We've stumbled upon a marvel at the river's edge -- a retro, rustic marvel that mixes fresh, seasonal fare with pre-Prohibition era charm, Bee's Knees cocktails and delicata risotto. Also, glass-bottle Cokes with stripy straws, butcher-aproned waiters and a ramshackle dock town. Did we mention the Slanted Door connection? And the wildflower honey?
It sounds like I'm babbling, but after you drive the long, winding lane and dine at the new Bull Valley Roadhouse in Port Costa, you too will talk like this -- in disjointed exclamations of delight. The fried green beans! Did you see the daguerreotypes by the door? There's a golden bull hanging outside! I blame the charming time-lapse feel of the place. Let's start there.
There's a tiny town on the shores of the Carquinez Strait, near Martinez and Crockett. You probably didn't even know this hamlet of fewer than 200 souls was even there. But in the 1880s, Port Costa was home to thousands. It had a rail yard, bustling docks, hotels, restaurants and a huge ferry to carry people across the river. Depending upon who's telling the story, the Burlington Hotel, built in 1883, was either a brothel or a reputable inn.
It was the bucolic scenery that first caught Roadhouse owner Earl Flewellen's eye. Two years ago, he settled in this tiny place with a Kickstarter-funded enterprise, on a farm with 30 bee hives. Flewellen says he opened "a little Whistlestop-esque coffee shop at the Burlington Hotel, and once squarely planted and in love with the town, I went on to acquire the Bull Valley Roadhouse along with community members and my partner and his fellow Slanted Door friends and expats."
It has been a labor of love -- and it shows. The golden bull that dangles over the front door is a nod to the area's nickname, Bull Valley. Black-and-white prints and daguerreotypes offer a blast to the past, colorful paintings give a nod to the present. The American tavern-style menu, designed by consulting executive chef Justine Kelly from Slanted Door and executed by chef David Williams, former assistant general manager at Slanted Door, straddles centuries in the most satisfying way, mixing modern farmers-market fare with a longing glance back.
Browse the cocktail menu, a lineup of pre-Prohibition era libations designed by consulting bar manager Erik Adkins -- yes, of Slanted Door -- and look at the attention to detail. The apiary homage in the Bee's Knees comes from Flewellen's honey. An American Trilogy, a maple-tinged rye cocktail, comes poured over a single, gigantic ice cube, so the drink is chilled, not diluted. Gaily striped straws and tiny ice cubes adorn the glasses of soda pop,, including a ginger beer so spicy it will make you sneeze.
The seasonal, ever-changing menu includes appetizers -- steamed Prince Edward Island mussels, for example -- and sides that could double as small plates, if grazing is your thing. But the focus here is on large plates -- large, shareable entrees of buttermilk fried chicken ($27), for example, or the risotto ($25) that serve two or three, much like the platos at Berkeley's Comal and the plates at Fish in Sausalito. Large plates may well be a trend of 2013. It makes for cozy, sociable dining -- family-style, but hipper.
We started with crispy fried green beans ($8) with a dusting of chili salt-- highly addictive -- and an iceberg wedge salad ($10), with a light Point Reyes blue cheese dressing, toothsome lardons of bacon and chives. A rustic roasted eggplant and sweet pepper soup ($6) offered comfort on a frosty, damp evening, a pleasing, not completely smooth puree with plenty of flavor and a cheese-topped crouton.
The fried chicken was gloriously crisp on the outside and moist within, served with mashed potatoes and a country sausage gravy. The risotto, which combined butternut and delicata squash and porcini mushrooms, was terrific in this frosty weather. Warming, flavorful and comforting, yet fresh.
But it was the slow-roasted pork stew ($26), served over polenta with tomatillos and guajillo chilis, that had us talking about it even days later. It was sensational, with just a little heat and plenty of bright flavors, enhanced by fresh lime and a touch of sour cream.
The side dishes are well worth exploration, too. Dishes such as a luxurious herbed polenta ($8) with parmesan or gorgonzola, macaroni gratin ($8) with gruyere or an oven-roasted cauliflower gratin ($8) with parmesan and breadcrumbs would make lovely vegetarian small plates, too, perhaps paired with sauteed lacinato kale ($7).
Flewellen's wildflower honey came to the fore once more on the dessert menu, where it's drizzled over thick slices of pound cake ($7) and whipped into the most delicate ice cream ($5), the honey flavor almost undetectable, except on the exhale.
Port Costa may feel out of the way -- but distance can be deceiving. What felt like an outrageous adventure down dark country lanes turned out to be a 2-mile zip back to Highway 4 and 20 minutes to downtown Walnut Creek. Recrossing that 120-year span has taken more time.
We find ourselves longing to go back -- to explore those miles of hiking trails, glimpse the river from the hilltops, nibble more crispy green beans and explore the town.
Flewellen may have launched a Port Costa renaissance.
Bull Valley Roadhouse
* * * ½
FOOD: * * * ½
AMBIENCE: * * * ½
SERVICE: * * * ½
WHERE: 14 Canyon Lake Drive,
HOURS: 5-10 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 5-9 p.m. Sundays
CUISINE: New American
VEGETARIAN: The menu changes daily, but on our visit, the vegetarian offerings included a butternut squash risotto,
various gratins and polenta with cheese.
BEVERAGES: Pre-Prohibition era cocktails, California wine and craft beer, old-school sodas
RESERVATIONS: Accepted via Open Table
NOISE LEVEL: Medium
PARKING: Street parking and a lot at the end of the street
KIDS: Everyone is welcome
PLUSES: Seasonal, rustic fare by chefs trained at Slanted Door combine with pre-Prohibition era charm, managing to be both retro and fresh.
MINUSES: If you're not familiar with the area, use GPS. Port Costa is just two miles off Highway 4, but those winding lanes feel very remote.
DATE OPENED: November
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