and lodge that shares one name, is sparsely populated with around 200 people, give or take a handful. It makes the perfect getaway for those wanting to retreat from city life for a few hours or a luxurious weekend. Or for hard-to-please foodies seeking a fresh and exciting dining experience.
Upon entering the elegant Harbor House Inn, I first saw general manager Amanda Nemec who greeted me with a warm, bright smile and made me feel wholly at ease immediately. She confirmed my reservation and invited me out onto the deck for a welcome drink. An early rise that morning in Carmel-by-the Sea, then a stop in San Francisco for lunch, followed by a seemingly eternal drive to Elk, I was road weary by the time I made it to the restaurant. Eager for a respite, I found myself totally unprepared for the magnificent scenery that unfolded as I stepped onto the deck and into the bright sun. I was flabbergasted by the jaw-dropping view of…ah! In my hurried excitement, I rushed ahead and missed the journey. Let’s backtrack three hours and 150-plus miles south to San Francisco where Chef Matthew once worked and where I began my trek towards Harbor House Inn. We will get back to that deck and that climactic scene in due time, preferably by way of a leisurely weekend drive when time is allowed to slow down to a languorous crawl. And stand still even.
Long before Harbor House Inn, Chef Matthew first worked in Boston at the refined Menton restaurant where he was exposed to the minutiae of upscale dining and service. His next stop took him to Australia for a stint at the renown Attica. There, he developed a fondness for kitchen gardens, an idea that he would carry with him during his formative growth as a chef. When his time at Attica ended, Chef’s desire to expand his repertoire took him to Japan where he focused on learning the art of kaiseki. In time, with another sojourn having concluded, he left Nihonryori Ryugin for Belgium, specifically to De Wulf restaurant (now closed), to explore rustic and elemental cooking techniques more akin to nature.
When Chef Matthew returned stateside, he came to work at Saison in San Francisco, California. The city life did not keep him stationary for long. On his off days, he found himself drawn northward toward Mendocino County and the land of redwoods. Natural curiosity and exploration led to a quick discovery of the pastoral surroundings that made up the Pacific coastline and the town of Elk. This area was primal ground, a landscape still dominated by nature and mostly untainted by human developments. Through pure coincidence or serendipity, Chef also learned that the nearby Harbor House Inn was undergoing renovations and would feature a restaurant when it reopened. He then made the decision to apply for the position as chef and was hired.
To get to Harbor House Inn, I began my drive in San Francisco and eventually encountered a stretch of at least fifty miles of winding, twisty road. One’s speed along this two-way path with a single lane for each direction is often dictated by the promptness (or lack thereof) of the vehicle in front of you. Passing is discouraged and often prohibited outright. Looming Pacific redwoods flank both sides of the road, providing shade as well as a sense of protection from the world beyond its branches. I found the magnificent trees calming, imbuing me with a sense of serenity and humility, as I journeyed along. With close proximity to these magnificent natural wonders, my stress dissipated rather quickly. The longer I drove, the more I felt lulled by the aura of the redwoods. The passage of time almost ceased to exist during those few precious hours.
The comfort of mesmerizing trees eventually gave way to rocky outcroppings and a startling view of the Pacific coastline as I reached Highway 1. My stupefied eyes swallowed whole the gorgeous beauty of the aqua water. It was this sight of Greenwood Cove, of greenish-blue waves slapping and splashing against rocks, that dazzled me on the deck of Harbor House Inn, made all the more stunning by the panoramic vista allowed by its perch on a bluff. In many ways, this enchanting and picturesque scenery encapsulates the theme of the inn and restaurant: nature at its most pristine, seemingly unblemished, with the bounty of the churning waters yet to be revealed. I would surmise this was the revelation, or one very similar, that, not too long ago, prompted Chef Matthew to decide that Mendocino County would be the perfect home for his next professional endeavor.
The combined lessons and experiences from Chef’s domestic and international stops have come to form the pentagonal pillars of the kitchen at Harbor House Inn. The garden beds were constructed, dirt-packed, and seeded all by hand. They provide many of the vegetables, herbs, flowers, and plants used for each evening’s service. The produce is grown from compost made from organic waste materials generated from the restaurant and nourished by clean, recycled grey water. The mulch comes from naturally fell trees collected in the area. Nightly, the coastal mist from the ocean rolls in, imparting a natural salinity to everything it touches, seasoning and refreshing the gardens at the same time. If one inhales the air deeply at this time, I’d imagine you could taste the entirety of the ocean.
