Friday, May 26, 2017

Modern Farmhouse Design and Gourmet Cuisine in the Heart of the Santa Ynez Valley

Newly-redesigned dining room at the Ballard Inn
Nestled among the bucolic vineyards and horse ranches of the Santa Ynez Valley, Ballard is a tiny outpost with a little red schoolhouse, a couple of churches, and an outstanding inn and restaurant. Founded in 1880 as the first stagecoach stop between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo, Ballard is Santa Ynez Valley’s oldest town. It’s also the smallest. Unlike the tourist-clogged streets of nearby Solvang and Los Olivos, Ballard has remained a sleepy village with a little more than 400 residents.

Lobby of the Ballard Inn
Ballard’s only business sits alongside a country road at the center of town: the newly-redesigned Ballard Inn and its revamped restaurant, The Gathering Table. Upon walking into the lobby, my husband and I were immediately smitten.

Living room of the Ballard Inn
The ground floor renovation combines rustic, Early American antiques with a spare, modern farmhouse aesthetic. The lobby is painted a stark white with black trim. A grand, spindled staircase rises to the left of the front door and is softened by a natural fiber runner. A black-framed collection of antique keyhole plates lines the wall along the stairs. A large, wood-burning fireplace stands to the right, with just an earthenware vase and a couple of rustic candlestick holders resting on its mantle. Two oval framed, sepia-toned photographs of Ballard’s earliest pioneers—Cynthia Ballard and George Lewis—hang on the back wall on either side of a pair of rustic doors and a front desk built of reclaimed wood. The modern farmhouse light fixtures feature exposed filament bulbs. A handful of plants add bursts of natural greenery to an otherwise neutral color palette.

The effect exudes a modern, sophisticated elegance with a nod to the town’s Western frontier roots. The design elements are carried throughout the ground-floor renovations. Wide-planked wood floors grace most of the common areas. The dining area, where wines and hors d'oeuvres are served each afternoon, is anchored by a long, rustic, antique farmhouse table with matching benches. Two enormous black-and-white photographs of oak trees hang on the wall. The living room is a blend of antiques and modern furnishings surrounding a fireplace. Brass tack leather chairs are complemented by white linen-upholstered seating draped with cozy linen/silk blankets in neutral colors.

Entrance to The Gathering Table
The same blankets are draped over the backs of the leather booths in the restaurant, which features a long, communal farmhouse table in the center flanked by more intimate rustic wooden tables on either side. Both the design and the dining style is a departure from what it had been since Chef Budi Kazali and his wife Chris purchased the inn and restaurant in 2004.

“The restaurant had long been a fine dining establishment with white linen tables; it was known as a special occasion kind of place,” said Budi. “We wanted to create a less formal, more convivial space for locals and visitors to gather over incredible food.”

The award-winning chef is best known for his French-Asian cuisine. Budi was born in Indonesia, but grew up in Santa Barbara, where his family still owns hotels. After earning a degree in economics, he followed his passion for cooking to the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, where he learned the foundations of French culinary techniques. He went on to refine his skills at high-profile restaurants in San Francisco and Boston--including Crampton Place and Blue Ginger--before returning to Santa Barbara County to purchase the Ballard Inn and Restaurant with his wife when his oldest son was still an infant.
The Gathering Table at Ballard Inn

Budi’s new restaurant concept builds upon his skillful blending of Asian flavors with classic French-style dishes. The menu features a variety of new and inventive shared plates and signature dishes highlighting local, seasonal produce and seafood. In addition to the warm, inviting atmosphere and fine cuisine, the restaurant offers an excellent wine list showcasing a number of regional wines and impeccable service.

Hamachi with avocado and soy-yuzu vinaigrette
The Vintner's Room at Ballard Inn
Tucked into one of the cozy leather booths inside the packed restaurant, my husband and I worked our way through half a dozen shared plates. One of the stand-outs was the hamachi. The melt-in-your-mouth fresh fish was layered between slices of avocado, drizzled with a soy-yuzu vinaigrette, and topped with delicate watercress, crispy shallots, and porcini mushrooms. We also savored the candied bacon in the grilled Little Gem greens salad, a wild mushroom risotto in a porcini broth, and a spicy hangar steak with charred Brussel sprouts. Full from dinner, we tried to pass on dessert, but the menu proved too tempting. We opted to share one of the smaller items: a chocolate whoopee pie filled with banana cream. It was a thousand times more delicious and surprisingly lighter than any childhood whoopee pie concoction we remembered.

