By Steve Bjerklie
THE TOPOLOS WINERY and its Russian River Vineyards Restaurant rest agreeably on a small knoll at the southern edge of Forestville. The restaurant occupies a renovated farmhouse that has looked out from the knoll since the decade after the Civil War; the adjoining winery was built in 1969 in an eclectic style combining two of Sonoma County's several heritages: two towers mimic hop kilns, and a conical Russian-style peak echoes Fort Ross.
The restaurant's menu also reflects parts of the county's heritage and interests. The bias slants toward Greek appetizers and entrées, but several simple dishes stress fresh organic ingredients. All entrées--which range in price from $12 to $21--come with the restaurant's "famous" ratatouille-stuffed tomato. Not surprisingly, the wine list showcases Topolos bottlings to the near exclusion of anything else.
While dining at Topolos on a recent quiet Saturday night with my teenage daughter, I was often distracted by the details of the establishment's gentle setting: a warm, glowing fireplace, the lovely outside grotto, and Jim Adams softly playing jazz standards on a guitar. That's because the food, frankly, did not much hold my interest. Topolos offers fair-priced meals that have touches of style, but these stand out among weaknesses.
My roast Petaluma duck, for example, was dry and stringy--even the piquant black currant Madeira wine sauce could not hide the meat's threadiness. At the same time, the broiled salmon was tender as rose petals, and carefully flavored to high satisfaction with dill, capers, and a chardonnay butter sauce. A flaming appetizer of kasseri cheese was disappointingly leathery on the bottom. But the house-specialty creamy blue cheese dressing on an "heirloom" salad of old-fashioned lettuces beautifully harmonized the disparate tastes of the greens. Yet our dessert, a chocolate marquis torte accented with a blossom of hazelnut whipped cream, seemed to be oddly lacking. The chocolate flavor was deep and luscious, the cream wasn't overwhelmed by hazelnut spice . . . and yet.
The wines, too, reveal some of the same problems as a few of the restaurant's entrées. I found a glass of Topolos 1994 estate chardonnay to be unremarkable--thin on the nose and nearly flavorless. The "old vineyard reserve" zinfandel, on the other hand, was bursting with so much berry flavor one could've baked and served it à la mode.
But Topolos' setting is not to be ignored. Many of the county's higher-priced restaurants don't have a quarter of this establishment's charm or sense of quiet. Note also that through the winter Topolos offers a unique "rain check": a 20 percent discount any night (except Saturday) that the windshield wipers are required.
Russian River Vineyards Restaurant
5700 Gravenstein Hwy. N. (Hwy. 16), Forestville; 887-1562
Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Closed Monday-Tuesday
Food: Californian Mediterranean
Ambience: Elegant vineyard dining
Price: Moderate to expensive
Wine list: Tantamount to Topolos in toto
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From the December 19-25, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent
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