Thursday, 30 May 2024

Foodie Freak: Manzanita Restaurant

Manzanita Restaurant at Twin Pine Casino, 22223 Highway 29 at Rancheria Road, Middletown, telephone 800-564-4872. Lunch is served from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; dinner is served from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. If the restaurant is full food can be served to you in the Grapevine Bar and Lounge.

When researching the Guenoc American Viticultural Area column I spoke to several people of the Middletown Rancheria and they all seemed to end the conversation with “You should come try our restaurant” I don’t get around Middletown very often but decided to make the trip to see what they were talking about.

The Middletown Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians operates Twin Pine Casino just south of Middletown on Highway 29. I’m not a gambler so I’ve never been inside the old casino but I have to say that the new one is very impressive.

The first surprise I had as I approached the casino was when I noticed there was a whole lot of improvement to it. The old military barracks-like tent is no longer in use, and there is a major hotel and casino standing next to it with a brand new parking lot. Wow, I really haven’t been here for a while!

Walking into the casino was quite the surprise. The décor is amazing! There are giant wooden beams, remarkable rock work and more brick than the Italian catacombs. The Edgar Allen Poe story “The Cask of Amontillado” popped into my recollection as I looked around. The quote, “For the love of god, Montresor!” kept repeating over and over again in my mind. It was all designed to accent the natural surroundings outside and was quite impressive.

The restaurant is located towards the back of the casino. A word of warning to anyone who hasn’t been in a casino before: smoking is permitted in the casino area so if you have sensitive lungs you may need to hold your breath a while to get to the restaurant. I’m personally pretty sensitive to allergens like smoke, and my throat was burning for an hour after leaving the building. Luckily the restaurant is sealed off from the casino with an obviously excellent ventilation system so the smoke won’t affect your meal

I arrived at 4 p.m. and the restaurant didn’t open until 5 p.m., so I went to the Grapevine Bar and Lounge to have a drink until it opened. The bartender Michelle can only be described as gorgeous and as hopefully my next wife. She is charming and attentive without being fawning.

As I sat at the bar I noticed that I could partially see into the kitchen. One kitchen staff member I have met before recognized me and waved, and all I could think was, “Oh no! I’ve been exposed by the very people who I will be reviewing.” Then I see several of the kitchen staff looking out at me, whispering and pointing. I thought then, “I’m definitely outed now,” but I had come all this way and I was still hungry.

When 5 p.m. came around I went into the restaurant and was seated immediately. I looked at the menu and saw that it had a little bit of everything on it, a nice well-rounded selection. Then my waitress Kim asked if I would like to hear the specials.

As she rattled them off they included a soft-shelled crab tempura on an Asian slaw appetizer ... I can’t pass up soft-shelled crab, ever. And for the entrée, they were featuring a seared ahi tuna. That’s another one I can’t pass up. Wine is available by the glass and I let the little sommelier in my head ask for the Langtry Sauvignon Blanc to go with what I ordered.

From the time I entered the restaurant to the time I received my wine and appetizer was 15 minutes, much faster than I was expecting. The plate was full of slaw and a whole soft-shelled crab with a Panko tempura crust, the crab being cut in half to make it a little easier to work with. The sweet sauce that came with the crab complemented it very well and the slaw was mildly dressed.

If you are a small person this could be a full meal all by itself, but luckily for me I’m not a small person, and I wolfed it all down. The crab was so crisp that when I cut off a claw the snap that occurred in the action shot the crab claw across the table and I quietly acted as if nothing happened.

At exactly 30 minutes after entering the restaurant my entrée arrived. I looked at it and immediately thought, “I can’t eat this. This is a work of art. If I eat this I will be destroying a thing of beauty.”

Seriously, this looked like something that you would find in a Michelin-starred restaurant. The ahi tuna was leaning on a tower of rice covered in a light sauce, and I could see nori and at least two different types of tobiko (flying fish eggs) and a couple of types of cabbage. There were colors and flavors everywhere.

I always enjoy dishes that match the protein with the garnish and sides in some karmic way, like rabbit and carrots, duck and rice, venison and everything in my garden, so the fact that the tuna was combined with fish eggs and seaweeds made me love the dish all the more.

“Well,” I thought, “A person's gotta eat,” so after a few moments of admiration I tore into the dish.

The exterior of the tuna was lightly seared and the interior was still rare, just the way it should be. I felt dirty eating it (but dirty in the good way), like I was getting a thrill out of destroying the artistic picture it was and reveling in its obliteration.

After dinner I went back to the bar (I had professional questions to ask; this has nothing to do with going back and staring at Michelle again with big Precious Moments figurine eyes). I asked her to find out the executive chef’s name and she came back with his card.

His name is Jeremy Peckham and he lives here in Lake County part-time and Hawaii part-time. Dinner was well worth the trip and I decided I would definitely return; you don’t get a meal of this caliber at many places around the county.

I think this really proves that Lake County is DEFINITELY becoming a food AND wine destination. I was so impressed with my experience that I returned a couple weeks later with my wife.

We walked through the entire casino and she agreed that the amount and structure of brickwork in the Grapevine Bar was very evocative of Poe. Michelle was there so I introduced my current wife to her eventual successor … no, no, not awkward at all, it’s all just part of my unique charm. Truthfully, my wife is very indulgent of my sense of humor.

After a couple of drinks we went to the restaurant. We each had a great meal. My wife ordered the spinach and artichoke dip for her appetizer, and I had the crab cakes, both of which were quite good.

The smoked rib-eye with peppers and béchamel sauce I ordered was so rich and thick that I couldn’t finish it. My wife had the double jack chicken sandwich with steak fries, and she made several comments about the portions being very generous.

She likes to have dessert when we go out, so she only ate about half her meal and asked for it to be boxed up so she would have enough room. Since rhubarb is in season right now she ordered the strawberry rhubarb crisp a la mode. It was sweet and tart at the same time, and a very comforting way to end her meal.

Prices are more reasonable than you would expect for a meal of this caliber, so I have another good reason to return to Middletown regularly.

In addition to the new casino, hotel, bar and restaurant, I learned that they will also soon have a wine tasting room that will feature Lake County wines, so Twin Pine Casino is becoming a very complete destination to visit.

To the people of the Middletown Rancheria: You have a wholly impressive facility that you can be very proud of, and as Montresor said to Fortunato, “... I drink to your long life.” But I say it to you with much more goodwill than he did.

Ross A. Christensen is an award-winning gardener and gourmet cook. He is the author of "Sushi A to Z, The Ultimate Guide" and is currently working on a new book. He has been a public speaker for many years and enjoys being involved in the community.

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