After dinner, we returned to our room to find warm cookies on the bedside table. The cookies are part of a complimentary turn-down service in which the innkeepers freshen up the rooms, draw the linen shades, and turn down the bed.

Vase detail at The Gathering Table
Our room, the Vintners Room, was recently redesigned to echo the ground-floor renovations. Spare but comfortable in its simple farmhouse furnishings, the room featured dark-stained wood floors and a woven rug, a round wooden table and two chairs basking in the sunny glow of the wrap-around bay windows, and vintage suitcases stacked beside an antique mirrored armoire. In the back corner, an antique vanity was plumbed to resemble an old fashioned wash basin. The bedding featured natural linen accents and a soft linen/silk blanket folded at the foot of the bed. All of the inn’s 15 rooms will be upgraded over time.

Ballard Inn
After a restful night’s sleep, we returned to the restaurant downstairs for breakfast, which includes a choice of a cooked-to-order breakfast and a buffet assortment of fresh pastries, fresh fruit, yogurt, granola, cereals, juices, tea, and coffee. We spent the rest of the morning relaxing on inn’s broad front porch as we plotted our day’s wine tasting adventure in the Santa Ynez Valley. But we could have easily spent the rest of the day on the porch, overlooking profusion of garden blooms and watching cyclists and the occasional car roll by.

Ballard Inn and The Gathering Table
2436 Baseline Avenue
Ballard, CA 93463

Sixth photo by Tenley Fohl Photography courtesy of The Gathering Table. All others by Ranee Ruble-Dotts for CABBI.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

In the Gardens at Eden Vale Inn: Modern Luxury in a Beautifully Restored Old Barn

The Live Oak Room's private outdoor soaking tub at Eden Vale Inn

With a press of the “romance” button in my room, the lights dim to a warm glow and the gas fireplace blazes to life. When I press the “reading” button, and a tiny spotlight illuminates the pages of the book in my lap. With the press of another button, the private outdoor soaking tub for two begins filling with warm water and automatically shuts off a few inches from the rim. The high-tech features are an alluring luxury for a century-old hay barn.

Live Oak Room at Eden Vale Inn
I grab a robe and step outside to slip into the steamy water of the soaking tub. I roll back the wood-slatted privacy shade to enjoy the view of the tranquil gardens and watch birds flit between the branches of the trees.

Fireplace at Eden Vale Inn
Eden Vale Inn is a verdant sanctuary nestled in the straw-colored hills between Coloma and Placerville in California’s Gold Country. Mark and Gayle Hamlin bought the barn and the surrounding 10 acres in 1985. Old photos from that time show a weathered structure with a rusted corrugated metal roof standing amid a dry, rocky landscape. Built in 1919 for a pioneer family’s dairy farm and then abandoned in the 1940s, the barn and the land had lain vacant for over 40 years.

Hammock near the grape arbor at Eden Vale Inn
Captivated by the barn’s spacious interior and the rough-sawn beams cut from old-growth forests, the Hamlins converted the barn into a warm and inviting home. They built a stone fireplace that rises 27 feet from the floor to the timber-framed cathedral ceiling. The slate rock for the fireplace was hand-picked from a local quarry and weighs about 40 tons. The block and tackle that was once used to lower hay from the second floor loft hangs near the top.

The barn now serves as the main building of the bed and breakfast inn, which the Hamlins opened in 2009. The inn’s seven luxurious guest rooms blend ultra-modern features with rustic touches and feature outdoor soaking tubs, gas fireplaces, and spa-like private baths.

Firepit at Eden Vale Inn
Outside, the Hamlins transformed several acres of land surrounding the barn into a lush paradise, planting trees, shrubs, vines, and grasses that have grown over the years into a beautiful three-dimensional tapestry of color and texture. The gardens attract over 50 different types of birds, whose chirps blend harmoniously with the bubbling fountains and tinkling wind chimes. I wander the footpaths through the gardens to find endless curiosities, including a collection of antique bird cages and bowling balls perched atop wooden posts.

Swimming pond and rowboat at Eden Vale Inn
Of the latter, Gayle explains they are the poor man’s version of Italian columns. She started collecting bowling balls from thrift stores for the garden and ended up buying every used ball in El Dorado County. Her mom, who lives in Las Vegas, continues bring Gayle more bowling balls when she visits.

I climb into a hammock near the grape arbor to watch the sunset beyond the hills and the row of bowling ball columns. I note with amusement at how the columns’ silhouettes take on a more regal appearance against the setting sun.