The fields and forests surrounding Elk offer up additional bounty in the form of edible fungi and wild greens as do nearby coastal farms that provide anything not foraged or grown in the greenhouse or vegetable beds. Local fishermen sell Harbor House Inn the day’s fresh catch off the docks. On the beach, Chef Matthew and his cooks may chance upon treasures that have washed up ashore such as bullwhip kelp. Wading among the tide pools, they come out daily to forage for marine vegetables like Wakame seaweed. As preparation for use, the seaweed is gently treated with much care. It is rinsed using sea water hauled from the cove and then left to dry in the warm sun. This slow method, while more time consuming than using artificial sources of heat, preserves the integrity and flavor of the product to the maximum extent possible.
Salt is made in the natural manner from evaporated ocean water which leaves behind large crystals that are then further dried and sieved before use. This salt also forms the foundation for much of the seasoning employed in the tasting menu. House-made spices come from different formulations of dried herbs and flowers. Chef’s particular blend is called, appropriately enough, Elk Spice, after the town where the restaurant is situated. Given that it’s made from ingredients either grown or foraged on premise and ground by hand, Elk Spice is a unique and personal seasoning to Harbor House Inn. Vinegars and other fermented products, also made onsite, allow the kitchen to add acidic notes to certain courses which further extends the range of the flavors for both food and drink at the restaurant.
What gets pulled, plucked, harvested, and foraged that morning become the components that drive and define the same evening’s dinner service. An ingredient may simply be incorporated into something as basic as the terrific bread and butter or used as a constituent to complement the flavors of a particular dish. The food that ultimately lands on the diner’s plate is both as seasonal and as hyperlocal as the coastal environment allows. As a result, the cuisine here is one of the truest expressions of terroir-driven cooking I have ever tasted. Chef Matthew and his team, with respect and precision, have used the bounty of the environment to great effect here.
When you first sit down for the tasting menu, what appears to be a dried flower or plant has been preplaced on the table. If you inquire with the staff, you find out it is called a holdfast, the part of a bull kelp plant that securely fastens the seaweed to a fixed location using fingerlike projections that wrap around an object such as a rock. The use of this desiccated holdfast as a decorative table ornament keeps with the natural-setting motif that runs through both restaurant and inn. As befitting of the surrounding waters, fields, and forests, the cuisine at Harbor House Inn strongly emphasizes seafood paired engagingly and beautifully with both land and sea vegetables. The approach could be described as ingredient-driven and minimalist. Eating here, one gets the strong sense that Chef Matthew devotes much time to gathering the best products possible, applying just a sufficient amount of seasoning, and employing the optimal techniques to elicit and amplify that particular product’s innate flavors. As a result, the food is purely delicious without additional complications or unnecessary alterations.
I loved every dish here. Simply put, the food was superb where nothing was underseasoned or overseasoned. Generally speaking, the number of ingredients in each dish can be counted on one hand. While many of the courses looked deceptively simple, each dish boasted multiple layers of nuanced flavors that highlighted the best of the surrounding coastal environment.
As a non-drinker, I naturally gravitated towards the non-alcoholic pairing. The composition of each drink astounded me in a way no other pairing had done before. With the first sip, I could only believe these drinks were constructed with painstaking attention to taste and detail. Not only did each drink match the course perfectly, I was able to detect specific complex notes in each beverage. The craftsmanship was superb! Much like the cuisine, the flavor of each drink was excellently balanced and delicious. This is a pairing that must be ordered in advance; it’s not simply fresh-squeezed juice poured from a glass bottle. This was, without a doubt, the best and most thoughtful non-alcoholic pairing I have ever tried at any fine-dining restaurant.
