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Review: Harbor House Inn

That old saw that smell is 80% of taste could use an audit: it doesn’t quite account for the role imagination and projection increasingly play in the way we experience and appreciate food, particularly fine dining. In an age when our dining plans—if not our schedules—are dictated by Tock as much as our wallets, what else can we do but dream while we wait, sometimes for months, for a long-awaited blowout dinner to arrive? Ten years ago our reveries were of foams and air-quoted deconstructions; today we chase—by which I mean drive four hours each direction to a rural location—a kind of scarce and site-based asceticism a la Noma: that the food on our plates was plucked from the vine and tweezered just for us, that it is an expression that cannot be repeated. This modern pastoralism is as much a fetishization as it is a genre, and as the downfall of Willows Inn earlier this year showed us (I hope), it’s not only unsustainable but harmful--to employee and customer alike.

I’m happy to report, however, that there are some good guys in this SO late-capitalist tale: Harbor House Inn, which has adopted some ex-Willows Inn talent that left after the debacle. Four days past my meal, I still can’t get over how nice everyone is there—not the least because multiple restaurant staff contacted me on the ‘Gram to express their appreciation for dining with them. The front and back of house of the restaurant are still coalescing, but you can tell how passionate they are about being good; they are also, in my brief experience, good people. They’ll get there, I’m sure.

So will the food. The first half of Chef Matthew Kamm's menu is surprisingly self-effacing about its extreme localism, emphasizing vegetables and wowing with its masterful use of acidity: an amuse cocktail fronted by last year’s tomatoes turned into a vinegar (as well as verjus, seed lip, and tonic) tastes like bottled sunshine; a fried maitake mushroom dusted with esplette pepper and black lime powder hits all the same tangy, tongue tickling notes as Mexican chile-lime flavored snacks. Earthiness abounds, too: a tea brewed from the stems of those maitakes makes you want to slump a bit deeper into your seat, a sauce of steeped Douglas fir needles adds a sweet and woodsy note to a rockfish sashimi.

I found the second half a little too deferential to its featured products, oddly doing too little with too much: a salmon dish was just a fillet on top of new potatoes and diced mushrooms; the wagyu shoulder that finishes out the savory courses, while a beautiful product, had no particular purpose for being there other than being a good piece of meat on a Michelin-starred tasting menu. (An accompanying roasted carrot with hemp and sesame seeds was one of the best bites of the evening, though) The restaurant has an abalone course—served with rice and a pickled and grilled cucumber in what I presume to be an ode to the way you’d eat fish at a Japanese izakaya—that fully and beautifully captures the restaurant’s M.O. (eg, the hyper local sourcing, the use of roasting and grilling to bring out natural flavors, the emphasis on acidity to brighten and heighten these flavors); it deserves to be the star of the menu, rather than relegated behind some forced cartwheels simply because of outdated norms and expectations for fine dining.

All that being said, you can not only see the potential here but FEEL it. As the restaurant builds out its kitchen staff—including a needed pastry chef, coming over soon from Willows, natch—and continues to solidify its vision, it’s going to very quickly become one of the most important restaurants in the country.

Harbor House Inn

5600 CA-1, Elk, CA 95432

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