Vegetable frittata with sausage and sweet potatoes
After the skies have grown dark, I wander over to the metal fire pit near the pond and sink down into one of the Adirondack chairs to gaze up at the stars. A newlywed couple from San Francisco joins me around the fire and Mark delivers a basket of fixings for s’mores. The couple and I roast our s’mores and stay up talking late into the night.

Early in the morning, I take a walk around the placid pond. A rowboat tied up to a small dock glides idly from side to side. At the far end of the pond, I catch sight of two bucks standing just outside the fence.

Outdoor deck overlooking the gardens at Eden Vale Inn
At breakfast, I find a generous selection of fresh fruits, warm scones, house-made granola, European-style yogurt, fresh-squeezed juices, and coffee and tea. The main entrée that morning is a delicious corn and asparagus frittata with pork sausage and roasted sweet potatoes. I sit on one of the outdoor decks enjoying breakfast while trying to plot my day. I’m torn between wanting to explore Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park and signing up for a rafting trip on the American River. I’m also hoping to wander the shops and art galleries in historic downtown Placerville, check out the Sherwood Demonstration Garden, and stop by a few wineries along the way.

But looking out over the gardens, I’m equally tempted to spend another relaxing day in Eden.

Eden Vale Inn
1780 Springvale Rd.
Placerville, CA 95667

First, fourth, and fifth photos courtesy of Eden Vale Inn. All others by Ranee Ruble-Dotts for CABBI.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A New Boutique Hotel and a New Kind of Gold Rush in Plymouth, California

One of the guest rooms at the newest hotel in Plymouth, California: Rest, a Boutique Hotel
Founded during the Gold Rush and set amid the graceful rolling hills of Amador County, the rough-and-ready town of Plymouth seems poised to welcome a new rush of well-heeled visitors. In the last 20 years, the number of local wineries have flourished from a dozen to over 40. In the last decade, new shops and restaurants have popped up along Plymouth’s Main Street and have begun to smooth the town’s ragged edges. And just last year, a new boutique hotel opened and has already begun drawing guests from around the world.

The city park in Plymouth
I rolled into the sleepy town of Plymouth last September and immediately stumbled across the Amador Vintage Market. Owned by caterer Beth Sogaard, the tantalizing shop features a mouthwatering selection of fresh sandwiches, salads, charcuterie, artisan cheeses, desserts, and wines. It’s the perfect place to grab fare for a wine country picnic. I picked up a scoop of gelato to wander through town. Next door, at the city park with a charming gazebo, vendors were starting to set up for the weekly Amador Farmers Market. The newly-opened Prospect Cellars was pouring wines in what had originally been the town’s old post office. Across from the market, the kitchen staff were prepping for dinner at Taste, a restaurant that Wine Enthusiast Magazine named one of the Top 100 wine restaurants in America. Two doors down, I checked-in to Plymouth’s newest and swankiest hotel, which just opened in February 2016.

Rest, A Boutique Hotel
A corridor at Rest, a Boutique Hotel
The 16-room Rest, a Boutique Hotel, blends elements of the town’s heritage and tongue-in-cheek humor with the contemporary furnishings and amenities you would expect to find at a luxury hotel. The owners, Tracey and Mark Berkner (who also own Taste), renovated two rundown apartment buildings to create the hotel. They salvaged some of the original, first-growth timbers from the buildings and repurposed them as sliding barn doors for the lobby office. The lobby’s breakfast bar was made from old doors. The boards that hang above the bar were part of the building’s original siding and feature faint scrawls of graffiti written in cursive, with pencil. The light-filled lobby also features vaulted ceilings, beautiful hardwood floors, a gas fireplace with comfortable seating, and a bank of windows along the far south wall. The computer at the check-in desk is comically hidden inside a vintage suitcase atop a rolling cart filled with other vintage suitcases. Stepping in from the street, the resulting hotel and its gracious hospitality is an unexpected delight.

Double queen guestroom at Rest, a Boutique Hotel
The sweet desk clerk showed me to my room, passing along the windowed corridors overlooking an inviting courtyard. My room was a double queen on the second floor. Sunlight was pouring in through the plantation shutters. An elephant expertly folded from a towel greeted me from one of the beds. The spacious room offered a desk and a seating area and was decorated in soothing shades of sage, cream, and khaki with hints of pale blue and burnt orange. The elevated beds were triple-sheeted with luxurious white linens and incredibly comfortable.

