While California yields some of the world’s best produce, the bounty before me at the Boonville Hotel was the best of the best: The poussin, its skin bronzed and succulent meat stuffed with onions and lemons, rested on the plate surrounded by new potatoes, morels, tight curls of fiddlehead ferns, and a scattering of herbs from the hotel’s garden. The complex aromas of summer engulfed the table, but the scent of just-picked basil dominated like the intensity of fresh-cut grass.
Earlier this year, chef Perry Hoffman brought his talents to Boonville, a remote town of just over 1,000 residents, accessed by 30 miles of twisting country roads on Highway 128 north of Cloverdale and about a two-and-a-quarter-hour drive from San Francisco. The two draws: time with family and cooking, which meant he would take over the kitchen of his uncle’s Boonville Hotel. Hoffman is from a large family—nine of his immediate relatives live in the area—and he laughingly says he was the only member to “go corporate.”
“I was the only person in the entire family working for someone else,” Hoffman explains as he stands in the hotel garden, surveying what inspires him. He tells me how his grandmother Sally Schmitt opened the French Laundry in 1978 and taught him to cook there (before it was taken over by Thomas Keller in 1994). She and her husband, Don, who was the mayor of Yountville, were early pioneers of California cuisine. “I never realized how special that place was until about 10 years later,” Hoffman says.
In 2010, after just three years on the job at the now-defunct Etoile restaurant at Domaine Chandon in Yountville, Hoffman became the youngest chef ever to earn a Michelin star. He was 25 at the time and would remain there for another six years.
For his next acts, Hoffman founded a specialty-microgreens and edible-flowers greenhouse and, in the fall of 2015, took over chef duties at the Shed in Healdsburg. There he created a casual garden-centric menu that topped anything you could find in Sonoma County. In the meantime, his microgreen business grew quickly, and soon Hoffman and his seven employees were working long hours to produce 2,500 flats of food each week for delivery to 100 customers. His wife, Kristen, a brand ambassador for Estates and Wines, a division of Moët Hennessy, urged him to choose one job or the other.
It was a simple choice for Hoffman. Cooking was his true passion, so he closed the greenhouse in 2017 and went all in at the Shed. Then, when he and his wife had their first child and learned soon after that they were about to have a second, he realized he needed to find a better life-work balance.
HAPPY KITCHEN, HAPPY HOTEL
Hoffman’s new gig is at the restaurant inside his uncle Johnny Schmitt’s Boonville Hotel, a wood-framed structure that was built in the mid-1860s and has since been expanded to include 15 guest rooms spread throughout multiple annex buildings, with two more rooms on the way. Schmitt, who is also a chef and worked three seasons in France, bought the red-tagged hotel in 1988. He opened the restaurant first, installing an open kitchen that feels like a farmhouse version of Chez Panisse’s. It has windows on three sides and a low marble table in front where diners can view the action. Schmitt served as chef for 20 years and then handed the kitchen over to someone else while he took on a management role for about a decade. After that chef left, Schmitt was considering whether to close the restaurant when his nephew said he wanted in.
Inside the airy, zen-like kitchen, Hoffman crafts a single fixed-price menu with three courses on Thursdays ($48), four on Fridays ($58), and five on Saturdays ($68). Depending on the season, he’ll also prepare dinners on other days of the week.
What can be harvested from the hotel’s grounds dictates what goes on that evening’s menu. Hoffman grows hard-to-find ingredients, including purple tomatillos, red-stemmed dandelion greens, agretti, amaranth, purple bush beans, and red Russian kale. The garden is a touchstone for him and continues to motivate the four cooks in the kitchen, whose impressive résumés include places like Camino, Chez Panisse, State Bird Provisions, Auberge du Soleil, and the Shed.
While the dining room and guest quarters have a homey, country feel, none of it is the least bit clichéd. In warm weather, the best seats are outside on a patio overlooking the garden, shaded by an apple tree and fenced in by majestic redwoods. Each table is covered by striped tablecloths, with a quart-size canning jar filled with string lights as a centerpiece. Turn the jar upside down and the golden lights ignite, looking like captured fireflies and evoking fond memories for anyone who grew up with them—namely in the East, South, or Midwest.
BOONTLING SPOKEN HERE
Our three-course Thursday dinner began with a small taste sent out by the kitchen: a strawberry drizzled with olive oil flecked with geranium and lime zest, with lavender adding an herbal overlay to the sweet caramel notes of the fruit.