Early this year, Chef Matthew was named a semifinalist by the James Beard Foundation. Food & Wine magazine followed up that recognition by naming him one of their 2019’s “Best New Chefs” in April. The restaurant then earned its first Michelin star this past June when the inaugural California guide came out. Having experienced the wonderful food and warm service firsthand, I strongly believe Harbor House Inn is poised for more accolades in the years to come. And most certainly, more Michelin stars. I, for one, look forward to coming back to celebrate again and again, by taking that long meditative drive from city to coast to reach, finally, that singular, spectacular deck view of the Pacific Ocean, the kind of image one glimpses in a brilliant and immersive dream just before waking.
Table setting in keeping with the nature motif of the restaurant and inn.
bull kelp holdfast from Greenwood Cove
Course 1: Strips of pearlescent flesh cured over seaweed, dressed with cured egg yolk and tamari, and accompanied by a koshu condiment. The amazingly fresh-as-can-be fish was brushed with the just the proper amount of seasoning to enhance its umami.
halibut, cured egg yolk, condiment of horseradish and espelette
Course 2: This beautiful salmon was caught by the sous chef’s neighbor. Preparation included smoking the fish over apple wood and taking it off the grill 15 seconds before serving. Hence, the name.
just smoked salmon, apple syrup, apple wood
Course 3: A mélange of nori wakame, salted cucumber, red abalone, and creamy uni all nestled within a sweet cabbage broth. This course best represents the natural harvest of the early morning due to low tides. It was so fresh and delicious!
seaweed from the cove, purple sea urchin, salted cucumber
Course 4: Delicately grilled spot prawns paired with a super flavorful tomato bouillon and enhanced with cress from the garden. As superbly delicious as it was deceptively simple looking.
spot prawn, sungold bouillon, cress
Course 5: The ethereally soft custard counterbalanced the toothy leeks, with briny notes from the roe tempered by the citrusy yuzu. A nicely constructed course where flavors uplifted each other.
grilled zucchini custard, trout roe, charred leek, yuzu
Course 6: Sourdough hearkens back to Chef Matthew’s time in San Francisco. The delicious bread was served with two types of butter. One had been infused with sea lettuce from the cove while the other was sprinkled with sea salt made on premise. The sourdough had a pleasantly crunchy exterior which yielded to a soft interior where mastication was pure pleasure.
Course 7: In a way, this dish looks like a mushroom floating in its own bath water, in a manner of speaking. While this description is not too far from the truth, the picture cannot convey the purity of the mushroom flavor or its gustatory depth due to the careful application of heat from the grill. The unctuousness from the bone marrow combined with the gentle kelp consommé elevated the profile of the mushroom and made for an amazing taste. This was one of the most pleasurable soups I have ever eaten.
grilled maitake, kelp broth, bone marrow
Course 8: This was one of my favorite courses of the evening. Perfectly cooked carrots that still maintained a slight firmness layered on top of a bed of sesame and hemp paste. Served with black miso butter and pickled onions. A dish full of terrific flavors that instantly made me crave another portion.
Carrot, paste of hemp and sesame, walla walla onion, pine vinegar
Course 9: Succulent lamb loin smoked over cypress, accompanied by New Zealand spinach, and a jus made from sunflower seeds and porcini.
lamb, garden leaves, sauce of sunflower seed and porcini
Course 10: Crushed ice made from the unfermented juice of Gewϋrztraminer grapes and garnished with floral furnishings from the garden made for a refreshing palate cleanser.
Gewϋrztraminer ice, sweet and aromatic flowers from the garden
Courses 11 – 14: Tea and rice. A trio of desserts served with a hot drink.
1) strawberries, marigold. A pure and luscious fruit!
2) rice pudding, matcha, black ginger (Koshihikari rice grown in California)
3) seaweed ice cream, miso tart, cocoa, bay nut
4) pine, yerba buena and marigold tea, grilled honey – the spruce tip, when dipped into the honey, worked as a natural stirrer to sweeten the tea
1) kabosu, ginger, verbena
2) local apple cider, ice wine vinegar, apple syrup
3) seaweed chardonnay
4) tomato tonic
5) yuzu spritz, kaffir lime
6) tuber tonic, ginger, turmeric, black pepper, elderberry
7) rose, hedgehog mushroom
8) pinot noir, oolong
9) coffee kombucha
The Kitchen Team
With Executive Chef Matthew Kammerer (2nd from left) and Sous Chef David Hopps (3rd from the right)
A View That’s Worth A 3-Hour Drive
a priceless sight