Seating area for the double queen room
The room held a number of thoughtful amenities for a wine country getaway: complimentary water, a wine opener and wine glasses, plates, napkins, and utensils, and a small refrigerator with an honor bar. The room also featured a large screen smart TV, complimentary Wi-Fi, in-room coffee and tea service, an iron and ironing board, and plush robes. The bath, with its polished granite and glass tiled-shower, was hidden behind a frosted glass door. The control knob for the shower was thoughtfully designed to be outside of the spray of the shower head.

Rest serves wine and hors d'oeuvres each evening from 5 to 6 p.m. The night I was there, the staff was pouring two wines local wines—a rosé and a red blend—made by Taste’s sommelier Thomas Allen under his label, Fate Wines. The wines were good, but the hors d'oeuvres—courtesy of Taste—were divine. Any description I could write about the smoked duck with figs or the crostini with eggplant and tomato would fail to describe how amazing they truly were.

Second floor landing at Rest, a Boutique Hotel
I could hear the strains of live music coming from the farmers market. I grabbed one last crostini and headed down the street, where the market was in full swing. One vendor was making pizzas in a portable wood-fired oven. Others were selling vegetables and sampling wine. The market was packed with locals sharing tales of the wine harvest season.

I had a dinner reservation at Taste that I didn’t want to miss, so I left the market for the restaurant across the street. Like the hotel, stepping into the restaurant from the street is a bit like stepping into an alternate universe. It’s an unexpectedly sophisticated urban bistro in a humble western town. The space features warm-hued walls, warm lighting, white table cloths, wood-plank floors, and a long wooden bar stretching across one wall. The service was impeccable. The restaurant’s award-winning wine list showcases many local producers as well as an impressive collection of domestic and international wines.

The menu offerings were impossible to choose from so I opted for mix of small plates starting with a fig, melon, and prosciutto salad with fresh basil, balsamic vinegar and wildflower honey. The late summer flavors lightly drizzled with the emulsified vinegar and honey were a superb combination. I also had the incredibly delicious Mushroom Cigars, which resemble egg rolls, but are made of phyllo dough stuffed with cremini, shiitake, and oyster mushrooms, fresh herbs, and goat cheese. I rounded out the dinner with pan-seared gnocchi with Sun Gold tomatoes, braised lamb, feta, and shaved zucchini.

The outdoor patio at Rest, a Boutique Hotel
Walking back to the hotel after dinner, I found a plate of cookies on the bar in the lobby with a hand-written note that read, “Cookies made with butter and love.” Miles from home and my family, I was touched by the note-writer’s kindness. I poured myself a cup of tea, took a cookie out to the hotel’s rear patio—which glowed with string lights—and called my husband.

The hotel serves a continental breakfast in the lobby from 7 - 10 a.m. each morning. I had been trying to catch up on work in my room that morning, so I hastily ran downstairs to grab breakfast, which turned out to be a much larger spread than I anticipated. The woman busing the tray of empty plates and coffee mugs greeted me with a deep-felt warmth that stunned me. My immediate thought was this: this woman should be training people to work in hospitality, not busing dishes. She must have read the question on my face because she introduced herself as Tracey, the owner I had not yet met. She and her husband have formidable résumés in the food and hospitality industry and a tireless work ethic.

All of this was starting to fall into place.

Breakfast at Rest, a Boutique Hotel
Tracey proceeded to show me the breakfast bar, which included a delicious assortment of pastries, homemade granola, yogurt, fresh fruits, juices, and more. She gently urged me to take a plate and enjoy breakfast in the courtyard. She spoke with such a calming effect that she made my concerns about my work dissipate like wisps of fog on a sunny day. I did exactly as she told me: I filled a plate and took it out to the courtyard, where I sat beside a collection of potted plants and a trickling fountain.

Courtyard at Rest, a Boutique Hotel
A few minutes later, I was joined by two men who were raving about the breakfast. They were from Sweden and had been traveling in the U.S. for a couple of weeks. They told me that this was the best breakfast they had had on their entire trip.

I asked them where else have they had been. They rattled off their list: Walla Walla in Washington, Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Napa and Sonoma, and now here, in Amador County.

“For pleasure?” I asked, wondering how they had ever discovered Plymouth and Amador County among much better-known wine producing regions.

“No, business, actually,” one of the men said. They explained they were wine buyers for European markets.

And so it seems Plymouth and Amador County is not likely to remain little-known for long. A new kind of gold rush is on the horizon. Make your reservations now.

Rest, a Boutique Hotel
9372 Main Street
Plymouth, CA 95669

Second to last photo Courtesy of Rest, A Boutique Hotel. All others by Ranee Ruble-Dotts for CABBI.