The first course also spotlighted the garden’s generosity: paper-thin slices of Dragon’s Egg cucumbers loosely curled over wedges of plums and apriums (a cross between a plum and an apricot), intensified with a smokiness from grilling and moistened with a vinaigrette flavored with green coriander, preserved lemon, and fenugreek. They were arranged on a smear of laychee, a Boontling term for milk that describes a tangy fresh cheese with the texture of ricotta.
Boontling is one element that distinguishes Boonville; it’s a dialect that emerged in the 19th century and is now largely extinct. It formed in a remote region of the Anderson Valley, an area known not only for its produce and wine, but also as one of the best places in the world to grow cannabis.
After the main course of poussin, the dinner ended with lemon ice with fresh berries and lavender-walnut cookies that smelled like potpourri.
On Sundays, the restaurant features paella with shellfish and aioli ($38). The price includes a salad to begin and dessert to finish. On Mondays, Hoffman serves a pared-down à la carte menu that might include beet salad with plums, smoked salmon with tomatillo, and lamb agnolotti with ferns, porcini, and preserved lemon broth.
In addition to the fixed-price menus, Hoffman offers a few snacks at the bar, including Mendocino sea urchin ($12) surrounded by thin slices of raw green beans, sea beans, coins of kumquats, and spicy greens. His chicken liver pâté ($10) is spread thick on a slice of grilled bread and topped with pickled rhubarb, sweet peas divided to show their interior, curly tendrils, and flowering parsley.
The restaurant is open five nights a week for dinner during the summer and fall and three nights a week from Thanksgiving through March. The lighter schedule provides Hoffman with more family time.
While Boonville is a town that depends on tourism, it has a strong sense of community, and the hotel is its anchor. Across the street is a strip of wood-frame buildings of similar vintage. There Melinda Ellis, the restaurant’s partner, owns an ice cream shop called Paysanne that offers cookies, pastries, tarts, and cakes. Next door is Farmhouse Mercantile, a shop owned by Hoffman’s aunt Karen Bates. It looks as if it were curated by Martha Stewart. Inside are tables of ribbons by the yard, along with cooking pans, tableware, natural soaps and scents, and items sewn by designer-seamstress Suzan Topales, who has a workshop in back. Later this year, Johnny Schmitt plans to open a restaurant and pizzeria across the road where everything will be cooked in two wood ovens.
Hoffman, who drives the winding roads from Healdsburg to Boonville each day, is in the process of building a house on the Apple Farm, which is owned by his grandmother Sally. (His grandfather passed away two years ago.) The Apple Farm offers lodging, cooking classes, and a farm stand with home-grown products like apple cider. The cider is part of the continental breakfast buffet at the Boonville Hotel. Naturally, his uncle Johnny also lives close by.
By moving back home, Hoffman says, he finally found the time for his wife and two kids that was painfully missing, and now his creativity is soaring. At the restaurant, he produces a vibrant menu that not only fulfills our fantasy of what a country restaurant should be, but exceeds it.
Michael Bauer has written about food for nearly four decades. He wrote about Santa Barbara’s burgeoning restaurant scene in Alta, Issue 8.
THE RESTAURANT AT THE BOONVILLE HOTEL
• 14050 Hwy. 128, Boonville
Three backcountry restaurants in Sonoma County where guests can dine and sleep
Farmhouse Inn: This 25-room inn is built around the restaurant in a Victorian farmhouse. The country-elegant setting is a perfect stage for longtime chef Steve Litke, who orchestrates a seasonal menu that always lists his signature dish: rabbit three ways. 7871 River Rd., Forestville, 707-887-3300
Madrona Manor: The impressive Victorian mansion and surrounding property contain 22 guest quarters and a multiroom restaurant. Chef Jesse Mallgren features both tasting and à la carte menus based on what’s grown in the estate’s gardens. 1001 Westside Rd., Healdsburg, 707-433-4231
SingleThread: After about two years in business, Kyle and Katina Connaughton’s restaurant was awarded the highest Michelin ranking. The fixed-price menu is supplied by their nearby farm, and the food has a Japanese sensibility. A meal and an overnight stay in one of the five guest rooms above the restaurant make for a luxurious getaway. 131 North St., Healdsburg, 707-723-4646